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Shaken by the pace of change? Get used to it, author warns

Joshua Cooper Ramo offers a unique theory to explain the political tumult, economic volatility and general chaos that have swept the world in recent years.

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The world is entering a network age, one where connections can create surprising power – and unpredictable outcomes. The US military was mired in an unsuccessful campaign in Iraq in large part because American leaders underestimated the power of terror networks, Cooper Ramo argues in The Seventh Sense – a thought-provoking work that won getAbstract’s 17th International Book Award.

Arab dictators taken down by the Arab Spring likewise misread the might of networks. Only by understanding the emerging era of connections can we comprehend the new world order, and to make savvy decisions, Ramo posits.

“If this passage has so far wiped out only encyclopedias, telephone companies and taxi medallions, it is merely because it is just beginning,” he writes.

Ramo, a former journalist, is co-CEO of Kissinger Associates, and he serves on the boards of Starbucks and FedEx. He spoke to getAbstract about the network age.

You laid out a compelling vision of a new age of global connectedness, and you described the paradox of power that’s both widely distributed and disturbingly concentrated. A year and a half after The Seventh Sense was published, any changes to your assessment of the world?

Ramo: My sense is that the underlying forces I described have become more intense. What’s changing is that the recognition of the problem is becoming more widespread. The problem of just how to regulate these massively concentrated companies – which may be some of the most powerful forces in human history in terms of reach and influence – is really a first step towards asking more generally how we want to manage this new world.

Your book was published just before the two populist watersheds of 2016, the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory. How do those surprises fit into your view of the network age?

Ramo: As I say in the book, the fundamental lesson of a network age is that you are what you are connected to. And both Trump and Brexit are reflections of the political meaning of this. The shift in politics from a traditional debate along a left/right divide to a clash over open/closed, is a very network-era problem: What do you want to be connected to? Why? The instinct to build walls and fences, to pull away from global networks, is a natural political reaction to the power shift such systems represent. And of course Trump’s victory also increasingly touches on the problem of how easily these systems – and our brains – can be hacked and manipulated, a problem I talk about in the book. As the hacker Halvar Flake says in one chapter: You don’t need to possess something in order to control it. In the network age it’s possible to manipulate and control a whole political system in ways that once would have once required an invasion.

You predicted the rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but they remain niche products. How soon might digital currencies be widely used? What would spur wider adoption?

Ramo: Ultimately the speed and efficiency of network currencies – currencies engineered for the demands of connection and AI – will drive more usage. But an additional factor is the crisis of legitimacy now underway around the world. No one knows what assets are really “safe” any more, so a global crisis could trigger a flight to exotic digital solutions, which might accelerate their maturity and adoption.

What advice would you give a politician or business leader trying to adapt to the network age?

Ramo: Just get as far away from traditional thinking as you can. The fundamental nature of every object – doctors, universities, cars, companies, voters – are being changed as a result of connection. The question to ask is how they are changing and why. We should also ask what sorts of political and economic systems might emerge to support the demands of an age where people crave connection in a way they once demanded liberty.

How are you advising Starbucks and FedEx to respond to the Network Age? Any specific strategies you’ve laid out for them?

Ramo: They are both doing terrific jobs of handling what is really an unprecedented set of opportunities and challenges.

Which organizations or sectors do you see as well-positioned for the Network Age? And which are most threatened?

Ramo: Best positioned is anything that is able to use network energy to grow – that’s as true for small startups and terror groups as it is for big players like Facebook or Google. Anyone trapped in old expensive business models, or with systems engineered for an older age, these folks will all struggle and eventually fail.

About Joshua Cooper Ramo

Joshua Cooper Ramo is Co-CEO of Kissinger Associates, the advisory firm of former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger. His last book was the international best seller The Age of the Unthinkable.

Based in Beijing and New York, Ramo serves as an advisor to some of the largest companies and investors in the world. He is a member of the boards of directors of Starbucks and Fedex.

His views on global politics and economics have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time, Foreign Policy and Fortune. He has been a frequent guest on CNN, CNBC, NBC and PBS. In 2008 he served as China analyst for NBC during the Beijing Olympic Games. For his work with Bob Costas and Matt Lauer during the Opening Ceremony, Ramo shared in a Peabody and Emmy award.

Raised in Los Ranchos, New Mexico, Ramo holds degrees from the University of Chicago and New York University. He is an avid pilot and motorcyclist.

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