Antifragile: How to live in a world we don't understand, by Nassim Taleb - review

The new tome from the rock star of Davos Nassim Taleb posits ways of thriving in an unpredictable world. But Taleb is more celebrity chef than serious philosopher, says Stephen Bayley.

by Stephen Bayley
Last Updated: 28 Jan 2013

Miles Davis knew more about the true state of the universe than Nassim Nicholas Taleb. When the jazz musician said his method was 'I don't play what's there, I play what's not there', he described the cussed refusal of creative people to submit to rational analysis. The future of the world depends on creative people, but its rules are made by people who do not understand them. Alas, this world is run not by Miles Davis's successors, but by politicians and their ugly pilot fish, economists and management theorists, who believe in here-today-and-gone-tomorrow charts and schemes and metrics.

Never mind that economic forecasts are rarely accurate and no grand plan ever comes off, the theories and predictions keep on coming. And in this brightly lit carnival of sibyls and clairvoyants, Taleb is hugging the spotlight.

One-time chief of currencies trading at Banque Indosuez, he laid the foundations for the impressive edifice of his career with a 2004 book called Fooled by Randomness. There followed in 2007 The Black Swan about the predictability of unpredictability. The title is a knowing, cross-disciplinary reference to the appearance of rara avis, the rare bird for which science cannot account. In a world whiplashed by violent collision with a financial disaster, Black Swan provided soothing theoretical hocus-pocus. Cameron, in his Steve Hilton moment, quoted him. Its success made Taleb the Jamie Oliver of economics.

Indeed, global interest in Taleb's 'epistemological randomness' (or what Macmillan called 'events, dear boy, events') won him posts in New York and Oxford. Now comes Antifragile, a manifesto about the need to build robust structures to withstand assaults from epistemological etc, etc. And of this building, Taleb will be chief architect. But celebrity chef and architect are comparisons surely too mondain to describe a man equipped by nature to satisfy the globe's vast and neurotic appetite for explanation.

Withal, Taleb has become a rock star at Davos, a description that, 'philosopher' being inappropriate, I imagine he finds pleasing. But the World Economic Forum is itself a classic 'pseudo-event'. This was the term coined by Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin to describe something that exists only because it is reported. If there were no cameras in Davos, there would be no politicians. If there were no politicians, there would be no Taleb.

Only in the failing profession of consistently inaccurate economic forecasting would it be astonishing to discover the role of uncertainty and creativity in human affairs. Thing is, our world is shaped by the incalculable forces of desire rather than by mere measurable needs. Soft stuff is what matters.

The evidence is everywhere. Apple became the world's most successful company because it made products that looked pretty. Miles Davis's contrarianism had its equivalent in business when, at Sony's brilliant high noon, Akio Morita declared: 'We do what others don't.' Prophets, even those of Taleb's stature, cannot explain magic, charm, taste and desire.

But they do go on. My favourite example is Nikolai Kondratiev, Lenin's commissar of business efficiency, who said all cultural and economic activity was on a long, sinusoidal wave with a 50-year period, what he called a 'supercycle'. For this insight, he was sent to the Gulag. Taleb argues against grand theories, but wants to present one of his own.

Taleb's latest big theory requires a big book. It is 500 pages long, has another 23 pages of bibliography and an ever-so-necessary glossary of seven pages. Literary purists or enthusiasts of style, economy and wit will find very little to enjoy.

The very first sentence is a trope whose earliest source is the Comte de Bussy-Rabutin who is, so far as I can see, not mentioned in the composed-to-impress bibliography. However, the book's ambition may be inferred from references in the index to Stefan Zweig and Nietzsche.

Readers allergic to pseudo- serious neologisms will need to take precautions with Antifragile. I confess that I skipped a bit, but nonetheless 'subtractive prophecy' and 'opaque heuristic' bushwhacked me. These are the wrong tools to understand the dynamics of wealth creation; it's like using an inchtape to measure cleanliness.

Taleb's writing is awful. Here is a sentence taken at random: 'The worst problem of modernity lies in the malignant transfer of fragility and antifragility from one party to the other, with one getting benefits, the other one (unwittingly) getting the harm with such ransomer facilitated by the growing wedge between the ethical and the legal'. I have read this several times and can determine no meaning.

Despite the skipping, I did find a section called 'The Importance of Lunch'. This demonstrates some of Taleb's methods. A snappy title but a lazy lack of substance (it is less than one page) plus coy egotistical intrusions. On the positive side, there is a nice hedonism perhaps arising from his Greek Orthodox culture. 'My rule is to drink no liquid that is not at least a thousand years old - so its fitness has been tested. I drink just wine, water and coffee'.

There are solid grounds for comradeship in such a liquid declaration, but nonetheless I find it impossible to believe anyone could read this conceited, overweight and underwritten book for either pleasure or instruction. But then I think the same of Jamie Oliver. I predict Antifragile will be a great success.

Stephen Bayley is the author of Ugly: The aesthetics of everything, published by Fiell Publishing at £25


Antifragile: How to live in a world we don't understand
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Allen Lane, £17.50

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