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The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New…
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The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly…

by Joshua Cooper Ramo

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Picked this up after seeing Reid Hoffman's recommendation. A thoughtful look at how distributed ("cloud-based") organization and thinking can be applied to public/foreign policy. ( )
  beaurichly | Feb 20, 2012 |
Ramo argues that the rapid changes in the world call for new theories and strategies to deal with them. Specifically, he applies complexity theory from the physical sciences to the social milieu and challenges us to figure out how to deal with the implications.

According to complexity theory, some systems evolve into a critical state in which minor disturbances create huge changes. Think of a sandpile, and how the addition of one more grain of sand can set off an avalanche. You can’t predict which grain of sand will do it, no matter how much you control your experiment, because too many factors, internal to the accumulation in the sandpile, would affect the outcome.

Now think of the situation with terrorists. We build missiles and they use box cutters. We screen for box cutters and they use shoe bombs. We can no longer predict when, where, or how the threats will come. So how can we protect ourselves?

First, we must make some conceptual adjustments. Building the biggest missiles or highest fences is not the guarantee of safety it used to be, in an age in which technology and creative thinking can compensate for size. Also, Ramo warns us not to fall for the "soft revolution" fallacy, according to which the fact that other cultures like blue jeans, American music, and fast food means that they want to be like Americans in every other way as well, or even that this will cause them to feel affection towards America. Such ethnocentric blindness only serves to increase American vulnerability to terrorism. Americans need to understand that not everyone in the world is as besotted with us as we ourselves are. To the extent that we bother to learn about other perceptual frameworks instead of just our own, we will not only increase our empathy but our preparedness as well.

Secondly, Ramo suggests that we think of the body politic as a human body; one that needs a healthy immune system to survive. That is, instead of just reacting to events, he advocates the preventive medicine of strength, flexibility, and the capability for quick response and gear-changing. He argues that putting good infrastructure (education, health care, and communication systems) in place is far more efficacious than waiting until a crisis erupts and then trying to catch up. By the time you get solutions in place, he says, the old crisis is over and a new and different one has taken its place. He implores us to learn the habits of connection and a global ethic instead of alienation and isolation. He wants us to open up our ossified bureaucracies and empower people to create and think and act on the local level. (“The last time the National Security Council was seriously reengineered was forty years ago. The fundamental structure of the State Department has not been revamped since World War II…") Highly decentralized groups, Ramo points out, can “bend, adjust, and attack based on a far better sense of local conditions than any central commander could ever have.”

Evaluation: This is a really smart guy. But his writing is very simplistic. I feel like he’s trying to make sure he reaches the widest possible audience, but I'm not sure he won't lose an important segment of that potential audience instead. Nevertheless, I like what he has to say, once he gets it out. He has a nice philosophy, with ideals evocative of Saul Alinksy, Michael Lerner (of Tikkun), Cass Sunstein, and other possibly quixotic but nevertheless admirable intellects. ( )
  nbmars | Sep 28, 2010 |
Joshua Cooper Ramo is Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, which makes him a high priced consultant in the field of foreign relations. He's a Nixon to China kind of guy, speaking Mandarin and promoting the idea of talking to those funny furriners, even if they do eat strange food and speak in unintelligible gibberish. I'm sure he hangs out with Henry Kissinger. He has written two books about China and one about skydiving.

In this newest book Ramo discovers that the world doesn't always do what we expect and he proposes that we all get loose and flexible as the best way to deal with crisis. Ramo seems to think that this is something new. I tend to disagree with him. The problems du jour change but the surprises have kept on coming throughout history. Every time that our peerless leaders, whether they be Nixon or Napoleon, thought they had a handle on things, all hell has broken loose.


Ramo believes that the high degree of global interconnectedness we are experiencing today, in trade, communication and travel make the world more unstable instead of less. Viruses from afar can hitch rides on airplanes and travel thousands of miles in a few hours. Trouble in the U.S. mortgage markets cause a panic in Russia and China. A bunch of highly educated Saudi's, financed with millions in oil money, can wreak havoc in New York, London or Washington D.C. It would actually be more impressive if a gang of goatherds from the Afghan mountains could do that, but without the Saudis money that still isn't possible.

The pace of things has surely speeded up, but we haven't seen anything like the 1918 flu epidemic or the black death, for some time. (Knock on wood.) Genghis Khan made a pretty hash of things for the Chinese in his day and the South Sea Bubble is still the most egregious example of financial markets gone bad. Things have not really changed all that much.

I do rather like Ramo's proposed solutions. He has invented the term "deep security," which means paying attention to the basics, like ensuring meaningful work for people and giving them universal health care as a way of cushioning the effect of financial panics, employing diplomacy, to ensure that our enemies as well as our friends know what we (talking about the U.S. here) expect from them and what we are willing to do to get it. It may be a hard sell politically but I do think that aggressively fighting AIDS and engineering clean water supplies in sub Saharan Africa will, in the long run, lead to fewer wars, fewer pirates and fewer terrorists.

It took quite while, after chapters of scary scenarios, for Ramo to get to his point about "deep security," and even then, I found him a bit vague on details. Creating "deep security" is a lot of work. Even talking about it is. It's a lot easier to make up slogans like "bomb bomb Iran," which is why politicians do so much of that sort of thing.

More reviews at http://residentreader.blogspot.com
  cbjorke | Oct 9, 2009 |
took a long time to make points. am not as knowledgeable as the other reviewer so can't comment on the history. i found interesting the idea that what will happen in the future is totally unpredictable, often seems sudden because we are not expecting it and that very ordinary people can find solutions and make change. ( )
  mahallett | Aug 15, 2009 |
Very Disappointing

I picked up this book after watching Joseph Cooper Ramo on Fareed Zakaria's GPS. He seemed very astute and a keen observer and commentator on current geopolitical events so I took a chance on his book thinking that it would be just as enlightening. I couldn't have been more wrong.

My first major criticism of the book is the reckless use and abuse of history for the purposes of furthering his unoriginal arguments. He completely misrepresents the historical causality of the events leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union by claiming that Gorbachev was oblivious to the impending collapse and Ramo falsely claims that the CPSU establishement simply flipped sides -- if Ramo had bothered to spend 2 seconds to look up the failed putsch on wikipedia he would've seen how wrong he was. He fundamentally misreads the multiple wars between Israel and Lebanon and his hagiography of Hezbollah is almost criminal. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

My second major criticism is his dismissal of some of the major western philosophies without a whisper of any empirical or reasonable arguments. Instead, Ramo endorses eastern philosophy without so much as a single critical eye whatsoever.

Finally, his analysis and exploration of the "revolutionary" movements and the individuals who inspired them amounts to little more than sensationalist journalism. It is one thing to say that the world is complex, that we need new ways at looking at the world, thinking outside of the box, etc..., and quite another to explain how these exceptional ideas came about. In other words, don't tell us some fluff story about the guy who saved the Internet by geeking it up on a Saturday night with his LAN buddies, or a David and Goliath story of how Nintendo's Wii beat Sony. Tell us about what makes them special, is it biological, is it socio-economic, is it cultural?

I rarely give anything less than 3 stars and this may very well be one of the most disappointing books I have read in over 2 years. I had high expectations going in and have nothing but negative things to say about this book. Save yourself the two hours and skip "The Age of the Unthinkable." ( )
  bruchu | Jul 24, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0316118087, Hardcover)

Today the very ideas that made America great imperil its future. Our plans go awry and policies fail. History's grandest war against terrorism creates more terrorists. Global capitalism, intended to improve lives, increases the gap between rich and poor. Decisions made to stem a financial crisis guarantee its worsening. Environmental strategies to protect species lead to their extinction.

The traditional physics of power has been replaced by something radically different. In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo puts forth a revelatory new model for understanding our dangerously unpredictable world. Drawing upon history, economics, complexity theory, psychology, immunology, and the science of networks, he describes a new landscape of inherent unpredictability--and remarkable, wonderful possibility.

Read an Interview with Joshua Ramo Cooper, Author of The Age of the Unthinkable

How do you define the Age of the Unthinkable?

It's an age in which constant surprise--for good or for ill--has become a fact of life and in which our old ideas about how to make the world safer and more stable are actually making it more dangerous and unstable.

What compelled you to write this book?

It was clear to me that the models we were using to think about the world were wrong--often dangerously so. And I saw that many people who wanted to disrupt the systems we rely on--people as different as terrorists and hedge fund managers--had the upper hand when it came to understanding the nature of our age. I wanted to write a book that would help other people understand what was happening so we could manage what promises to be a very unstable period.

Where are some of the most "unthinkable" hot spots around the world today?

These spots are all over the globe. But if I had to name a few of particular relevance I would list them as:

Gaza and Lebanon. Hamas and Hizb'allah not only resist Israeli attack but seem to get stronger and much shrewder the harder they are attacked.

Wall Street, USA. Complex financial products designed to manage risk in fact accelerate the spread of unimagined danger through the financial system.

Kyoto, Japan. A radical inventor named Shigeru Miyamoto remade the global video game business overnight by mixing up two things--video games and accelerometer chips from car airbags--into a new revolutionary game system called the Wii.

South Africa. The most expensive medical campaign ever to stop the spread of TB instead has led to the creation of a new, even more deadly super bug.

Russia. The end of the USSR and great economic booms didn't produce a US and democracy friendly system, as we hoped, but rather has led to an increasingly belligerent nation.

You describe Danish physicist and biologist Per Bak's "sandpile" theory which implies that sand cones, although relatively stable-looking, are actually deeply unpredictable. In Bak's experiments a single grain of sand could trigger an avalanche—or nothing at all. How do you think countries and leaders relate to this theory?

The point is that whenever you think the world is stable, it's not. Even the smallest perturbations--home mortgage collapses or computer viruses--can cause tremendous dislocations. The pile in Bak's experiment is always growing in complexity and changing. So the lesson for us is that there are no simple policies or easy solutions; the problems we face rarely end, they just change shape. So we need a revolution in our way of thinking and in the institutions we use to manage the world if we are going to keep up with such a dynamic system.

You espouse that average citizens should take control of their lives and live in a "revolutionary" manner. What do you mean? Can established governments and revolutionaries co-exist?

Sure they can. Google and the US government get along fine (more or less). What matters is that we all do three things: first we have to live lives that are very resilient, which means taking care of our selves, our savings, our family and our education so we can adjust to a rapidly changing world. Second, we all have to participate in a caring economy, devoting some of our life to helping others instead of relying on the government to help others for us. And finally we have to be innovative in how we live and think. We have to try to think of new ways to make a difference in the world as individuals, to help prepare our children to manage and control their own lives instead of relying on big corporations or the government to do so.

We are living in a deeply unpredictable moment in history in which things seem to be getting more unstable and it just keeps getting worse. What hopeful prospects do you see in our future?

I think that basically what we are living in is a very disruptive moment. And this involves both disruption for bad ends (think 9/11) and for good (think of bio-engineering disease cures.) I'm optimistic because I basically believe more people want to disrupt for good than for bad. The challenge for us is simply to empower as many people to create, and to live as full lives as we can.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:45:50 -0400)

Drawing upon history, economics, complexity theory, human immunology, psychology, and his own extraordinary experiences, Ramo delivers a brilliant new paradigm for understanding the dangerous--and dangerously unpredictable--new global order.

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