By Joshua Cooper Ramo
Book Review by Hy Mariampolski
Small things can have big impacts. Seemingly unrelated events can accumulate, causing bubbles to burst, dikes to disintegrate and, suddenly, turn well-laid plans and their anticipated payoffs into vain dreams. These are among the ideas that lie beneath Joshua Cooper Ramo’s The Age of the Unthinkable, an alternately gloomy and wildly optimistic assessment of the resources we need and can potentially use to manage the perils and opportunities of our increasingly interconnected world.
Although the primary focus of Ramo’s work is on foreign policy, his analysis is grounded within a range of disciplines, including cognitive science, physics, the history of art and diplomacy, and new product development. His wide-ranging intellect demonstrates the intersection of design thinking with other disciplines that require creative breakthroughs. Ramo is masterful at turning phrases that provoke thought, as when he claims early on that the level of innovation produced by Lebanon’s Hizb’allah fighters demonstrates “creativity comparable to US internet entrepreneurs.” Unfortunately, he ends up blinded by his own brilliance and his recipes leave us troubled rather than tantalized.
The author, whose resume includes stints at Time Magazine and Kissinger Associates, seems fairly clear about his objectives. He is out to develop a “new way of thinking…that take[s] complexity and unpredictability as its first consideration.” He gushes on that “in a revolutionary era of surprise and innovation, you need to learn to think and act like a revolutionary.”
Ramo bases his ideas about unpredictability on the work of Danish-American physicist Per Bak’s observations about the behavior of sand piles. They tend to organize themselves according to some internal dynamics as more grains are added to the growing heap and, then, at some unpredictable point too much is accumulated and the pile breaks apart.
This grounding metaphor is extended and applied every time the author gets a chance: “Every day now, new players and forces are trickling onto the pile of our new world order…viruses, NGOs, new inventions, Indian peasants moving to cities. And these are all connected one to another by ties of contact and technology that we can’t fully map or monitor. What is true for Bak’s piles is true for our world now. We are, in many ways, organized into instability.”
The author is also a strong proponent of ideas like “empathy” and “context,” which positions him compatibly with ethnographers and designers. He praises Israeli intelligence leaders, for example, who have sought to better understand their opponents and not only track the visible accessories of power like the number of tanks and missiles at their disposal but also make an effort to understand their opponents’ dynamics. Ramo points out, “Understanding a sandpile meant looking deeply into the pile, not simply relying on outside-to-inside satellite techniques.”
Like other journalists, the author points to dubious immutable “laws” of social relations. For example, “The moment you hand over power to other people, you get an explosion of curiosity, innovation, and effort.” Is that so? Is power the only lever necessary? What about skill, time availability, motivation, interest, compensation and so forth?
Robert Owen, a resoundingly successful entrepreneur at the start of the Industrial Revolution, came to the United States in 1825, ready to create the perfect commonwealth at New Harmony, Indiana. It was history’s first secular utopian experiment, not based in faith but on “scientific” principles Owen was creating about the distribution of wealth and allocation of labor. The community was dissolved after two years of endless conflict among what was later described as, “a heterogeneous collection of radicals… honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.”
I’m afraid that much of Ramo’s work simply reminded me of Owen, set in the optimistic days of 2008, when almost anything seemed possible upon the inauguration of a new American president. The Age of the Unthinkable is utopianism for the digital age rather than the age of steam engines but the book’s worldview is similarly locked into its own grandiosity.