On Adapting to Sandpiles

Global Reset Series / by Seed /

Joshua Cooper Ramo argues that in an era defined by instability, society must remain imminently flexible and turn disruption into a force for good.

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.”
Why have you dubbed the current era the “age of the unthinkable?”
Three reasons. First, all you have to do is pick up a newspaper and every day you find things that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago: 10 percent unemployment, the financial crisis, China holding $2 billion in US debt. But the second reason this is the age of the unthinkable is that our best minds and best ideas often not only fail, they backfire: Trying to make the world more prosperous by spreading capitalism makes it more unstable and often more unequal; the most expensive war on terror creates in the end more dangerous terrorists; even Greenspan confesses to being “shocked” that his ideas aren’t working. And finally, it’s the age of the unthinkable because many of the very forces destabilizing the world give each of us a really profound chance to change, shape, and do decent things in the world.

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.

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.

What do you mean when you call for a reversal of Western intellectual habits?
Our usual way of thinking is to put ourselves and what we want in the center of the picture. That’s a mistake. The environmental context is usually what determines if we succeed or fail. But too often we look only at the goal—“remove Saddam” or “stop the financial crisis”—without looking at the bigger picture. And we tend to be too direct in our policies. Sometimes the best approach is indirect, like when surgeons interrupt the blood flow to a tumor instead of trying to cut it out.

The musician Brian Eno recently wrote that “data dissolves ideology,” and predicted that with an abundance of data, we will see the rise of pragmatists over theoreticians. Do you agree?
 No. Ideology is resistant to data. And the flood of global data is confusing people who don’t have the tools to make sense of it. So it may actually accelerate the power of ideology since people often prefer the simple answers it represents.

In an era defined by problems whose complexity and interconnectedness defy our efforts at control, what should our—meaning scientists, economists, politicians, and citizens at large—new approach to this landscape be?
Again, the constant reevaluation of policy is essential. Beyond that, there are two crucial things. First is an obsession with resilience. We really need to invest more in the things that will allow us as a society and as individuals to snap back from the inevitable future shocks we will face. And the second thing is that in an interconnected world we have to worry more than ever about other people on the planet. Most people in the world today don’t like their situation and want to change it. They therefore have a huge incentive to be disruptive—we can’t stop that. But what we can do is work to help people be disruptive for good, to invent lives for themselves that make all of our lives better. This means moving to guarantee a basic set of rights for everyone—right to health care, to an education, to meaningful employment, to stability. And it means doing a lot of this work with our own hands. We can’t rely on the government to do this, so we have to take responsibility ourselves and dedicate some of our lives to this work.

Joshua Cooper Ramo is the author of The Age of the Unthinkable.


Originally published February 3, 2011

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