Can Hydras Eat Unknown-Unknowns for Lunch?

by Venkat on March 22, 2012

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 Worldwe 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.

jld March 23, 2012 at 3:40 am

If some of these ideas stick you’ll definitely become a guru, what will you do with this?

Venkat March 23, 2012 at 11:25 am

Make a pot of money and skip town of course.

Jordan Peacock April 25, 2012 at 11:00 am

If I recall correctly from your naming post, you already are “Guru” :)

Jess March 23, 2012 at 9:34 am

Many of the people who praise bottom-up organizational strategies (e.g., Tim Lee, Jane Jacobs) do so out of a sense of humanism: human beings are happier and more effective when they have agency, so the organizations/communities that result from and allow individual human agency increase human happiness and effectiveness. I don’t think it’s as common as you imply to eschew analysis of these processes for a sort of woolly-headed “religiosity”. I think it is somewhat common for thinkers in the old high modernist mode to find themselves in disagreement with the decisions and actions of bottom-up entities and then compelled to explain that disagreement, without ever examining their own assumption that agreement should be expected. It’s no surprise that their arguments involve a fair amount of hand-waving, based as they are on a category error.

Nancy Lebovitz March 23, 2012 at 1:39 pm

I’d add the fairly peaceful dissolution of the USSR to the list, even if it isn’t a disaster– to my mind, that’s when things started getting weird.

Nancy Lebovitz March 23, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I’d add the fairly peaceful dissolution of the USSR to the list, even if it isn’t a disaster– to my mind, that’s when things started getting weird.

Would religions (except for a die-off of some polythesistic religions) and languages count as being as persistent as cities?

Venkat March 23, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Hmmm… Religions as ideas don’t really count as social engineering manifest.

Religions as institutions… perhaps. The catholic church has been around for 2000 years, but then, it is also a city (Rome).

I think polytheism may be more resilient than you think. Indian polytheism has been around longer than any monotheistic religion and cheerfully survives every new punch. Greco-Roman polytheism, I’d argue, actually survived within Christianity. It just got reprojected onto a universe of angels, saints, demons etc.

Joseph March 23, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Venkat
I have taken the four quadrants to some more details with the central assumption of ‘seeing’.
http://www.managementexchange.com/hack/long-term-capitalism-challenge-see-and-show-challenge-solution-and-metrics

Was Rumsfeld just echoing the Johari Window?

Venkat March 23, 2012 at 10:48 pm

Rumsfeld’s implied quadrants are a Johari window for humanity as a whole, with the self=humanity, other=nature.

But I don’t see much value in this mapping. The Johari window is useful for relationship analysis with real people, not abstractions like ‘nature.’

I don’t understand the idea at your link.

CoCreatr March 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I like the extended outlook of your analysis, Venkat. Let me offer one view to the growing list of known answers to your questions.

Can illegibility be understood as a reservoir of spare hydra heads in some information-theoretic sense? Yes, as an element of surprise, didn’t think of that but once pointed out, comes up as plausible.

Is perfect illegibility equivalent to a renewable flow of maximally compressed information potential to fuel behavior? Assuming an absolute alters appraisal, cognitive bias looming here. I take gross illegibility as a fuel for uncertainty, or worry, putting mental energy towards unwanted outcomes.

What dynamic mix of epistemic knowledge and metis knowledge best informs the growth and stewardship of Hydras? I prefer not to answer “best” questions as a matter of principle, because what is best for you is likely quite different from what was best for me , and may already be different, come future.

What is the ideal amount of illegibility in a given social system? For me, a variable amount within the capacity of the individual or plurality to take advantage of or counteract a temporary perceived imbalance. As an analogy: about as much as it takes challenge vs. capability for an individual to operate in flow.

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). Oh, have not read up on Scott. As an intuitive reply, I would count misunderstanding and talking past each other among them. Also cognitive biases and rumors that get fueled by an information vacuum.

raycote March 24, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Not withstanding the fact that the Johari window as labeled may not be directly applicable. It still seems somewhat fruitful to imagine what set of epistemological labels would yield a quadrant that = unknown unknowns

I’m almost certainly in over my head here but with your relabelling which quadrant = unknown unknowns as I read it that labelling yields:
—> known unknowables / unknown unknowables <—
across the bottom two quadrants ? ?

—————————— Known ————— Unknown
Meta Knowledge . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Unknown Unknowables
.
.
No Meta Knowledge . . . . . ??????

raycote March 26, 2012 at 9:22 pm

EDIT:

————————————— Knowns ——————— Unknowns
Meta Knowledge
.
.
No Meta Knowledge . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Unknown Unknowns

Pascal Venier March 24, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Why “Dark Euphoria” and not rather dysphoria?

Venkat March 24, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Not my term. Ask Bruce Sterling. But dark euphoria seems more correct. The emotion is still the same but sparked by fatalism rather than positive visions.

Liz McLellan March 29, 2012 at 3:33 am

I imagine because there is some pleasure involved in “giving up” and letting Babylon fall….

Douglas March 25, 2012 at 7:51 am

This is interesting but being completely ignorant of this field of intellectual curiosity, a fair bit of the language has gone over my head. What exactly is a hydra?

Nancy Lebovitz March 25, 2012 at 10:51 am

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lernaean_Hydra

A mythological beast which grew two heads if one was cut off.

Douglas March 26, 2012 at 10:57 am

LOL. Thanks.

Kay March 25, 2012 at 1:37 pm

At least hydra ate Saddam Hussein and having many clones and being illegible didn’t help him in the end.

Wasn’t the Bush doctrine with its preemptive strikes against rogue states and the spread of democracy in the middle east an example of a politics of anti-fragility or was it the opposite? Unlike Venkat I don’t want to separate Rumsfeld’s proverbs so easily from his politics. Last year he has published his memoirs entitled as “Known and Unknown”. So he seems to be still on board.

Venkat March 25, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Hmm… good point. Iraq 2003 was hardly an unknown-unknown though. I wouldn’t call it the politics of anti-fragility. That’s giving the approach way too much credit. It was more of a whack-a-mole foreign policy. There was the domino effect theory which superficially appears to have played out a decade after, but that’s not quite an anti-fragility politics.

I am trying to think of good examples of anti-fragility politics. Certain approaches to immigration are anti-fragile for example, since it is a calibrated injection of fresh vitality into a country. Too much and you swamp emerging fertility, too little and you get barrenness.

Fueling a guerrilla movement with arms and finance is also anti-fragility politics, since they are structurally anti-fragile and just need raw commodities to stay hydra-like.

Josh W March 25, 2012 at 8:11 pm

I’ve been pondering this for a bit, which is no suprise, as this hydra perspective seems a pretty straightforward result if you put technologically minded cautious-optimists in the same room with permaculturalists for long enough!

To my mind there’s also a strong link with Hayek-esque “competitive markets only” attitude to politics, in that the governments purpose should be to set up a diverse market that then runs the economy.

So I suppose following that link you could see pro-hydra intent in policies to encourage entrepreneurship, or free up scientific research. Pure research funding particularly is almost always encouraged in these terms; “we don’t know what we’ll find out, but we can’t know what we’ll need to know either”

Of course, most Hayek inspired stuff focuses on the negative side, “what we’re not going to do” rather than how you effectively garden up an appropriately robust economy (let alone society in general).

This generally means that help to entrepreneurs is mostly focused on help to people who will buy their companies, or reducing the burdens of tax etc on them, or in trying to recreate known entrepreneurship hubs elsewhere by simple virtue of concentration.

Less of this is focused on experimenting with catalysing companies’ development in the months before profitability, or in doing the same for other social structures. There’s been more of it in the last ten years, but it’s still pretty new.

Kay March 26, 2012 at 1:27 am

To my mind there’s also a strong link with Hayek-esque “competitive markets only” attitude to politics, in that the governments purpose should be to set up a diverse market that then runs the economy.

Yes, but that’s ultimately dead either and the governments ask about the implications of the economy for “national security”. That’s where the fun ends for them. Also governments have usually no idea about diverse markets but like to talk to monopoly enterprises which may run e.g. parts of a city’s infrastructure and which will be bailed out. Otherwise they don’t care about Silicon Valley startups, grocery stores or perfumeries.

Their interest is in the critical and fragile sector which doesn’t mean that they have only economical safety concerns. Iraq 2003 was already mentioned in the comments and while everyone blames now the Federal Reserve I’d like to know what has happened when the Fed said “No cheap credit, no money for your wars”. I don’t believe they didn’t know how to avoid a credit bubble.

Kay March 30, 2012 at 12:43 am

Addendum. I just read the Financial Crisis article by Taleb and although his picture is quite differentiated, all the mentioned factors are systemic or internalized.

As if there wasn’t any political will, which is perfectly aware about our biases and seeks for confirmation not out of some misguided believe in expertise and a tendency for credulity in human nature. Politics isn’t clueless. It doesn’t benefit or suffer from events passively like a trader or an ordinary taxpayer. It suffers from a lack of events. Without a war which has to be lead against enemies which need to be defeated, an economy which must be saved, a threat that must be responded to, people which need to be liberated from tyranny etc. there is little left but administration if that even happen to exist and the social order exists on favela level. “The people” are a product of political struggle and demarcation, they are the sometimes rebellious resources of warlords, which need to be agitated. The people cannot be found in nature and they do not exist through spontaneous self organization for anything but transient goals. It needs a Moses to take the rather arbitrary genealogical, social graph of ethnic refugees and turn it into “his people”, living under the obedience of god and his law.

darshan March 26, 2012 at 3:08 am

How did the list of significant events miss the financial crash of 2008?

Venkat March 26, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Not a true unknown-unknown or an intellectual response.

winterspeak March 26, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I think it is interesting to consider the exact form of religiosity that fuels the Gung-Ho sentiment around the Internet-tool-enabled individual empowerment conceit.

It certainly isn’t religious in a general sense, as there are many religions, such as Catholicism, that fundamentally are not about individual empowerment. That meme is Protestant, but it has been secularized and took over the academy in the great Hippy Revolution of the 60s.

A UC Berkeley Computer Science Grad, class of 1958, would have a very different opinion about the desirability of a Flash Mob than a grad coming out in 1978, although a 2012 grad would probably have a lot in common with the ’78er. This is despite 9/11 happening in the middle, which should cause anyone to recognize that technologically empowered individuals are a double edges sword, at best.

I haven’t read Scott’s book yet (although I want to) but is there really any mystery around “What are the failure modes associated with too little legibility?” Hasn’t everyone on this board with at least 2-3 years in the workforce experienced a “failure mode” from “too little legibility” at least once or twice? Unexpected things have

raycote March 26, 2012 at 9:09 pm

I had assumed that the reference to:

“failure modes associated with too little legibility”

were specifically targeted at the lack of formal organic-process-legibility as it applies to social-networking effects.

The generic example that jumps to mind of me is the lack of any well established organic-living-system memes regarding inertial-dampening within social-networking schemes such as Google / Facebook / NSA.

There is a runaway snowball effected building around the issues of privacy/commercial/political control structures as well as the accelerating centralization of public web-semantics data being vacuumed up into government and privately owned, black-hole big-data silos.

It seems obvious that mastering and maintaining organic inertia-dampening safety valves over vital social / political / economic networking functions
is an existential challenge to our democracies maybe even to our long term survival.

Yet these types of general purpose organic-network memes are not yet foreground figures in the mind’s eye of political leaders let alone mass culture.

you can’t make plastic or computer chips
working with an alchemy based metaphor
talking the language of – earth – wind – fire – water

how are we to – drive – steer – brake
this emerging organic social network dynamic
trapped inside a 20th century linear metaphor @ hull speed

this thing is quickly becoming a runaway freight train
we need to jump the shark and put on the metaphoric brakes
we need to pull a linguistic strange loop and collaboratively forge
a new self-referential global organic-metaphor / lexicon
reframing – ourselves – our social structures – and our world
as ubiquitous instances of a universal network-organizating template

winterspeak March 26, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I think it is interesting to consider the exact form of religiosity that fuels the Gung-Ho sentiment around the Internet-tool-enabled individual empowerment conceit.

It certainly isn’t religious in a general sense, as there are many religions, such as Catholicism, that fundamentally are not about individual empowerment. That meme is Protestant, but it has been secularized and took over the academy in the great Hippy Revolution of the 60s.

A UC Berkeley Computer Science Grad, class of 1958, would have a very different opinion about the desirability of a Flash Mob than a grad coming out in 1978, although a 2012 grad would probably have a lot in common with the ’78er. This is despite 9/11 happening in the middle, which should cause anyone to recognize that technologically empowered individuals are a double edges sword, at best.

I haven’t read Scott’s book yet (although I want to) but is there really any mystery around “What are the failure modes associated with too little legibility?” Hasn’t everyone on this board with at least 2-3 years in the workforce experienced a “failure mode” from “too little legibility” at least once or twice?

raycote March 26, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I’m not sure that this post hasn’t gone completely over my head but I understand your main points to be:

1 – That the “Hydras Eat Unknown-Unknowns for Lunch” is a metaphor expressing the irrepressible propensity that distributed organic living systems, through chain-reactive networks of mutually-adaptive probability synchronization, have the inherent ability to right the homeostatic ship regardless of the level of shock delivered to that system ?

2- That any attempt to apply reductionist meta-modelling to organic-network-dynamics (i.e. distributed-process/networked-probability-synchronizaton) is not an a-priori pointless endeavour ?

3- Can (ORGANIC) illegibility be understood as a distributed-process/probability-synchronization network or in other words a homeostasis generating information reservoir.

4- Is the renewable flow of maximally compressed information potential or information generating substrate of perfect illegibility a bottomless panoply of possible homeostatic states that can be generated by any given organically chain-reactive network of mutually-adaptive, self-referential, probability synchronizing network interlay within the context of that given mix of environmental components(sub-systems).

3- What is the optimal utilitarian tipping-point between formal organic-network legibility theories and letting the illegible hidden hand of organic social probabilities play out their distributed religious magic beyond human/machine theoretic interference ?

5- How best to dovetail reductionist organic-network-theory with heuristic biological mimicry along the road to mastering Organic-Hydras ?

6- What are the failure modes associated with too little organic-process-legibility for a society quickly being subsumed within a self-referential organically networked economy which is rapidly reframing all our social structures and our world in general as ubiquitous instances of a universal network-organizing principle.
_______________________

How far off your intended message I am here ?
Have I totally missed the mark by equating illegibility to organic-process-dymanics ?

PS
James G. Miller takes a pretty good stab at outlining the recurring themes of organic living systems as reusables that scale from cells through to supra-nation living systems.

LIVING SYSTEMS – James G. Miller – Published 1978
dry – exhaustive – somewhat dated – classic must read
http://amzn.to/HdQXlK

Can anyone recommend a newer high quality treatments of this topic?

Venkat March 29, 2012 at 3:21 am

Fair summary, if a little abstruse.

Paula March 28, 2012 at 12:12 am

Hey Venkat — this is nitpicky, but wondering if you know of any other metaphors besides the hydra for the top-right quadrant? In my head, the hydra conjures images of defeat. And actually the hydra story is itself a metaphor for the permanent defeat of nature. I totally see what you mean but it’s ringing the wrong bells for me. Is there a hydra-like story in any mythology that you know of where the hydra-equivalent is victorious?

Venkat March 28, 2012 at 12:17 am

Not mine . Taleb’s.

Helene Finidori March 28, 2012 at 3:48 am

This is brilliant Venkat. I love the sharpness of your articles. Your have put into a quadrant what I have been writing about in circles for a while.

I have come to a similar analysis and questioning about how to put the hydra to work in a platform, network, engine (pick your preferred word), one that would create the conditions that would best enable to catalyze agency, seed and let all the ‘positive’ generative processes do what they are intended do do, and breed engagement and action.

There’s a project brewing here: http://newschallenge.tumblr.com/post/19484978058/a-global-pull-platform-to-engage-for-the-commons#dsq-form-area

Longer description there: http://menemania.typepad.com/helene_finidori/2012/02/engaging-for-the-commons.html

With some underpinnings all over my blog…

Geoffrey West but also John Hagel’s Power of Pull contributed to consolidate my thinking. I had the opportunity to meet John as well as Jean Russell at a Gathering last year. But I see the edge distributed rather than peripheral. What I think should be worked on is increasing its density, the opportunities for synchronicity of shared intent, access to the right knowledge and tools for collaboration and action to be effective and generative of thrivability.

I feel the restlessness all over. Thanks for your framing!

Venkat March 29, 2012 at 3:11 am

Looks like there’s a lot of passion behind your project. Didn’t really understand the material in the links, but looks like you and your partners do, which I suppose is the important thing. All the best.

Sepp Hasslberger March 28, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I would not do away, as unceremoniously as you seem to be doing Venkat, with the religious angle of the hydra quadrant. It might be a valid protective (for the hydra) mode of approaching things.

Let’s not forget where that concept comes from. What does Rumsfeld stand for? What would he do (or advocate his cohorts do) if the unknown unknown became a known unknown, or even a known known for him?

Perhaps, in this period of transition the quality of an unknown unknown is what is needed to facilitate (or to make possible?) the transition from top down heavy intervention steering the course of events to the only just emerging “bottom-up, organic, open-systems, network thinking.”

I guess what I am trying to say is that perhaps the quality of the unknown unknown is an important ally, at least in this early phase of the change. And perhaps those people who looked at you as if you were King Nimrod did have a point, even if they could not eloquently express it.

Venkat March 29, 2012 at 3:32 am

I’d say a hydra proves its hydraness primarily by defeating attempts to model it, so the modeling is necessary. If you resist the modeling, you get weak hydras. ‘Cannot be modeled’ is a falsifiable claim. ‘Should not’ is unfalsifiable if enforced. If hydras represent inexhaustible fertility in some sense, they need no protection from intellectual attacks. That’s the whole point.

Kinda like human intelligence is continually redefined as whatever AIs cannot do at a given time. Human intelligence has (so far) proved to be a hydra force.

It’s a standard identical to falsifiability. Hydras candidates can be disproved by being comprehended in a model. But you have to keep at it. But you can never prove for certain that something IS a hydra.

Sepp Hasslberger March 29, 2012 at 5:19 pm

An interesting view and one I cannot really argue against.

(a hydra proves its hydraness primarily by defeating attempts to model it…)

Jean Russell March 29, 2012 at 9:10 pm

I started promoting thrivability in 2007. The Sketch was 2010.
You boys and your quadrants… sigh….

What if, instead of any one of these being right, all are at play to different degrees? So, for example, at the human institution level, we are seeing breakdown and don’t yet have hydra like models proven out, but at the human systems level – wow, you can’t keep us down, no matter who oppresses us or what trials individuals or groups undergo, the human race as a whole continues to expand – cut off one head and two more grow. Of course this might start to cut off the heads of other species less hydra-like. :P
I think the more interesting question is not whether these stories are true, but where can they be useful and to what degree? And what happens in the vortex of all of them in interplay?

ebear March 30, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Why does this remind me of McLuhan’s Tetrad?

ebear March 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm

… and is Rumsfeld’s Unknown Unknown equivalent to Hofstadter’s interpretation of Godel’s Incompleteness, and likewise, Taleb’s Black Swan?

Hmmm… has anyone developed a “who saw that coming?” index? We may not in principle be able to know the unknowns, but we can at least try to get a handle on how many are out there, or is that also by definition, unknowable?

Red March 31, 2012 at 11:26 am

Um is that even possible?
(# options in a decision path)*(# of possible decision paths) = (infinite)

Minor Heretic April 7, 2012 at 11:27 pm

The thing that doesn’t seem right to me about the top two quadrants is the optimistic/pessimistic divide. The concepts listed on the left are prerequisites for the concepts on the right. How can a culture be sustained without sustainability? It’s a tautology, but an informative one. Resiliency and permaculture are hydra-like – they help us take what fate dishes out and keep going. Resilience and anti-fragility are essentially synonymous, and the difference between sustainability and thrivability is a word game.

I don’t see living within the carrying capacity of the earth as pessimistic. We waste so much and act so stupidly right now (in terms of technology, social structures, planning) that we could shed a lot of our unsustainable burden without taking a qualitative hit to our lifestyles. Preparing for the geological inevitability of declining mineral resources isn’t pessimistic, it’s realistic, or to coin a word, inevitablistic. Preparing for natural disasters isn’t pessimistic, it is inevitablistic.

It’s like the mobility vs. access question. You want to get to work. The conventional brute force answer is to build a highway and put 6,000 pound gasoline fueled vehicles on it, with pollution and traffic jams, mideast wars, etc. The semi-rational answer is also mobility, namely mass transit, light rail, and so on. The rational answer is access – rezone so that businesses can be next to residences and people can walk five or ten minutes to work. Is living near your workplace some kind of societal defeat? Your two axis chart would make it so.

What I get from the optimistic/pessimistic divide is a stealthy debate between the unrealistic philosophy of eternal economic expansion and a realistic philosophy of adapting to the limits of physical reality. Sure, we can do more with less, for a while, but there are physical limits to efficiency.

Julian Bond May 13, 2012 at 8:12 am

Dark Euphoria is an anti-version of what we might call Tech Euphoria which seems to be a particularly Californian view of the world. The top right Hydra quadrant seems to present a model of the world where technical fixes are always available and to some extent an inevitable response to unknown unknowns. However, simply assuming that technical innovation can handle any problem has it’s own hubris. What about the known-unknowns and specifically the known-unknowns described in the Limits to Growth models? Those models suggest that technical fixes don’t help and actually accelerate us into the brick walls of resource depletion and drowning in pollution. If those models are believable then we need a synthesis between the top two quadrants. We need the controlled approach of the top left along with the flexibility of the top right to handle the weird exceptions.

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