AntifragileInterrupted – Air Travel and Beyond

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“But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder


The collective ‘MH’ will also be associated with shocking memories. What a year for the seemingly safe mode of ‘air travel’?

For one, it shattered the umbrella of safety rendered by the strictly regulated and controlled global aviation community. The risks involved with air travel when construed as a product of ‘probability and consequence’ seem set to rise – as a result of increasing aberrations beyond the control of contemporary air traffic regulation.

While the Ukraine/Russia spat plays out publicly, what is certain is that this danger is not isolated to the Ukraine/Russia border areas. The post-cold war proliferation of advanced weaponry into numerous battle zones around the world is on an upward trajectory, as recent incidents of aircraft downing in Eastern Ukraine or the firing of rockets in Gaza indicates.

The airlines, predictably, responded by changing their air-route after MH-17 accident. But planes regularly have to fly over other sensitive areas including Afghanistan, the Levant, Eastern Africa, and the like. Other options for airlines include flying higher or equipping themselves with countermeasures – flares and chaff and jammers (to disrupt missile directing radars). Expensive as these measures are, cheaper alternatives like painting the underside of aircraft are not practical because at cruising altitudes of 10000m (33,000′), missile crews don’t rely on visual identification anyway.

Then of course, there are passive means involving interaction with and receiving updates from security experts based in the conflict zones, tracking and monitoring weapons systems by way of human and signal intelligence methods. There are many other options, but it can be safely assumed that these exercises will make flying more expensive in the future. This is the cost of fragility within the system.

A rather rad thinker of our times, Nassim Nicolas Taleb, of Black Swan fame, talks of a new ‘antifragile’ theory in his book of the same name. I agree with him, when he argues that as social interaction, networking, competition for space and resources, in context of dwindling resources and increasing premium on the supply side of things, are likely to increase the seemingly one-off aberrations amidst our daily lives…whether they be related to environmental nature-led events or deliberate acts by human forces (while climate-change is human-led, it is a cumulative change that is not purpose-driven and deliberate to the extent that conflict-related events are).

What is significant is that all these aberrations, from seemingly benign ‘stuck in traffic’ issues to life and death situations have a cumulative impact on society…the result being impatience, intolerance and at the extreme end, fear psychosis.

To counter this fragility that is creeping into our everyday activities, Taleb prescribes an ‘Antifragile‘ approach. Essentially, he wants us to practice ‘defensive driving’ in every aspect of our lives, personal and professional, and get better while we’re at it. And to me, this makes a lot of sense.

The failure of predicting ‘market crashes’ is a case in point that proves human fallibility in the area of predictive analysis, in spite of a great many people hinging on the outcome of market-driven interaction and the huge amounts invested in it. It is my opinion that risk considered primarily as a product of probability and consequence needs to be revised for modern day aberrations that make it very difficult to zero-in on the ‘probability’ of events, for instance in the case where seemingly ‘safe’ air travel can turn into a shocking accident within the blink of an eye.

In fact, a newer definition of risk talks about the ‘effect of uncertainty on objectives’ essentially implying that we need to talk about ‘preventing surprises’ and not try to rationale ‘unwanted events’ because the latter is difficult to define and impossible to manage. Also the latter lulls us into a false sense of security, while the unknown realm of ‘surprises’ keeps us on our toes.

As the 9/11 Commission Report brings out, the hijack-cum-crash was beyond the ‘unwanted events’ scenario of the authorities at the time. Retrospectively, it was universally decided to secure the cockpit doors – an obvious, but unfortunately retrospective afterthought in the aftermath of the tragedy. And that is where Antifragile plays a big part – it makes us think beyond the norm, invest in surprise-prevention – by addressing potential events that have no precedence and encourage a ‘safe yet effective’ culture in spite of illusionary costs.

Internalizing such behaviour in the face of recent events begs the following questions of us:

To what extent are we ready to forfeit individual freedom towards the collective good ?

To what extent are we capable of assessing dangers pragmatically, without letting the psychosis ‘monster’ loose in our minds ?

To what extent are we prepared to skew the cost-benefit dynamic in favour of security as opposed to potentially wasted effort ?

An introspection on the above lines is likely to provide an honest appraisal of our ability to confront future risks and challenges.

— RIP to the departed souls of 9/11, 26/11, MH-370, MH-17……..and to those who are likely to leave our midst while we plod towards the perfect solution.