Sunday August 19, 2012
Review by VALENTINE CAWLEY
A scientist takes us down some well-trodden paths to show how extreme events threaten the future of humanity.
X-Events: The Collapse Of Everything
Author: John Casti
Publisher: William Morrow, 326 pages
ACADEMICS come in two main varieties: those who contribute fresh ideas to the world and those who spend their lives compiling and annotating the thoughts of others. By the evidence of this book alone, John Casti , a “complexity scientist”, appears to be of the second variety.
X-Events is a book with one central insight – which might not be Dr Casti’s – and a lot of overly familiar examples. While that single insight is worth reading and understanding, much of the book suffers from being a bit stale. It would have been a visionary read, had it been published 30 years ago, but as a new book, it seems to offer little that is new or surprising to any well-read modern reader. It is ironic to note that a book ostensibly about surprising events should itself be so unsurprising.
An “X-event”, as defined by Casti, is an extreme event. These include natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, super volcanoes, or asteroid strikes and also human events, such as the end of oil, the collapse of financial markets, or the total failure of the Internet. Casti’s book focuses on human-caused X-events, since natural ones are already well understood even if we may not be able to forestall them.
Casti’s approach is to list real world examples of X-events, usually culled from major news stories, or to outline possibilities for them. He then takes a look at consequences. In all, this suffers from the general weakness of the examples being already familiar to the reader and therefore uninteresting to read of, again. I found myself wishing for more that was genuinely new, or that I had never heard of at some point in my life. There is very little of that, however, in this book.
Another weakness is Casti’s fondness for making very obvious statements and conclusions as if they are some kind of revelation. Many of these are so obvious that they need not be said at all, for even a mildly thoughtful reader would already have noted those thoughts. It may be, perhaps, that Casti is underestimating the intelligence of his readers – a mistake that always leads to a duller book than otherwise would have been written. Either that, or he has very little real, personal insight to offer.
The core idea of the book, which I did find interesting and useful, was the notion that human-caused X-events are the result of a mismatch between the complexity of one system and another interacting one. When the gap is too great, X-events are likely to occur to bring the respective complexities back into alignment.
Two examples serve to illustrate this. The crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009 that killed all 216 passengers and 12 aircrew onboard occurred when the pilots became overwhelmed by conflicting instrument signals and, thus, disoriented. This is a case of the complexity of the system – the plane and its situation – becoming too much for the complexity of those “in control” – the pilots – to cope with. The financial crash of 2007 to 2008 is another telling example. This showed the inability of a less complex system – the financial regulations – to control a more complex system – banking – built on exotic financial instruments that almost no one really understood. The simpler system simply did not have the ability to control the more complex one, and so there occurred a financial crisis.
My primary concern about this book is that, on reading it, it becomes clear that very little of the contents are original thoughts of the writer – perhaps nothing, in fact. I had expected more from a self-confessed “complexity scientist”. The book is thus a survey of other people’s thoughts, findings and understandings, rendered in a simple, but baggy and longwinded style that often takes far too long to get to the point – if there is a point at all.
That being said, this book might serve as a good introduction to X-events to someone who is not well-informed or in the habit of reading only newspapers or online news. This could apply to some younger readers. It has, however, little to offer more mature, better-educated readers.
The best chapter is the last one, in which Casti further explains his understanding of complexity mismatches and recommends a defence against human caused X-events. His answer? Be adaptive, be resilient and have redundancy in systems and individuals. These are not exactly revelatory suggestions.
I also feel that an “X-event” as described here is very much like Nassim Taleb’s “black swan” concept, in that it is something surprising, rare and impactful. Thus, the book’s overarching concept itself is not new either, it just has a new label.
X-Events is a thick book that is thin on original ideas, and laden with the well-trodden. The question it poses is this: Is a book worth reading for a single insight? That is for you to decide.