Book review

Why are all the global CEOs turning to this book for answers?

Five senses aren’t enough. Not even a sixth one.

Looking through a list of the books that global CEOs read in 2016, I discovered an interesting fact: the CEOs evidently read an eclectic range of fiction and non-fiction, from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom to Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower by Henry Paulson. But one book that figured on the list of nearly one quarter of the CEOs was The Seventh Sense by Joshua Cooper Ramo, sub-titled Power, Fortune and Survival in the Age of Networks.

It intrigued me. What were the esoteric insights this book contained, that made all these CEOs want to read it?

What the book does, essentially, is to examine various disturbing global phenomena today – like the financial crisis, terrorism, the inequalities of wealth, the breakdown of our ecosystem, the rise of political extremism, the refugee crisis. And then it proceeds to decode a single historical pattern that connects all of these seemingly random dots. In that sense, this book is a kind of successor to influential works like Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave, John Naisbitt’s Megatrends and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.

The credentials of the author, Joshua Cooper Ramo, are interesting. He is the 48-year old Co-CEO and Vice Chairman of Kissinger Associates, the advisory firm set up by Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, which advises some of the world’s largest corporates on heavy-duty geopolitical issues. Ramo has also been a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Leaders for Tomorrow, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the youngest ever Foreign Editor of Time magazine. So, presumably, he knows what he’s talking about.

The networks all around us

Ramo’s thesis is that all of these seemingly unsolvable global problems, whether the unending financial crisis or terrorism, ultimately have one common cause – and that is the networks that define our age. It’s not just the internet but the whole world of networks that surrounds us: financial webs, trade networks, terror networks, artificial intelligence matrixes, DNA databases, the ecosystem of global epidemics etc.

In fact, we are living in a tumultuous new Network Age, which is triggering a fundamental shift in the world order, as profound as that caused by the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago. And unless we can makes sense of how these networks function, we are in deep trouble. Those who can figure out the networks can control the system; those who can’t will end up becoming its servants. This is true at the individual, organisational, as well as societal level.

During the turmoil of the Industrial Age, when the new-fangled factories and transport systems were disrupting the world, and leaving people bewildered by the magnitude of change, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that our five senses weren’t enough to cope with what was happening, and that human beings needed to develop a “Sixth Sense” to make sense of it all. In other words, a feel for the patterns of history.

Likewise, Ramo says that what we need today is to develop a “Seventh Sense” in order to make sense of our baffling, ever-faster, always-on, networked world. If we can acquire this Seventh Sense, it can help us get past the esoteric technology (and warp speed) that usually obscure the true nature of today’s world from us, and help us to see the world as it really is.

Ramo goes on to explain that any institution not specifically created for this new network age – whether a political, economic, military, educational, or any other kind of institution – is unequipped to tackle today’s problems, and can indeed lead to outcomes that are the opposite of what we intend. And, in any case, such a system is ultimately doomed to disintegrate under the upheavals of the age.

See a car seat and think “Uber”

The world is, in fact, divided into two groups, Ramo says: On the one hand, there are our leaders and policy makers, typically people over fifty, who are completely blind to the way the networks operate. And, on the other hand, there is a whole new generation of power-holders who, typically, grew up in a digital world, and who instinctively understand how networks function.

They are the kind of people who can, for example, see a car seat and think “Uber”, or see a spare bedroom and think “Airbnb”. Or, indeed, those who can see Twitter and think “political movement”. (Donald Trump, with his 5 million Twitter followers, is an interesting example of an old generation leader with an innate instinct for networks.)

These two groups live in two completely different realities, and between them they are tearing our world apart. The challenge, therefore, is to equip a new breed of visionaries with a sense of how the networks really, truly operate – and how to channel them creatively, in spheres from business to politics, from security matters to our everyday human life.

The Seventh Sense is a scary book, yes. But it has an underlying theme of hope. Because it tells us that once we penetrate the opacities of Network Effect – once we understand that all networks are essentially the same, whether Facebook or the human brain, that understanding can help us locate where the power resides within those systems. And once we get that that, we are equipped to turn “unfixable” problems into opportunities. Also, equally importantly, we are equipped to create new ways to regulate those networks, which are spinning out of control, because the old ways have become totally irrelevant.

This book is an interesting starting point towards making all that happen. But it is only a starting point. I have a sneaky feeling many of the global CEOs who read the book have now engaged Joshua Cooper Ramo and Kissinger Associates (at multi-million dollar consulting fees) for a more detailed understanding that will move their organisations higher up the Network learning curve – and, thereby, higher up the global food chain.

The Seventh Sense: Power Fortune and Survival in the Age of Networks, Joshua Cooper Ramo, Little, Brown and Co.

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