Overshadowing all this, though, is the scary reality that our societies have become dependent on complex systems that are fragile, unpredictable and poorly understood. Stock markets driven by high-speed algorithmic trading are one obvious example. The just-in-time logistics system that stocks our supermarkets is another: if, for some reason, trucks were off the road for a week, most shops would run out of everything. A third is the international system that provides the food we eat.
And then there is international banking. At a Centre for Science and Policy conference in Cambridge last week, there was an interesting discussion on whether we’ve learned the lessons of that particular complex system. The most profound answer came from Professor Barry Eichengreen of Berkeley. “Well,” he said, “I think we’ve done a good job of putting in place an early-warning system for the last crisis.”
It’s not just generals who are always preparing for the last war.