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The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It. Joshua C. Ramo, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2009, 279 pages.

Joshua C. Ramo’s book, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It, has been given considerable attention within the Army Training and Doctrine Command for its projection of a global future characterized by accelerating and uncontrollable change, surprise, and unpredictability. Ramo contends that the “Age of the Unthinkable” will be a revolutionary era of surprise and innovation where small events can have momentous consequences for the global community.

To survive this age, Ramo suggests that we will need to think and act like revolutionaries, or else we will become victims of the revolution. Ramo’s ideal revolutionaries are quick-thinking and fast-acting insurgents who wage constant war against an array of ever-present threats to their existence. “New world” thinking demands acceptance of the basic unpredictability of the coming global order and “junking” of the traditional noncreative thinking reminiscent of the “old world.”

Fundamental to Ramo’s new world thinking is the adoption of “deep security,” a revolutionary “way of seeing, thinking, and acting that accepts growing complexity and ceaseless newness as givens.” Deep security has three elements: nonlinear thinking, context, and resiliency. Nonlinear thinking is the most critical element, since access to the other two (context and resiliency) depends on one’s willingness to think in a nonlinear fashion.

While linear thinking derives from the scientific method, critical thinking, and the logical approach that values objectivity, nonlinear thinking is relative to one’s point of view and moves in multiple directions from multiple starting points, eschewing the possibility or the necessity of objectivity. Ramo associates linear thinking with hierarchical organizations where decisions and information originate at the top and move downward vertically and nonlinear thinking with diversity, globalization, multiple points of views, and horizontal “flattened organizations.”

Ramo contends that there will be “no right final view of the world.” Like others caught in the post-modern trap, Ramo leaves his readers with no good reason to believe his view. In fact, this statement constitutes the great paradox of his book. The efficacy of nonlinear thinking decreases in relation to the acceptance of Ramo’s linear thought.

In regard to the relationship between the United States and Iran, Ramo maintains that “swarming it with different policies, presents a radically new kind of diplomatic pressure that is both responsive and flexible, that doesn’t count on any certainties.” Statements like this convince readers that “nonlinearity” is the result of Ramo’s desire to draw a crowd rather than a genuine form of psychosocial behavior. If Iranian policies are not after some certainty, why bother? Once the reader blows through the pop psychology, Ramo is simply presenting different strategies, each of which begs for some measure of linear certainty.

Ramo states that resiliency will define security in the 21st century. Instead of the linear approach that tries to anticipate every possible contingency, a resilient nonlinear approach ensures adaptability and survival. Resilient people develop strong “immune system[s]” that enable them to “bounce back” from the chaotic and indeterminate nature of the new age. They are amoral and believe there is no one right way of thinking or doing. Change for them is constant and a waste of energy to resist. They ready themselves for a time when everyone will live by their own rules or be forced to live by the rules of someone else.

If Ramo’s nihilistic vision of the future holds true, the nonresilient will become the wreckage of bygone civilizations. For the more hopeful, Ramo fails to substantiate the premise of his book—that there is something uniquely special about the new age. Much of the strength of his argument lies in anecdotal evidence generated to convince readers that he is a wise and tenured world traveler who has talked to the right people.

Linear truth be told, strands of Ramo’s thought can be traced back to the intellectual mood at the turn of the 20th century among Social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner who made glib assertions about the “survival of the fittest” and the sappy intent of Congress to interfere with the liberty of mine operators employing 10-year-old boys. Henry Adams, Sumner’s more thoughtful contemporary, worried about the “law of acceleration” that was whirling society out of control and causing it to break into an incalculable number of pieces. He thought it might “require a new social mind” to put it all back together, but he saw nothing to suggest the mind would not react. He was certain, however, that “it would need to jump.”

The mind did jump, and there is no good reason to believe it will not do so again. Ramo is not the first to experience the confusion and uncertainty of a world in rapid or even unpredictable transition, nor will he be the last.

Stephen E. Bower, Ph.D., is the command historian at the Army Soldier Support Institute at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.


 
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