Book Review: John Casti's X-Events

A long-time researcher at IIASA pinpoints the fragile links in modern technological interdependency – yet never loses hope

TVR Books | Jessica Spiegel | July / August 2012

An Optimist of the Apocalypse

The edifice of modern society rests upon an intricately woven web of complexity. Invisible to the everyday eye, the systems that sustain our lives and lifestyles are often so involved that, even if visible, they would be difficult to grasp – try asking a banker to explain credit default swaps and you’ll wonder if even the creators of the contemporary financial system truly understand it. But what happens when a thread in the web breaks?

X-Events, the latest popular scientific work by complexity scientist John Casti, scours that web, searching for weaknesses. With the subtitle The Collapse of Everything and a book jacket flashing with orange flames, the mission seems clear before it’s opened: to warn mankind of our imminent demise.

But a few pages into the first chapter and you realize it’s not just another scientific treatise proving how frail our existence is in a world of mass and matter; nor is it a mathematical foray into the probability of impending disaster; nor is it a philosophical musing on how we’ll respond when Judgment Day arrives.

It is all of the above, a thoughtful (while at times scattered) synthesis of considered analysis by a man who has clearly seen too much of the world to boil down the explanation of our existence, or its end, to one academic discipline. Casti has worked at the Rand Corporation

and, for nearly four decades, at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, south of Vienna, where he has collaborated with some of the most creative scientific minds of the last half-century. And it shows.

Still, approaching this topic with novelty isn’t easy; bookstore shelves are lined with doomsday theories. Casti attempts to set X-events apart by defining them as a particular strain of life-altering occurrences, as those that are exclusively man-made, thus leaving giant tsunami, catastrophic earthquakes and the like to others.

Perhaps a more defining feature of this book is his sense of optimism, inherent in the man-made underpinnings of the book’s premise: What we can cause, we can surely prevent.

But when does a man-made debacle become more than just another disaster? Casti’s definition of an X-Event is shrouded in hazy gray. The difference, he writes, lies in their rarity, with an emphasis on surprise, rather than mere frequency, and impact, be they immediate or lasting.

More interesting from a theoretical perspective is his explanation of when and why an X-event takes place. His theory is that, of all factors contributing to the occurrence of an X-event, the law of requisite variety – essentially gaps in degrees of complexity between two or more interacting systems – will result in a monumental and often devastating event bringing systems back into balance. To illustrate this, Casti uses a timely example from the Arab Spring, where Egyptian society (one system) becomes vastly more complex with modern information technology – think Facebook – than the rigid and static dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak (the competing system). Which brings with it the problem of events being defined by their rarity: There are no past occurrences on which to calculate probability and no known data from which to assess potential impact.

With this mouthful of ambiguity, Casti goes on to describe the various pools from which an X-Event might emerge. The disproportionately large second part of the book, "Getting Down to Cases," reads like a pitch for another line of Michael Crichton novels. When you take away natural disasters, what remains are electro-magnetic pulse attacks and financial meltdowns, robot take-overs and nuclear holocausts, synthetic black holes and shortages of oil, food and water.

The overload of information on these doomsday prophecies is nothing if not entertaining, (did you know there are two easy-to-build devices that can create an electromagnetic pulse?), though at times it reads a little too much like a handbook on Terrorism for Dummies (for details on what goes into each of these two devices, see page 113).

Many of the facts and figures will come as little surprise to those with open eyes and a thick skin: The end of oil, food shortages and a severe scarcity of clean water could bring life as we know it to a screeching halt.

It’s the lesser-known tidbits that make this book a truly engaging read. A brief account of a tech consultant who, single handedly, hacked the Internet – not a site, not a server, but the entire Internet – is just one of many anecdotes that expose the shameful vulnerabilities of our critical systems.

Casti makes a good-faith effort to pull the thread of his theory through the case studies; the Internet, for example, employs a 1970s infrastructure to support a system growing in complexity by the day, causing a disparity between the two systems that will have to be realigned, by X-event or otherwise. There is another way, and the author occasionally alludes to concerted and conscious human efforts that could rebalance systems before disaster sends us back to the Stone Age. Though, between the lines, one can’t help but wonder if mankind is truly capable of conscious acts, or if history can provide even one instance when concerted efforts have beaten X-Events to the punch. To this, the author gives only the suggestion of hope.

While rich in breadth and thoughtfulness, the book lacks the rhetorical eloquence that would lend it more credibility (to witness catastrophe so chronicled, look no further than Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine or Heresies by John Gray). Casti tries to make the denser sections of the book more accessible by throwing in colloquialisms rather than images or analogies that might enhance our understanding.

Still, the information itself, even the highly mathematical and mechanical, is very manageable; just don’t expect articulate one-liners to suddenly shed light on the causes of the financial crisis or the functioning of the Large Hadron Collider.

Where Casti falls short as a writer, he succeeds as a thinker – and by imparting wisdom that can only come from someone who has observed the world closely and knows how it works. In the closing pages, he warns of the dangers of "willful blindness" and encourages the reader to face reality head-on. From behind a veil of steady optimism, moments of worry leak through.

"We are living in the most technologically advanced society ever known to humankind," he writes in the concluding chapter, "yet we continue to sow the seeds of our own destruction, seeds that… are able to develop into the destruction of our entire species."

Certainly not the first time those thoughts have been uttered, but in a world of growing complexity, they deserve to be uttered many times over. To believe that our current way of life is eternally sustainable is the faith of a child without the cognitive blessing of reason. Casti reminds us of this, and that much of our fate is in our own hands.


X-Events: The Collapse of Everything

by John Casti

William Morrow (June 12, 2012)

pp. 336

Order this book online

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