William Gibson on Risk Management: It’s the only idea of our times


27 June 2003

I thought it was interesting to read William Gibson’s argument that risk management isn’t just a good idea but is, in an important sense, the only idea of our times.

Book cover

“Pattern Recognition” by William Gibson (paid link)

“Of course,” he says, “we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile.” He smiles a version of Tom Cruise with too many teeth, and longer, but still very white. “We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”

―William Gibson: Pattern Recognition, 2003 (paid link).

Gibson has a way of hitting a nerve in his cultural analysis, and I think he has an important social development by the tail here. The idea of ‘now’ is certainly compressed in today’s business—you can call it the real-time enterprise, but it is much more profound than that. Similarly, businesses have no futures, only scenarios. The present becomes everything. Pattern recognition replaces traditional analysis: you don’t really know why things are happening (because that ‘why’ requires a sense of history and a vision for the future) so the best you can do is to try and spot patterns. Making decisions boil down to risk management: the tool of the ‘now’ decision. Without a sense of history to guide you and without a sense of the future—destiny if you like—to make ‘irrational’ decisions, the process is one of weighing rewards against possible consequences. Risk management.

Risk management is cool? Wow!