The Black Swan, Or You Can't Predict The Next Google - InformationWeek

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2/19/2008
01:31 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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The Black Swan, Or You Can't Predict The Next Google

If you read one book this year, make sure it's Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable." Taleb's thesis is that everything the experts think they know about forecasting is wrong, and if you think you can predict the future performance of the stock market from a study of past trends, you're gonna be losing lots of money. And don't go looking for the next Google, either, because it's going to come out of l

If you read one book this year, make sure it's Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable." Taleb's thesis is that everything the experts think they know about forecasting is wrong, and if you think you can predict the future performance of the stock market from a study of past trends, you're gonna be losing lots of money. And don't go looking for the next Google, either, because it's going to come out of left field.Taleb is a world-class contrarian, but there's a method to his seemingly anti-academic madness. The book hints that he made lots of money in the '80s and '90s as a "quant" -- quantitative analysis trader -- which provided him with the wherewithal to retire to a life of reading, thinking, and writing.

Mostly, he's leveraged his experience as a "practitioner" -- i.e., a trader who lived and died by his daily bets, forged in the crucible of empirical economic experience -- to muster evidence against the know-nothing Gaussian predictability of academic economists. But it's precisely that predictability that's a load of crap, Taleb convincingly argues, pointing to the persistent failure of investment sages to forecast any stock-market disasters with success. (Add today's sub-prime meltdown to the list.)

His canonical argument is the turkey. Consider that, from the bird's perspective, humans were obviously put on Earth to provide him with a nice, daily meal. The turkey's "forecast" that tomorrow will bring another fattening repast will be correct for a good, long period. Until one day shortly before Thanksgiving, when it will be very, very wrong.

That last "Sorry, Charlie" moment, where the turkey loses his head, is what Taleb calls a "Black Swan" -- a massively unpredicted and unpredictable event. Such Swans include 9/11, the successes of Microsoft and Google, and pretty much all stock market crashes.

Compounding the error is that fact that the usual response to a Black Swan is a tail-chasing frenzy of activity aimed at preventing its reoccurrence. Stuff like confiscating nail clippers in the wake of 9/11. No matter that, once a Black Swan has, in fact, occurred, its reoccurrence is even more unlikely than its appearance in the first place.

Which brings me to my Google example. The search-engine behemoth casts such a large figurative shadow over the tech sector. It's arguably bigger than Microsoft's was in the 1990s, because back then we all believed in the "next big thing" coming from some startup. Yet it's Google's very heft which I'd argue has sucked much of the intellectual air out of the industry's mass consciousness.

Carrying that argument forward, I'd ask why do we care about Microsoft-Yahoo? That's yesterday's news, or at least news grounded in the past (search), not the future, though unfortunately I don't know what that future holds.

And so here's my big question to you, dear readers: What's the Google in your world -- the elephant in the room upon which colleagues and peers are over-focused, when what they really should be doing is thinking "leapfrog," thinking about what it is they're missing, which is the Black Swan that's about to hit you and them upside the head when you all least expect it.

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