27 August

The Black Menagerie

I'm a sucker for a metaphor, especially when it comes with an unnecessarily overblown title, so I was delighted to come across the Menagerie of Postnormal Potentialities from The Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies. I have no idea who they are or to what end they are aiming at, but I love how they've extended the Black Swan concept.

Black Swan events, as you'll recall, are ‘outliers’, things totally outside and way beyond our observations. When they happen they're a total surprise and were not predicted by experts. And yet, once observed, they become just another part of normality, easily explained away.

The swan is used because, until the European discovery of Australasia, all observed swans were white and the impossibility of a black swan was often used in philosophical arguments. But, as I discovered when visiting family in New Zealand, black swans are shockingly common. In Rumsfeldian terms, a black swan is an unknown unknown, and once it becomes known it's hard to imagine it being unknown at any time. They change what we consider normal.

Black Elephants do not exist in the flesh except perhaps as silhouettes against an African sunset, but the elephant is rich in metaphor. In this case the elephant is in the room. In Postnormal terms they are "extremely likely and widely predicted events that are usually ignored either by many or a society as a whole."

While a black swan event takes everyone by surprise but it quickly accepted, a black elephant event can be seen coming by anyone who cares to look, but is generally ignored, presumably because acknowledging it would require doing something about it.

Black Elephants are everywhere in our society and notably cluster around societal issues like our inability to deal with homelessness, or the forthcoming ecological catastrophe. They're similar to Douglas Adams' Somebody Else's Problem fields.

Black elephants are normal but because we cannot see them we are shocked by how they don't fit with our idea of what is normal. They're a nice illustration of how our perception of reality is skewed by our inability to handle the truth.

Black Jellyfish may exist in the seas, though it's unlikely. They're used here because a slight shift in water conditions can cause a rapid explosion in jellyfish populations. They are "all about how normal situations and events become postnormal; how they mutate through postnormal conditions by becoming interconnected, networked, complex and contradictory."

Human communication in the 21st century could be explained as a black jellyfish event. The internet rewired how people share information in ways that we're not going to fully understand for a long time. The sharing of ideas within communities slowly went post-geographic over the 20th century with the telegraph, telephone, television and other tools which brought closer the far-away, but in the 1990s these methods exploded exponentially. The political system in Britain could be said to reflect how communities were networked before the internet, based around location, newspapers and class. Online networks radically changed this and so we have events like Brexit which don't map onto our existing parties.

Black Jellyfish are events that when they occurred in the past were normal and now they've mutated are still normal. On the surface they look the same, but their difference in scale betrays a massive change.

I wonder what other animals that lend themselves to metaphor we can paint black?

via Nicolas Nova's excellent newsletter

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