Antifragile

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Antifragile is a concept from a book by Nassim Nicholas-Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Taleb describes three types of properties:

  • Fragile: the thing is hurt by stressors (sudden, high-impact events). A glass picture frame is fragile.
  • Robust: the thing is not impacted by stressors. A rock is robust.
  • Antifragile: the thing adapts to stressors, so that in the long-term it is positively impacted by them. A muscle is antifragile; exercise strengthens it by damaging it.

Antifragile is optimal in a genetic fitness sense. According to Taleb, it is erroneous thinking to conclude that "robust" is the opposite of fragile, because that thinking is blind to the hidden property of antifragility.

Because of this blindspot, antifragility was never "considered as an option" by political and financial systems. A government will shoot for perfect stability, blind to the fact that organic systems require a degree of instability. Bad events should fortify the system by allowing it to build up resistance to negative events. Therefore, by completely eliminating harms makes is more vulnerable to the harms that cannot be eliminated.

Taleb explains aspects of his antifragility theory in his talk at Google. Fragility is a second-order-effect; Harm increases disproportionately with event size.

There is also a question of time frames; a fragile thing will improve gradually over time and then be destroyed all at once from a black swan. An antifragile thing might do the opposite. The potential for black swans can be modeled as a sort of potential energy; a system is "fragile" if there is a high likelihood of ruinous black swans.

An antifragile system will not punish failure, but rather, use failures as inputs to guide future decisions.

Antifragility can be considered from a Darwinian lens. Stressors kill the weak in the system, leaving only the resilient. This gives the appearance that the whole system is stronger. Additionally, Darwinian evolution requires variation, which produces some weak offspring as a byproduct; to eliminate all weakness is to eliminate the benefit of evolution.