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The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It Paperback – Bargain Price, June 2, 2010


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (June 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316118117
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316118118
  • ASIN: B005OHSL3C
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (102 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #308,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

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The traditional physics of power has been replaced by something radically different.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


--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Ramo, a strategic adviser and former journalist, presents his proposals for rectifying foreign policy mistakes in a discussion that ranges from the public service work of Hezbollah to the German painter Anselm Kiefer. He offers a sustained aura of cool competence, less lecturer than dinner companion. Wrapping listeners in the cocoon of his hushed, keen rush of words, Ramo is an ideal conversationalist, even if the conversation, for these purposes, runs in only one direction. A Little, Brown hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 9). (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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

I found the book to be thought provoking and well written.
Glen P. Alberts
This is an important book, especially if it gets people talking, acting and at the very least thinking about our changing world.
Robert T. Kesten
Ramo has written a book for the very situation we are all facing - a complex world where traditional approaches are failing.
Jack Hidary

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

214 of 233 people found the following review helpful By Irfan A. Alvi TOP 500 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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60 of 65 people found the following review helpful By G. Charles Steiner TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book is very much like the book by National Security Affairs Professor Zachary Shore: "Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions," published in 2008. Both books are disquisitions on the need for leaders as well as citizens to exhibit greater creativity given the increased complexity and instability of the world we now live in and both books offer clear, well-written examples either from war history and/or from contemporary life and business illustrating improved modes of thought and perception that go beyond sedentary absolutism or "static cling," the refusal to work with or deal with change so that a more empathic, more resilent, creative and happier, adaptive individual and society emerges.

While Zachary Shore's book is the more didactic in that the lessons he teaches are clearly demarcated and classified by chapter, Joshua Ramo doesn't attempt to lecture the reader directly so much as he tries to persuade the reader with his journalistic war and business stories that certain core ideas such as resiliency, effects-based strategizing, contextual thinking, and mashups (which is literally putting two unrelated items together forcibly to form a new unity) are very much de rigeur today -- if you care about the future of your family and the world. Ramos states that, in a manner of speaking, today, because of technology and increased interconnectedness, we each can be like a Picasso or a Stein and have a huge impact on changing our fragile, rigid culture and political structure.

Interestingly and appealingly, Mr.
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81 of 102 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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82 of 105 people found the following review helpful By Eggcrate on March 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Ramo is obviously one well connected gentleman, a point he isn't adverse to reminding his readers, and he has the mindset of rather glib, yet also well informed and paradigm hopping media culture man. He aims for a certain gravitas then relaxes into a breezy, well, not superficiality by any means, but a kind of surface gloss of his material that suggests a preference for breadth over depth.

Having said that, his best side is taking the contrary perspective and acknowledging that some basic aspects of academic and political (not to mention media) culture may be fundamentally broken and the factors we take to be solutions could actually be acting as accelerants of social breakdown or systemic catastrophe...

For example, Alan Greenspan expressed that he had discovered "a flaw" in his basic worldview, perhaps a fatal flaw... although he tantalizes us with this point, we never learn exactly what this flaw consists of or what Greenspan did with his increased understanding.

He lauds Hans J. Morgenthau as a seminal thinker in international relations and the rise of the Realist school as opposed to an Ideological framework and then expresses a belief that Morgenthau's model also might contain an essential flaw, it excludes the power of moral certitude and what could be counted as irrationality as ordering force. Witness Hezbollah, a far geekier and strangely hip organization than the western media can either comprehend or accept.

Then we take a small tour of some of the newer branches of physics... and "physics" is a concept quite dear to Ramo, how is it that these sudden shifts and instabilities lead to a new permanent order of constant change, and how do we form institutional structures to work with these processes ?

All in all, a thought provoking, diverting book, however, given the potentials of his subject, it feels as if it were written far too quickly to have the necessary rigor of a significant work.
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