Table of Contents:
- a. How to Destroy a Body: Iatrogenics
- b. How to Take Care of a Body
- a. Absence of Skin in the Game among Politicians and Civil Servants
- b. General Recommendations to Improve Politics
The concept of fragility is very familiar to us. It applies to things that break when you strike or stretch them with a relatively small amount of force. Porcelain cups and pieces of thread are fragile. Things that do not break so easily when you apply force or stress to them we call strong or resilient, even robust. A cast-iron pan, for instance. However, there is a third category here that is often overlooked. It includes those things that actually get stronger or improve when they are met with a stressor (up to a point). Take weight-lifting. If you try to lift something too heavy, you’ll tear a muscle; but lifting more appropriate weights will strengthen your muscles over time. This property can be said to apply to living things generally, as in the famous aphorism ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Strangely, we don’t really have a word for this property, this opposite of fragility.
For author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, this is a major oversight, for when we look closely, it turns out that a lot of things (indeed the most important things) have, or are subject to, this property. Indeed, for Taleb, all that lives, and all the complex things that these living things create (like societies, economic systems, businesses etc.) have, or must confront this property in some way. This is important to know, because understanding this can help us understand how to design and approach these things (and profit from them), and failing to understand it can cause us to unwittingly harm or even destroy them (and be harmed by them). So Taleb has taken it upon himself to name and explore this curious property and its implications; and in his new book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder Taleb reports on his findings.
As the title would suggest, what Taleb has found is that most complex systems not only gain from small stressors, but they are designed to gain more when these stressors are distributed irregularly, or randomly. This point is more difficult to accept because we tend to dislike disorder and randomness. Disorder can be frightening, because unpredictable, and is therefore not something that we readily welcome. So what we often do is attempt to remove the random and disorderly from our systems (and eliminate the shocks), and thus make them smooth. For example, we may try to take the boom and bust out of the economy, and instead aim for a gradual upward trend.
For Taleb, though, this is a big mistake, because while removing the small shocks in a complex system may create stability for a time, it actually upsets the system and makes it prone to major shocks in the long term. What’s more, unlike the small shocks (that refine and improve the system), the major shocks are usually damaging, and can even destroy the system. So removing the small shocks from a complex system doesn’t create stability; rather, it creates the illusion of stability. In the economy, for instance, you get a long period of stability followed by a major crash.
This phenomenon is not just confined to the economy. Indeed, Taleb maintains that it is the spirit of the age to believe that we can remove the disorder from any system (and eliminate the shocks), and render it orderly, smooth and predictable. We are almost always mistaken in this, and end up creating systems that are prone to major damage and even outright destruction (in Taleb’s language, we ‘fragilize’ these systems). We call the damaging and destructive episodes Black Swan events (Taleb himself coined the term). Better it would be by far, Taleb argues, to accept and even welcome a certain amount of disorder, randomness and jaggedness in our lives and systems, and put ourselves in a position to profit from the unpredictable, rather than eradicate it.
On this last point, Taleb maintains that it is indeed possible to profit from the unpredictable (without having to actually predict any specific thing—which is next to impossible in the realm of the complex anyway). We simply need to recognize what systems are fragile (and therefore prone to collapse), and what systems are antifragile (and therefore prone to grow stronger from stressors), and get out of the way of the former, and put our faith in the latter (thus antifragilizing ourselves in the process). This applies not only to large, overarching systems like corporations, economic systems and political societies, but our own bodies and minds.
Here is Nassim Nicholas Taleb introducing the concept of antifragility (and his new book):
What follows is a full executive summary of Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Consider a parcel full of glassware that you intend to ship half way around the world. You would write ‘Fragile’ on such a parcel (loc. 737). If, however, the parcel contained something that you weren’t really worried about breaking (say a led pipe), you wouldn’t bother writing anything on it. What’s the point? But what about a parcel that consists of an object that would benefit from the odd knock? As Taleb explains, “it’s contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma” (loc. 743). What would you write on such a parcel to encourage the handlers to mishandle it? You may write something like “‘please mishandle’ or ‘please handle carelessly’” (loc. 743). But if you had to come up with a single word to express this concept, you may find yourself at a loss. The fragile, we know, is what “would be at best unharmed, the robust would be at best and at worst unharmed,” but what would you call something that is “at worst unharmed” (loc. 746).
As Taleb points out, we don’t really have a word for this concept—this ‘reverse fragility’—for it is, for the most part, just “not part of our consciousness” (loc. 748). For Taleb, though, this is a significant oversight, for reverse fragility has a significant role to play in our lives. As the author explains, it is “part of our ancestral behavior, our biological apparatus, and a ubiquitous property of every system that has survived” (loc. 748). So Taleb has taken it upon himself to bring a name to this important concept: antifragile.
The simplest and most straightforward example of an antifragile system is the body of a living organism. Take the human body; it benefits from stressors (to a point): “for instance, your bones will get denser when episodic stress is applied to them, a mechanism formalized under the name Wolff’s Law after an 1892 article by a German surgeon” (loc. 1144). This effect can be seen in people who regularly take part in certain kinds of physical activity—such as someone in a traditional society who is accustomed to carrying heavy objects or liquids in receptacles balanced atop their head (a practice called ‘head-loading) (loc. 1197, 1211). Of course, if you apply too much stress to a bone it will break (loc. 1144), so antifragile things may well have a breaking point; but the point is that an antifragile system will grow stronger from any stress that is beneath its breaking point (loc. 4807) (so long, of course, as it is given sufficient time to recover and strengthen between stressful episodes [loc. 1160, 1214-24]).
*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles