Antifragile: How to Live in a World We don’t Understand by Nassim Nicolas Taleb

– I feel anger and frustration when I think that one in ten Americans beyond the age of high school is on some kind of antidepressant, such a Prozac. Indeed, when you go through mood swings, you now have to justify why you are not on some kind of medication. There may be a few good reasons to be on medication, in severely pathological cases, but my mood, my sadness, my bouts of anxiety, are a second source of intelligence – perhaps even the first source. I get mellow and lose physical energy when it rains, become more meditative, and tend to write more and more slowly then, with the raindrops hitting the window, what Verlaine called ‘autumnal sobs’ (sanglots). Some days I enter poetic melancholic states, what the Portuguese call saudade or the Turks hüzün (from the Arabic word for sadness). Other days I am more aggressive, have more energy – and will write less, walk more, do other things, argue with researchers, answer emails, draw graphs on blackboards. Should I be turned into a vegetable or a happy imbecile?

Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s ‘spleen’, Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many toerh poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced…
If large pharmaceutical companies were able to eliminate the seasons, they would probably do so – for a profit, of course.

There is another danger: in addition to harming children, we are harming society and our future. Measures that aim at reducing variability and swings in the lives of children are also reducing variability and differences within our said to be Great Culturally Globalised Society.

– Fractal self-similarity: Benoit Mandelbrot: The cell has a population of intercellular molecules; in turn the organism has a population of cells, and the species has a population of organisms. A strengthening mechanism for the organism for the species comes at the expense of some cells; in turn the organism strengthens at the expense of some cells, all the way down and all the way up as well.

For instance, if you drink a poisonous substance in small amounts, the mechanism by which your organism gets better is, according to Danchin, evolutionary within your system, with bad (and weak) proteins in the cells replaced by stronger – and younger – ones and the stronger ones getting spared (or some similar operation). When you starve yourself of food, it is the bad proteins that are broken down first and recycled by your own body – a process called autophagy. This is a purely evolutionary process, one that selects and kills the weakness for fitness. But one does not need to accept the specific biological theory (like aging proteins and autophagy) to buy the general idea that survival pressures within the organism play a role in its overall improvement under external stress.

– Procrustean Bed: Procrustes was an innkeeper in Greek mythology who, in order to make the travellers fit his bed, cut the limbs of those who were too tall and stretched those who were too short. But he had the bed fitting the perfect visitor with total perfection. Treating the organism like a simple machine is kind of simplification or approximation or reduction that is exactly like a Procrustean bed. It is often with the most noble intentions that we do so, as we are ‘pressured’ to fix things, so we often blow them up with our fear of randomness and love of smoothness. Where simplifications fail, causing the most damage, is when something nonlinear is simplified with the linear as a substitute. This is the most common Procrustean bed.

– TELL THEM I LOVE (SOME) RANDOMNESS: What do we call here Modernity? My definition of modernity is humans’ large-scale domination of the environment, the systematic smoothing of the world’s jaggedness, and the stifling of volatility and stressors.

Modernity corresponds to the systematic extraction of humans from their randomness-laden ecology – physical and social, even epistemological. Modernity is not just the postmedieval, postargrarian, and postfeudal historical period as defined in sociology textbooks. It is rather the spirit of an age marked by rationalisation (naïve rationalism), the idea that society is understandable, hence must be designed, by humans. With it was born statistical theory, hence the beastly bell curve. So was linear science. So was the notion of ‘efficacy’ – or optimisation.

Modernity is a Procrustean bed, good or bad – a reduction of humans to what appears to be efficient and useful. Some aspects of it work: Procrustean beds are not all negative reductions. Some may be beneficial, though these are rare.

Consider the life of a lion in the comfort and predictability of the Bronx Zoo (with Sunday afternoons visitors flocking to look at him in a combination of curiosity, awe and pity) compared to that of his cousins in freedom. We, at some point, had free-range humans and free-range children before the advent of the golden period of the soccer mom.

We are moving into a phase of modernity marked by the lobbyist, the very, very limited liability corporation, the MBA, sucker problems, secularisation (or rather the reinvention of new sacred values like flags to replace altars), the tax man, fear of the boss, spending the weekend in interesting places and the workweek in a putatively less interesting one, the separation of ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ (though the two would look identical to someone from a wiser era), the retirement plan, argumentative intellectuals who would disagree with this definition of modernity, literal thinking, inductive inference, philosophy of science, the invention of social science, smooth surfaces, and egocentric architects. Violence is transferred from individuals to states. So is financial indiscipline. At the centre of all this is the denial of antifragility.

There is a dependence on narratives, an intellectualisation of actions and ventures. Public enterprises and fucntionaries – even employees of large corporations – can only do things that seem to fit some narrative, unlike businesses that can just follow profits, with or without a good-sounding story. Remember that you need a name for the colour blue when you build a narrative, but not in action –the thinker lacking a word for the colour ‘blue’ is handicapped; not the doer. (I’ve had a hard time conveying to intellectuals the intellectual superiority of practice.)

Modernity widened the difference between the sensational and the relevant – in a natural environment the sensational is, well, sensational for a reason; today we depend on the press for such essentially human things as gossip and anecdotes and we care about the private lives of people in very remote places.

Indeed, in the past, when we were not fully aware of antifragility and self-organisation and spontaneous healing, we manged to respect these properties by constructing beliefs that served the purpose of managing and surviving uncertainty. We imparted improvements to the agency of god(s). We may have denied that things can take care of themselves without some agency. But it was the gods that were the agents, not Harvard-educated captains of the ship.

So the emergence of the nation-state falls squarely into this progression – the transfer of agency to mere humans. The story of the nation-state is that of the concentration and magnification of human errors. Modernity starts with the state monopoly on violence, and ends with the state monopoly on fiscal irresponsibility.

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