Saturday, September 29, 2012

BC2012: The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo

Wow, this book is really fascinating. Using examples from science to business to terrorism, Ramo explains why America's long-time perspective on foreign and domestic policy is no longer ideal or even functional given the complexity of the modern world.

The author describes physicist Per Bak's sandpile theory: a pile of sand looks fairly stable, but adding just one grain of sand can cause an avalanche -- or nothing at all. The idea is that despite outward appearances, there are countless variables hidden from sight within the pile that determine its stability. Many situations in the modern world are like that sandpile -- we cannot anticipate or predict what will happen next because things are happening that we can't see. That being the case, we can't expect simple solutions to be successful.

Ramo says we must develop resilience to deal with the unknown, unpredictable problems of the future. This has a major impact on domestic policy. For example, we can't predict what sort of biological attack a terrorist might launch on the United States, but by developing strong national healthcare we can have an ideal system in place for dealing with whatever might happen.

This is really complicated stuff that Ramo is discussing, but The Age of the Unthinkable is surprisingly readable. As Publisher's Weekly puts it, the author seems more like a dinner companion than a lecturer. Alas, by the end of the book, my understanding was still a bit hazy. I'm not sure what could be done about that, though. For the author to offer more specifics for action would seem to go against the spirit of his thesis. One cannot be explicit about the unknown.

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