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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.]
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NDg5NTg1NX0.kdBYMvaEzvCiJjcLEPgnjII_KVtT9RMEwJFuXB68D8Q/img.png?width=980" id="59914" width="429" height="350" data-rm-shortcode-id="b11e4be64c5e1f58bf4417d8548bedc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" width="1920" height="2560" data-rm-shortcode-id="4089a32ea9fbb1a0281db14332583ccd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" width="819" height="1072" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff5edf0a698e0681d11efde1d7872958" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="8827e55511c8c3aed8c36d21b6541dbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQwMjc3N30.nBGAfc_O9sgyK_lOUo_MHzP1vK-9kJpohLlj9ax1P8s/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a2f6" width="1440" height="1440" data-rm-shortcode-id="4fe28368d2ed6a91a4c928d4254cc02a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="67542ee1c5a85807b0a7e63399e44575" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Context is everything.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a number of new behaviours into daily routines, like physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitizing. Meanwhile, many old behaviours such as attending events, eating out and seeing friends have been put on hold.
A new study looks at how images of coffee's origins affect the perception of its premiumness and quality.
- Images can affect how people perceive the quality of a product.
- In a new study, researchers show using virtual reality that images of farms positively influence the subjects' experience of coffee.
- The results provide insights on the psychology and power of marketing.