Monday, May 25, 2009

Review: The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo

The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It

by Joshua Cooper Ramo

Description :

(From Publisher, Hachette Books)

Format: AUDIO BOOK (CD, unabridged)

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The traditional physics of power has been replaced by something radically different.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.

Here is another review from my husband Greg:
Just because something is too terrible too contemplate doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It seems rather obvious, but rings especially true of late, wouldn’t you say? Take for example the collapse of Bear Stearns or perhaps climate change. We now in an age of accelerated change and everything around us is becoming increasingly complex. A funny thing about complexities is that just like enemies, they accumulate and that progressively lessons our ability to understand our world. Our social, economic, and political systems are heavily linked, much like the grains of sand in a sand pile. Did I just say a sand pile? It turns out that a sand pile confounds our most sophisticated analysis. The most advanced physics and mathematics fail to predict its behavior. Here we learn of a laboratory experiment where uniform grains of sand are systematically dropped from a pepper mill to form a pile. It doesn’t take long for the pile to self-organize into the shape of a cone, but wait long enough and avalanches will inevitably occur, yet it is impossible to predict when. Will it be the next grain of sand or the 100th that triggers it? Each grain of sand is affected by every other grain in the pile which means that even our most advanced computers are incapable of modeling it, and therefore fail to predict its behavior. Over time, the sand pile has organized itself into a state of unpredictable instability. The moral of the story is that financial systems, the climate, geopolitics, diseases, and so on, are all examples of “sand pile systems".

In these sand pile systems, there is no simple input output relationship, and to complicate matters further, there are combined effects when we link, or "mashup", systems in novel ways. Two pills taken together are lethal, but otherwise perfectly safe when taken independently. Combine home mortgages with mortgage backed securities, and we unknowingly have a recipe for financial disaster. That’s one reason why simplistic ideas such as “Soldiers in, Democracy out” don’t work. There’s a tragic paradox here. The policies designed to make us safer, in effect make the world more perilous. Measures aimed to fight terrorists end up creating more terrorists. Measures enacted to stem a financial crisis seem to guarantee its arrival. We can declare that a war has been won when in fact it has just begun, or observe a recognized expert such as Alan Greenspan admit that he got it all wrong. Indeed, we are living in a disruptive age.

So what should we do about it? For starters, new systems require new ways of thinking about them. Our government institutions are old and inflexible and designed to solve problems that are centuries old and nations are no longer the sole concentrations of power. What we need now is new and radical thinking about these problems, the kind of radical thinking and action we see in novel, highly adaptable, responsive groups such those we find at Google, the brains behind the Wii, or heaven forbid, Hezbollah. A better model for dealing with the sand pile is an immune system. Just as there are decentralized forces for evil in the world (e.g. Hezbollah), there needs to be decentralized forces for good, “T cells” to further the analogy. Thus when a disruption occurs, there are positive local forces available to respond in order to bring the system back into stability. It’s a thought provoking idea, but will we be able to collectively institute such a radical shift in thought? Perhaps there’s a chance if Ramo’s book were to somehow become required reading for those in power, and decidedly not just for those in power, but for the rest of us “T cells” as well. Unfortunately, I found the execution part of Ramo's proposed renaissance to be lacking, so I'll propose the following: instead of dropping bombs, drop copies of this book!

Clarification: After receiving some comments about my review, I realize that I may have inadvertently given the wrong impression about the book. Actually, I found "Unthinkable" to be one of the most insightful and refreshing books I've ever read (I would give it a five star Amazon rating). As I mentioned in my review, I do believe this book is essential and should be "required reading". In fact, I plan on listening to it a second time. Perhaps it was my last statement "instead of dropping bombs, drop copies of this book!" that threw people off. My only criticism of the book is that Ramo doesn't exactly spell out how to institute his excellent ideas (fodder for a follow on book?) so my remark was a somewhat tongue in cheek suggestion that drew upon an analogy of dropping wartime leaflets (as opposed to dropping bombs). In no way did I mean to denigrate the value of the book by suggesting that it be dropped from an airplane! I regret any misunderstanding that may have turned people away from the book. That is the opposite effect of what I intended. Wait a second... This just helps further Ramo's point as I now suspect that the book review system itself is also a "sand pile system" :)


About the author:

Joshua Cooper Ramo is Managing Director and a partner at Kissinger Associates, one of the world's leading strategic advisory firms. Prior to joining Kissinger Associates, he was Assistant Managing Editor of Time and worked in the advisory and banking business in China.

For more information, visit Josua Cooper Ramo's website, here.

Thanks to Hachette for providing this audiobook for review.


  1. Sounds like one to skip. Thanks for the review.

  2. Wow, this book sounds like it would be complicated. It's too bad it wasn't done better, because the sand pile science sounds pretty interesting.

  3. Really well thought out and written review Greg. It sounds like there are a lot of interesting concepts in this book worth following up on. Thanks for the review.

  4. Great review Greg! This sounds like a book my husband would read!!

  5. You asked at my blog about Anne of Green Gables...:)
    'Anne of Green Gables' is the first of eight books in the series.
    'Anne of Avonlea' comes next.
    I would start at the beginning!
    You can look on wikipedia to get the entire series order.
    Have fun and let me know how you like them!

  6. I love seeing a "husband review"! My husband has a couple of ARCs that he will be reviewing in the next few months. He was supposed to review* one about a year ago, but he didn't care for it, and it ended up being a DNF book. We decided against him posting that as his first appearance on my blog. :) I'm hoping the book he picks up next will be a winner.

    *Can't say I know his style - whether they will be reviews or comments or just basic thoughts (like mine). We'll see.

    Greg ~ Great job and thanks for adding another perspective to an already terrific blog. :)

  7. This book is a study of systems, using scientific studies from physics to analyze group dynamics and behavior, while factoring in environmental, economic, and human unpredictability. It's intent, which Ramos states repeatedly, is to challenge the reader to consider traditional assumptions he/she might have about world systems and to understand that the future depends upon each of us being able to take responsibility and respond quickly to the unthinkable that could occur in our futures.

    As a systems student and researcher, I'm loving reading it.

  8. nice review -- i'm going to consider purchasing this book. thanks.


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