The 21st century has been defined by unexpected shocks—major upheavals that have upended the world many of us have known and made our lives feel like the playthings of chaos. Every few years comes a black swan–style event: September 11, the financial crisis, the Arab Spring, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Even daily life can feel like a roll of the dice: With regularity, some Americans go to school, the grocery store, church, a concert, or the movies and get gunned down in a random act of mass murder.
Many of these events were triggered by flukes: small, chance happenings that were arbitrary, even random, and could easily have turned out otherwise. The Arab Spring started after one vegetable vendor in central Tunisia set himself on fire, sparking a conflagration that toppled tyrants and set the region ablaze. Trump may have decided to run for president after Barack Obama humiliated him with a joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. And no matter what the origin story of COVID-19, a single virus, infecting a single individual in Wuhan, China, jumbled the lives of billions of people—for years. One fluke can change everything, everywhere, all at once.
The world feels like it’s falling apart—faster and more unexpectedly than ever before. The frenetic uncertainty of modern life requires new words, such as doomscrolling, to describe the passive, addictive consumption of bad news about a seemingly never-ending supply of calamity. The pace of shocks seems to be accelerating. Economists, politicians, pundits, and political scientists offer few explanations and seem just as walloped as everyone else. To understand why this is happening—and what to do about it—calls for a combination of science and social science, drawing lessons from chaos theory, evolutionary biology, and physics. [Continue reading…]