On Antifragility

Une mai­son est une machine-à-habiter. A house is a machine for liv­ing in.” Le Cor­busier in Vers une archi­tec­ture (1923)

Le Cor­busier was a French archi­tect, urban­ist and writer influ­en­tial in the early 20th cen­tury on urban plan­ning. He was an ide­al­ist who saw the slums of Paris and dreamed of impos­ing order on them. He saw the slums as crowded, dirty and lack­ing moral­ity. Le Cor­busier envi­sioned a Con­tem­po­rary City with 60 story cru­ci­form sky­scrap­ers enshrouded in glass to house the homes and offices of the wealthy. These huge build­ings were placed in large, rec­tan­gu­lar green space areas. In his utopian city, as you moved far­ther from the city cen­ter of the sky­scrap­ers, zigzag mul­ti­story build­ings would house the less wealthy. Early on, Le Cor­busier rec­og­nized the impact the auto­mo­bile was going to have and his ideas influ­enced the mod­ern urban plan­ning zeit­geist of urban cen­ters rede­vel­oped to be high den­sity areas con­nected to out­ly­ing sub­ur­ban and rural lower income hous­ing by freeways.

Le Cor­busier looked at the ran­dom­ness and dis­or­der­li­ness of the slums and longed to impose order and homo­gene­ity on them. He saw inef­fi­cien­cies in the orga­ni­za­tion of human­ity and cre­ated a land­scape that was effi­cient if noth­ing else. His great­est desire was to make things a machine as evi­denced by the open­ing quote. Things should fit in a box in the most effi­cient man­ner pos­si­ble. Of course, the prob­lem is, in nature and in human­ity, the effi­cient and the homoge­nous are del­i­cately frag­ile. Some­thing that is highly effi­cient has lit­tle redun­dancy built in and fails at the first wrench thrown into the works. Homog­e­niz­ing the liv­ing arrange­ments of the poor results in even greater dis­par­ity in class struc­ture, in mod­ern times leav­ing a vac­uum often filled with gangs, drugs and vio­lence (see the Cabrini-Green Hous­ing Project). We know now (though we have yet to inter­nal­ize it at any real soci­etal level) that sep­a­rat­ing the classes by gates, walls and miles of free­ways leads to inhos­pitable cities lack­ing in vibrancy. It may be effi­cient to put all the offices down­town and have all the pro­le­tari­ats drive in from the sub­urbs but it leaves the city des­o­late and the peo­ple unhappy.

Antifrag­ile: Things that Gain From Dis­or­der is Nas­sim Taleb’s lat­est book deal­ing with con­cepts he has spent the last sev­eral years explor­ing. It defines a new term, antifrag­ile, as the exact oppo­site of frag­ile, more than robust or resilient but actu­ally a sys­tem, body or item that improves under stress. This new term is required in many ways as our lan­guage lacks the pre­cise descrip­tion of the con­cept. Robust is the clos­est we can achieve but this is lack­ing in that some­thing robust deals with stress well, is nei­ther harmed nor improved but doesn’t actu­ally grow stronger under stressors.

The con­cept is fas­ci­nat­ing and applies to many aspects of mod­ern life, typ­i­cally in the neg­a­tive. For the past half decade or more, we have been march­ing away from the antifrag­ile in pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics, med­i­cine, per­sonal health, per­sonal and national finan­cial respon­si­bil­ity and phi­los­o­phy. Our sys­tems are more and more planned and effi­cient, hall­marks of the frag­ile. We strug­gle might­ily to remove the vari­abil­ity in the sys­tem whether that’s our eco­nomic sys­tem or our daily health. We bail out TBTF banks to pre­vent them from fail­ing and caus­ing a rip­ple effect on the world eco­nomic scene and we sit on the couch tak­ing ADD med­i­cine and Prozac to avoid the highs and lows of emo­tional daily life. We pore over daily sta­tus updates and Twit­ter feeds and empty news sto­ries con­stantly increas­ing the noise and point­less infor­ma­tion while decreas­ing the sig­nal and mean­ing­ful­ness in our lives. Every day, our soci­ety becomes more frag­ile and largely, so do we as indi­vid­u­als. If there is one thing nature hates, it’s a planned, effi­cient frag­ile sys­tem yet that’s what we are con­stantly striv­ing to cre­ate. Avoid­ing the risks and bumps of a sys­tem by kick­ing the can down the road nec­es­sar­ily fails poorly.

The urban plan­ning of Le Cor­busier with its hope for utopia and imposed order on a func­tion­ally messy and dis­or­derly sys­tem was doomed to be frag­ile. In a com­plex sys­tem, top down plan­ning can­not hope to cap­ture all the pos­si­ble ram­i­fi­ca­tions of deci­sions and out­side effects. These deci­sions even­tu­ally will man­i­fest them­selves in novel and dis­turb­ing ways. Our eco­nomic sys­tem, pro­tected by the elites of gov­ern­ment from the vari­abil­ity nec­es­sary to make it stronger, failed mag­nif­i­cently in 2008 and noth­ing has changed. The inter­con­nect­ed­ness and com­plex­ity of the eco­nomic sys­tem dic­tates that future vari­abil­ity and shock will cause unfore­seen and dis­turb­ing effects.

I’m hop­ing to write sev­eral posts on the top­ics and ideas of this book exam­in­ing the con­cepts of fragility and antifragility and how they relate to so many aspects of our cur­rent cul­tural, per­sonal and socio-economic lives. To be frag­ile is to largely be mis­er­able and while it is dif­fi­cult, it is not impos­si­ble to move far­ther on the con­tin­uum away from fragility and towards a more robust and pos­si­bly antifrag­ile life and culture.

2 Comments

  • Aaron Tull wrote:

    Great post. Thanks for that insight into Antifrag­ile. I’ve been delay­ing read­ing it until now.

    It is a tough bal­ance for a leader to keep between impos­ing order and enabling through dis­or­der. Its intu­itive that them larger the sys­tem (the more peo­ple and mov­ing parts) the harder it would be to guide towards antifrag­ile pat­terns. For instance, the role of fis­cal pol­icy in shap­ing the econ­omy. Do you know of any exam­ples of well exe­cuted lead­er­ship that lead to resilient results?

  • Brett Bim wrote:

    Regard­ing the book specif­i­cally, I’m pretty sure I’d hate Taleb in per­son. He comes across as arro­gant and cocky with lit­tle con­cern for pos­si­ble other opin­ions. The tone he writes in is grat­ing because it seems like he’s try­ing to be witty and funny but ends up being annoying.

    How­ever, his ideas are inter­est­ing which is why I’m read­ing him. One of the main take­aways is that top down plan­ning at any scale is almost always doomed to fail because of the ran­dom events that you can’t take into con­sid­er­a­tion. A cor­po­ra­tion (or an organ­ism) works best if things are hap­pen­ing from the bot­tom up. A leader impos­ing order almost always imposes it incor­rectly, at least accord­ing to Taleb.

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