Monday, January 11, 2010

Taleb: The World is More "Complex", More Moody, Much Less Predictable.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has discovered that the more things change the more they stay the same. This has caused him to go on an internet diet:
I am not entirely deprived of the Internet; this is just a severe diet, with strict rationing.
He writes that the internet has the ability to spread information at before unheard of speed, which has consequences:
I used to think that the problem of information is that it turns homo sapiens into fools — we gain disproportionately in confidence, particularly in domains where information is wrapped in a high degree of noise (say, epidemiology, genetics, economics, etc.). So we end up thinking that we know more than we do, which, in economic life, causes foolish risk taking. When I started trading, I went on a news diet and I saw things with more clarity. I also saw how people built too many theories based on sterile news, the fooled by randomness effect. But things are a lot worse. Now I think that, in addition, the supply and spread of information turns the world into Extremistan (a world I describe as one in which random variables are dominated by extremes, with Black Swans playing a large role in them). The Internet, by spreading information, causes an increase in interdependence, the exacerbation of fads (bestsellers like Harry Potter and runs on the banks become planetary). Such world is more "complex", more moody, much less predictable.
Yet, he follows the sheep in capitalizing the word "internet" as though it was God!

But in the end, he knows nothing has changed, the great ancient thinkers understood what we must learn over again today:
I recently talked to a scholar of rare wisdom and erudition, Jon Elster, who upon exploring themes from social science, integrates insights from all authors in the corpus of the past 2500 years, from Cicero and Seneca, to Montaigne and Proust. He showed me how Seneca had a very sophisticated understanding of loss aversion. I felt guilty for the time I spent on the Internet. Upon getting home I found in my mail a volume of posthumous essays by bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet called Huetiana, put together by his admirers c. 1722. It is so saddening to realize that, being born close to four centuries after Huet, and having done most of my reading with material written after his death, I am not much more advanced in wisdom than he was — moderns at the upper end are no wiser than their equivalent among the ancients; if anything, much less refined.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Taleb, but it should not sadden, it should be cause for celebration. The fact that there is truth about human activity that is old and enduring is good. These truths have enabled humans to progress in a complex world and they should be embraced.