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Word Of The Day: Hyper-Risk

A fiery explosion

Government shutdowns, climate change, zombie attacks: it seems like everyday the news delivers new reasons to think civilization is on the verge of collapse. And yet, a glance back at history shows that things have always been going to hell and somehow we manage to survive.

Is the past prologue? Or has our ever-faster, ever-more connected culture generated risks that are so fundamentally new that looking to the past for guidance is nothing more than a recipe for disaster?

A sobering article I just read by Dirk Helbing argues that, over the last few decades, we have built a global culture vulnerable to hyper-risk.

And that, Armageddon fans, is a thought I can't get out of my mind. While Helbing's whole article is worth discussion, for today I thought I would just introduce this one new concept. So, what is hyper-risk and why do you want to name-check it at your next cocktail party?

According to the standard definition, ordinary risk is just the "effect of uncertainty on objectives." Every choice we make that projects us into the future comes with its own risk. Beyond that definition, however, comes systemic risk in which the usual, random "couldn't see it coming" uncertainty gets mixed together with the reality that we live in the midst of many systems of our own or nature's creation. Mix uncertainty with systems (which are better thought of as networks of interconnected agents) and bad things can happen.

In particular you get opportunities for a single misfortune to couple with the weaknesses inherent in any system or network. If the chance misfortune appears at the wrong place or the wrong time within the system's operation, things can get out of hand quickly as a small cause amplifies into a big effect. As Helbing puts it:

... systemic risk is the risk of having not just statistically independent failures, but interdependent, so-called 'cascading' failures in a network of N interconnected system components. That is, systemic risks result from connections between risks ('networked risks'). In such cases, a localized initial failure ('perturbation') could have disastrous effects and cause, in principle, unbounded damage as N goes to infinity.

But Helbing says systemic risk is a party in the park compared with hyper-risk:

Even higher risks are implied by networks of networks, that is, by the coupling of different kinds of systems. In fact, new vulnerabilities result from the increasing interdependencies between our energy, food and water systems, global supply chains, communication and financial systems, ecosystems and climate. The World Economic Forum has described this situation as a hyper-connected world, and we therefore refer to the associated risks as 'hyper-risks'.

There you go: hyper-risk comes from networks of networks linked together in hyper-complicated ways. Soon I hope to come back to Helbing's exploration of how to manage the hyper-risks that come with our new globally networked age. For today, however, it's enough to raise the issue and the new term.

What do you think: is hyper-risk a new, modern phenomenon? Or is just hyper-hype?

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

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