Adapt — Tim Harford

Adapt is deep—much deeper than most pop economics books, and deeper than Harford’s last book, The Logic of Life. I can’t really define precisely how—”deeper” is not the sort of thing that lets me compare quotes from one section versus another section. But there’s a sense of inevitability about this book.

Harford describes how Thomas Thwaites, “a post-graduate design student at the Royal College of Art in London,” attempted to make a toaster from scratch. He failed, and not subtly, either. This leads to Harford’s larger observation: “The modern world is mind-bogglingly complicated. Far simpler objects than a toaster involve global supply chains and the coordinated efforts of many individuals, scattered across the world. Many do not even know the final destination of their efforts.” It’s easy to find this alienating, especially if you’re a random paper pusher who manages information and never sees anything tangible that you’ve created. Hence the derogatory term—”paper pusher”—that presumably sets up some kind of binary, with the paper pusher contrasted to, say, a lumberjack, or something. I don’t even know what, other than that the phrase is common.

Yet we exist as paper-pushers and bureaucratic cogs because people will pay for cogs and because if we didn’t, we also wouldn’t have the modern economy. We don’t think about this much, however; as Harford says, “The complexity we have created for ourselves envelops us so completely that, instead of being dizzied, we take it for granted.” Maybe we need to. But we also need an unusual set of skills in such a vast landscape: ones that will let us try new ideas, let them fail or succeed, and then try something else. That’s a top-level view of Harford’s point.

In a blog post, Harford writes:

[. . .] the message of Adapt isn’t really “practice makes perfect,” or even “learn from your mistakes,” at least not as a straightforward self-help cliché. It’s about building systems – whether markets, businesses, governments or armies – that solve complex problems. And it turns out that complex problem-solving usually means experimenting, quickly discovering what works and what doesn’t, and somehow letting what’s working replace what isn’t.

Unfortunately, we often don’t realize how complex problems should be solved, and individual egos often get in the way of those problems. That was the basic issue with Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary: he didn’t accept the need to improvise, which appears to be getting more important over time, not less. This also sounds similar to the subject of Nassim Taleb’s next book, Antifragility: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand.

Or consider this passage from Adapt, which should make us humbler about the large political problems we face and how we can solve them:

We badly need to believe in the potency of leaders. Our instinctive response, when faced with a complicated challenge, is to look for a leader who will solve it. It wasn’t just Obama: every president is elected after promising to change the way politics works; and almost every president then slumps in the pools as reality starts to bite. This isn’t because we keep electing the wrong leaders. It is because we have an inflated sense of what leadership can achieve in the modern world.

Perhaps we have this instinct because we evolved to operate in small hunter-gatherer groups, solving small hunter-gatherer problems. The societies in which our modern brains developed weren’t modern: they contained a few hundred separate products, rather than ten billion. The challenges such societies faced, however formidable, were simple enough to have been solved by an intelligent, wise, brave leader. They would have been vastly simpler than the challenges facing a newly elected US president.

Notice the key word in the first sentence: “need.” Is it really a need we have to believe in our leaders? At first I wanted to say no, but thinking about all the symbolic capital we invest in our leaders (and actors, and others, especially if those “others” are credentialed) makes me think otherwise. Those needs should make us somewhat uncomfortable, since leaders might not be able to fix as much as they might imagine. This is also an aspect of the “New Jesus” complex, which James Fallows described in the context of David Petraeus becoming the commander of American troops in Iraq. As Fallows says:

Everyone who has ever worked in an office will recognize the idea. The New Jesus is the guy the boss has just brought in to solve the problems that the slackers and idiots already on the staff cannot handle. Of course sooner or later the New Jesus himself turns into a slacker or idiot, and the search for the next Jesus begins.*

We want some Messianic figure to sweep away all our problems. In the real world, that just doesn’t happen, or it very seldom happens. Petraeus was certainly important, but he was also implementing ideas that had percolated around the military for some time—as Harford discusses in his chapter on “Conflict or: How Organisations Learn.” The military is an obvious environment for exploring adaptation, since the consequences of failing to adapt are severe: people die. Blockbuster went under because it couldn’t or wouldn’t compete with Netflix (see here for more), but the consequences mostly happened in terms of shares lost. On the battlefield or in the emergency room, it happens in terms of lives lost. We want a leader to somehow “clean house” or “cut through red tape” to solve problems, but that often doesn’t happen, especially outside secular hagiography. Instead, we need to learn as individuals and organizations how to adapt to circumstances and how to make circumstances adapt to us. Few would disagree with this banal assertion. Many would disagree in a particular circumstance that requires adaptation.

The word “potency” hearkens to the Middle Ages, when the fecundity of the King was linked to the fecundity of the realm, as so many fairy tales hold. Yet we’re still using the same kinds of words to describe leaders today, even when leaders get in trouble for being overly, uh, potent (see, for example, Bill Clinton, or whoever is involved in the scandal du jour).

There’s a recurrent thread of very old ideas and needs running up against modern complexity in this book, although Harford doesn’t discuss such issues directly. But they’re present, if you’re watching for adjectives like “potency” to describe leaders. Or word like “instinct” that contrast with the cool, cerebral mastery we’d like to associate with modern technical accomplishment. Underlying contemporary achievements sit older ideas. When we deny those ideas, we get into trouble. Harford is trying to get us back out.

* For the origins of the New Jesus complex, see this post, also from Fallows.

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