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X-events : the collapse of everything (edition 2012)

by J. L. Casti

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Member:infopump
Title:X-events : the collapse of everything
Authors:J. L. Casti
Info:New York : Enfield : William Morrow ; Publishers Group UK [distributor], c2012.
Collections:Kindle
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X-Events: The Collapse of Everything by John L. Casti

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Some things I hadn't heard of before ( )
  BakuDreamer | Sep 7, 2013 |
Not just another book like earlier ones by Rees and Taleb cataloguing global catastrophe scenarios, but an account of how complexity theory figures in explicating disparate kinds of extreme event. According to Casti, a catastrophic collapse of a system wholly or partly constructed by humans (Internet, electrical grid, financial system, etc) would generally involve a mismatch in the levels of complexity of the system's subsystems. Several of the 11 case studies of possible X-events are really quite scary.
  fpagan | Sep 15, 2012 |
Too big to fail.

It's a phrase that has become so ubiquitous that even the Federal Reserve has a definition on one of its web sites. From the Fed's standpoint, an organization is "too big to fail" when it is "so important to markets and their positions [are] so intertwined with those of other [institutions] that their failure would be unacceptably disruptive, financially and economically." But the complexity and interrelatedness of institutions aren't limited to the financial sphere. There's plenty of backbone systems whose failure could border on or would be downright calamitous.

John Casti examines the issue and 11 potential human-caused scenarios in X-Events: The Collapse of Everything but he's not just a 2012 apocalypse fear-monger. To the contrary, Casti is a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, where he works on the development of early-warning methods for extreme events in human society, and one of a number of scholars in the field of what is called "complexity science."

At its most basic, a core theory appears to be that as society becomes increasingly complex, there is a point where all its resources are consumed just maintaining the current level. The next big problem is, in a way, the straw that breaks the camel's back and there is a "complexity overload." Some part of a complex system rapidly collapses and the adverse effects of this "X-event" forces the society to a much lower level from which it must/can rebuild. Granted, there are events that are beyond human control -- asteroids, tsunamis, hurricanes and the like. But here's plenty of potential human-caused events to make anyone ill at ease.

Among the 11 specific X-events Casti explores, some are probably less likely to occur, such as scientific experiments creating exotic particles that can destroy all or part of the earth or the creation of intelligent robots who eventually overthrow the human race. Most, though, seem wholly realistic, such as a a long-term and widespread failure of the Internet, nuclear war or terrorism, the drying up of world oil supplies, failure of the power grid or economic collapse. Perhaps even more alarming is the interrelatedness of these complex systems. As Casti points out, a failure of the power grid may well lead to the failure of the Internet. The failure of either could lead to economic collapse in a global economy in which commerce and finance depend on electronic transactions and information exchange.

Even a commonsense view of modern life indicates X-Events isn't far-fetched speculation. Consider the electrical grid in the United States alone. Despite being one of the most advanced industrial nations, there have been several instances over the years where large chunks were taken down by human error and led to cascading effects. Think the internet can't fail? Set aside the electrical grid and think of the seemingly inveterate trojans, worms and other malware in the system. Throw in government control in some nations, denial of service attacks and the like and, as Casti notes, "there are many ways to bring down the system, or at at least huge segments of it. The most amazing fact of all is that it hasn't happened more frequently." Throw in computerized trading and finance, let alone the concept of peak oil, and there's plenty out there to worry about

But Casti contends it's not all doom and gloom. To the contrary, the real message of X-Events is that if we are aware of the potential for human-caused X-events, they are avoidable or we can greatly reduce their potential damage. Casti warns, though, that doing so is "a painful, difficult, and time-consuming process." One of our foremost problems, he says, is recognizing the risks and when they may be escalating.

We've been coddled and protected to the extent that we actually expect our governments and other public institutions to solve all problems and address our hopes and needs without cost or risk to ourselves. In short, we've fallen into the misguided belief that everyone can be above average, that it's everyone's birthright to live a happy, risk-free life, and that any misfortune or bad judgment or just plain bad luck should be laid at someone else's doorstep. So the first step on the road to reality is to drop these visions of Utopia.

If there's a sense of foreboding created by X-Events it isn't just the potential events and consequences. In actuality, knowing of them is easy. The real difficulty arises in whether we have the political and social fortitude necessary to address them before an X-Event forces us to do so in dire circumstances.

(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie.)
  PrairieProgressive | Jun 15, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062088289, Hardcover)

An acclaimed theorist offers a provocative and chilling warning: today’s advanced societies have grown overcomplex and highly vulnerable to extreme events that could topple civilization

The modern industrialized world is a complex system on a scale never before witnessed in the history of humankind. Technologically dependent, globally interconnected, it offers seemingly limitless conveniences, choices, and opportunities. Yet this same modern civilization may be as unstable as a house of cards, fear complexity scientists like John Casti. All it would take to "downsize" our way of life—to send us crashing back to the nineteenth century—is a nudge from what Casti calls an "X-event," an unpredictable occurrence with extreme, even dire, consequences. When an X-event strikes—and scientists believe it will—finance, communication, defense, and travel will stop dead in their tracks. The flow of food, electricity, medicine, and clean water will be disrupted for months, if not years. What will you do?

A renowned systems theorist, Casti shows how our world has become impossibly complicated, relying on ever more advanced technology that is developing at an exponential rate. Yet it is a fact of mathematical life that higher and higher levels of complexity lead to systems that are increasingly fragile and susceptible to sudden, spectacular collapse. Fascinating and chilling, X-Events provides a provocative tour of the catastrophic outlier scenarios that could quickly send us crashing back to the preindustrial age: global financial "black swans"; a worldwide crash of the Internet that would halt all communication; the end of oil; nuclear winter; "nanoplagues"; robot uprisings; electromagnetic pulses; pandemic viruses; and more. You won't ever look at the world the same way again.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:44 -0400)

Revealing how society has become vulnerable to a sudden, spectacular collapse due to the reliance on technology, a timely resource provides a tour of the catastrophic outlier scenario that could send civilization crashing back to the pre-industrial age.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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