“Normal accidents” and black swans in the complex systems of today

A sociological idea about the problems that can arise in complex systems is related to Taleb’s ideas of black swans:

This near brush with nuclear catastrophe, brought on by a single foraging bear, is an example of what sociologist Charles Perrow calls a “normal accident.” These frightening incidents are “normal” not because they happen often, but because they are almost certain to occur in any tightly connected complex system.

Today, our highly wired global financial markets are just such as system. And in recent years, aggressive traders have repeatedly played the role of the hungry bear, setting off potential disaster after potential disaster through a combination of human blunders and network failures…

In his book Normal Accidents, Perrow stresses the role that human error and mismanagement play in these scenarios. The important lesson: failures in complex systems are caused not only by the hardware and software problems but by people and their motivations.

See an earlier post dealing with the same sociological ideas. Nassim Taleb discusses this quite a bit and suggests knowing about this complexity should lead us to different kinds of actions where we try to minimize the disastrous risks and find opportunities for extraordinary success (if there are inevitable yet unknown opportunities for crisis, there could also be moments where low risk investments can pay off spectacularly).

If these are inherent traits of complex systems, does this mean more people will argue against such systems in the future? I could imagine some claiming this means we should have smaller systems and more local control. However, we may be at the point where even much smaller groups can’t escape a highly interdependent world. And, as sociologist Max Weber noted, bureaucratic structures (a classic example of complex organizations or systems) may have lots of downsides but they are relatively efficient at dealing with complex concerns. Take the recent arguments about health care: people might not like the government handling more of it but even without government control, there are still plenty of bureaucracies involved, it is a complex system, and there is plenty of potential for things to go wrong.

One thought on ““Normal accidents” and black swans in the complex systems of today

  1. Pingback: Two possible dytopias I could envision | Legally Sociable

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