Every swan in the world is white, as everybody in the seventeenth century knew. That is why the term ‘black swan’ was used to describe an impossibility; something that went against the natural order of things. Then, after 1697 when black swans were discovered in Australia, the term metamorphosed into the rather more interesting idea that an established idea can be immediately nullified in the light of new and startling evidence. The paradigm can change suddenly and the world be turned upside-down.
More recently, the term ‘Black Swan event’ was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2001 book Fooled by Randomness about the financial markets. Then, in The Black Swan, he expanded the idea to include non-financial events. It refers to any occurrence which is:
- totally unexpected
- in retrospect, it seems obvious that it would happen
Taleb considered more or less any significant scientific development, historical event or artistic accomplishment to be a Black Swan event. I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘significant’, but personally I would be quite strict about point 2. I wouldn’t call a movement like Dada or the invention of Post-It notes to be world-changing enough to qualify (useful though the latter may be).
Taleb gives a number of examples of Black Swan events, most notably: the First World War, the Internet, the personal computer, the fall of the Soviet Union and the September 2001 attacks. There can be no doubt that all of these are prime examples. Our world would be a very different place if any of them hadn’t happened.
If one of the basic attributes of a Black Swan event is its unpredictability, and if we consider that they are what periodically blast history into unknown territory, then any ‘futurist’s’ idea of looking ahead would appear to be futile. But let’s remember that another feature of the Black Swan is that it later seems obvious. In that case, surely somebody should have had an inkling of what was coming. To some extent, someone often does.
We can take the example of the First World War – perhaps the Daddy of all recent Black Swan events. Long before 1914, people were expecting conflict in Europe, which is why armies and navies were being beefed up so rapidly. What people had no notion of was the shocking scale of the mechanised slaughter to come. Why not? The machine gun and barbed wire had been invented, the American Civil war half a century before had given a nasty indication of things to come, but still nobody veered away from the coming conflict in terror. People enlisted in droves to get in on the fun before it was all over. For many of them it really was all over, if not before that Christmas, then before the next, or the next, or the next one.
Not only did nobody foresee the sheer awfulness of the war, neither could they imagine the express train of events it put in motion – the collapse of their stable 19th century world and the coming of the 20th. To imagine the world today if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had dodged a bullet is an intriguing, but essentially impossible activity. Fascism, communism, the jet engine, the computer, nuclear power – the list of things springing from the two world wars goes on and on, each leading domino-like to still more consequences. What would the year 2016 be like in this alternative universe? Like Victorian times with 1950s technology?
The problem seems to be gathering several quite clear threads and seeing that a fairly likely trigger event – in this case a political crisis between two European alliances, would take those threads and entwine them in fateful ways. Not so much a lack of imagination as a failure to make connections. Perhaps Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had a sudden realisation of what was to come when he said in August 1914, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’.
But if no-one really foresaw the horror of the First World War, could it still have been avoided? The clear answer is ‘yes’. The sequence of events leading to war in August 1914 was very far from certain and to follow each particular circumstance and hesitant decision, one after another, towards the precipice, is as poignant as listening to the final minutes of a doomed airliner’s black box voice recording.
What is usually argued (when I was at school it was stated as a fact), is that if things hadn’t started in August 1914, they inevitably would have done some time later. The usual imagery is that Europe was a powder keg waiting for a spark. To be honest, I don’t buy this. I’d go along with the idea that if Einstein had decided to pay more attention to his career in the patent office, someone else would have come up with the Theory of Relativity a few years later. The Internet, too, was clearly going to happen no matter what. But some events are inherently random and haphazard; while the conditions may be ripe, the chances of them actually coming about are really quite small.
There are some other types of swan; for example, one that never actually hatches. Taleb includes such an animal as a Black Swan but I think it’s a different type of bird – a Ghost Swan, perhaps. The Third World War is this type of ephemeral creature. In the sixties and seventies a lot of people could see this swan squawking and hissing in front of their faces. It was inevitable, you see, it was just a matter of waiting for the horror to strike. So we waited… and waited… and, in the end, a Black Swan in the shape of the fall of the Soviet Union turned up and the Ghost Swan ruffled its feathers and evaporated. Now, I’m not saying a major nuclear war (heaven forefend), is now impossible, just that the scenario involving two paranoid superpowers with itching button-fingers is now at an end.
In a previous essay I suggested that one barrier to predicting the future is a propensity to extrapolate present conditions and trends. A Black Swan event highlights the lack of scope that stifles us most of the time. Strange things are going to happen and even when we have the information in front of our faces screaming at us, we just can’t seem to link it up and take it forward in a clear, sensible way. Instead, we either seem to dawdle in our familiar present-day world with a few shiny extras like ‘aero-cars’, or we follow, in isolation, a present short-term trend all the way to a place so bizarre that nobody could really live in it.
So what about our most recent brace of birds, the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump? Are they in fact different swans or two faces of the same creature?
How significant these events truly are depends to a large extent on whether we now see similar things elsewhere in the Western world. It’s quite possible that Trump’s presidency will lapse into a traditional conservative form, along the lines of Ronald Reagan. A Brexit, on the face of it, would seem of little consequence beyond the United Kingdom.
However, some sort of sea change in people’s thinking does seem to have taken place. Suddenly, the simmering resentment against the smug, incompetent elites have come into sharp focus. Because of their increasingly obvious distortions, the traditional media outlets have become not only suspect, but more and more obsolete. People are now asking themselves whether figures like Marine Le Pen really are the racist scum they have been painted for so long; they are going to sites like Breitbart to get their information – and finding that such places really have nothing to do with white supremacy and fascism. As I mentioned before, the Internet is clearly the important factor here – that particular Black Swan’s chicks would appear to be hatching.
So perhaps this is a major Black Cygnet. Is it possible that rather than changing one tired elite for another more energetic one, we are in the process of seeing the whole idea of a privileged ruling elite becoming redundant? Perhaps not, but at very least the shock and fear experienced by the present elite is likely to produce some benefits to the ordinary people who’ve been ignored for so long.
Talib makes the interesting point that negative Black Swans generally happen suddenly, while more positive ones come to fruition more slowly – after all, it’s easier to destroy than to build. In that case, we should certainly hope that what is afoot reveals itself over time. 2017 is likely to be another interesting year – but then again, perhaps they all are in their way.