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The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It Hardcover – March 23, 2009

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Editorial Reviews Review

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The traditional physics of power has been replaced by something radically different.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

Read an Interview with Joshua Ramo Cooper, Author of The Age of the Unthinkable

How do you define the Age of the Unthinkable?

It's an age in which constant surprise--for good or for ill--has become a fact of life and in which our old ideas about how to make the world safer and more stable are actually making it more dangerous and unstable.

What compelled you to write this book?

It was clear to me that the models we were using to think about the world were wrong--often dangerously so. And I saw that many people who wanted to disrupt the systems we rely on--people as different as terrorists and hedge fund managers--had the upper hand when it came to understanding the nature of our age. I wanted to write a book that would help other people understand what was happening so we could manage what promises to be a very unstable period.

Where are some of the most "unthinkable" hot spots around the world today?

These spots are all over the globe. But if I had to name a few of particular relevance I would list them as:

Gaza and Lebanon. Hamas and Hizb'allah not only resist Israeli attack but seem to get stronger and much shrewder the harder they are attacked.

Wall Street, USA. Complex financial products designed to manage risk in fact accelerate the spread of unimagined danger through the financial system.

Kyoto, Japan. A radical inventor named Shigeru Miyamoto remade the global video game business overnight by mixing up two things--video games and accelerometer chips from car airbags--into a new revolutionary game system called the Wii.

South Africa. The most expensive medical campaign ever to stop the spread of TB instead has led to the creation of a new, even more deadly super bug.

Russia. The end of the USSR and great economic booms didn't produce a US and democracy friendly system, as we hoped, but rather has led to an increasingly belligerent nation.

You describe Danish physicist and biologist Per Bak's "sandpile" theory which implies that sand cones, although relatively stable-looking, are actually deeply unpredictable. In Bak's experiments a single grain of sand could trigger an avalanche—or nothing at all. How do you think countries and leaders relate to this theory?

The point is that whenever you think the world is stable, it's not. Even the smallest perturbations--home mortgage collapses or computer viruses--can cause tremendous dislocations. The pile in Bak's experiment is always growing in complexity and changing. So the lesson for us is that there are no simple policies or easy solutions; the problems we face rarely end, they just change shape. So we need a revolution in our way of thinking and in the institutions we use to manage the world if we are going to keep up with such a dynamic system.

You espouse that average citizens should take control of their lives and live in a "revolutionary" manner. What do you mean? Can established governments and revolutionaries co-exist?

Sure they can. Google and the US government get along fine (more or less). What matters is that we all do three things: first we have to live lives that are very resilient, which means taking care of our selves, our savings, our family and our education so we can adjust to a rapidly changing world. Second, we all have to participate in a caring economy, devoting some of our life to helping others instead of relying on the government to help others for us. And finally we have to be innovative in how we live and think. We have to try to think of new ways to make a difference in the world as individuals, to help prepare our children to manage and control their own lives instead of relying on big corporations or the government to do so.

We are living in a deeply unpredictable moment in history in which things seem to be getting more unstable and it just keeps getting worse. What hopeful prospects do you see in our future?

I think that basically what we are living in is a very disruptive moment. And this involves both disruption for bad ends (think 9/11) and for good (think of bio-engineering disease cures.) I'm optimistic because I basically believe more people want to disrupt for good than for bad. The challenge for us is simply to empower as many people to create, and to live as full lives as we can.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Former foreign editor of Time, Ramo pushes the reader into uncomfortable yet exhilarating places with controversial ways of thinking about global challenges (e.g., studying why Hezbollah is the most efficiently run Islamic militant group). His book, which lays bare the flaws in current thinking on everything from American political influence to the economy, is designed to change the physics of the way we think. Analyzing the failure of the Bush administration's Democratic Peace Theory and the fruitless efforts at a Mideast peace process, Ramo suggests that people must change the role they imagine for themselves from architects of a system they can control to gardeners in a living ecosystem. Ramo's message—that the most dynamic forces emerge from outside elite circles: geeks, iconoclasts and maligned populations—is persuasively argued. And while the author doesn't explicitly offer up solutions, he goads readers to approach problems in unexpected ways. His revelatory work argues that there must be some audacity in thinking before there can be any audacity of hope. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (March 23, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780316118088
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316118088
  • ASIN: 0316118087
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (112 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #675,605 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Joshua Cooper Ramo is managing director at Kissinger Associates, one of the world's leading geostrategic advisory firms. Before entering the advisory business, Ramo was foreign editor and assistant managing editor of Time magazine. He divides his time between Beijing and New York, and served as China analyst for NBC during the 2008 Olympics. Ramo cochaired the Santa Fe Institute's first working group on Complexity and International Affairs and was a Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, a founder of the U.S.-China Young Leaders Program, and a Global Leader for Tomorrow of the World Economic Forum. Trained as an economist, he holds degrees from the University of Chicago and New York University

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

220 of 239 people found the following review helpful By Irfan A. Alvi TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Ramo's background is primarily in journalism, and it shows.

On the positive side, Ramo is a good storyteller and he knows how to keep the book lively and engaging. He does it well enough that he can even be convincing, and his not-so-subtle name dropping certainly ties in with that.

But the negative side is that the book seriously lacks rigor. Ramo spends so much time on telling his stories that he fails to clearly lay out his arguments, and it's often not even clear what his key conclusions are. And as far as presenting and responding to opposing points of view, that's not even on the radar.

Ramo also refers to all sorts of ideas from science, history, political science, etc., and this all shows that he's at least reasonably well read, but he usually touches on these ideas rather superficially, using them as analogies at best, rather than as any sort of solid evidence or arguments.

Because of all this fuzziness, I had a hard time distilling Ramo's thesis, but let me try. As I could best glean it, we live in an increasingly rapidy changing and decentralized world, with resulting profound instability which renders it impossible to reliably predict the future in any real detail. To deal with this, we need to be flexible, adaptive, collaborative, creative, structurally resilient, and willing to proactively try things (even if that means risk), in the hope that we can withstand minor shocks and continually nudge the future in a general direction which suits our preferences and broad goals, thereby hopefully avoiding major shocks and catastrophes (especially manmade ones).

If the above summary is reasonably faithful to what Ramo is saying, I do think the thesis has some merit, so we should consider it carefully.
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83 of 104 people found the following review helpful By Robert T. Kesten on March 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
As I read the book I am reminded of all the things I have said to
people over the past 5 years, and thought about and find myself in awe that Joshua has written them down and expanded on it.

I worked in Kiev on the breakup of the USSR and then in the Gulf during
the first Gulf War and was very aware of these issues back then. I
met with members of Congress, our intelligence agencies, even a sitting US president and was dumbstruck by their insistence on maintaining the status quo, even though it signaled failure in the long run.

This is an important book, especially if it gets people talking, acting and at the very least thinking about our changing world.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Richards on July 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Einstein said that things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. We may crave simple and easy-to-comprehend ideas but the world is complex. The Age of the Unthinkable relies on Chaos Theory for its perspective on a world where old ways of thinking no longer apply.

Small changes can cause chain reactions and produce large effects. The first part of the book is a catalog of errors: the hubris of declaring victory in Iraq immediately after the invasion, attacking the wrong country after the events of 911, and the futility of trying to impose American-style democracies in places that could never accept them. After years of being right, Alan Greenspan was perplexed to the point of apology for not realizing the complexity of markets. As the saying goes: generals are always preparing to fight the last war.

According to Mr. Ramo, no major power has been able to defeat any one of the 22 insurgencies anywhere in the world since World War II. (He makes the possible exception of the British in Malaya.) And it's not as if Mr. Ramo is short of data. He is managing director of Kissinger Associates, a geostrategic advisory firm.

Clearly he is well-informed and well-connected. Not everyone can sit down with Hizb'allah leaders as he does. This is where the story starts about how small things can have a huge impact. Only 500 Hizb'allah fighters frustrated 30,000 Israeli soldiers. Even Israeli leaders are in awe of how Hizb'allah can be so effective using their web of connections.

And how did just two university students (Google founders) come to have such a huge effect on the web?

Chaos theory has been around for a few decades. Many people are familiar with a basic premise that what looks a linear or stable process, at some point becomes erratic.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Joshua Rosenblum on May 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ramo provides some interesting insights in this book. Essentially, he is arguing for a more network-centric approach to the organization of institutions. In this, I fully agree.

He relates an interesting metaphor of "the sand pile" to illustrate the complexity of reality and how our current institutions are ill equipped to deal with uncertainty.

"...Bak hypothesized that after an initial period, in which the sand piled itself into a little cone, the stack would organize itself into instability, a state in which adding just a single grain of sand could trigger a large avalanche - or nothing at all. what was radical about his idea was that it implied that these sand cones, which looked relatively stable, were in fact deeply unpredictable, that you absolutely no way of knowing what was going to happen next, that there was a mysterious relationship between input and output. You could see the way physics struggled against the very limits of language when confronted by such a subject: organized instability?"

Ramo argues our current national security institutions no longer are effective when confronted by uncertainty and complexity, in which a tiny change can have large and lasting ramifications. And that these institutions must develop away from straight planning for specific outcomes (which I think is a good idea) and become more loose and adaptable. They must seek to shape the outside environment, rather than control it. In short, our institutions have to learn to "surf the wave."

As far as this goes, I have no argument with Ramos. I have big problems with our national security institutions being controlled by planners. In my work in Iraq I have seen more damage done by planning than anything else.
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