17 September 2012

Africa: Little Things Can Make a Big Difference


"The Tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire," says Malcolm Gladwell in the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Today, There are seven billion of us and what is clear is that the crowd or crowds are interconnected in a way that is simply unprecedented and off the charts.

The shock wave reaction to a movie made by Sam Bacile called the innocence of muslims which has been viewed 3,260,587 times on YouTube compared to #Kony2012 which has been seen 92,788,272 times, has been felt from Jos to Khartoum to Benghazi and Cairo and as far as Bangladesh.

The United States ambassador to Libya J Christopher Stevens was killed in Benghazi but that appears to have been a well calculated revenge attack for the drone strike on Al-Libi which used the wildfire reaction as a smokescreen. Now set these events alongside these comments from the US army war college quarterly 1997.

The US officer assigned to the deputy chief of staff (Intelligence), charged with defining the future of warfare, wrote "One of the defining bifurcations of the future will be the conflict between information masters and information victims." This information warfare will not be couched in the rationale of geopolitics, the author suggests, but will be "spawned" - like any Hollywood drama - out of raw emotions. "Hatred, jealousy, and greed - emotions, rather than strategy - will set the terms of [information warfare] struggles".

Now what are the consequences of this new 21st century madding crowd? A madding crowd which can be inflamed by a fellow with a camera and an account with YouTube. For president Obama, it poses significant risks. You will recall the Iranian invasion of the US Embassy in Tehran and how that stand off sapped support for president Jimmy Carter. We have now entered a similar period for Obama.

There are plenty of flame throwers in a population of seven billion. Bacile has shown that the 21st century equivalent of throwing the match is a camera and the knowledge of how to upload content onto Youtube. The consequences of throwing a Match onto a tinderbox are entirely unpredictable, by their nature. This extreme unpredictability is evidenced by the fact that we have parked two gun boats off the Benghazi coast, ready to bomb the very folks to whose help we went to stop Gaddafi from bombing them.

It's rather peculiar. Now what are the consequences of this new normal? I think it adds beta and volatility into a situation which is blinking amber again. Food prices are at a record and food and revolution have a sky high correlation coefficient. The geopolitical tail risk. Tail risk is "really, really bad outcomes."

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