There is a fascinating set of ideas that has been swirling around in the global zeitgeist for the past decade, around the quote that will keep Donald Rumsfeld in the history books long after his political career is forgotten. I am referring, of course, to the famous unknown-unknowns quote from 2002. Here it is:
[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.
Rumsfeld put his finger on a major itch that set off widespread scratching. This scratching, which is about the collective human condition in the face of fundamental uncertainties, shows no sign of slowing down a decade later. But the conversation has taken an interesting turn that I want to call out.
Out of all this scratching, four broad narratives have emerged that can be arranged on a 2×2 with analytic/synthetic on one axis and optimistic/pessimistic on the other. Three are rehashes of older narratives. But the fourth — the Hydra narrative — is new. I have labeled it the Hydra narrative after Taleb’s metaphor in his explanation of anti-fragility: you cut one head off, two emerge in its place (his book on the subject is due out in October).
The general idea behind the Hydra narrative in a broad sense (not just what Taleb has said/will say in October) is that hydras eat all unknown unknowns (not just Taleb’s famous black swans) for lunch. I have heard at least three different versions of this proposition in the last year. The narrative inspires social system designs that feed on uncertainty rather than being destroyed by it. Geoffrey West’s ideas about superlinearity are the empirical part of an attempt to construct an existence proof showing that such systems are actually possible.
My own favorite starting point for thinking about these things, as some of you would have guessed, is James Scott’s idea of illegibility, which is poised diplomatically at the origin, equally amenable to being incorporated in any of the narratives. It is equally capable of informing either skepticism or faith in any of the narratives, and can be employed towards both analysis and synthesis.
I haven’t made up my mind about the question in the title of the post, but am on alert for new ideas relating to it, from Taleb and others. So this is something of an early-warning post.
A Timeline of Significant Events
The Rumsfeld quote captures the widespread (but mistaken) sense that this decade has been unusually full of unexpected major disasters, and the sense that systemic global reactions to those events have been inadequate.
Here’s the rough timeline of some major and/or representative events in this particular trend.
- 1999: James Scott publishes Seeing Like a State
- 2001: The 9/11 attacks
- 2002: Donald Rumsfeld enters the history books with unknown-unknown
- 2004: Indian ocean tsunami
- 2005: Hurricane Katrina
- 2007: Nicholas Nassim Taleb publishes The Black Swan
- 2010: Haiti earthquake
- 2010: BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill
- 2011: Fukushima nuclear disaster
- 2011: Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe institute starts talking about new research on superlinearity, and why cities are immortal while corporations and people die
- 2012: Global Guerrillas blogger John Robb starts a new site, Resilient Communities
- 2012 Nicholas Nassim Taleb book, Anti-fragility (due out in October)
It is important to note that the decade itself has not been exceptional. As Fareed Zakaria noted in The Post-American World, we simply hear about big, unexpected, global disasters much faster than we used to, and in much greater (and more gory) detail.
If you don’t believe me, simply take an honest inventory of any other decade in the last century (you could go further back if you know enough history). You’ll find big natural disasters and political cataclysms in every decade.
What has been exceptional about the 2002-2012 decade is not what happened, but our intellectual response to it. The responses go beyond the well-known ones in the timeline above. There appear to be hundreds of people thinking seriously along such lines and taking on significant projects related to such interests.
In the last year alone, I’ve been introduced to two such people in my local virtual neighborhood: Jean Russell (who coined the word thrivability as an alternative to sustainability) and Ed Beakley, who has been studying preparedness for unconventional crises through his Project White Horse since Katrina.
You might say a major movement is afoot. Whether it will go anywhere is unclear.
An Exceptional Response to an Unexceptional Decade
Two things are responsible for our exceptional response as a global culture.
The first is simply the slow decline of America’s relative role in global affairs, and the corresponding rise of a chaotic political energy around the globe, at all spatial frequencies from neighborhood block to planet-wide. It feels like there’s nobody in charge. This feels both liberating and scary.
The second is related to Zakaria’s point about information dissemination. The speed and completeness of our knowledge of global affairs has done more than expand our circle of concern. The potential of the Internet to enable new forms of collective action has also convinced us that we can act on those concerns in improved ways.
Unusually visible chaos, plus an authority vacuum, plus a perceived sense of greater control equal a deep restlessness.
It is a popular restlessness, not just elitist hand-wringing. The latter is a permanent feature of world history; it is hard to find a period when the intellectual elites have not been animated by a sense of both crisis and opportunity. This is not true of popular restlessness (which is different from popular unrest).
The popular restlessness has also been amplified by the collapse of traditional publishing. Not only is nobody in charge anymore, there are no official-sounding voices even pretending to be in charge. “Newspaper of record” sounds almost archaic today.
The restlessness represents a social energy that seeks to do big things and looks for both intellectual and political leadership. It is a social energy that swings wildly between a sense of limitless potential and deep despair, and is hungry for both meaningful perspectives and rallying cries.
In other words, the social energy sloshes violently across the four quadrants, fueling a demand for all four of the emergent narratives.
The Rehash Quadrants
I don’t have much to say about the three older quadrants.
The bottom left is basically fatalist, and the label is due to Bruce Sterling. He uses it to cover the top left quadrant as well (in his scheme such “hairshirt green” thinking is a subset of “acting dead” and therefore part of “Dark Euphoria”), but I think this is a little unfair, since the thinking generally includes the idea of regeneration after a Dark Age. So “Spore” thinking seems to me to be a more accurate label than “acting dead.”
The bottom right quadrant includes your usual suspects who offer revisionist counter-narratives to every Dark Euphoria narrative. Contemporary thinkers in this quadrant include Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) and Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and the late Michael Crichton (State of Fear).
Their general rhetorical strategy is to focus on data showing that things are actually improving and that perceptions of impending doom are either mistaken or overblown. Zakaria and most pro-globalists also belong in this quadrant. Their revisionist attempts enjoy varying degrees of success.
The optimistic-synthetic quadrant is the one where the most fresh thinking has emerged.
The Hydra Quadrant
There are two elements to the Hydras-eat-Unknown-Unknowns-for-lunch narrative.
One is simply a massive amount of Gung-Ho sentiment around Internet-tool-enabled individual empowerment. This is a mob of Horatio Alger heroes busily connecting the dots between 3D printing and worldwide abundance and peace. It almost feels as though, given the right cue, they would break out in a collective, worldwide song-and-dance flash mob involving a billion people.
This (non-dark) euphoria element is not new. It accompanies every major wave of technology.
What is new is the idea that we might be on the brink of a successful theory of social engineering.
The great hope is that we might somehow be able to put together ideas about anti-fragility, immortal cities and resilience to solve the problems that defeated the similarly-inspired authoritarian high-modernist (a term due to Scott) social engineers of a century ago.
The old failure, in the Hydra narratives, is framed as both a moral failure (a case of hubris and hamartia), and a technical failure: (they didn’t understand “bottom-up, organic, open-systems, network thinking.”)
It is important to note that no believer in the resurrected social engineering narrative has any clue what “bottom-up, organic, open-systems network thinking” actually means. In fact they typically understand what they mean far less clearly than Le Corbusier understood authoritarian high modernism.
What lends them confidence in their narrative is, firstly, a sense that their efforts are now informed by an appropriate humility and a penitent understanding of past failures, and secondly, the (unfalsifiable) idea that “bottom-up and organic” cannot (or even should not) be comprehensible to any individual. There is a sense that an understanding of the idea can only exist at some, higher, collective level. Gaia knows, and we shall not want.
The moral dimension of the confidence can basically be ignored. It is merely secularized religiosity and a yearning for a moral calculus to confirm an analysis-by-faith. There are of course psychological consequences of hubris that can be analyzed and understood, but there is nothing special about hubris as a source of failure modes. Humility and penitence generate their own failure modes.
The should not part is the culturally interesting reaction. True believers take offense at the very idea of studying the apparently ineffably-collective.
On occasion, when I’ve had this sort of discussion with the religiously Hydra-minded, and sketched out some sort of tentative model, they’ve looked at me aghast, as if I were King Nimrod attempting to build the Tower of Babel.
Building with Illegibility
I suppose I resonate with the idea of illegibility so much because it is so neutral with respect to the four narratives, and because it provides a useful amoral framework of analysis, within which things like hubris, over-reach and humility are merely minor psychological variables rather than central concerns (though Scott’s own leanings are clear, he keeps them clearly separated).
- In the bottom left quadrant, you can use the idea to understand why some grand social engineering projects fail.
- In the bottom right, you can use it to understand why other projects succeed.
- In the top left, it suggests design principles for resilient survival.
- And in the top right, the interesting new quadrant, it suggests the right questions that need to be asked in order to test, and if possible, realize, Hydra narratives.
It is this last project that interests me. Some questions that occur to me include:
- Can illegibility be understood as a reservoir of spare hydra heads in some information-theoretic sense?
- Is perfect illegibility equivalent to a renewable flow of maximally compressed information potential to fuel behavior?
- What dynamic mix of epistemic knowledge and metis knowledge best informs the growth and stewardship of Hydras?
- What is the ideal amount of illegibility in a given social system?
- What are the failure modes associated with too little legibility? (Scott documents the failure modes of too much legibility well, but mostly ignores the other end of the spectrum).
But to ask such questions, you must first give up the near-religious reverence for ineffable “bottom-up, network” models and the idea that attempting to understand them clearly within a single head rather than a swarm-head is a sinful act. It is merely a tricky one.
I am really looking forward to hearing what Taleb has to say in his book. I suspect, even if I disagree with all of it, it will fuel some fertile thinking for me. Evil twins tend to be reliably stimulating.