We are the ape with the pattern recognition dial cranked up high and this has served us well over our evolutionary history.

But when we assess risk in systems as complex as the global economy our instinctive wariness at the sudden silence in the Palaeolithic forest is not necessarily useful – and might be part of a warning system directly implicated in us getting things wrong in the complex and networked world in which we live and act.

The billions of tons of grinding debris in the violent waters surging over Japan’s eastern coast seem part of a flood of dangerous chaos and instability stretching from the sovereign debt markets through the shifting front lines in Libya to the meltdown at the Fukushima  nuclear power facility.

Two months ago the theatre of the world seemed to be playing to a comforting old script we all knew.

Today it feels like anything might happen – and it probably will.

Let me not pretend to expertise on plate tectonics, but the clearest and most current metaphor that best explains how we should think about the world and the global economy is the state of the earth’s crust east of Japan just before Friday’s quake.

The Japanese main island of Honshu is unique in the world in that it is at the meeting point of four of the Earth’s fourteen major tectonic plates.

Plates driven by convection in the plastic rock below (in the asthenosphere) meet each other with a gradual build up of complex pressure and stresses, which are, in truth, continent smashing in their power and potential.

After sometimes extended periods of apparent stability the stresses reach a point at which they are suddenly released and one or more plate(s) move(s) violently – in this case the Pacific Plate jerks in the direction it has been pushing all along: deep underneath Honshu.

And then follows a sequence that might, with the benefit of hind site, look like tumbling dominoes in one of those endlessly complicated but strangely compelling set piece knock downs (only click here if you have the patience and bandwidth for watching endlessly toppling supermarket products – the Balkan juice  boxes are the most mysterious.)

First the quake: 8.9 on the Richter Scale, making it the 5th most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Then the seabed buckles over hundreds of square kilometres displacing a huge volume of water that sends a whole series of giant waves travelling at over 600 km/h in every direction, giving the Japanese authorities less than 15 minutes to react.

Then consider if you will the extended shuddering cascade of triggers and causality that will travel into the future – think of it as a wave that unlocks energy, destructive or otherwise, inherent in the situations and objects it encounters, rather than the cause of what happens.

Beyond the immediate human tragedies of loss, displacement, suffering and death there is long-term infrastructure damage, economic catastrophe in the already stretched insurance industry, political turmoil from a populous that will accuse the politicians of not having prepared adequately, an unfolding nuclear crisis and sundry other effects and consequences that we can all speculate about, but will likely be a surprise anyway.

The point is that while we can attempt to model such systems, beyond a certain level of complexity there is almost nothing we can say with certainty about how things will unfold.

While you consider these waves spreading out from the disaster that has struck Japan,  bursting other bubbles, causing other wound up instabilities to suddenly unwind, consider the ripples of this earthquake meeting the ripples of the oil supply shock rooted in the political turmoil in North Africa and the gathering force of the the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and elsewhere.

“Why” is not the question

When tragedy strikes us, particularly the personal, catastrophic and traumatic kind – a fatal car accident, a murder or the unexpected suicide of a family member – our first self-protective act is to grasp for an explanation.

Our initial need is for something simple, some prime cause that can give us the limited comfort of being able to say to ourselves: “This is why it happened”.

Fredrick Nietzsche {here quoted from”Ubiquity: The Science of History – or Why the World is Simpler Than We Think” by Mark Buchanan (Crown 2000) – it’s heavy going but well worth the effort} said:

To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none…The cause-creating drive is thus conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear….

In the world in which we live, no explanation is almost always better than an incorrect one. At least then you know you don’t know – which is a slight protection in itself.

There is no new tide of chaos sweeping the world. This is the world as it has always been: interconnected in dizzyingly complex ways and apparently both deeply unstable and unpredictable.

But we have never lived the world at this level before. When twitter and Facebook and Al Jazeera TV and immediate images of the terrifying dark swirling waters engulfing the Japanese coast are brought together in our sensory universe in the same moment our evolved risk assessment tools are inadequate.

We are seeing the world not at the human scale of the hunter in the suddenly quieted forest. This is the world from a perspective that humans previously imagined was only available to their gods.

As individuals we are still essentially the same animal as that palaeolithic hunter in the primal forest.

But collectively we have recently gained the technology to see – if not fully understand – what is happening way beyond the forest, way beyond the world.

It will be a collective endeavour (through states and various other forms of human organisation) to make that information useful to us – as such forms of organisations have imperfectly striven to do in the past.*

Already Tsunami Warning Systems have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives over the last few days and Twitter and Facebook have kept millions of Japanese families in touch with the world and each other.

But we are only at the very beginning of the journey towards the kingdom where our collective ability to generate and harness vast streams of data will become meaningful and intelligible to us as individuals.

For now it is enough to say: when dealing with the world in all its complexity, don’t trust your instincts.

Luckily for us “pattern recognition” is not the only reason we have survived as we have.

“Adaptability” is this primate’s main strength and with the finger pressed firmly on the fast forward button of technological advancement we are going to need every edge we can get.

*The struggle between ourselves as individuals and the collective elites, governments and national secret agencies that previously attempted to monopolise this information and act on it to further their own interests – as often as not incompetently and mistakenly – is the subject of another discussion, although an important and linked one.

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