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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Nobody knows anything

I won't pretend to have read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable" but I do like his Ten Principles for a Black Swan-proof World. I've got particular sympathy for his point that "complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it". Just as the most important three words in a marriage are "you were right", the most important three words in business are the three you rarely hear - "I don't understand."

The area I work in doesn't have the potential to decimate your pension, even if it's really badly run, but nonetheless in my working life I've seen the media morph from a business whose processes were largely transparent to one that has grown increasingly opaque. For a couple of years after the widespread adoption of what was then known as Desk Top Technology I used to half-heartedly suggest that we set aside one day a year when we would put together a magazine in "the old way", just to reassure ourselves that we still knew how to do it. That seems ridiculous now. But what applies to business practices also applies to business models. For instance, I find it hard to believe that there is anyone at the top of any of our big media organisations who really understands how web advertising and marketing really works. I suspect they're glad that nobody ever asks them.

If Taleb is looking for an eleventh principle, I'd suggest a rather broader point. I use it to bore and occasionally encourage my children. It's this. "Cleverness is overrated."