White Salmon and Black Swans

First published July 22, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The conversation started innocently enough. We were entertaining out-of-town guests at a winery and restaurant overlooking Lake Okanagan. And, as often happens when people visit B.C., they ordered salmon.

“You know, I heard that not all salmon are pink. There are actually white salmon.”

“Really, I’ve never heard of that.”

“Well, let’s see if there really are white salmon.”

So, we turned to the arbitrator of all such things: Google. If it can be found on the Web, apparently it exists. Which is an interesting behavior in itself, and a point I’ll come back to in a minute. But first, let’s talk about why the existence of white salmon is important.

A Fish by any Other Color

A white salmon is important because it’s a black swan. Or, rather, it’s a Black Swan. The capitalization is critical, because it’s not the animal I’m referring to, but the phenomenon identified by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book of the same name.

For all of human history, until the 17th century, it was commonly accepted that all swans were white. But in 1697, Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered a black swan in western Australia. Why is that important? Well, for the vast majority of us, it’s not. But what if, for some reason, our world revolves around swans? What if our ability to earn a living depends on the predictably of a swan’s natural coloring? Then suddenly, it becomes vitally important.

Black Swans — and white salmon, for that matter — are outliers. And outliers are important because they cause us to change our view of the world. The normal, regular and expected allow our lives to run down predictable paths. As long as this continues, nothing changes. But the unpredicted, the unknown outlier, is an undeniable occurrence that forces us to reframe our view of things and take a new path. It was a Black Swan that changed the world.

According to Taleb, Black Swans have to have three things: they have to lie outside the realm of regular expectations, they have to carry extreme impact, and, when we discover them, they force us to alter our view of things to explain their existence. We have to change our view of the world to accommodate them. Taleb asserts that all of human history has taken a path that pivots on the discovery of Black Swans.

Discovering Black Swans

Now, back to our dinner conversation. Black Swans only become important when they were discovered. The vastness of the physical world meant that it took us a long time to find that first black swan.

But the world today is significantly different than it was in 1697. Today, Black Swans pop up all the time on YouTube or in a blog post. Every single day, somebody somewhere is googling a Black Swan. And, when they find them, Black Swans go viral because the unexpected is naturally fascinating to us. We can’t help but talk about it, and today, when we do, chances are it’s through a digital channel.

The more the world becomes digitally connected and synchronized, the faster word spreads about Black Swans. And when word spreads, we are forced once again to change our view of the world. This means that the pace of change in human history, catalyzed by Black Swan discoveries, is picking up speed. Today, you can’t step outside your door without tripping over a Black Swan.

The discovery of a Black Swan sets in motion a recurring chain of events. First, we have to acknowledge its existence. Let’s call this the Black Swan Googling stage. Then, we have to talk about it. This would be the Black Swan Twitter stage. Then, we have to rationalize its existence, creating an explanation for it — the Black Swan Wikipedia stage. Then, it becomes an accepted part of our new worldview, the new normal. What used to take centuries to filter through the civilized world now happens in the matter of days, or, at the most, weeks.

After all, when I woke up yesterday morning, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a white salmon. Today, my world has changed forever.

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