Recent events give me the opportunity to acquaint readers with the concept of “antifragility” developed by my favourite author Nassim Taleb. In this pretentiously named article we will explore the topic of antifragility in the context of protests and the mass surveillance disclosures by Edward Snowden.
What is Antifragility?
Imagine an ordinary cardboard box containing an antifragile vase. The box has a sign on it: “Please Mishandle”. The more you drop or kick the box the more robust the vase inside it gets. Antifragile objects, events or other phenomena thrive on stress and disorder. In Ancient Greek myth the Hydra from Lerna was antifragile – when Hercules cut one head another two took its place. The Hydra actually benefited from Hercules’ pruning service.
Another more grounded example is plane crashes. Every time such a tragic event occurs the air transport system improves. Subsequent flights will be safer because the plane crash has revealed some flaws in the system. The sinking of Titanic prevented bigger ships from being built and possibly averted a bigger catastrophe down the line.
Passionate hatred for a book or movie can only increase interest in it. Lest we forget the massive success of the “Twilight” books and film adaptations. The highest selling novel of all time is “The Da Vinci Code” and in no small part thanks to the controversy surrounding it. Nassim Taleb admits that the first Graham Greene novel he read was selected only because it was banned by the Vatican. Many famous artists are provocative because they cannot afford to be seen as calm, considerate individuals.
The Antifragile Mr Snowden
The ex-CIA technical assistant Edward Snowden who leaked information about a massive US surveillance programme is antifragile. However, his case also reveals the big weakness of antifragility: moderation. There are many not-strictly-speaking-legal ways the US government could extradite Snowden.
But using forceful means to extradite Snowden will actually bolster support for him and his causes. He will be seen as martyr who has fallen prey to a jackboot government gone out of control. At the same time, the government cannot be too soft on him because it might encourage other acts of whistleblowing. Having Mr Snowden stuck in suspended animation at a Moscow airport is the optimal solution. Even Vladimir Putin had a moderate response to the situation: Snowden was allowed to stay in Russia only if he stops leaking information that damages “our American partners”.
Like any antifragile object Mr Snowden grows weaker with time if there are no stressors. Humans assign the relative importance of issues based on how easily they are recalled. In today’s 24/7 news cycle and rapidly deteriorating attention spans any news gets flushed pretty quickly from the brain. Every day Snowden is stuck in that airport his actions and the concerns he raises fade from the public consciousness.
Recently US Congress voted against changes to the NSA surveillance programme. There is no sinister conspiracy, the vote was very close (217-205). If more pressure had been put on Mr Snowden the vote could have easily gone the other way. At least something benefited from Snowden’s antifragility: sales of George Orwell’s “1984” jumped 69% on Amazon.
The protests around the world are largely antifragile. A fierce crackdown on protesters can cause further unrest and they are multitude of reasons for that. First of all, it makes for catchy headlines that spread awareness of the protest and its aims. Second, it makes government forces seem like the aggressor and the protestors: as hapless victims fighting for a just cause. Third, people behave very differently when they are in large groups. One small provocation and any sense of moderation or even self-preservation evaporate. In most cases it is best for the government and law-enforcement agencies to turn the other cheek.
Street unrest can be exacerbated if the perceived source of wrongdoing or injustice is concentrated in one figure. It is much easier to rally people if the target of public contempt is clearly defined. That is why Obama stressed that the surveillance programme was initiated in 2007 under George W. Bush and everyone in Congress was briefed about it. There was no single villain for the public contempt to latch on to – thus ruining a memorable narrative.
Protests as antifragile events are vulnerable to a lack of external pressure. So if Machiavelli was alive he would probably recommend the following steps to effectively diffuse public unrest.
First, the government should broadcast three statements in order to reduce tension.
1. Acknowledge that some mistakes were made by this government.
2. However, the problems are much more complex that they seem.
3. The problems will be dealt with in some unspecified time in the future
The next step is entirely optional. It is known as the “masochist strategy” pioneered by Tony Blair. Confronted with plummeting approval ratings following the Iraq War, Blair decided to present himself for public tar and feathering. He entered a series of TV debates where the public (including mothers of dead soldiers) could vent their anger at him. It is difficult to muster enough hatred for a person who is already down on his knees. Blair intuitively understood antifragility and its weakness to a lack of stress. A problematic but otherwise charismatic leader can try this strategy. It is optional because it is not always appropriate and can easily backfire.
Time is on your side
Affirm that protest is a civil right but this government does not want violence. Law-enforcement officers should remain as passive as possible. So if protesters “cast the first stone” they will be the aggressors. Time is on your side and the longer it passes without significant events (stress) the weaker protesters become. Some protesters have jobs and other engagements they must attend to. Others grow bored by the lack of events, third group become disillusioned. In an Iraqi city named Kufa American forces reduced riots by banning food vendors near the city square. As the day progresses large gatherings disperse because people are hungry. On a long enough time line everyone’s determination drops to zero.
The passing of time can surreptitiously turn public opinion against the protesters. Part of the public begins to see protesters as lazy people who have nothing better to do. They only whine about their problems instead of dealing with them. On top of that these lazy, self-entitled protesters are disrupting the normal everyday lives of hard-working citizens.
Antifragility loves extremes, so do not comment on protesters all the time nor ignore them completely. Project a slight concern that the protest is happening but stress that they are far more important issues at hand. Members of your government should also demonstrate a modicum of restraint in their comments. Every extreme view will feed the fire of unrest.
Coup de grâce
After the antifragile Hydra has been slain it’s time for another Herculean task: clean the Augean stables. If all goes well the umbilical cord of public support should be severed. The ranks of protesters are very thin. But most importantly their strength of conviction is all but gone. Many of protesters now come and stay purely by habit.
It’s time for the coup de grâce. Announce that there is going to be a massive clean-up of tents, placards and other material left from protesters. This is of course done in order to preserve the clean image of the city. Avoid using water cannons and tear gas because they get bad press. If protesters are disheartened enough they will leave without much resistance.
Needless to say this advice has no money-back guarantee. In some countries the injustice has been going on for decades and unrests won’t stop until there is fundamental change. But in many others knowledge of antifragility can help incompetent and corrupted government officials cling to power. After all, politics is mainly a game of perceptions.