Risk, Surprise

Boiling Frog Syndrome

Image:  Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

We come now to the metaphor of the “boiling frog syndrome” which has many metaphorical cousins, such as an “ostrich with its head in the sand.”  This metaphor refers to the notion (apparently untrue according to biologists who have tested it) that a frog will not jump out of gradually heating up water–and, sadly, dies.  (In reality, the experts say, if the frog can jump out it will.)  This expression is used to warn of our built-in tendencies to ignore or dismiss changes that are so gradual (or long-term, or complex, or multi-faceted) as to be nearly invisible or even incomprehensible.  As specialization drives experts, analysts, and planners into focusing on ever-narrower slices of knowledge, the thought goes, they lose an ability to see the whole.

Whatever our daily preoccupation, this fragmentation of our attention affects us all, in sometimes unnoticed ways, leading me to wonder if we might all have a bit of boiling frog syndrome.  If so, what do we do to counter it?  Who are those who manage to overcome this syndrome, how do they do it, and are we able to hear them?

As someone who has been spending a lot of time in the gym lately (to get ready for those New Year’s resolutions!), it is impossible to miss the many HDTV screens propped up overhead.  They beam down at all, apparently selected to represent a spectrum of political and entertainment tastes.  Seemingly, there ought to be something for everyone, as no less than twelve different channels are simultaneously broadcasting literally in our faces.

Those who want to can tune in to the channel of their choice, wearing headphones connected to the fitness machine they’re on to hear their chosen flavor of the news. While people pump their legs on this or that machine, with water bottles propped up on the machines, towels cast to the floor, and iPods attached to their spandex belts, horrific images of violence in cities and countries around the world flash up in front of us–simultaneously.  When I leave the gym, I feel refreshed usually from exercising but usually have a vague sense of unease from having just been enveloped by oversized TV screens purporting to tell me something.

Bursts of “news” with next-to-no context tell us little, despite the inordinate amount of time devoted by each channel to endlessly rehashing details of the day’s top headlines.  Although these stories are immensely important, it is difficult to hear about them in dueling soundbites, so I generally try to ignore them altogether while at the gym.

The interconnections and deeper underlying causes or trends are rarely examined, of course, in the “news” because they are not news.  Such phenomena develop slowly over time, like gradually heating water.  Occasionally a tipping point of some sort or other is reached:  a catastrophe occurs that focuses our attention…but only for the time it takes before another sudden eruption captures the news.  Beneath the surface so much else is going on…but it is difficult to make sense of it, and thus it doesn’t ever make the news.

Some recent works (such as here  and here)  suggest that we are applying the wrong models (and thus harbor ill-founded expectations about risks) to trying to understand the complex (increasingly interconnected and interdependent) systems that make up global society today.  Mankind’s very successes in developing more efficient supply chains, transportation systems, and ICT are creating new vulnerabilities, or “systemic risks,” which we generally are poorly equipped to detect, let alone understand.  These risks represent “highways for failure propagation” which can ultimately result in “man-made disasters,” say the authors.  Highly interconnected systems, such as the financial system, or food and energy markets, are complex systems that are difficult to predict and control.  If there is a mismatch of expectations, it might be difficult-to-impossible to see these risks in time–leading in turn to the “surprises” or “abrupt changes” that are the focus of this blog.  Would such risks be like the “boiling frog”  or a “black elephant?”  It seems that this may be a fitting point at which to consider what the originator of the “black elephant” concept intended…coming up in a future post!

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