March 12, 2020

In general, the nineties were an optimistic decade. People could read Francis Fukayama’s The Last Man and the End of History and nod along, or watch Friends and Richard Curtis films without vomiting. Bill Clinton’s smug face was plastered across American TV screens and Tony Blair was beginning his rise to power.

Throughout the decade, however, the Canadian academic Thomas Homer-Dixon was working on what would become his great work The Ingenuity Gap. Published in 2000, the book warned that the human ingenuity which has allowed for complex mass societies and technological progress may at some point not be matched by the human ingenuity required to avert the crises that this change could conjure up.

I would like to call this book “curiously neglected” but to be honest I can understand why it slipped into obscurity. It is overlong, and a little rambling, and marred by the presence of some lumpy liberal shibboleths. Nonetheless, Homer-Dixon was formidably prescient.

At one point he noted that “violent insurgencies and terrorist groups are becoming more high-tech, transnational and powerful relative to the states they oppose,” meaning “rich countries will see more homegrown terrorism” and conflicts in third world nations will “become… generators of waves of outward migration, and havens for transnational terrorist and criminal networks.” One year later, planes smashed into the Twin Towers, and a decade aftewards Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was announced as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq.

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Coronavirus would have provided an interesting case study for Homer-Dixon’s book. In The Ingenuity Gap, he used the example of the United Airlines Flight 232 air disaster to illustrate how crises can develop in complex systems.

“When the plane’s tail engine disintegrated, the flight crew immediately faced a staggeringly complex task,” he wrote: “Multiple, simultaneous, and interdependent emergencies converged in the cockpit. Some were recognized and understood, some were misunderstood, and some didn’t even cross the crew’s threshold of consciousness. As the crew members tried to make sense of their instruments and the data they received via their eyes and ears, problems cascaded into other problems with almost overwhelming speed.”

When COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan, multiple interdependent emergencies exacerbated the crisis. Chinese authoritarian paranoia obscured the magnitude of the threat; neoliberal openness helped to spread it around the world; Trumpian electioneering produced a lack of American seriousness.

Meanwhile, the virus appears to have continued to mutate, with Chinese scientists now suggesting that it has developed into two strains, one significantly more aggressive than the other (although others have disputed this). While one could justifiably observe that diseases have ravaged mankind for millennia — and once with a slow, grim inevitability — it is still concerning how ill-prepared we are for such outbreaks.

There are two ways of facing an ingenuity gap: maximising ingenuity and minimising risk. Of course, an optimist could point to all the times that human ingenuity has averted crises. As the professionally cheerful Steven Pinker has written:

“As long as we are entertaining hypothetical disasters far in the future, we must also ponder hypothetical advances that would allow us to survive them, such as growing food under lights powered with nuclear fusion, or synthesizing it in industrial plants such as biofuel.”

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This is true, but it also reminds me of what the Irish Republican Army said to Margaret Thatcher in the aftermath of the Brighton Bombing, which the British Prime Minister thankfully survived. “Today we were unlucky,” the IRA reminder her, “but remember, we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.” My point is that human ingenuity can, and will, spare us from calamity. But it has to do it again, and again, and again, whereas it would only take one crisis to spell our doom. As Peter Franklin wisely wrote for UnHerd last month:

“It doesn’t matter that, on average, epidemics (or even pandemics) aren’t that bad; it only takes one extinction level event and it’s game over. For this reason and others, [Nassim Nicholas] Taleb, with his colleagues Joe Norman and Yaneer Bar-Yam, argue that we must transform our thinking. When it comes to a novel pathogen like coronavirus, over-reaction is the only rational response.”

As Franklin also observes, though, dealing with a crisis might not be as important as transforming a world in which people are “creating the conditions in which new diseases frequently emerge”. Minimising risk to keep our ingenuity gaps small can involve difficult trade-offs. I think research into artificial intelligence, for example, carries the intolerable risk of creating a monster with capacities that dwarf our own, but I realise that its blessings, such as the recent discovery of new antibiotics thanks to machine learning, make this a difficult question.

But if mankind has an ingenuity gap, we also have one between our creativity and our common sense. We all know heavyweight boxers have a tendency to make hundreds of millions of dollars and then blow the lot. Their incredible talent for training and fighting is not matched by long-term financial sense. Similarly, modern man has had the genius to invent antibiotics and the stupidity to make them far less effective thanks to their large-scale use in fattening livestock to produce cheap animal products, or, farcically, their common use as a treatment for the common cold.

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Similarly, the Chinese government has developed an extraordinary authoritarian apparatus — which appears to have achieved astonishing feats of containment since COVID-19 began to spread — but for years did almost nothing about pathogen-rich wildlife farms and wet markets because they posed a threat to public health rather than the stability of the regime.

Curbing these practices would have involved no greater suffering than some kinds of rare meat being unavailable and other kinds of meat being more expensive. I appreciate that this might sound vexing to some but as the alternative is significantly greater pandemic risk it seems like a small burden to bear. We cannot expect our ingenuity to always pay off debts that our irresponsibility has incurred.

Of course, it could be said of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book that major outbreaks, and plane crashes, have become significantly rarer. For all of our errors, there is truth to that. Still, one difference between our societies and aircraft is that the latter have all kinds of fail-safe mechanisms. There are, for example, system redundancies, which means that planes can function without pieces of equipment, as well as frequent procedural checks. COVID-19 has exposed the fact that our societal fail-safe mechanisms are exceedingly outdated.

Unlike Singapore, Western societies were not prepared for strict border checks. Unlike South Korea, we were not prepared for large-scale testing. Unlike China, we were not prepared for drastic containment. No one was prepared for the necessary closure of some supply lines and travel routes. While disasters have become more rare, we have neglected our ability to withstand them once they suddenly occur.

But as well as minimising risk in order to avert catastrophes, we can maximise experience. In one paper, Thomas Homer-Dixon returned to the example of United Airlines Flight 232, and specifically its captain, Alfred Haines, whose composure and skill helped to ensure that many lives were saved. Haines suggested that he had landed the plane, against all the odds, thanks to luck, but Homer-Dixon did not believe him. He said that it was Haines’ intimate familiarity with the machine that gave him the experiential knowledge he required.

Experiential knowledge, Homer-Dixon argued, is what we need, and “to cultivate wisdom in our societies, the wisdom that comes from working with complex systems for long periods of time so that you can recognize their patterns of behaviour, so that you have an intuition for what they’re going to do and how they’re going to respond.”

We do not know how destructive COVID-19 will be, but I hope we are learning from it: learning about how such pathogens develop, and how they are spread, and how they are treated, and how politics and economics affect their containment and are affected by them. If there is another outbreak it could be even more disastrous, but experience might help us to respond effectively.

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