While a number of books have attempted to tell us that we’re going to hell in a handbasket, The Watchman’s Rattle, by Rebecca Costa, makes some attempt to keep us from getting there.

The book postulates that societies such as the Romans and the Mayas have gone extinct because life in these societies became more complex than human brains were capable of coping with. Instead of dealing with the issues, societies foisted the problems off on future generations, until crises such as environmental degradation or attacks by foreign powers ended up destroying the societies.

If that thesis sounds like the one found in Jared Diamond’s Collapse or Charles Mann’s 1491, Costa does cite those books.  What’s different is that Costa goes on to describe what she thinks caused this, and how to prevent it, whether in society or in everyday business.

(While we’re at it, why is there so much interest in societal collapse and armageddon science these days, to the extent that there’s even an acronym for it, Teotwawki [the end of the world as we know it]? Is it a delayed reaction to the fin de siècle Y2K problem, natural disasters, or 9/11? Concern about the Mayan calendar? A cynical attempt by the “preppers” industry to drum up business? )

Costa believes the world is facing similar issues today, with complex problems such as global warming and the growing prison population in the U.S., due to what she describes as five “supermemes,” or beliefs despite facts, that people have difficulty overcoming.

  1. Irrational opposition: Irrational opposition occurs when people are against nearly every alternative without being in favor of any of them. In economic development, this is known as “Citizens Against Virtually Everything,” or CAVE. As an example, Costa cites the current political climate in the U.S., where President Obama’s opponents are against nearly everything he suggests — without offering their own alternatives.
  2. The personalization of blame: The personalization of blame is the attempt to pin responsibility for an overarching complex issue on a single person. An example is the way former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is being blamed for all the company’s problems.
  3. Counterfeit correlation: Counterfeit correlation is the attempt to deal with complexity by associating an issue with another, simpler issue even though they aren’t necessarily related. For example, Costa writes, U.S. public education is said by some to be inferior to that of many other countries. She cites a long list of attempts that have been made to pin this to a number of causes ranging from teachers’ unions to kids watching too much television. In reality, it is a much more complex problem with a variety of interrelated causes.
  4. Silo thinking: In an issue that should be familiar to business executives (as well as readers of this blog), “silo thinking” is where different organizations or groups don’t work together to deal with problems and share information.
  5. Extreme economics: Extreme economics is dealing with everything in terms of making money, return on investment, and so on, without considering what’s good for society or individuals. (One could observe that Costa’s distaste for this didn’t extend to her giving her book away.)

Costa goes on to say that, in addition to working to overcome these five supermemes, people need to help their brains evolve by increasing their ability to generate insights. She recommends achieving this through techniques such as eating certain foods like berries and curry, generating ideas by exercising and walking on uneven surfaces, and participating in particular mental exercises and computer-based games.

Reviews of the book on Amazon range from those praising it unequivocally to those criticizing certain points, such as her bringing up an idea for combating global warming by pumping sulfur dioxide into the air, which has its own environmental issues.

There are other aspects of the book worth questioning. For example, Costa notes that efforts such as recycling actually only address up to 3 percent of the trash generated by societies. Yet, at the same time, she suggests that the way to deal with overly complex problems is with a myriad of simultaneous mitigation approaches, even if individual ones don’t appear to be successful.

Similarly, while Costa criticizes the popular media for overly simplistic correlations, she also cites the same popular media herself with little evidence to justify some of her points, such as the nutritional value in certain foods said to improve insight.

In addition, Costa criticizes people for adding to the complexity of their lives by acquiring second homes or too many possessions, while at the same time saying that brains develop better from learning new things, such as new ways to get around. If that’s the case, then isn’t having a second home twice as good in terms of giving the brain new ways to get around as having just one? It’s true, though, that the new pathways generated by those additional activities could be taken up with having to take care of the second home and its possessions.

Several other supermemes receive short shrift in her book. For example, the whole book is predicated on the notion that people behave rationally, which numerous other systems ranging from economics to Libertarianism, have demonstrated isn’t the case. Amazon commenters also cite others, such as the problems of overpopulation, the idea that progress is always preferable, and that technology will help our society overcome the inherent issue of complexity even though it didn’t help the Romans or the Maya.

At the same time, Costa could in fairness point to such criticisms as being spawned by the first supermeme: reflexive opposition without offering a better alternative.  And despite potential quibbles about certain aspects, overall it’s an interesting book with valid points.

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