Is the Artificially Generated Stampede a Black Swan?

black swanNassim Nicholas Taleb, a prolific writer and economics professor, popularized the term “black swan.”  It refers to an epic event that comes as a surprise (to the observer), has a significant impact and is rationalized in hindsight.  An event like 9/11 would be a prime example.  Although conceivably foreseeable, it was difficult to predict and virtually impossible to prevent.  In the aftermath of a black swan, you’ll likely hear the obvious comments “how could this have happened” and “we should have known better.”

Black swan theory refers exclusively to unexpected events of magnitude and consequence.  These events often play a dominant role in history, molding public opinion and shaping future policy.

So could you classify an artificially generated stampede as a black swan?  Most definitely.

It easily meets the first criterion.  The United States has witnessed countless stadium sporting events.  But there’s virtually no expectation of a human stampede because it simply isn’t the norm.  So to watch people suddenly run for their lives would come as quite a shock: to stadium attendees, the television viewing audience and society at large.

It also meets the second criterion of incredible significance.  From a generational warfare perspective, this is uncharted territory.  Absent are the customary tools of war.  Smart phones and information become lethal instruments.  Harnessing the power of a human stampede and using it as an indiscriminate weapon of terror would be a considerable advancement in the realm of asymmetric warfare.

The third criterion (rationalization in hindsight) is where things get a little interesting.  This may come as a surprise, but artificially generated stampedes are nothing new.  In 1941, a stampede in Chongqing, China killed roughly 4,000 people.  It’s widely regarded as the worst stampede in the history of civilization.  During a prolonged Japanese aerial bombardment, scores of Chinese looked for coverage in a bomb shelter.  Upon hearing the all-clear siren, many went back above ground only to hear the warning siren sound again.  The massive crowd rushed back upon itself resulting in thousands being asphyxiated and trampled to death.  It could be argued that the trigger, an ill-timed blaring siren, was artificial in nature.

I think it’s a safe assumption that an artificially generated stampede triggered through cell phones is at some point, inevitable.  Texting “bomb” in a packed stadium is merely the 21st century equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.  Take an objective look at the multitude of internet related hoaxes that are readily adaptable to cellular platforms.  Hacking, phishing, catfishing, spoofing, swatting… the list continues to grow.  Remember when you were guaranteed a financial windfall from a wealthy Nigerian diplomat providing you send him the necessary funds to bribe a prison guard.  The world has come a long way in a short span.

But all these hoaxes and fraudulent schemes are nothing new.  And it doesn’t take a social engineering genius to realize the end game.  It’s not personal shame or fiscal damage.  It is bodily injury and loss of life.  For this reason, I believe an artificially generated stampede would be easily rationalized in hindsight.  What I doubt humanity is adequately prepared for is the potential for multiple stampedes, a/k/a the dominipede.  I just don’t believe it’s conceptually on the radar.  All the relevant data are out there, readily available but unaccounted for in risk management programs.  The problem stems from an overall lack of government accountability and societal disengagement.  It’s that same old catch-22.  If you acknowledge the problem, you own it.  And if it were to happen, guess who gets the blame?

Nassim Taleb once stated, “A small number of black swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.”  Taleb was not in the business of predicting black swans.  His desire was to encourage societal awareness and accountability while at the same time building resilience and robust strategies against negative outcomes.

One day, I suspect you’ll hear all three terms (artificially generated stampede, dominipede and black swan) referenced in the same sentence.  What will the human race learn as a consequence?  It’s hard to say.  But I do know one thing.  In the aftermath of a dominipede, a cataclysmic event so ominous yet easily predictable, I’d suggest Taleb ditch his teaching career.  Maybe he and I could open a consulting firm and teach the federal government how to better safeguard the lives of its citizens.