Reviewed by Taimur Sabih
IF you firmly believe in being a good citizen, keeping others out of harm’s way, becoming a responsible human being, taking a well-regulated diet to stay fit and try to stay ahead of things, then you are not necessarily a prudent individual. So much so that if you have a profound faith in the delicate — and ostensibly perfect — balance that nature creates, you are mistaken; or so says Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.
Antifragile is, quite literally, an intellectual, jagged pathway created by Taleb, which takes the reader on an intricate journey through the misty parts of his mind, lifting the fog to a certain extent — but only to a certain extent. Perhaps the intention is to take the reader to soaring heights by the strength of his own will, and the power of his own understanding.
Needless to say, such a philosophical work is full of notions that raise a great deal of questions, challenge the age-old belief system, and probe into the established truth to extract even further truth out of it. To make matters — actually, his arguments — interesting as well as sound, Taleb has amalgamated a great deal of human psychology with his view of life, nature, history and the homosapian behavioral patterns. In addition to that, he uses examples from sociology, economics, statistics, literature, history and even sciences to further cement his position as someone with a commendable grasp over various subjects.
Of course, on more than one occasion, I came across ideas that were satirical, making me smile, or downright offensive, making me want to, in all seriousness, shred the book into pieces. It is only when I had survived and laboured through the text, and dealt with all the stressors that Taleb had dished out, that I gained a partial understanding of the concepts of antifragility and randomness, of being antifragile and constantly exposed to harms and shocks, eventually attaining strength as a result.
In order to make the subject matter substantial, and to bring about a change in the thought-processes of his readers, Taleb has meticulously organised a coherent approach to make his multifarious discourse as vivid as possible. There are altogether seven books within Antifragile that are further divided into chapters and sub-chapters narrowing down the topics into isolated items to be analysed.
In the initial chapters Taleb builds up his thesis and advocates it through numerous examples, starting at the elementary level of criticising classroom teaching where the expression ‘antifragile’ is completely taken out of the equation. To get his point across, he constantly reverts to Greek and Roman mythology: “Hydra, in Greek mythology, is a serpent-like creature that dwells in the lake of Lerna, near Argos, and has numerous heads. Each time one is cut off, two grow back. So harm is what it likes. Hydra represents antifragility.”
For good measure, to emphasise the negligence that this particular subject suffers, Taleb also criticises — and this is not the only target of his detraction — the Oxford English Dictionary: “We gave the appellation ‘antifragile’ to such a package; a neologism was necessary as there is no simple, noncompound word in the Oxford English Dictionary that expresses the point of reverse fragility … and it is not just individuals but branches of knowledge that are confused by it; this is a mistake made in every dictionary of synonyms and antonyms I’ve found.”
On the same note, his criticism continues on various aspects of the contemporary world, ranging from society and economics to the way the moderns think. One might argue at this point that the writer is a little too heavily influenced by ages and dwellers that are long gone.
Yet, the point that he makes, and which covers different facets of social and economic structures all over the world, cannot be overlooked: “They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome. But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time.”
Another significant and highly debatable issue addressed in the book is the way modern statisticians, economists and sociologists try to blueprint a society which is free of harm and chaos. Devising such strategies is a mere fallacy to Taleb as they will only lead to artificial harmony in any social structure; and the longer that lasts, the more devastating will be the catastrophe that is bound to befall at one point or another. It goes without saying that a number of readers might refute the writer’s view of not planning beforehand, and actually consciously looking for constant trouble in order to expand.
Constant outrageousness is pervasive throughout the text. Case in point: the naming of and criticising some officials working for sensitive organisations in the United States: “I was interrupted by Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, who tried to sell me a peculiar investment product that aims at legally hoodwinking taxpayers. Tell me if you understand the problem in its full simplicity: former regulators and public officials who were employed by the citizens to represent their best interests can use the expertise and contacts acquired on the job to benefit from glitches in the system upon joining private employment — law firms, etc. What upset me the most about the Alan Blinder problem is the reaction by those with whom I discussed it: people found it natural that a former official would try to ‘make money’ thanks to his former position — at our expense. Don’t people like to make money? goes the argument.”
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
By Nassim Nicolas Taleb
Allen Lane, UK