Our global financial system has become so staggeringly complex and opaque that we’ve moved from a world of risk to a world of uncertainty. In a world of risk, we can judge dangers and opportunities by using the best evidence at hand to estimate the probability of a particular outcome. But in a world of uncertainty, we can’t estimate probabilities, because we don’t have any clear basis for making such a judgment. In fact, we might not even know what the possible outcomes are. Surprises keep coming out of the blue, because we’re fundamentally ignorant of our own ignorance. We’re surrounded by unknown unknowns.
It's something I've said for a long time:
It's tempting to think that all things are predictable given enough information, enough minds, enough time and enough computing power. It's just not true. (Which is not to say that some things are not predictable... and with incredible precision... a phenomenon that leads to overestimating the scope of problems and questions that lend themselves to such methods.)
Telling which is which is the trick...
I would go even further to say that really smart people who, by life experience know that some things are fundamentally unpredictable still draw an unvoiced sense of emotional comfort in their business life from the idea that some wise expert somewhere has been to the future (for all intents and purposes) and if we could just find him or her things would be OK... and/or that a really sophisticated computer model or prediction market (the 'collective mind') can provide crystal ball-level insights.
Sometimes yes. Often, no.
I liken Mr. Homer-Dixon's observations to those tragically massive car pile-ups that happen a few times of year in fog-prone areas like the Central Valley of California. Everyone is driving along at a reasonable speed, with reasonable spacing between vehicles. People are sipping coffee, tuning radios, maybe talking on cell phones. Slightly distracted, but mostly responsible. All is normal.
Then the first guy hits a fog bank and can't see squat. He taps his brakes. The second guy sees red lights and fog coming up fast and taps his brakes just a little bit harder, and so on. In just a few seconds, hundreds of cars end up in a tangled heap and people die. All because the guy in front was convinced by every one of his senses and not without justification based on experience that the visibility on the next 100 yards of road would be the same as on the last 100 yards of road.