This was Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb – who incidentally is Lebanese Greek Orthodox, not Muslim – being interviewed in Finland last summer. He was discussing the way in which ‘anti-fragile’ entities, those which benefit from untoward events instead of being damaged and diminished by them, are superior to larger, conventional, top-down or traditional ones.
In this interview the thrust of Taleb’s critique of current structures, of government, economics and education, is precisely that they are fragile. Paradoxically ‘fragile’ for Taleb means strong and robust – but only up to a point, beyond which a single blow can destroy them, like a china cup. Taleb was criticising top-down structures for their lack of adaptability and decentralisation/dispersion.
He gave strong governments as an example of fragile structures, for example Syria and other failed states which had one ‘strong’ government followed by chaos; compared with modern Italy – stable with its 41-government permanent parliamentary crisis since the end of World War Two. You get the idea. The city-state seems to be his anti-fragile ideal, I think, and big states fail partly because they are hijacked by intellectuals and other ‘authorities’.
Which brought him to education, and the top-down failures of Ivy-League snobs – a major bête-noir of his – who have ruined the US economy through their lazy, rent-seeking orthodoxies. Taleb’s praise was instead reserved for Germany’s ‘apprentice culture’ where things are heuristic (progress by learning or discovery, from the Greek heuriskein: ‘find’) and progress is in the form of small lessons, many of which involve repeatedly failing but learning and improving even so. It is a trial-and-error way of life that invariably prospers and will not suffer catastrophically – in other words is anti-fragile and far less susceptible to black-swan events.
Tinkerers and amateurs change the world, Taleb reminds us, just like the pioneers of the Industrial revolution; and too many professors and orthodox ‘experts’ predictably induce disasters (fat-tail events).
Taleb has plenty of mathematical formulae to back up what otherwise he himself might typically dismiss as ‘romantic’ ideas. (I love it when he proves that grandmother’s wisdom almost always out-performs claim-making science, especially statistically-based conclusions.)
At about 19:50 minutes in Taleb cites India as being a potentially anti-fragile country devastated over the years by this hide-bound, centrally organised, top-down traditional authority/bureaucracy/ruling elite fragility sickness. Then he turns to mention Modi, and how Modi said that he would rather build a thousand high schools than a single university. ‘And now Modi got it!’ says Taleb.