The author of The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, has a new book out — Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand — in which he argues that the world has three sorts of things in it: the fragile, the robust and the antifragile. He was interviewed about the antifragile in New Scientist:
Antifragile: How to make an unstable world strong - Linda Geddes Interviews Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Linda Geddes: In your new book you talk about things being “antifragile”. What do you mean exactly?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: When you ask people what is the opposite of fragile, they mostly answer something that is resilient or unbreakable - an unbreakable package would be robust. However, the opposite of fragile is something that actually gains from disorder. In the book, I classify things into fragile, robust or antifragile.
Geddes: Can you give me some examples?
Taleb: Nature builds things that are antifragile. In the case of evolution, nature uses disorder to grow stronger. Occasional starvation or going to the gym also makes you stronger, because you subject your body to stressors and gain from them. Another example is the restaurant industry. It benefits from the fact that individual restaurants are fragile by exploiting their mistakes as it tries to figure out why a particular restaurant went bust. Trial and error is an antifragile activity.
Geddes: How is antifragility different from the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”?
Taleb: I look at it in terms of systems: situations where what kills me makes others stronger, how the fragility of some parts of the system brings overall benefits. There are good and bad systems organised in terms of whether the system gets stronger or weaker from errors made by an individual part. Every plane crash makes the next one less likely, but every bank going bust makes the next one more likely.
Geddes: How would you make something antifragile?
Taleb: If antifragility is the property of all these natural complex systems that have survived, then depriving them of volatility, randomness and stressors will harm them. Just as spending a month in bed leads to muscle atrophy, complex systems are weakened or even killed when deprived of stressors.
If you want to move away from fragility, you must avoid centralisation and debt and foster aggressive risk-takers who are willing to fail seven times in a lifetime. The economy of the west was initiated through trial and error. We still have a pocket of that in California, where there are small costs of failure and big gains once in a while. The top-down approach blocks antifragility and growth, whereas everything bottom-up thrives under the right amount of stress and disorder.
Geddes: Are you saying that capitalism is good, but that 21st-century capitalism has gone too far?
Taleb: What we do today has nothing to do with capitalism or socialism. It is a crony type of system that transfers money to the coffers of bureaucrats. The largest “fragiliser” of society is a lack of skin in the game. If you are mayor of a small town, you are penalised for your mistakes because you are made accountable when you go to church. But we are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes - bureaucrats, bankers, and academics with too much power. They game the system while citizens pay the price. I want the entrepreneur to be respected, not the CEO of a company who has all the upsides and none of the downsides.
Geddes: Does all this connect to your black swans?
Taleb: Those are rare events with extreme impacts that lie outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to their possibility. The global financial collapse is one example (it was a black swan for those who took risks they didn’t understand). Some people have misconstrued my original idea to think that we have to try to predict these events. We can’t, we’ve just got to get out of their way.
I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment in depth, but I am a deep believer in the premise that interconnecting large and complex systems makes them more — not less — liable to fail. This is why the interconnectednees of the modern world economic system is so dangerous. And I agree that the solution is to disconnect them, intentionally, to decrease risk. Or, using his term, to make systems antifragile.