By Patricia H Kushlis
In the New York Times best seller The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House 2010) its author Nassim Taleb argues that what we don’t know is likely to be far more relevant that what we do particularly with respect to significant – and unpredicted – “black swan” or rare but transformative events like the Arab Spring, 9/11 or even the collapse of the Soviet Union or the Russian and Ottoman Empires. (Two black swans on a lake at Myrtle Beach, May 2013 by PHKushlis)
A little further on in his book, Taleb cautions that the human brain too often focuses on the minutiae rather than the infrequent but life changing momentous events; therefore, blinding us to the forest for the trees, catching us unawares, throwing us off balance and unprepared for a radically different future because we fail to realize that “Black Swans “can be caused and exacerbated by their” unexpectedness.
But why are so many unexpected?
If we’d only put the pieces together before the fact, perhaps we could have averted 9/11 – but we didn’t. The signs were there. The few who had done so - or at least had reason to be suspicious - were stove-piped out of existence and their words of warning ignored by their supervisors.
Or the US government at its highest levels may have known that the
possibility that a black swan event was on the horizon – like the collapse of
the Soviet Union in 1991 – but our leaders were so focused on trying to prop
up a reasonably friendly but failing regime they failed to consider the range
of alternative future directions. The record shows, however, they had been warned.
An eclectic short reading list
A few days ago, a friend asked me for a few book recommendations. I thought briefly and suggested Taleb’s The Black Swan (which I am still reading) and Dan Balz’s Collision 2012.
Collision 2012 is a highly rated analysis of the US 2012 national elections by Dan Balz, a veteran political reporter and elections observer from the Washington Post.
I should also have added Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Henry Holt, 2002) to this eclectic short list but didn’t. I thought I knew a fair amount about Russian culture but Figes – whose book I discovered thanks to my son who had left an unread copy on a book shelf – demonstrated how little I did know.
In Natasha’s Dance, Figes argues that the momentous events of 1917 had been set into motion by Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia because of its overwhelming effect on the Decembrists – a group of young elite Russian officers who revolted against the Czarist regime on December 14, 1825. These men had fought in the Imperial army. They and the Russian winter successfully defended the crown and homeland against the French invaders. The Russian war effort succeeded but the Decembrist's subsequent revolt failed, the leaders ended with long prison sentences in Siberia but their personal experiences in the war had forever altered their perceptions of Russia, Russian governance, Russia’s role in the world and the Russian people.
The Decembrists had brought winds of change to the sleeping Russian heartland – or at least to the intellectuals and members of the Russian aristocracy. The rest of the next century was dominated by the Czarist government’s reactions to the new social ideas let in by the French invasion.
Yet, what if, Napoleon had let sleeping dogs lie and not attempted to conquer Russia? Or what if the French Revolution of 1789 had not ended in the “Reign of Terror” which resulted in the ascendancy of Napoleon and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars? If any one of these “black swan” events had been predicted and averted, how different would the face of Europe look today?
Would nationalism have even come to Russia? To Eastern Europe? To the Ottoman Empire? To Germany? Would World War I or II have ever happened? Would there have been a Communist controlled Soviet Union to collapse in 1991? Would Tchaikovsky have composed the 1812 Overture? Or Mikael Bulgakov written the anti-Stalinist novel The Master and Margarita which was published in 1940?
Or might Mitt Romney have won the 2012 election for
president if his campaign had understood and harnessed the power of the social
media effectively or taken the pulse of American voters more accurately? Romney was so sure he had won that he didn’t
even write a concession speech – but why was he so blind to something the Obama
campaign had harnessed so well? Or would it have mattered?
Were these events – and others like the great recession of 2007 – inevitable or could they – with better foresight - have been averted and the course of history changed?
has not ended. It is being played out
every day. Is it even possible to
protect against black swan events or - given life's apparent randomness - should we even try?