Charles Cameron, is a poet first and foremost, managing editor of the Zenpundit blog, and one-time Senior Analyst with The Arlington Institute and Principal Researcher with The Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He holds an MA Oxon, having studied theology at Christ Church, Oxford, under AE Harvey. He is the designer of the HipBone family of creative and analytic games, based on Hermann Hesse’s Nobel-winning novel, The Glass Bead Game. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing Black Swans and their Pre-Incident Indicators
Date Originally Written: August 21, 2019.
Date Originally Published: November 4, 2019.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author, who earned a living as a professional futurist during the 1999/2000 rollover, believes Black Swan Events will disrupt our best efforts to predict future threats. However, with cognitive humility firmly in place national security analysts can observe the cross-disciplinary impacts of trends and can at least begin to think better about where these trends may lead.
Summary: Black Swan Events come as a surprise, have a major effect, and are often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. Rather than watching the Black Swan take off from the lake, identifying its initial wing flaps, as warning of the impending event, and where other events intersect, is valuable.
Text: Watching a black swan take off is instructive. It starts, invisibly, on the lake of time, skeeting with wing-flaps to gain speed, achieves lift-off, after quite a while, and whang, whang, whang, ups itself to optimal speed and altitude – at which point we, in our hide in the marshes, recognize “Hey, there’s a black swan here,” and note where on the lake of time the occurrence occurred. National security analysts often opine on Black Swan Events, which are events that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and are often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. Equally if not more important than the Black Swan Event are the pre-incident indicators of the event, the flaps of the swan’s wings if you will, that enabled the Black Swan to take flight.
A first flap might have been Ramon Llull’s devices for calculating all possible knowledge by means of wheels and tables. As History-Computer.com suggests, “One can ask ‘What exactly is Ramon Llull’s place in the history of computers and computing?’ The answer is Llull is one of the first people who tried to make logical deductions in a mechanical, rather than a mental way.” On the lake of time, that preliminary wing-flap occurs around 1275 CE. Llull, a Franciscan, was called Doctor Illuminatus, and beatified by the Church in 1514 CE.
Skipping a few possible Renaissance wing-flaps from the general type of magus on which Shakespeare based his Prospero, and oh, Pascal and Leibniz, we can reach Charles Babbage. Babbage attained lift-off but not optimal speed or flight altitude with his Difference and Analytical mechanical computing engines. While Llull’s were wing-flaps with the swan’s orange webbed feet still tracing ripples in the waters of time, Babbage’s definitively cleared the lake, it’s reflection, however, still allowing us to date it to the reign of Queen Victoria and Lewis Carroll’s river-boating tales with Alice – circa 1833 to 1871. Insufficient funding prevented the construction of Babbage’s engine – an indication that general awareness of a black swan in flight was still lacking. Even the powerful flap of Vannevar Bush’s memex machine, described in his 1945 Atlantic piece “As We May Think” wasn’t enough.
Next are the wing-flaps of Johnny von Neumann, or International Business Machines aka IBM mainframes at a time when Thomas Watson said no more than six computers would suffice for world-wide supply. Even the first personal computers (PC), or the portable Osbornes and KayPros made a few flaps, but it’s Steve Jobs’ Macintosh that hits speed and altitude, popularity and elegance. In 1984 the Macintosh dragged the reluctant PC world into Windows behind it. Black Swan, we cry, as ARPANET, an internet precursor, becomes the World Wide Web which sets the conditions for Facebook and QAnon. “We didn’t see it coming” analyst cry, turning to Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s book, “Black Swan,” for an excuse. Taleb, meanwhile, has moved on, writing more books and a stream of articles – and thinking as yet unwritten thoughts.
The lake of time by now has become, for all practical purposes, the timeline of computing, but the flight plan of the Black Swan has still not been announced. Black Swans in general don’t issue flight plans and – here’s the catch – are generally recognized only in retrospect. So the future can be intuited to some degree by assessing the black swans already in flight such as social media and climate change, and tracking them to their national security implications such as weakening of the nation state, the rise of nationalist movements, protest movements, and massive migrations / movements. But beyond that, and in terms of Black Swans just now achieving lift-off – the future is black, blank, invisible, unseen, and unguessable. This un-guessability is you will is partly because the future lies where the paths of Black Swans such as mass migration and climate change intersect and cross-pollinate.
Pollination is from a different discourse than swan lift-off, of course – it’s mixing metaphors. But then by now, interdisciplinarity and perhaps intersectionality intersect, too. “Only connect” wrote English novelist EM Forster, flapping his dark wings back before the First World War in 1910: “Only connect!” that was the whole of her sermon. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
Cognitive humility is valuable to not only surviving Black Swans but identifying the early flap of their wings. While best assessments of future threats can be made, exploring the cross-over impacts of these assessments can be of value. So too can considering outside influences and whether possible events will unfold in a sequence or lack thereof. As national security threats are driven by the needs of people and their actions, returning frequently to climate change and cross-border mass migration threats can be of value. Finally, one’s depth of historical knowledge will greatly one’s reach of futuristic thinking. And, despite all this, the future Black Swan Event may still come at us from behind.