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April 16, 2007

Anticipation and Resiliency

Scientist and science-fiction author David Brin delivered the keynote address at the Libertarian Party National Convention in July 2002.

If you have time, read the whole thing at http://www.davidbrin.com/libertarianarticle1.html .

His comments about "anticipation and resiliency" (below) are just as relevant regarding today's shooting at Virginia Tech -- or almost any natural or man-made disaster -- as they were about the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Virginia Postrel, lately of REASON Magazine, speaks to this in her book, The Future and Its Enemies, where she distinguishes between two ways of dealing with change: anticipation and resiliency.

Peering ahead with those vaunted prefrontal lobes, we try to anticipate problems -- and we've grown better at it! But ultimately, a civil society must also be strong and resilient enough to deal successfully with unexpected surprises. The shocks that we didn't anticipate.

This is an important distinction, for it offers Libertarians a way out of the bind they find themselves in after September 11, 2001 -- with a nation turning to rally around those who portray themselves as our sole protection against a dangerously hostile world. So bear with me.

Anticipation makes up a surprisingly large fraction of our economy, including many services practiced by specialists and professionals -- intelligence officers, stock market analysts, business managers, and so on. Their efforts to peer ahead -- betting, allocating, managing, gambling, investing, hedging -- play a large role in the success of markets, for instance.

Resiliency is less focused and depends much less on specialization. Rather, it is grounded upon the quick reactions of countless individuals and generalists, responding to events as they happen, whether it's the arrival of a new product... or news of a hijacked plane crashing into a skyscraper. (Naturally, a person can be a specialist in one area and a generalist in many others.)

The problem is this. It is in the best interests of the professional class -- all of them, whatever their superficial political differences -- to emphasize anticipation over resiliency.

Take, for example, the tragic events of September 11, 2001. A central fact that's been overlooked ever since, by nearly every fashionable pundit, is this: every truly effective action that was taken on that awful day -- to palliate the harm and thwart our enemies -- was performed by private individuals. Citizens who proved themselves to be far more agile, imaginative and resourceful than any of society's elites picture them to be!

  • Most of the useful video footage was taken by private parties, armed with the new equalizers -- cameras -- a potentially crucial element in future emergencies.
  • Private cell phones spread word quicker than official media, including crucial calls for evacuation and rebellion. So did email and instant messaging, when the phone system got swamped.
  • Potentially harmful rumors were swiftly debunked by independent "urban legend" or hoax-busting web sites, taking on a role that government can never be trusted with. A role unsuitable for any highly-vested class.
  • Swarms of volunteers descended on the disaster sites, as local officials quickly dropped their everyday concerns about liability or professional status in order to use all willing hands.
  • Finally, the sole immediate action that effectively thwarted terrorist plans was taken aboard United Flight 93, by individuals armed with intelligence and communication tools -- and a mandate -- completely outside official channels.
  • Let me emphasize this point. That day, when the professionals' powers of anticipation broke down, nearly every truly effective measure of resiliency was taken by a society of tenacious private citizens, reacting with uncanny alacrity and initiative, armed and empowered by the very same technologies that the pundits keep saying will enslave us!


    Despite their assurances, it is demonstrably impossible for anticipatory professionals to foresee and neutralize all threats. Whether they are in government or private enterprise. No matter how many "emergency powers" we grant them. The events of 9/11 demonstrated this.

    Without ingratitude for their sincere and skilled services, we must nevertheless be prepared for their occasional failure, and to roll with the blow when it comes.

    Resiliency demands something quite different than specialization and diligent professionalism. Resiliency calls for an equally amazing and profound rise in competence on the part of citizens, consumers, eccentrics, dissenters, minorities... in other words, the generalist talents of amateurs.

    -David Brin "Essences, Orcs and Civilization: The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism"

    Posted by Robert Racansky on April 16, 2007 at 6:55 PM


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