Taleb : applied to web development

I know nothing more about Nassim Nicholas Taleb than what I read in the Sunday Times magazine this weekend : that is he’s trader, turned philosopher who makes bleak predictions on the global economy and the over efficient world we now live in.

Taleb has has a theory about Black Swans in life : things we don’t know about that come out of nowhere and disrupt our lives or investments, sometimes directly contrary to facts we had taken as a given. The analogy that the term is derived from relates to the discovery of black swans in Australia. They’d always existed, but up until their discovery most reasonable people would have told you resolutley that swans are white. The discovery of black swans destroyed the commonly accepted white swan theory.

A few of Taleb’s points seemed to resonate with recent changes in thinking behind web development. He believes that we have to accept our falibility as humans : we are not perfect; we cannot perfectly understand incredibly complex systems around us; to rely upon our “understanding” of such systems with no error margin is dangerous.

A similar idea seems to lie behind the increasing popularity of Agile development methodologies. In a lecture (mp3) given by Leisa Reichelt at d-construct 2007 which Dan and I attended she talked about the difference between the traditional waterfall model of development and Agile development which is growing in popularity. Leisa said that the way we naturally solve proplems is piecemeal : we see the “headline” for the problem, visualise a solution and think we’ve nailed it. However, as we start to build the solution, we discover more problems that we hadn’t forseen (read: black swans), have to reassess our solution and come up with another one. This happens again and again as we move closer towards an acceptable solution. The traditional waterfall model doesn’t allow for this : we have to specify the entire solution at the beginning of a project leaving little room for deviation as we start to build it. Agile programming lets us adapt the solution as we go, taking decisions based on the discoveries (black swans) we make along the way.

In essence Agile does away with the assertion that we can arrive at a perfect understanding of the complex system we are building a solution for, accepts that we can’t possibly know everything about it, and sets out to start exploring the system, uncovering the benign black swans along the way before they become maglignant and catastrophic.

Taleb is a proponent of “tinkering” – so much so it was to be the title of his next book: From the Sunday Times article I read:

Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.

To me “Tinkering” seems a really great way of describing agile development to the layman.


  1. Cyan Collier
    Posted 2 June 2008 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm.. Not sure if I’d refer to the invention of the internet as a black swan, more an evolutionary process. Black swans are “events”. Things like the wild west are much better analogies for the internet.

    True black swans are events that come out of nowhere and forever change our perception of the world. 911 is a good example of a black swan event.

    Apart from that Taleb talks a lot of sense, he’s one of the few bearish investors/ economists to speak out. Fred Harrison and Joseph Stiglitz are probably in the same ballpark, they are all now vindicated.

    Health warning: Reading Fred Harrison’s book can seriously damage your optimism!

  2. Posted 2 June 2008 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    That was a quote from the Sunday Times article which I’m assuming came straight from the horse’s mouth. I included the quote to give examples of the outcomes of tinkering – I agree that the ‘All were black swans’ sentence didn’t make much sense.

  3. Cyan Collier
    Posted 2 June 2008 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Yeah – The Times is rubbish these days. You can’t really take seriously a paper that has people such as Rosie (house prices always go up) Millard and Anatole (The Germans need to take on more debt) Kaletsky as economics columnists. Complete eejits.

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