December 12, 2017

Recommended Books in 2017: Anticipating and Grappling with Complex Change

How to anticipate change, understand it when we are in the midst of it, and grapple with its potential implications are terribly slippery subjects.  Over the course of 2017, I have recommended a number of new and slightly less new books that do a great job of putting these complexities into plain, elegant English, while explaining how apparent abstractions actually matter to us in vital and concrete ways.

Technological innovations — digital platforms, genomics, big data — are pervasive themes in all.  And yet if there is one overarching message in these very disparate works, it is that human judgment, collective ethics, and attention to governance will be decisive factors in human progress and well-being as we make our way toward the middle of the 21st century.

I hope you will find one or a few, or all, useful and provocative in advancing your own thinking about the future.

Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes (Ecco, 2017)

Last year, political scientist Philip Tetlock published a book about the characteristics of people who are good at predicting future events; this year, Richard Clarke, a former official under President Reagan and both Bush Presidents, and R.P.Eddy, a former director of the White House National Security Council, bring us a book about why decision makers don’t always listen to the warnings of those who accurately predict bad events.  Cassandra, as Greek mythology has it, was given the gift of prophesy by the god Apollo, but when she rejected his advances he cursed her so that no one would ever believe her prognostications.

Clarke and Eddy analyze contemporary Cassandras to develop a rough qualitative “algorithm,” which they call the Cassandra coefficient, for evaluating when Cassandras’ warnings warrant greater attention.  They tell the stories of figures such as Ivor van Heeden, a scientist who spent years trying to generate action to prevent the catastrophe that eventually befell New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and Harry Markopolos, a financial advisor who tried but failed to have the US Securities and Exchange Commission to bring down Bernie Madoff, who was later discovered to have perpetrated the largest fraud by an individual ever.

According to the Cassandra Coefficient, we should evaluate four different components of a warning in order to determine whether it warrants further scrutiny: (1) The warning itself; (2) The decison makers or audience for the prediction; (3) The temperament and thinking style of the “Cassandra,” and, (4) The nature of the criticism that the warning is receiving from antagonists.

Using criteria they have developed for each component, the authors explore a number of current-day warnings on potential future events, from a meteor strike to a gene edited baby.  These potential cases are the most compelling part of the book, and make a great starting point for all of us seeking to grow sharper about how to make sense of the complex signals of our world, and the experts who assess them.

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension (Current Books, 2016)

As our technology systems grow bigger more interdependent and more interconnected, they spawn surprise events like the  2010 “flash crash” of the US equity markets and the Amazon Web Service outage of earlier this spring, which upset hundreds of thousands of websites in one day. Samuel Arbesman in Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension (Random House Current, 2016), explains with great clarity this is so, and why such behavior cannot be predicted.

We can, however, adapt our own behavior to better suit the complex conditions we live in. We can for example mimic how biologists think.  Rather than creating abstract, elegant models, biologists, catalog the details of the world before them, celebrating its diversity and particularity, rather than cursing details as ‘messing up’ the model. By exploring little bits in this way, biologists gain insight into the behavior of the whole. Of course, the activity that best manifests “thinking like a biologist” is storytelling.

You can read the full review of Overcomplicated here.

Platform Capitalism (Polity, 2016)

A decade ago, it was not difficult to find exuberant claims for the internet as the engine of a new kind of economy. Some called it the sharing economy, others described it as grassroots or by other names. The point was that several centuries of industrial capitalism, kept in place by gatekeepers who sternly guarded hierarchies and access to resources, could be overturned by the radical power of peer-to-peer connections and open collaboration.

That exuberance has since been tempered by the astonishing growth and reach of Google, Amazon, Facebook and others and the discovery of their power—intended and unintended—to play a powerful role in national elections , policy , commerce and, in the view of one author, pretty much everything.

Today it is not difficult to find concerns over whether Google and its peers are competition-killing monopolies that should be in the sights of regulators in the United States and elsewhere.

Platform Capitalism, argued in pithy enough form to read on a long plane trip, cuts into this debate in an incisive way. In author Nick Srnicek’s view,  we can best understand digital platforms as continuing on the basic path set out by capitalism, and driven by the need to maximize profits to repel competition.  But Platform Capitalism isn’t only interesting as a contribution to the debate about the nature of the digital economy, but for its lucid and thought provoking arguments about how digital platforms work in the first place.

Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, Srnicek’s focus on the function of data as the basis for platform’s competitiveness is striking.  And, as he concludes, we should all understand how platforms work, as their deep reach into our lives and businesses grows ever deeper.

A full review of Platform Capitalism is here.

The Cunning of Uncertainty (Polity, 2016)

Once perceived as a “carrier of opportunities,” uncertainty has come to be perceived as a threat and as something to be mitigated as much as possible. Yet, despite the ability of ‘big’ data to limit uncertainty in some circumscribed situations, we will never be able to eliminate it entirely (thus, its ‘cunning).  Author Helga Nowotny, the former president of the European Research Council, aims to resuscitate the virtues of uncertainty especially in the arena of knowledge production in science and technology.  In these realms, progress only occurs when researchers pushing against the boundaries of what is already known and into the region of uncertainty, where any knowledge gained is provisional, as what is yet unknown may challenge it later.

Nowotny’s book is wise and surprisingly lyrical, given the topic matter. Although it is surely difficult to relinquish our fears of uncertainty in the midst of rising complexity and systemic risk, Nowotny reminds us of the good reasons we have to do just that: “Uncertainty is the dynamic balance between what we know and do not yet know about the world and about ourselves. Recognizing its cunning and entering into collusion with it enables us to exploit the dynamic balance in favor of moving on. It opens the cracks in the wall to let the new in.”

Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government (Amazon distributed E-book, 2014)

Zach Weinersmith, who is in his day job a well-regarded webcomic cartoonist, explores the premise that it may one day be possible to be a citizen of a non-territorial state?  In contrast to the “geo-states” that most of us, barring the stateless, inhabit today, Weinersmith posits the premise of “a virtual state whose laws apply only to individuals, not to geographic areas.”

“Polystate” is the name he gives to the full aggregation of all the world’s anthrostates, which share some overarching laws that govern all. Weinersmith’s objective is not to promote the anthro-state as an improvement over the present.

Indeed, he spends much of the short book exploring challenges, from more complex business and legal transactions, to the outcomes of violent conflict between a traditional geostate and an anthrostate. Rather, he argues that improved information technology and a global culture of customization are likely to lead to the desire for customized governance. Some critics find Polystate’s premise too implausible to be worth entertaining. Given present day advances in e-governance in countries such as Estonia and the UAE, and the continued softening of sovereign power, I found Weinersmith’s thought experiment a worthwhile provocation.

Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2011)

Race and the Genetic RevolutionVast advances genetic research make this 2011 compilation by some of the world’s leading scholars on genomics and their applications in criminal justice, medicine and everyday life remains an important primer. In every example of this riveting collection on a fast moving area of research, we are reminded that from a scientific, genetic perspective, there is no such thing as “race.” In other words, our individual and social narratives about who we are and where we came from are as critical as any DNA test in shaping our ideas about who we are. As editors Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan make clear, it is also as critical to advance our collective ethics as it is to progress in scientific research.

 The Clock of the Long Now: Time & Responsibility (Basic Books, 2000)

Clock of the Long Now

First published nearly twenty years ago,  this remarkable, pithy set of bite-sized essays about how to “lengthen” our sense of the present and thereby gain in our resiliency is more relevant than ever. The title references the world’s slowest clock—it ‘ticks’ only once every 10,000 years.   If we think of “now” as 10,000 years instead of a day, week or quarter, how does that shape our understanding of ethics, urgency and action?  The questions are answered in vibrant form by author Stewart Brand.

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