There is a narrative slowly emerging that Corona (Covid-19) is a true Black swan event. For example, according to Fred Cleary, a portfolio manager at Pegasus Capital, quoted in the FT’s excellent Long View Column, “Covid-19 is a black swan”. I could be wrong, but from recollection of reading the book, a Black Swan event is something that people cannot possibly imagine and therefore cannot possibly predict.
9/11 was a Black Swan event. Corona virus is not. In scenario-speak it is a wild card event that breaks all scenarios, but this is most definately not something that has not been foreseen. I worked with an Australian bank back in 2005 and a pandemic was on the table so to speak. It was one of the main topics of a UK government risk workshop in 2015 (by main topic I mean it was one of the events considered most probable (when not if as they say), it featured in some strategic trends work with the UK Ministry of Defence too (again, as a strategic shock), in some library scenarios, some work for KPMG and finally some disruption cards created with Imperial College.
The problem, of course, is not predicting, forecasting or foreseeing, but in assigning probability to such events or ideas. If the probability is widely considered to be low it will be largely ignored. It also touches on not what, but whom, in the sense of who gets listened to, why and when. BTW, is this is all a bit doom and gloom, my view is that the current pandemic is quite mild in terms of mortality. This too will pass, although next time we may not be so lucky.
OK, two scenarios in light of Coronavirus and the current outbreak of anxiety.
Scenario one: Social distancing becomes the norm. People avoid people. People don’t trust people. People trust machines and prefer their company. A society-wide deletion of the human interface (currently to be seen emerging in banks and supermarkets across the UK and elsewhere). People work from home, consume at home and essentially keep their mental front doors closed to things they don’t like. Contact with nature is lost, so too is curiosity about other people. The triumph of the digitally empowered individual.
Scenario two: Self isolation turns out to be a blessing disguised in a face mask. People re-discover the joys of solitude. The cult of productivity and competitive busyness is called into question. People find joy in simple things. People slowly realise they need other people. People question what makes them truly happy and it turns out the answer is other people and especially helping strangers. There is an outbreak of empathy and kindness and a societal shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’. Civic responsibility and societal good trumps individual rights and freedoms.
The text below is from the draft, so doesn’t exactly appear above.
Biohazards & Plagues
might have noticed that some of the previous ideas where perhaps getting a
little silly. Or perhaps I was. No
drama. This next lot of ideas will soon sort us all out. Instead of intelligent machines, immortality
and alien life how about a few mass extinctions, genetic terrorism or some good
Something, sometimes, strikes me as rather
odd. Namely that we somehow assume that
life will go on, more or less as it has always done. But ‘always’ is actually a
rather contemporary concept. We compare the present to the relatively recent
past. This we do not take into account, for example, world wars one and two
(around 70 million men, women and children killed) or the great flu pandemic of
1918-19 (somewhere in the region of 20-40 million dead). Going much further
back we had the Black Death, which killed something like 30-60% of Europe’s
We’ve been lucky. So, what other doomsday scenarios are there
out there? Well it’s another long list. The problem is essentially two-fold.
First more of us are living closer together in crowded cities and moving around
in an interconnected world more easily thanks to various regulations and
innovations in transport and infrastructure. We’ve even got our animals closer
together – and closer to us some might argue – than previously. This means that
when something nasty like a naturally occurring pathogen does break out it
travels much faster – and has the potential to travel much faster and further
between species too. This goes some way
to explain recent outbreaks of H5N1 virus, SARS, dengue and Ebola, all of which
initially originated in Animals and were then spread by humans.
The second problem is technology. New
technologies are emerging faster, many are quite powerful and many can be used
in bad ways as well as good. Genetics is
a case in point. Genetics means that it is possible to create new and novel
micro-organisms. Most of the time genetics will be for peaceful and products
purposes. But there is no reason why some day someone (it’s Dr Evil again)
won’t do something a little more sinister. As usual this has happened already
in a sense. Smallpox and anthrax have been used as weapons before and more
recently we’ve had the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system where the
result of a few deranged minds. So how
about someone creating a new deadly micro-organism which, for instance, is only
lethal to a specific race or ethnicity? Stealth and deniability all rolled into
Consequences? Apart from an outbreak of
fear there would be an initial issue relating to the mass disposal of bodies.
Many of the ideas we cherish – like saying good bye to loved ones or being able
to visit their graves, might vanish. We would be back to plague pits, at least
in the early days. There are also the economic effects.
Work done by Warwick McKibbin at the Lowry
Institute in Sydney (quoted in Alok Jha’s book, The Doomsday Handbook) suggest that a mild repeat of the 1918 flu
pandemic would kill almost 1.5 million people and would reduce economic output
by b$330 billion (in 2006 prices).
A large repeat might kill 142 million and
shrink output in some economies by as much as 50%. Or maybe it’s more prosaic than that. Maybe
the next plague is Type-2 Diabetes?
Maybe millions will die simply because they eat too much and don’t go
outside and walk around enough. As for biotech disasters, the potential is
serious mishaps is significant. What if poor synthetic biology regulation leads
to people taking short-cuts, which leads to the creation of a new form of bug
that can’t be got rid of using any known techniques? The bug might not be a
problem on its own, but if it destroyed the world’s wheat, maize or rice crop
the result could be mass starvation within particular regions.
Or maybe problems will occur from a combination of factors. What if global demands for meat creates issues surrounding the disposal of animal carcasses? This could cause a growth in feral dogs in some parts of the world that could lead to massive increases in rabies. Or what if a global economic boom meant more pool building swimming pools, but the boom is followed by bust and the homes are repossessed leading to stagnant water in swimming polls, which in combination with warmer weather caused by climate change leads to outbreaks of malaria?
BTW, worth pointing out the 2012 entry on the timeline for this, which reads: “A typical year for the common flu (3,000-5,000 killed in the USA). ” Context people, context.
I’ve got sod all on at the moment (thanks Coronavirus!) so I’ve started to read How to do nothing in the greenhouse by Jenny Odell. No…the book is called How to do Nothing… I’m reading it in the greenhouse…got it? I haven’t got very far, but it’s shaping up to be really good book. The quote at the start is fab too, especially in light of what’s going on right now.
Given my ongoing experiments with what I call retrospective reading (i.e. reading ‘news’ when it’s several weeks, if not months, old) I thought this was interesting. I haven’t stopped reading newspapers altogether, but I have certainly cut down very significantly and switched towards periodicals and books. Top tip: If you can’t stop your addiction, at least get rid of newspapers during the week and focus on weekend editions, which are more reflective and analytical. Anyway, this is from Rolf Dobelli, who is well worth reading.
News is bad for your health.
Out of the 10,000 news stories
you may have read in the last 12 months, did even one allow you to make a
better decision about a serious matter in your life, asks Rolf Dobelli.
In the past
few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with
an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our
diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar
is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites
of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t
require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading
books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow
limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the
mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we
faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise
how toxic news can be.
News misleads. Take the
following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge,
and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The
person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he
experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s
relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk
that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy,
it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to
produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our
heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse
of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated.
Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.
We are not
rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on
television is going to change your attitude toward that
risk, regardless of its real probability. If you think you can
compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are
wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for
news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut
yourself off from news consumption entirely.
News is irrelevant. Out of the
approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one
that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a
serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is:
the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult
to recognise what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognise what’s new.
The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media
organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a
competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we’re cut off
from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive
disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.
News has no
explanatory power. News items are bubbles popping on the surface
of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world?
Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories:
slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists’ radar but have a
transforming effect. The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of
the big picture you will understand. If more information leads to higher
economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid.
That’s not the case.
News is toxic
to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic
system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid
(cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of
growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic
stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth
(cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The
other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision
cognitive errors. News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors:
confirmation bias. In the words of Warren Buffett: “What the human being
is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior
conclusions remain intact.” News exacerbates this flaw. We become prone to
overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities. It also
exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories
that “make sense” – even if they don’t correspond to reality. Any
journalist who writes, “The market moved because of X” or “the company
went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way
of “explaining” the world.
thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted
time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like
viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow
thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. There are two
types of memory. Long-range memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working
memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from
short-term to long-term memory is a choke-point in the brain, but anything you
want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted,
nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens
comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In
a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number
of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears,
your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is
distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.
like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of
arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and
hard to ignore. Scientists used to think that the dense connections formed
among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls were largely fixed by the time
we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. Nerve cells
routinely break old connections and form new ones. The more news we consume,
the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking
while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus.
Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the
ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get
tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because
they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the
physical structure of their brains has changed.
time. If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the
news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add
five minutes here and there when you’re at work, then count distraction and
refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week. Information is
no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. You are not that
irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?
News makes us
passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The
daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It
grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised,
sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned
helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised
if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease
creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one
reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often
produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide,
uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I
don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer,
not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer,
architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously
uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old
solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.
journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always
relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth.
But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal
articles and in-depth books are good, too.
I have now
gone without news for four years, so I can see, feel and report the effects of
this freedom first-hand: less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more
time, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
A scenario matrix from my friend Nick Turner at Stratforma. His explanation below.
The framework is built on the axes of two critical uncertainties:
The nature of global coordination; “slow and inadequate” vs. “fast and efficient”
The nature of public response; “panicked” vs. “disciplined”
When placed in a 2×2 matrix, four scenarios unfold:
“Déjà Flu”: a world where despite national governments and multi national agencies responding in a responsible and coordinated fashion, feed “too much” information, the public over-react, resulting in irrational consumption and even xenophobic outrage.
“Keep Calm & Carry On”: a world where the virus spreads but effective quarantining and treatment contain the epidemic and the public display unexpected resilience, as the media behave in a more retrained way.
“Plus ça Change”: a world of disparity in response across the globe between developed and developing economies, the population of latter, despite experiencing high mortality rates, shrug off as just another one life’s challenges to be faced.
“Me First”: a world of delay, opacity, incompetence and unpreparedness, leading to public panic, overreaction and selfishness, the after effects of which linger for years.
We’ve had Spanish flu (1918-19), Asian flu (1957) and Hong Kong flu
(1968-69). Then we had SARS, bird flu and recently, swine flu. There is
also seasonal flu, which appears every winter and kills about 250,000
people annually, although this is often forgotten. The idea, “community
of anxiety”, was coined in 2004 by the writer, Ian McEwan, in Saturday, a
novel about events surrounding the Iraq war. A similar idea is
information pandemics. Both ideas describe the way fear and anxiety are
spreading throughout the world, fuelled primarily by the
interconnectivity of digital communications. It can start with a single
email, spread to a blog and end up on Twitter. The result is global
panic on an unseen scale and outbreaks are difficult to contain.
early May, the World Health Organization talked about the need to
stockpile food and water due to the swine flu outbreak and raised the
threat level to five out of a possible six. Meanwhile, airports were
installing thermal scanners and newspapers revelled in the story as it
grew more scary and spectacular. The whole world seemed to be running
for cover wearing a variety of (mostly useless) facemasks. Fear was
spreading fast, fed with a mixture of confusion and impotence. The
threat is real enough. The 1918 outbreak killed 20-50 million people in
less than 18-months while the Black Death in the 14th century wiped out a
third of the European population in just two years. Even the Asia and
Hong Kong pandemics killed about 1-2 million people apiece. But we are
confusing what’s possible with what’s probable. The reason is a
collective feeling – a mood if you like – that something big and nasty
is coming our way. This is partly because a string of events, from 9/11
and climate change to the economic collapse, have left us feeling unsure
about what’s next. It is possible that a real pandemic will
It will probably start in an overcrowded
Asian city and travel economy class on a jet to the US and Europe. We
may be able to contain it or we may not. The science surrounding such
things is uncertain. Interestingly though, there appears to be a sense
that we deserve things like this to happen to us. In some way, we are
collectively guilty (because we borrowed too much money or damaged the
planet with our selfish, materialist ways, perhaps) and we need to be
punished. There is also a warped sense of curiosity at play. What would
the world look like after a genuine pandemic? Would the death of 50
million people give everyone more food to eat? Another example of the
fear factor was the jet that flew low over New York in early May. People
automatically assumed another terrorist attack and panic whipped around
Manhattan like wildfire. It turned out to be someone taking photographs
but by then it was too late. And this, perhaps, is the point.
Information now flows around the world too quickly and there is not
enough time to properly react or to separate fact from opinion, anecdote
from analysis, or sensation from science. There is too much information
and much of it is unreliable.
Thanks to Web 2.0 the old
hierarchy of knowledge, where source related to trustworthiness and
reliability, has broken down. Furthermore, the people we used to trust
(scientists, politicians, religious figures) are now widely distrusted
so we ignore them. Swine flu is killing about 0.1% of those it infects;
the mortality rate for the 1918-19 variety was 2.5-5.0%. So very few
people have died so far. This could still change but I doubt it.
Nevertheless, the sense of impending apocalypse remains.
Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 2-3 May 2009, ‘Fear fever’, J. Huxley. www.smh.com.au See also The Fourth Horseman: A history of epidemics, plagues and other scourges by Andrew Nikiforuk, Panicology by Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams and Risk: The science & politics of fear by Dan Gardner.