Framing the Dialogue

The Age of the Unthinkable

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

Dorothy Gale

As I thought about how to describe this book by author Joshua Cooper Ramo an image of The Wizard of Oz movie flashed into my mind.  I hope that I don’t do this book a tremendous disservice with my analogy, but I think it fits on a very superficial level.  Like Frank L. Baum, Ramo exposes our quaint life to tremendous upheaval into a world we don’t know and frankly want no part of.  A journey begins as we explore the new reality of this world as we look toward leaders who can save us.  Only our leaders like the Wizard are really just men with fancy titles, degrees, and curtains that shouldn’t be explored.

In the The Age of the Unthinkable we are goaded to solve our own problems, even the world’s problems in a different way to get back to Kansas or in Ramo’s terms achieve Deep Security.  Dorothy and her band of misfits had all of the tools they needed to overcome their Wicked Witch as we have tools to affect change.

Ramo describes our upheaval in terms of change,

“It will spread to every corner of our lives, to our businesses, our bank accounts, our hopes, and our health.  What we face isn’t one single shift or revolution, like the end of World War II or the collapse of the Soviet Union or a financial crisis, so much as an avalanche of ceaseless change.  It is change that will render institutions that look unshakable weak and unstable; it will elevate movements that look weak into positions of great power.  As much as we might wish it, our world is not becoming more stable or easier to comprehend.  We are entering, in short, a revolutionary age.  And we are doing so with ideas, leaders, and institutions that are better suited for a world now several centuries behind us.”

Ramo insists that we become revolutionaries or become victims to old ways of thinking.  The old ways of thinking have shown its weaknesses as it cannot achieve peace in the Middle East, misread the end of the Soviet Union, and most recently was caught unawares of the looming financial crisis.  The uncomfortable metaphor Ramo uses to describe our world is sand dropping into a pile.  As the pile grows you know from experience that at some point the pile will collapse…we just don’t know which grain of sand will cause it.  We have to be prepared to act/react quickly to survive and even thrive.

“You need to try to connect with the environment around you any way you can:  by sweeping your eyes, by opening your mind to uncomfortable ideas, even by trying to sympathize with historically noxious figures.  Only then could you improve your chances of not missing the signs that something, something important, was about to change.”

Ramo does provide some insight to solutions or paths to take, but being comfortable does not seem to be a major component.  We need to be engaged as we can no longer rely on elected officials, business leaders, or academia.  We must do it ourselves and examples, thrilling examples, are given of successes;

“the moment you hand power over to other people, you get an explosion of curiosity, innovation, and effort…its proof that once you give power away all sorts of unplanned efficiencies – boosts that are invisible to our standard way of seeing – emerge”

“We’ve now left behind the idea that only states matter, that the futures of nations should be determined only by looking at leaders in rooms, that we can make policy as if we were making a cake; just add democracy or capitalism and get prosperity.  We’ve changed how we look at the world, begun to obsess about resilience, started to see threats as systems, not objects.  We’ve seen practical ideas about how such deep security might work in practice…we will move to the extreme opposite of the old way of looking.  Instead of worrying about big objects (states) and expecting them to be predictable, instead of obsession about heads of state or terrorist leaders, what I want to propose is that we focus our attention also on the very smallest parts of the system, on people, and bet that the one thing we know for sure is that we can’t predict what they’ll do.  In other words, the last step to deep security in a world of unthinkable granular surprise is to push – as hard as possible – for even more unthinkable granular surprise.”

If you want a book that will make you feel good, make you feel comfortable, make you okay, this probably is not for you.  Buy one of those Chicken Soup books.  This book is for the person who wants the tools to prepare for the future…maybe a frightening future, but unless you turn on the light you’ll be stuck in the dark.

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