Antifragile: Riddled with contradictions



A reader could easily run out of adjectives to describe Nassim Nicholas Taleb's new book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. The first ones that come to mind are: maddening, bold, repetitious, judgmental, intemperate, erudite, reductive, shrewd, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, provocative, pompous, penetrating, perspicacious and pretentious.

Antifragile is a kind of sequel or logical follow-on to Taleb's best-selling 2007 book The Black Swan and his earlier book Fooled by Randomness. In those and other writings he has argued that Black Swans – large, improbable and highly consequential events like World War I or the rise of the Internet – are not predictable. Despite human beings' taste for rational patterns of cause and effect, and their eagerness to impose narratives on the world, he observed, it's impossible to calculate the risks of Black Swan events or predict their occurrence.

In the world today, he says in Antifragile, "Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalisation and the beastly thing called 'efficiency' that makes people now sail too close to the wind." So how to deal with the dangers posed by this proliferation of uncertainty and volatility?

Taleb contends that we must learn how to make our public and private lives (our political systems, our social policies, our finances, etc.) not merely less vulnerable to randomness and chaos, but actually "antifragile" – poised to benefit or take advantage of stress, errors and change, the way, say, the mythological Hydra generated two new heads, each time one was cut off.

Taleb – who has worked as a derivatives trader and quantitative analyst, and who holds the title of distinguished professor of risk engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University – writes with great certainty and vigour. At his best he serves up provocative theories that encourage us to look at the world anew. He reminds us of the limits of Enlightenment reason, goads us into thinking about why small might be less fragile than big (a rule, he implies, that applies to animals and corporations alike) and gives us a renewed appreciation of practical knowledge (of the sort possessed by engineers and entrepreneurs) as opposed to the sort of academic knowledge acquired in school.

Unfortunately he delivers such lessons with bullying grandiosity and off-putting, self-dramatising asides. He boasts about being able to dead lift 330 pounds and about being "an intellectual who has the appearance of a bodyguard". He also boasts about uncovering ideas in the philosopher Seneca's work that no other commentators have recognised.
Taleb is someone who once went to an emergency room with a broken nose and asked the doctor if he had any "statistical evidence of benefits from applying ice" to his nose, or if the application of ice were just a case of naive interventionism – that is, the human need to "do something". He's someone whose home page reads: "Please refrain from offering honorary degrees, awards, listings in '100 most...', & similar debasements of knowledge that turn it into spectator sport."

Worse, Taleb undermines his more persuasive ideas by scattering them about in a book that is also filled with gross generalisations and rash assertions, all indiscriminately lobbed at the reader. From time to time there are some fairly specific illustrations of antifragile strategies: for instance employing what he calls the barbell technique to make investments, by putting, say, 90 per cent of one's funds "in boring cash," and 10 per cent "in very risky, maximally risky, securities." This avoidance of the middle ground would avoid the "risk of total ruin" in putting 100 per cent in "the so-called 'medium' risk securities." For the most part, however, the author is way better at identifying examples of fragility than he is at laying out specific strategies to become more antifragile.

Often the narrative hops and skips from broad-stroke hypotheses to personal anecdotes, from contrarian attacks on people Taleb disdains (including many academics, doctors and journalists) to PowerPoint-like taxonomies, enumerating the differences between, say, concave nonlinearity and convex nonlinearity, or the artisanal and the industrial. Some of Taleb's observations can be thought-provoking. He wonders why "it took close to 6,000 years" from the invention of the wheel to the invention of the wheeled suitcase. And he wonders why people continually shell out money for new cellphones with small, mostly cosmetic changes (he refers to this as "treadmilling techno-dissatisfaction"), arguing that contemporary society suffers from "neomania" ("the love of the modern for its own sake").
Taleb seems to revel in being contentious and controversial, perhaps betting that such notoriety will win him and his book some added buzz. He consigns television, air-conditioning, newspapers and economic forecasts to the category of "offensive irritants." And he talks about rationing the supply of information because, he insists, "the more data you get, the less you know what's going on."

"Antifragile" is also riddled with contradictions. Taleb offers predictions about the future, though he keeps talking about the unreliability of predictions. He repeatedly attacks theorists and academics as the sorts of people who would presume to "lecture birds on how to fly." And yet he's an academic himself (whose main subject matter, his book jacket tells us, is "decision-making under opacity"), and the book he's written is nothing if not one big, hyperextended, overarching theory about how to live in a random and uncertain world.

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