Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Decade of Fragility?

Through their Magazine the BBC is trying to compile a summing up of the first decade of the 21st century by polling their readers to "tell the story of the last 10 years, based on five themes." Personally, I tend to prefer the single unifying theme; but I realize that this might be a rather daunting task if we were to begin by just taking a census of major events since the turn of the century. Nevertheless, Magazine contributor Tim Footman came up with an interesting way to frame this ten-year period:

The decade was defined by two events that occurred seven years and a few blocks apart.

The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001, apart from killing nearly 3,000 people and directly affecting many more, led to a chain of events that altered the lives of hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bali and Madrid, London and Mumbai, and throughout the world.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008 showed just how serious the financial crisis was, and symbolised the precarious nature of the economics that had underpinned material prosperity during the Noughties.

This reminded of how James Burke began his Connections series for PBS some twenty years ago. If the overall theme of his series had to do with the increasing webs on interdependency that affect day-to-day life, the theme of his opening program was that those interdependencies were making our world more fragile, rather than more "fault tolerant," as conventional wisdom would have us believe. It is worth remembering that Burke made his claims when computer networks connected only an elite few (and I had to jump through a couple of hoops to be one of them) and when words like "globalization" had not yet entered our lexicon. These days Burke has his own Institute, which serves as the home base for an "activity" (the nomenclature of its Web site) called Knowledge Web. This is a continuation of Burke's interest in seeking out connections (the Knowledge Web home page leads the reader down a path that leads from Napoleon to ENIAC); but his concerns about fragility appear to have abated. Furthermore, if the K-Web News blog is any measure of activity, things seem to be pretty quiet on the Knowledge Web front these days.

Nevertheless, one can probably make a case that this was the decade in which the "chickens of fragility" finally came home to roost. It was the decade in which Mark Taylor framed a world view of economic behavior in terms of confidence games (the title of his book); and it was clear from the way in which he played out his argument that he was using the term literally, rather than metaphorically. What we learned from 9/11, however, was that not only markets but also governments were being run as confidence games. We discovered just how wide the gulf was between what we were told about defending the security of our nation and just how (in)effectively the systems behind that need for defense actually worked. We found ourselves in a soup deeper and hotter than we had ever dared to conceive, but we were not yet ready to man up to asking questions about how we got into it.

Later in the decade at least one explanation began to surface through Niall Ferguson's book The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Ferguson had no trouble with people like Taylor reducing money to a confidence game because he was prepared to argue that it was a necessary confidence game (although, from a rhetorical point of view, he felt that "abstraction" was a more suitable term than "confidence game"). At the beginning of this year in The New York Review, Robert Skidelsky hit on what was the primary theme of Ferguson's book:

Throughout history men have been more ingenious at finding ways to make money than to make things.

Put in somewhat more brutal terms, history had evolved a culture that was far better at fabricating persuasive arguments around abstractions than it was at producing tangibles. If we wanted to identify when this culture first began to emerge, we would probably define it in the time of the emergence of the "third estate" of the middle class, which, as Arthur Loesser put it in Men, Women and Pianos, sustained itself through mental skills, rather than the manual skills of laborers or the inherited authority of nobility. Today we might describe this time as the emergence of the "knowledge worker." Nevertheless, however much our culture may admire ingenuity, we had to confront that it had a "dark side;" and that is why the fall of Lehman Brothers so nicely complements the 9/11 attacks. Each event signified in its own way how the "third estate" has grown out of its humble origins to such a position of power that it had lost its very "sense of reality," probably because such a sense did not necessarily offer the best "survival value."

If those chickens finally are coming home to roost, then I find it interesting that people like Footman are now referring to this decade as the "Noughties." I appreciate the way in which this label reflects the underlying year numbers, but it offers an unavoidable subtext. This is the decade when our confidence games and abstractions all came to nought. This extends beyond the synonym for "zero" (the "surface level" reason for the label) to the third definition in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

A thing or person of no worth or value; a mere nothing.

As "wet brain" scientists such as Gerald Edelman have proposed (and tried to demonstrate) that "sense of reality" is tightly coupled to a sense of value; and it remains to be seen whether or not the coming decade will be a time in which that sense of value can be recovered.

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