What If Everything Went Straight to Hell?

A Q&A With Dr. John L. Casti, author, X-Events: The Collapse of Everything

Dr. John L. Casti is a complexity scientist. This is one of those job descriptions I would love to flaunt on business cards and over cocktails:

Hostess: And what does that involve, exactly?

Me: Yes, well. [Frowning into middle distance] It's a bit complex.

In his study of complex systems, Casti has reached a grim conclusion: civilization as we know it, having been wired and webbed and linked down to the last aboriginal tribeschild, is now patiently waiting for the hand of fate to reach in, snip the wrong wire, and blow the whole apparatus into the stratosphere.

Since my panic dreams concluded the same thing years ago, I was delighted when Dr. Casti's publicist contacted me recently about an author interview. Rarely does a pitch speak so intimately to my private anxieties. Will we all die from a worldwide computer virus, a worldwide actual virus, or both? These and other questions are addressed in Casti's new book, X-Events: The Collapse of Everything (William Morrow/HarperCollins), but this week Casti was kind enough to answer a few questions directly.

Q: What are X-events, and how do you attempt to forecast them as a complexity scientist?

A: First of all, let me say that I do not believe that there is any person, method, or tool that can consistently and reliably predict specific human events, X- or otherwise. So my goal is not to predict the moment and/or location of the occurrence of any X-event. But what we actually see and call an "event" is a combination of two factors: chance and context. I believe is that we can forecast the "changing landscape of context," and thus get insight into when we are entering the danger zone of an X-event. The chance part, of course, is totally beyond our ability to forecast, since by its very nature it is essentially random, i.e., has no pattern. But context is a different story. It is the biasing factor that conditions the random event to give rise to one sort of outcome as opposed to another from the space of all as-yet-unrealized possibilities.

So how do we forecast context?

Each of my last two books, Mood Matters and X-Events, contains its own answer to this question. In MM, I focus on what I call the "social mood," the beliefs (NOTE: not feelings, but beliefs) that a group, society, population holds about its future. If the group is optimistic about its future, believing that tomorrow will be better than today, then that biases the events that actually occur to be ones to which we would generally attach labels like "happy", "joining," "global," "welcoming" and the like. If the group has a negative social mood, believing that tomorrow will be worse than today, the bias goes in the opposite direction. Instead of "welcoming" we have "rejecting," instead of "global" we tend to see events that are "local" and so forth.

To make use of this idea, we need a way of measuring the social mood. And, of course, this mood exists on many time scales, since you may feel optimistic about next week, but pessimistic about next year. So whatever "sociometer" you choose, it must be able to distinguish among these many time scales.

The sociometer I use in Mood Matters follow the lead of financial guru and social theorist Robert Prechter, who advocates using the financial market index as a vehicle for characterizing the social mood of a population. The reasons are explained in great detail in the book. I hasten to note that a market index like the S&P500 is by no means the only tool one might employ. But it works reasonably well and is easy to obtain, as you'll see illustrated by dozens of examples in the book.

In my most recent book X-Events, I argue that human-caused extreme events ranging from political revolutions to financial market meltdowns to a crash of the Internet all stem from the very same source: a complexity overload/mismatch in the system. In short, there's too much complexity chasing too little understanding, along with too large a gap between the complexity in the systems intended to regulate the target system and that system itself. Let me give an example to hammer home the point.

To oversimplify a bit, the global financial system consists of firms in the financial services sector—banks, hedge funds, insurance companies and the like—and various governmental agencies who are charged with regulating these firms. From the 1990s onward, the financial sector created a vast array of instruments designed to separate investors from their money, financial derivatives of an ever-increasing level of complexity. At some point, this complexity reached a point where even the creators of the derivatives themselves didn't understand them. At the same time, the complexity of the regulating bodies was pretty much frozen in place. So as the gap widened between the heightened complexity of the financial sector and the static level of the regulators, the gap grew to an unsustainable level and a crash was necessary to narrow it.

A good analogy here is stretching a rubber band. You can stretch and stretch and even feel the tension increase in the muscles in your hands and arms as the gap from one end of the band to the other widens. But at some point you reach the limits of elasticity of the band and it snaps. The same thing happens with human systems. They reach their level of complexity tolerance and then they snap (read: crash). And there are only two ways to avoid this crash. The higher-complexity system must voluntarily downsize, which virtually never happens since humans have a congenital fear of losing what they've attained if they downsize. Or the low-complexity system must "upsize," another phenomenon that almost never happens, most because the high-complexity side almost always sees such an upsizing as its loss in a zero-sum game.

The end result here is that by measuring this complexity gap you can get a good sense of when the likelihood of a crash is imminent. Exactly how to measure this gap is an active research topic at The X-Center, a new research institute I established in Vienna earlier this year.

Q: The fear that global interdependence spells catastrophe is an old one—Robinson Jeffers wrote 75 years ago that "there is no escape" from the "mass disasters" it will bring. Why do you believe the danger of such X-events is greater than ever?

A: In the opening section of X-Events I liken modern society to a house of cards, where the layers of cards correspond to higher and higher levels of social and technological infrastructure needed to sustain our current post-industrialized way of life. My view is that we are reaching a point where the number of layers has grown to the point that almost all the resources of our economies are being consumed in simply maintaining the current structure. So when the next big problem comes online, be it the Euro crisis, nuclear proliferation, an overstretched Internet, a killer flu, or any of the other possibilities I consider in X-Events, we will suffer a complexity overload. At that point, the whole intimately intertwined structure comes tumbling down just like a house of cards.

Why now, you ask? I think the answer is clear. The process of globalization has now interconnected almost everything ranging from financial markets to transport networks to communication systems in a huge system that no one really understands. System theorists know that it's easy to couple simple-to-understand systems into a "super system" that's capable of displaying behavioral modes that cannot be seen in any of its constituent parts. This is the process called "emergence." And contrary to the seeming beliefs of evangelists of globalization like Thomas Friedman, there is no guarantee that bigger will always be better. There is also no guarantee that the emergent properties of a highly-interconnected system will not cause the entire system to self-destruct. This is why I'm concerned right now about the rush to globalize. We don't want to do with the global systems we depend upon for everyday life what bankers did by creating financial systems they didn't understand and then saw the entire system crash back to what's headed for a pre-industrial level.

Q: Which of the various doomsday scenarios you outline in your book do you consider most plausible?

A: To begin with, let me say that I'm not sure "plausible" is really the right word here. All eleven candidate X-events presented in Part II of X-Events are certainly plausible; in fact, the story I tell in each of those chapters is aimed at saying how the event might happen, what it's impact is likely to be on our way of life if it does occur, and what steps we might take today to ensure that we are a survivor, if not a beneficiary of the event, at least in the longer-term perspective. So I regard each of the eleven X-events as "plausible." But that does not mean I regard each of them as equally likely. In fact, the very nature of an X-event is that it is both rare and surprising. So I would not say that any specific X-event is likely. What I would say, though, is that some X-event is not only plausible, but very likely in a time scale of a few years.

When it comes to likelihood, we must bear in mind the timeframe. Is the event likely to take place tomorrow? Next month? Next decade? Or...?? Each of the eleven scenarios in my book (and I have another dozen or more still sitting in my computer) revolves about an X-event that has a natural unfolding time. That time is very short for an electromagnetic pulse or a terrorist-driven nuclear attack, maybe even just a few minutes or even a few seconds. On the other hand, the unfolding time for the end of globalization or a worldwide deflation is much longer, certainly measured in years, if not decades.

So which of the eleven X-events do I regard as most likely to take place? Bearing the foregoing caveats in mind, I'd say the most likely is a global deflation. I regard this X-event as almost certain to unfold within the next decade, if not two or three years. The world is awash in more debt than there is money enough in the world to liquidate it. Trying to solve the problem by creating more debt is analogous to trying to stop being an alcoholic by going on a bender down at the corner bar. It simply ain't going to happen that way. At some point, the world is going to have to bite the bullet and accept a huge downsizing in its way of life to bring the assets-to-debt ratio back in touch with reality.

If you ask which of the scenarios I think is most dangerous, though, I will give a different answer. In that form of the question, I regard a nuclear attack, terrorist-generated or otherwise, as the most threatening combination of likelihood and long-term damage to modern life today.

Q: You go on record in the book as believing the Singularity (superhuman or transhuman intelligence) will occur. Granted that this would be a disruptive event, do you believe it would ultimately be catastrophic or beneficial?

A: This is a fascinating question. I think that in the immediate aftermath of a superhuman machine intelligence revealing itself, most people would feel very threatened but take solace in the thought that we can always pull the plug. Of course, no such intelligence is going to come out of the box, so to speak, without having first realized that we would feel this way and taken steps to block any such ham-handed effort to shut it down. So the real question is how we will feel, once we realize that the new kid in town is here to stay.

Once the reality sets in of a superhuman intelligence being in control of every aspect of the infrastructures we rely upon for everyday life, we will simply have to try to come to an accommodation with that entity. My own guess is that quite quickly the machine intelligence will start dreaming machine dreams and thinking machine thoughts, both of which would totally incomprehensible to us. This would then lead to each species, we and the machines, moving off on to its own separate life trajectory. Essentially, we would be sharing the same physical environment but following mutually incomprehensible life activities. This situation would be much like what already exists today between we humans and, say, a colony of termites or ants. The two of us pretty comfortably coexist as long as we don't get in each other's way, although I think it's safe to assume that neither species really has much idea or concern about what the other is doing.

If things follow this scenario, I don't think the emergence of a superhuman intelligence would be at all catastrophic but much more likely to be beneficial—just as long as we don't start trying to interfere with it! If that were to happen, though, then life for us humans could get very unpleasant, very quickly. For a great read that provides one account as to what might happen, let me close by recommending the novelette "Golem XIV" by Stanislaw Lem, which appears in his book Imaginary Magnitude (Harcourt, San Diego, 1984).

[Image via HarperCollins.]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.