One of the – many – entertaining research themes for my book was the role that sand plays in the imagery of our imaginations. Large numbers, very small things, ephemerality and change, time and eternity – and unpredictability. The icon of this blog, the sandglass, is an immediately accessible laboratory for thinking about many of these things – I always take along one from my collection when I’m giving a talk, a deceptively simple illustration of complex things. The most interesting part of a sandglass is, of course, the lower chamber, the growing pile of sand, the tumbling of a single grain, the sudden avalanches. Sandpiles provided, both literally and figuratively, the basis for the extraordinary book by the physicist, Per Bak, How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality; in an earlier post, I wrote a little about this book and the idea that our brains operate in the realm of self-organized criticality, cascades of neuronal activity behaving like avalanches down a pile of sand. And so, when I saw an article from the Seed Magazine website titled “On adapting to sandpiles,” I was naturally intrigued.
The article is, I discovered, an interview with Joshua Cooper Ramo, discussing the thesis of his book, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It (2009). Ramo is a widely respected “strategic thinker” about the state of the world; he was Foreign Editor at Time Magazine before taking up his current role as Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, one of those global business/politics/strategy advisory organisations, founded by the eponymous Henry, whose day-to-day activities and clients are distinctly inscrutable (the only website I could find for “Kissinger Associates” is for a software company in Pennsylvania, owned by Darrell K.). The cast of characters at the New York consulting Kissinger Associates is lengthy and illustrious and their activities the subject of some discussion, but that’s not my point here. As the editorial review on Amazon states, Ramo’s book (which I will readily admit I haven’t read) addresses the idea that:
The traditional physics of power has been replaced by something radically different. In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo puts forth a revelatory new model for understanding our dangerously unpredictable world. Drawing upon history, economics, complexity theory, psychology, immunology, and the science of networks, he describes a new landscape of inherent unpredictability--and remarkable, wonderful possibility.
The introduction to the Seed interview runs as follows:
Joshua Cooper Ramo, managing director of Kissinger Associates, believes that we live in a “revolutionary age” defined by problems whose complexity, unpredictability, and interconnectedness increasingly defy our efforts at control. Global threats such as terrorism, pandemics, financial meltdown, and climate change, according to Ramo, demand a systems perspective that draws upon chaos science, complexity theory, and the theory of disruptive innovation. In his 2009 book, The Age of the Unthinkable, he calls for nothing less than a “complete reinvention of our ideas of security,” even the reversal of a “couple of millennia of Western intellectual habits.”
My immediate reaction to this is “fine, but ever since the popularisation of the strict science of chaos theory, far too much has been made of its potential applicability to almost everything, particularly by endless business gurus.” The imagery is seductive, but fidelity to the science is questionable at best.
But then imagery is an immensely potent stimulator of thinking and a powerful means of generating alternative ways of doing it. And, naturally, I’m all for sand imagery, so where is Ramo going with this? Here’s the relevant section from the interview:
You’ve often invoked a pile of sand as a metaphor for today’s complex world. What do you mean by that?
Think of a pile of sand, with additional grains being added every second or so. Scientists say such a pile is “organized into criticality,” since at any moment it can have a little avalanche as the sides get steeper. But the system is so complex that it can’t be modeled completely and—this is important—it’s nonlinear in that it can suffer a change in state under both big blows and tiny hits, like the addition of a single new grain of sand. That’s our world: Every second it gets more complex, like a sandpile. New financial instruments, terror groups, viruses, and innovations are ceaselessly falling onto our pile, making it really complex to model and basically impossible to predict. Small things—home mortgages—can have huge impacts. Usually by surprise. One thing I learned from writing the book and hanging out with people ranging from Hizb’allah terrorists to the guys who started Google is that it is possible to use this sort of cascading power to make tremendous changes. And since this kind of dynamic is inevitable, the challenge is to make positive avalanches.
Small things having huge impacts – the infamous flap of the butterfly’s wings. This imagery has always been compelling (and has always had at least some basis in the science – we do, after all, live in a world of power laws, long tails, and black swans). Watch the pile of sand in the sandglass and there is no way of predicting when the fall of one grain will precipitate a major avalanche.
And, although the book was published a couple of years ago, I can’t help but wonder if Seed’s publishing the interview now is a reflection of recent events in North Africa that were simply unimagined but a few weeks ago – a tragic, but nevertheless small, event in Tunisia triggering huge and profound change. The header for the piece reads “ In an era defined by instability, society must remain imminently flexible and turn disruption into a force for good” – an aspiration that must be applauded.
So does Ramo have any suggestions as to how this might be accomplished? Well, here’s his response to the question “How should global leaders adapt to a sandpile world? Where do you see our major weaknesses today?”:
There are two key adaptations we need to make. The first is understanding that the very things we want and need to be modern—biotech, communications networks, more efficient financial markets—make the world more dangerous and expose us all to risk. Which means that sandpile events—things like 9/11 or the collapse of Lehman Brothers and its implications—are now inevitable. So we need to accept that we will constantly be hit by the manifestations of an unstable world and focus less on trying to prevent them and more on boosting our own resilience. Second, we need to change how we make policy. Right now we make big decisions as if we were pulling a lever. But decision making has to be a persistent project: We need to constantly update and revise our thinking as if we were making software or iPods. Today we do “health care reform” or “Afghanistan policy” and then move on. That’s lethal. Policy has to be flexible and constantly adapted to fit a changing environment.
This is, I think, serious food for thought. But this is not a geopolitical blog – it’s just interesting to see yet another example of the stimulating properties of sand.