Beauty in Fragility

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Antifragile

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Today I did something in 90 minutes that would have taken days or weeks just a few years ago — and would only have been possible if I lived in a large city with a huge research library, or somewhere with access to a robust system of inter-library loans. I was reading through an old, out-of-print book by Georges Florovsky when I came across a quote attributed to someone by the name of Khomyakov. The end note referenced a page number from a book entitled Russia and the English Church. There was no bibliography, so all I had were those two clues. (Russians aren’t as picky as we are about the manner in which sources are cited.)

A quick internet search later and I discovered a book of the same title available on Amazon.com. The book was written by William Palmer and was a record of a correspondence between him and one Alexis Stepanovich Khomiakoff (note the different spelling of Khomyakov). One quick search on Google Books and I found a scanned copy of this public domain book available for download. A few minutes later and I had the complete quote added to my book.

We take this stuff for granted today, yet within the lifetime of nearly any adult, this would have been the stuff of science fiction. And yet the devices we use to do all this are themselves incredibly fragile and dependent upon a surprisingly fragile infrastructure.

Imagine if you took your smartphone on a trek across the Sahara desert. In an hour or so you would be out of cell range. No worries, everything else works just fine. Until the battery goes dead, and you’re screwed. Imagine you were somehow transported back in time, much like the main character in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. You have this marvelous device, but lack the infrastructure that makes it useful. No GPS, so you have no way of figuring out where you are. No internet, so you can’t download new content or update existing content. And, within a day or two, your battery is dead and you’re screwed. Suppose you had the foresight to bring along a solar charger; you would have no infrastructure to support your smartphone, but at least you have all the content you’ve downloaded. Until, inevitably, the battery wears out, the phone breaks, etc.

This marvel I hold in my hand allows me to do beautiful things, yet it is so terribly fragile. In his book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines fragility as anything that has more downside than upside from random events or certain shocks. Taleb writes: “Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events. So the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable.” [1] The entire infrastructure that makes my smartphone and my computer do such beautiful things is incredibly interconnected and dependent upon that interconnectedness. The infrastructure is fragile; it doesn’t take much to take the entire system down. Moreover, the computer I’m writing on can be easily destroyed by a random power surge. I have increased the robustness of my computer by attaching it to a surge-protected Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS), but that merely masks the inherent fragility of my computer.

Today I did something beautiful and almost miraculous. And yet everything that made it possible could all be gone in a flash.

[1]Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012-11-27). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) (Kindle Locations 400-402). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.