By Ed Gibney
For the last five posts, we have been discussing the question of whether the world is getting better or not. I’d like to give Ed Gibney the last words (for now?) on the topic:
Thanks for gathering these comments together (including mine) and briefly replying to them. They elicited another idea from me as I was reading this. During my MBA studies, we essentially were trained to *optimize* the operations of organizations. Remove all the fat, redundancies, waste, and poor processes. All this rationalization makes things run better. And this is certainly what we have done to human culture as well. But (!) this also makes things more fragile.
In the business world, this shows up when hiccups happen (think of the supply chain problems during Covid) and there is no extra inventory (aka “waste”) sitting around to fill in the temporary gaps. If things get optimized too much, these organizations become extremely fragile and collapse with problems that no one would have realized ahead of time would be strong enough to cause this. Bankruptcies come on very quickly when cash flow and investment are optimized too much. And, by the way, this is a common problem in environments characterized by higher and higher levels of competition. You are forced to “optimize” to stay alive in the short term. But at the cost of being robust for the long term.
In just the same way, we are removing “redundancy” and “waste” from the ecological systems of the world. This is extremely dangerous! Things feel better in the moment, but as Nassim Taleb wrote about in The Black Swan, this leaves us very vulnerable to “low probability but highly destructive” events. Many of us see this fragility in society and are worried. The techno-optimists are ignoring the long history of things going bust.
I will say that I agree with you that technology and rational improvements are the way out of this. We can decide to be more robust rather than more fragile. It requires more cooperation and limits on competition. But until I hear techno-optimists start using that language, I’m going to be very worried about the kind of progress they think is happening. One is short-term and very dangerous.
This reminds me of another lesson I learned from change management theory. Think of a 2×2 matrix with one axis being if things are being done “well” or “poorly”. The other access is if things are going in the “right” or “wrong” direction. The best situation in this 2×2 matrix is obviously to be in the quadrant where things are going “well” in the “right” direction. But, the worst outcome is surprising. It’s going in the “wrong” direction, but doing things “well”! This is basically running towards the cliff. It’s falling faster and faster and thinking “This is great! We’re moving so quickly!”
Which box are we in?