“Doom” by Niall Ferguson is analogous to a hastily and haphazardly whipped up world encyclopedia. While the reader is treated to an extraordinary variety of incredible information, she is also plagued by data fatigue. This feature of death by data detracts, from the original essence of the book, which in itself is extremely engrossing and absorbing. Ferguson, a Scottish historian and the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, claims that most of the disasters that have rocked humanity is man-made. Even some of the greatest convulsions of nature such as tectonic earthquakes and roaring volcanic eruptions cause untold misery because of humanity settling and resettling on fault lines and in vulnerable cities. When Mount Vesuvius for example left Pompeii in smoldering ruins, in an apocalyptic explosion, it did not take time for the ruined city to be once again transformed into a teeming and bustling hotbed of trade. But in trying to arrive at this conclusion, Ferguson takes a path that is extraordinarily and excruciatingly circuitous. The exploits of Pliny the Elder in courageously venturing towards Pompeii to chronicle the devastation, before suffocating to death takes up quite a lot of pages and consequently the reader’s time.
Ferguson’s novel reasoning is based, to a great extent, on the three concepts of “gray rhinos”; “black swans” and “dragon kings”. The term gray rhino as popularized by American author, commentator, and policy analyst, Michele Wucker, refers to an event that is “dangerous, obvious, and highly probable”. Classic examples being Hurricane Katrina, and the Financial Recession of 2007. A black swan event, on the other hand, according to author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, refers to a situation that “seems to us, on the basis of our limited experience to be impossible.” The COVID-19 pandemic that is at the time of this writing wreaking havoc is a black swan event. Professor on the Chair of Entrepreneurial Risks at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Didier Sornette defines a dragon king as an event so extreme that it lies outside a power law distribution. According to Sornette, examples of dragon king events can be found in six domains: City sizes, acoustic emissions associated with material failure, velocity increments in hydrodynamic turbulence, financial drawdowns, energies of epileptic seizures in humans and animals, and possibly earthquakes. Dragon kings “are extreme events that are statistically and mechanistically different from the rest of their smaller siblings.”
Ferguson also writes that when it comes to any disaster, the scale of damage is dependent on the contagion. Social network structure plays out a vital role in this regard. Banking on the concept of weak ties as elucidated by Mark Granovetter, Ferguson identifies the importance of nodes and networks. For example, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is a direct factor of the basic rate if reproduction, which in turn is a direct outcome of adherence to or neglect of social distancing norms. Paraphrasing Emile Durkheim’s term for elucidating an element of disconnectedness associated with modernity, Ferguson writes that “an economy without crowds is not a ‘new normal’.
This notion of network effects, says Ferguson is also corroborated by the founder of the Ethernet, Robert Metcalfe. According to Metcalfe, greater the number of nodes in a network, the more valuable the network to the nodes collectively, and therefore to its owners. “The history of mankind’s changing susceptibility to infectious diseases tends to be written as a history of pathogens. But it might make as much sense to tell this history as the story of our evolving social networks.”
Ferguson also dwells on two types of errors that primarily trigger manmade disasters, namely, active, and latent errors. Initially proposed by psychologist James Reason, active errors represent errors that are perpetrated by people who are in direct contact with human system interface. Active errors can either be skill-based, rule-based, or knowledge-based. On the other hand, latent errors according to Reason, are the “delayed consequences of technical and organizational actions and decisions – such as reallocating resources, changing the scope of a position, or adjusting staffing.” Ferguson uses the examples of active and latent errors to describe the sinking of the Titanic and the Andrea Gail. Ferguson also claims that untrammeled advances in the field of transportation and conveyance in the form of steamships and rail networks spread disease across continents. The spread of from the Ganges to the rest of the world, for example.
In the final chapters, Ferguson dwells on a potential conflict between two behemoths, the United States and China, which has the potential of bringing untold harm to the world. He also mulls on the potential perils of artificial intelligence and genome mapping which may bring misery to mankind if fallen into wrong hands. A clustered regularly interspaced short palindrome repeats (CRISPR) technology facilitating gene editing is now so cheap that a genetic engineering home lab kit was available for just $1,845 in the year 2020. Ferguson ends his book with references to a whole horde of Dystopian works which presciently predicted novel and unique disasters. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep all make the cut.
“Doom” is an unrelenting compilation of events, situations, circumstances, and outcomes. It is also a confusing assemblage of qualitative and quantitative information that has the ability to send the reader into a dizzying journey. While the assertion that most, if not all, catastrophes that has plagued mankind thus far is attributable to manmade causes, is bold and ingenious, the back up arguments in favour of such a proposition are, unfortunately convoluted, contrived, and complex. On the whole, “Doom” represents fodder for thought and further evaluation. Currently we as humanity are going through some extraordinary times. Conflicting prerogatives such as vaccine diplomacy and vaccine nationalism are tugging and pushing at the invisible strings of emotion. As the word grapples with a calamity of unimagined proportions, how we tide though this crisis would not just represent a reflection of who we are as an interconnected global family but also how we are as evolved human beings of character.
“Doom” – just a beginning of possibilities, extensive.
(Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson is published by Penguin Press and would be released on the 4th of May 2021)