Read: “The Nature of the Age”

23 Feb 2010

Here’s a guy that hangs out with Hizb’allah‘s chief of information technology for inspiration. (This is my digested read of Chapter 1 of Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book The Age of the Unthinkable.)

“I had found myself particularly fascinated and even intrigued by their capacity for creativity and innovation, even in the pursuit of shocking ends,” Ramo writes.

Insurgent, guerrilla groups like Hezb’allah stay alive and even thrive not only because their fighters and planners think of themselves as fighting a cosmic war, in which they’re “‘already dead,’ simply walking the earth doing the word [they’re] meant to do before ascending to heaven.”

It’s also—maybe primarily—because “change is at the center of their lives.”

Big corporations, armies, and governments, on the other hand, are “locked, from top to bottom, from young to old, and in every level of their bureaucratic life, in a vision of the world that [is] out of date and inflexible.”

Alan Greenspan admitted there was a “flaw” in his models and worldview which helped explain why the economy had coming tumbling down—although, of course, he noticed it only after it was too late. This example becomes a motif running through the book, that the old models don’t work, and the old guard doesn’t see change coming, and even after they’re steamrolled by it, they seem a bit confused about what happened.

But we should get used to more of this. “Our world is not becoming more stable or easier to comprehend. We are entering, in short, a revolutionary age.”

The book makes big claims, saying “it’s a guide to how we can save ourselves.” But most of the book gives example after example of how unpredictable the world is, and how it’s becoming more so all the time. The answer of how to save ourselves must be buried somewhere late in the book.

The book will run through meetings with the political old guard, of the likes of Gorbachev, and cover the ideas of physicists and ecologists about sudden and disruptive change, which seems somehow analogous to political and social revolution. These sciences won’t help us predict changes to come, but can give us a sense of how things might change in politics, of the capacity for abrupt shifts. So instead of “stylized answers,” the book will help us “develop new instincts.”

What we need is a resilient defense system, like our immune systems, that can quickly learn to fend off never-before-seen attacks. But making the necessary changes would seem to be a herculean task: “urgent, steady, ceaseless reform and innovation must begin immediately so that in five years, or at most ten, we will have a new, revolutionary architecture of financial, environmental, and national security built with fresh language and stocked with new minds.”

If that’s what it will take, then I think it’s not going to happen. But it might be exciting to try.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »