In Book of Extremes: Why the 21st Century Isn’t Like the 20th Century, Ted Lewis builds the case for defining the 21st century as likely to become a morass of extreme events unlike any prior century in terms of magnitude and frequency. The core theme of the book is that the world has entered an era of unprecedented network scope and connectedness, which, while offering us all sorts of advantages like social media and global trade (if you think those are benefits), exposes society to massive cascading failures.
Lewis is clearly wired into complexity science, network analysis, and data science. He’s held a variety of positions in academia, industry, and publishing, and spins out a fascinating account of how all those and other disciplines are necessary to even begin to understand what is happening in the world today. He pulls from the internet, marine shipping, climate change, the financial system, and wealth concentrations to argue that we have gone well past the “tipping point” of exposure to black swan events and worse (see my prior posts on systemic risk and dragon kings). Although I disagree with Lewis’s assessment of prior centuries as essentially flat, linear, and relatively free of global networks and extreme events – anyone who thinks so should read Distant Mirror and 1493 – the evidence he amasses regarding the breadth, tightness, and impact of today’s interlinked social, economic, political, and technological networks is impressive. These networks of networks, while robust in one sense, are fragile in others—fragile in ways that can lead to extreme outlier failures. One example Lewis offers is the global shipping trade, which is a complex network linking lanes and ports and which depends disproportionately on just three ports (Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Los Angeles), so much so that failure of any one of those ports can bring down the whole network (which then cascades to other networks such as finance).
These massive networks also can produce behaviors that appear unusual and counter-intuitive. For example, although social media networks theoretically connect everyone around the world and should produce convergence and harmony, there is evidence they are more an agent of fragmentation. Consisten with LEwis’s theme, for example, Curtis Hougland explains in a post today on the Wharton School’s website how social media allow people that have been assembled according to conventional ordering (nations, religions, employment, education) to reassemble according to other personal affinities, thus cutting across traditional boundaries such as nation states. “Social media provides both an organizing tool through its ability to structure and facilitate communication and an organizing principle in the way people gravitate toward the extreme. In this way, social media accelerates political unrest like a giant centrifuge, sinning faster and faster and spitting out those who disagree.”
Book of Extremes provides an excellent, albeit fast and furious, tour through networks analysis, complex adaptive systems, data science, and an array of other disciplines. Lewis uses metaphors such as waves, flashes, sparks, booms, bubbles, shocks, and bombs to tie the science to real-world contexts with scads of historical and modern examples. His bottom line is that governments and individuals need to start taking big “leaps” to avoid continuing down the spiral leading to cascade failures, including more instances of private initiatives not waiting for government to lead, the way SpaceX has launched itself (pun intended).
So, what does this mean for law? For starters, if Lewis is right, get ready for a century of unprecedented demand on the legal system. Law students and young lawyers, watch trends, anticipate disruption, and think hard about what pressures these will place on the legal system to produce solutions, protect rights, and adapt new legal doctrines. You can help shape how law responds, and you can be the first to “jump on it” with thoughtful analysis and reasoned proposals for legal action. In short, think Law 2025!