Monday, May 2, 2011

Civilization is a Black Swan

I’m reading through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Black Swan. As soon as I finish, I am going to read it again.

Black Swans are extremely low-probability, highly consequential events that are entirely unpredictable beforehand but easily accounted for after the fact.  A nuclear meltdown caused by a tidal wave generated by a record-breaking earthquake is a paradigmatic example.   Specific Black Swan events are exceedingly rare by definition, but the occurrence of Black Swans as a general phenomenon is ubiquitous.  Every major event in history and every major feature of industrial society is a Black Swan.  Even our personal circumstances as individuals turns out on close inspection to be a result of numerous Black Swans. 

Our expectations for the future are driven by prior experience.  Because of this and the fact that Black Swans are readily “explained” after the fact, we grossly overestimate our ability to successfully predict and plan for the future.  We are lethally overconfident.  And paradoxically the more specific information you have about the past the less prepared you are for what actually happens.

Taleb reworks a cautionary tale used by Bertrand Russell: 1001 days in the life of a turkey.  The story goes something like this.  Suppose you are a turkey, and for the last 1000 days, your entire life to this point, the humans in your world have gone to great lengths to see that your needs are taken care of.  Someone is always there to help you down when you get stuck in the apple tree.  You always have enough food, your water trough is regularly cleaned, and you are given shelter from the cold and a fine strip of pasture in which to stroll during the day.  When you wake up on that crisp 1001st morning, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, you have every reason to expect more of the same.  There is nothing in your past experience to prepare you for what is about to happen to you. 

Civilization is a Black Swan.  

Civilization’s end will be a Black Swan.

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