Randomness and Flukes: Changing the Course of History
Issue 145, February 1, 2024
Hindsight is foresight, yet we may be better equipped to predict the future with the benefit of so much emerging tech. But what AI and ML don’t anticipate is the random moments that change the course of history. What’s frustrating is that you rarely see those moments in real-time. We suggest the reason is that we are looking for the wrong thing, making those random occurrences nearly impossible to recognize.
We were intrigued by a new perspective on randomness and chaos theory by author and associate professor in Global Politics at the London School of Economics, Brian Klass. He has just released a new book, Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters that deconstructs the unintended consequences of events that had significant impacts on society, the economy, and the environment. We are making him the center point of this newsletter.
But first, let’s get on the same page with a few definitions and related terms that are bantered about in debates about randomness and fluke.
- Random: Something that is made, done, happening, or chosen without method (Dictionary.com). In common usage, randomness is the apparent or actual lack of definite pattern or predictability in information. A random sequence of events, symbols or steps often has no order and does not follow an intelligible pattern or combination (Wikipedia).
- Fluke: An unlikely chance occurrence, especially a surprising piece of luck (Dictionary.com).
- Chaos Theory: Within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnection, constant feedback loops, repetition, and self-organization. The butterfly effect, an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. A metaphor for this behavior is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas can cause a tornado in Brazil (Wiki).
- Preordain: To preordain something is to decide that it is going to happen in the future, or to influence it to happen. You might believe that your genes preordain you to be a great math student if both of your parents are brilliant mathematicians (Dictionary.com)
- Fate: The development of events beyond a person’s control, regarded as determined by a supernatural power. And to be destined to happen, turn out, or act in a particular way (Dictionary.com).
- Free Will: The power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion (Dictionary.com). And the capacity or ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded (Wiki).
- Determinism: The doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions (Dictionary.com).
The Bigger Picture
In The Truth About Transformation and this newsletter, we have sought to raise the criticality of understanding the meso, micro and macro levels of systems. Meso represents organizational system, macro is the greater world and societal system, and micro represents you, me and others who are customers and consumers.
Factors and variables within each system can jump across systems, are co-dependent, and can build on each other. Always in flux, these variables are at play connecting horizontally and vertically. As a result, there is real and perceived chaos as we seek to predict, prescript, or even guess at how they influence outcomes. We often lack the intent, focus or knowledge to see the interconnections that are locked in what appears to be chaos or randomness. Often, we fall back on faith, a belief, fate, destiny or determinism to understand and find our way out of what appears to be chaos.
So, getting back to Fluke, here are thumbnail book notes on how Klaas sees our world. “Fluke is a provocative challenge to how we think our world works–and why small, chance events can divert our lives and change everything. If you could rewind your life to the very beginning and then press play, would everything turn out the same? Or could making an accidental phone call or missing an exit off the highway change not just your life, but history itself? And would you remain blind to the radically different possible world you unknowingly left behind? Fluke dives into the phenomenon of random chance and chaos and takes aim at most people’s neat and tidy storybook version of reality.”
We caught an interview with Klaas on Morning Joe where he made the case for his thesis. Stick with it here; the kicker at the end is the radical shift.
“I write about chaos theory as it is applied to human society. Fluke opens with a story from 1926 where a couple goes on vacation to Kyoto, and they fall in love with the city. Then 19 years later the husband ends up as America’s Secretary of War — he’s Henry Stimson and in charge of deciding where to drop the atomic bomb. The target committee keeps saying to drop it on Kyoto, and he goes to President Truman twice to say no. You can’t destroy Kyoto, it’s my favorite city in Japan. So, the first bomb goes to Hiroshima. The second bomb is supposed to go to Kokura, but there’s a brief cloud cover over the city so the bombers go to the secondary target of Nagasaki. The fluke is that you have hundreds of thousands of people dying or living in two cities because of a vacation and a cloud. What I’m arguing is that chance, chaos and randomness often divert our trajectories much more than we imagine when we look more closely at the event.”
He cites another fluke: One boat gets caught in a gust of wind and it twists sideways in the Suez Canal causing $54 billion of economic damage. He includes other examples of 9/11, the war in Iraq, the financial crisis, and the Arab Spring that was launched by one guy who lit himself on fire in central Tunisia and then the entire Middle East caught on fire.
“So, one of the arguments through chaos theory and understanding these concepts is you realize that we’ve made ourselves more prone to these chance events. AI is going to create the illusion of predictability and order but it’s also going to introduce some systemic risk into our world. When you imagine how we live compared to our human ancestors, they had day-to-day chaos; they didn’t know where their next meal would come from or what would happen in their daily lives. Their world was the same generation to generation.
“Their parents taught children how to live, not the reverse. Now we’ve inverted that world. We have a world in which kids teach parents how to use technology. We have computers that we don’t fully understand running systems and the models we use.”
He concludes with the notion that we are embedding more risks into the future, principally through technology. He can’t predict what the next fluke may be but believes what is more important is to become more resilient by optimizing slightly less in the face of this uncertainty and building more slack into our systems. Admittedly, this is not the driving standard in our organizations and economies today.
Fast Company identified the origin stories of several flukes that have become household names. We’re taking a trip down memory lane when history was made, principally because of flukes. Kudos to Fast Company!
- A study abroad in Italy during his junior year at Stanford University provided Kevin Systrom with the inspiration for Instagram. A few years after graduating, Systrom and partner Mike Krieger were working on developing a photo-sharing app. While on a vacation, Systrom’s girlfriend, Nicole Schuetz, remarked that she would be reluctant to use the app because her pictures weren’t as good as a mutual friend’s. Schuetz thought it was due to the friend’s eye for photography, but Systrom knew it was his use of filters, prompting him to remember his experience in Florence. That day, he designed the first Instagram filter–called X-Pro II–that let users turn ordinary photos into hip, artistic images. Instagram was launched in October 2010; a month later it had one million users.
- The inspiration for Twitter came from co-founder Jack Dorsey’s childhood fascination with police scanners. A shy child growing up in St. Louis, he was struck by the short bursts of information shared by law enforcement and emergency personnel. When cell phones and text messages became popular ways for friends to update each other on their whereabouts, Dorsey remembered his days listening to the scanner and his idea for Twitter came and created the company in 2006.
- In 1995, Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, had some extra cash and wanted to invest in the IPO of a gaming company. He found that the theory of efficient markets was really great but in practice, regular people were locked out. Omidyar decided that the internet could be the equalizer, bringing the power of financial markets to the public. He launched eBay that Labor Day.
- “Houston, we have a problem.” Netflix founder Reed Hastings rented the movie Apollo 13 and returned it well past its due date for a significant fine. He wondered why video stores didn’t operate like health clubs, charging a flat membership fee. The light-bulb moment prompted Hastings to buy a bunch of DVDs and mail them to himself to see if they would travel safely through the mail. Hastings founded Netflix in 1997.
- As a child growing up in Iowa, Pinterest founder Ben Silbermann was obsessed with collections. A particular fascination was with bugs, and Silbermann would dry, label, and pin them inside shadow boxes. After graduating from Yale, Silbermann worked for Google but left to follow his dream of designing apps. Eventually, he returned to his obsession: There was nothing on the web that made it easy to show off those kinds of collections. Working with partner and college friend Paul Sciarra, he launched Pinterest in 2009.
- In 2007, San Francisco entrepreneurs Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky were looking to launch the next big thing. The pair met while students at Rhode Island School of Design and had lots of ideas but not enough rent money. After learning that a local design conference had the city’s hotels fully booked, they decided to rent three airbeds on their living room floor to help them make the rent payment. Airbnb was launched in 2008.
- Former PayPal employees Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons joined the business incubator MRL Ventures in 2004 to launch their idea for an email-based referral service they called Yelp. When Stoppelman caught the flu and had a difficult time finding a recommendation for a local doctor, they changed the model from email to internet-based and relaunched the concept in 2005. By 2007, the site had 6 million monthly visitors.
Origin stories are always so inspiring. We imagine the founders as brilliant strategists and problem solvers. What we often fail to recognize is that flukes are ever-present and the catalysts for innovation and invention. Those chance, unpredictable situations typically compel us to find a solution to a problem to avoid feeling lost or uncomfortable.
Technology and the Pace of Change
However, to go back to Klass, the wildcards today are emerging technologies. We have written on technological determinism in our book, The Truth About Transformation, as we have reported on pattern recognition, chaos theory, and the role of whether being in the right place at the right time is fate or random.
The takeaway here is that we cannot ignore the accelerated pace of change, must recognize that AI could prompt a fluke by hallucinating, and we can easily misinterpret a potential cultural or market shift by mistaking fake information for the real thing. Flukes are great in the rearview mirror. They are hinge points in history as Thomas Cahill writes in his epic series. They are also stupid decisions people make as Jared Diamond writes in Collapse about what the people on Easter Island could possibly have been thinking when they cut down the last tree, effectively dooming their society to extinction.
In terms of keeping an organization resilient and vital, it takes foresight balanced with a grounded understanding of history in terms of how the past informs the future but is not its North Star. Our counsel to our clients is to be aware that flukes can trigger innovations but not to mistake random signs as omens. Contingency plans borne of mindfulness and awareness of the intersection of macro trends is a smart strategy. Adapting to change, and not remaining stuck in unevolved systems and processes is key. Being comfortable with uncertainty and viewing it as a signal for change is a pathway to transformation. Leading with empathy, respectful of philosophical lessons balanced with business acumen is what makes leaders effective for a multi-generational, highly opinionated and demanding workforce.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.