Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
This book reminded me, if such a reminder was necessary, that we are frequently in a situation where we need words to describe concepts that are hard for us to manage because of our lack of language. The author uses the absence of a term in any language he is aware of for those things that become stronger when they are subjected to randomness and disorder as a way of supporting the via negativa that posits that it is easier to achieve a successful result by removing bad things than by adding good things. And as might be imagined, this book is a powerful shot across the bow of those who believe that human beings’ pitiful efforts and command and control lead to more robust and long-lasting and beneficial human institutions. If you have read other books by the author (and this is the fifth book by the author I have read), you likely have a good idea about what you are going to get, what people the author is going to talk about (including some of his fictionalized friends like Fat Tony) and more hostility directed at those who have the hubris to think that they can predict the world and externalize the risk for their flawed projections onto other people whom they take for suckers.
Given all of this, it is little surprise that the book is a complex and sizable one with twenty-five or so chapters in seven smaller books that total, including the thoughtful appendices, into more than 450 pages of reading material. The author begins by discussing those things that are antifragile (I), starting out with that which is merely robust or resilient (1), and then moving on to a discussion of overcompensation and overreaction (2), the information value of stressors and the crimes committed against children in the names of reducing stress (3), as well as the social value of antifragility when viewed in layers (4). The author next tackles the issue of modernity (II) by looking at the contrast between the souk and office building (5), the problem of stability in a world of giant states (6), the harm done by naive intervention (7), and prediction as a scion of modernity (8). The author then turns into a nonpredictive view of the world (III) that includes a contrast between Fat Tony and various fragalistas (9), Seneca’s upside and downside (10), and why one should never marry a rock star (11). The author moves on to discuss optionality and the intelligence of antifragility (IV) with chapters on Thales’ sweet grapes (12), the folly of lecturing birds on how to fly (13), having a knowledge of difference (14), history as written by losers (15), disorder (16), and the debate between Fat Tony and Socrates (17). After this there is a discussion of nonlinearity (V), with chapters on the difference between small and large stones (18) and the inverse of the philosopher’s stone (19). A section on the via negativa follows (VI) with chapters on the relationship between time and fragility (20), the relationship between medicine, convexity, and opacity (21), and the goal of living long enough but not too long (22). Finally, the author concludes with a discussion on the ethics of fragility and antifragility (VII), along with the importance of skin in the game (23) and the ethics of professionalism (24), and a conclusion, followed by a glossary, two appendices, and various notes, a bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index.
There is something strangely appealing about the author and the way that his writing has spawned more writing as he examines the implications of his work and its interconnections. I do not know what the long-term result of the author’s Incerto is, of which this book and at least four other ones is a part. That said, there is a lot to celebrate here. The author shows himself, for all of his bluster, as someone who is intent on the application of the golden rule when it comes to the complexities and dangers of contemporary life. He finds it unconscionable that people would seek profit and power while making others (usually ordinary people like taxpayers) pay the price for those failures due to risky but often ignored black swan events. If nothing else, the author has greatly enriched the lexicon of risk and probabilistic resources with the titles of his books and with the concepts he talks about, and for that alone this work deserves a good look. The survival of institutions and life requires that randomness and chaos be turned into sources of strength, which means that to truly be alive means accepting some vulnerability and risk as a part of the process.