For those of you mad enough to read this blog on a frequent basis you’ll be aware of my groupie-like fondness for the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His book, The Black Swan, made the point very elegantly that risk and uncertainty cannot be predicted. People who claim to be able to predict or forecast – regardless of the complexity of their ‘models’ – are invariably quacks and pseudo-experts (particularly quantitative economists). And, ironically, a black swan (a real one) flew into Belfast today. Its arrival wasn’t predicted.
Taleb’s latest work is called Antifragile. In this he suggests that systems evolve that become not just resistant to risk or randomness but improve because of the stresses that randomness throws at them. So, for example, evolutionary natural selection throws lots of randomness at species (such as the human species). Over time our species has evolved – as a result of randomness and natural selection – to have bigger brains than other mammals. We also benefit from the minor and not so minor stresses and challenges that allow us to discover, invent and innovate.
However, Taleb argues that we often attempt to artificially remove randomness from systems. We become fixated by process and don’t allow randomness to interfere with process. We get obsessed with causality where no causality can be ascertained in complex systems. As a result, systems can become fragile because they aren’t being tested and challenged or stressed over time. In short they don’t learn and don’t get challenged by randomness because we attempt to exert too much meddling control. But when extreme random events occur, they break.
Northern Ireland’s political system is fragile because it has never really been stressed. Yes our society has been stressed – repeatedly, by civil conflict – but our political system occupies a challenge-free zone where the accepted wisdom is bland mediocrity of tribal thinking. No stresses. No tempering. No real progress apart from peace process and tribal bickering. But that makes it fragile.
I suspect that a black swan is flapping our way. Perhaps the arrival of the real black swan today is an elegant natural metaphor that a political breaking point is nigh and that will change things forever. But, I hope, the black swan will be a positive one. Our tribalism might be replaced by a secular discourse. Our social issues will be discussed at last – and real conversations will start as to how to fix our rudderless and debt-dependent economy. These conversations will be hard, new politicians will be required, but we may see the emergence of the real stressors that we need to become less fragile as a society and as a people.