Age of the Unthinkable

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The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo

Reviewed by Christopher Richards

The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the new world disorder constantly surprises us and what we can do about it, by Joshua Cooper Ramo

We may crave simple and easy-to-comprehend ideas but the world is complex. The Age of the Unthinkable relies on Chaos Theory for its perspective on a world where old ways of thinking no longer apply.

Unthinkable complexity

Small changes can cause chain reactions and produce large effects. The first part of the book is a catalog of errors: the hubris of declaring victory in Iraq immediately after the invasion, attacking the wrong country after the events of 911, and the futility of trying to impose American-style democracies in places that could never accept them. After years of being right, Alan Greenspan was perplexed to the point of apology for not realizing the complexity of markets. As the saying goes: generals are always preparing to fight the last war.

According to Mr. Ramo, no major power has been able to defeat any one of the 22 insurgencies anywhere in the world since World War II. (He makes the possible exception of the British in Malaya.) And it’s not as if Mr. Ramo is short of data. He is managing director of Kissinger Associates, a geostrategic advisory firm.

Clearly he is well-informed and well-connected. Not everyone can sit down with Hizb’allah leaders as he does. This is where the story starts: how small things can have a huge impact. Only 500 Hizb’allah fighters frustrated 30,000 Israeli soldiers. Even Israeli leaders are in awe of Hizb’allah’s effective web of connections.

And how did just two university students (Google founders) come to have such a huge effect on the web?

Unthinkable incrementalism

Chaos Theory has been around for a few decades. Many people are familiar with a basic premise that what looks a linear or stable process, at some point becomes erratic. There’s nothing like a vivid example to drive a point home. This is where we are introduced to the Danish physicist/biologist Per Bak and the sand pile. Grains of sand falling from some pre-determined height make a cone. The cone grows uniformly. At some point, one more grain of sand destabilizes the structure, and chaos ensues.

Each day in California the ground looks to be solid. But for every day of seeming calm, the probability of a major earthquake increases. Our decisions are based on what worked in the past. Despite evidence to the contrary we hang on to outdated ideas. Groups of people are more likely to be in agreement about a topic —even if it is wrong— than realize destabilizing change. And it’s real change that Mr. Ramo is calling for: a revolution.

Mr. Ramo believes our thinking and behavior need a radical overhaul. Instead of seeing the world as static and controllable, we must tolerate chaos. His name for this ability is Deep Security. It’s more like the idea of an immune system that can absorb and rebound from insult and injury rather than completely avoid or eliminate a threat. It’s not going to provide safety for everyone. That’s an impossibility in a complex world where our differences are so, well, different.

Unthinkable rapidity of change

Global power is in flux. It is uncontrollable. Yet it’s possible to influence outcomes by small actions. Instead of lionizing so-called success in an attempt to replicate it, we must be patient, slow down, and look carefully at what we call mistakes. Case studies should be about failure and what that has to teach us. Our institutional thinking doesn’t value creativity. It operates by command, compliance, and control. This needs to change.

In order to survive and prosper in our dynamic environment we must be agile and flexible. We must give up wanting simplistic answers to complex questions. This involves a new kind of education, one that encompasses other ways of perceiving and understanding.

Our ways of seeing are culturally determined. Some Asian cultures see holistically, while in the West we focus on what is dominant. We are less aware of context. The Japanese value empathy or harmony. In America we value the exceptional. We focus attention on winners as if life were a competition. Seeing life as a competition is just one internalized perspective. As George Lakoff said, a metaphor for life could just as well be a dance. Stepping out of our cultural conditioning is perhaps harder for people for whom the current system is working (for now.) Quitting while ahead is not easy. But in order to take on new perspectives, we have to end seeing in the old way.

Deep Security for Mr. Ramo is about resilience and sustainability. The notion here is preparation. He contrasts this with hysterein, a Greek word meaning to fall short or be too late. Mr. Ramo refers to the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, who wrote an essay on Tolstoy’s theory of history called The Hedgehog and the Fox. The Hedgehog has one big idea, and may be impatient to come to closure. Examples of these are Hegel, Nietzsche, Plato, and Dante. On the other hand, foxes’ references are much wider. They know many things. Shakespeare, Goethe, and Montaigne were foxes.

The goal is to adapt to current conditions. We need to pay attention to what those contextual conditions are right now instead of blindly moving along the path toward some goal as if the ground beneath our feet were solid. The direct problem-solving approach is often the least effective way of influencing environment. We must embrace creativity.

What we take as the truth today is superseded tomorrow. Drugs that were supposed to be a cure turn out to be harmful. Studies that look at first to be scientific and unbiased, on further investigation are revealed as anything but.

Paying attention to previously ignored slow forces that shape our lives, and honing our instincts for indirectness and uncertainty are traits we should foster. We need to learn to be different. Simplicity is a nice idea, but the world is not a simple and predictable place.

Disclaimer: Christopher Richards is a business book ghostwriter and has no association with the author of this book.