Castle, Linchpin Theory and X Events
Renowned systems theorist John L. Casti prefers the moniker X-events rather than “extreme events.” In short, an X-event is an unforeseen occurrence that rapidly changes the political, financial and geographic stability in a dramatic and devastating fashion. “This is a book about these outlier events, those surprises that are complementary to everything that takes place in what we will call the ‘normal’ region,” he writes in the opening of X-Events: The Collapse of Everything (William Morrow, 2012). “By way of contrast, the X-events region is one that has been far less scientifically investigated, just because its elements, ranging from asteroid impacts to financial market meltdowns to nuclear attacks, are by their very nature rare and surprising. Science is mostly about the study of repeatable phenomena; X-events fall outside that category, which is a major reason why at present we have no decent theory for when, how, and why they occur.”
Like John Casti, the fictitious Nelson Blakely has dedicated a large portion of his life attempting to understand these events. “Blakely designed math-based predictive models for us, models to help create geopolitical change,” a CIA official explains to Kate Beckett and Richard Castle. “The agency would bring him a problem. How can we prevent country A from getting the bomb, or cause regime change in country B? Blakely found solutions using what he called ‘linchpin theory.’ His approach was to find a small event that could trigger a large event. He once said you only needed to knock over one domino, but if it was the right domino, the rest would fall.”
Richard Castle immediately seizes upon the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and how it directly led to World War I as an example of linchpin theory at work. Nelson Blakely’s supposed first linchpin for the CIA is yet another example. “We asked him to develop a non-nuclear military strategy that would bring down the Soviet Union,” it is revealed on Castle. “It turns out all we had to do was outspend them.” The plot of the “Pandora/Linchpin” double episode likewise has to do with an economic catalyst designed to bring a contemporary superpower to its knees. During the course of their investigation, Kate Beckett and Richard Castle discover a room in Blakely’s apartment that is filled with pictures and index cards on all four walls with colored string connecting them together. The brief notes spell out “tax riots,” “European economic collapse” and “Iran invades Iraq,” with the end result reading, “August 2017—US Surrenders (Est. 27 million casualties).” The starting point of this interconnecting web of doom is the picture of a young Chinese girl, the linchpin for events that would bring about “the end of our country as we know it.”
Eventually it is determined that the girl in question is the daughter of a Chinese businessman named Xiang Ganghong. “Xiang is a kingmaker,” CIA operative Sophia Turner explains. “He’s extremely influential in shaping his country’s economic policy. He made his first fortune selling Chinese military hardware, sometimes to our enemies but we let him alone because he was supportive of Chinese purchase of US debt. Now if someone were to take out Xiang, not that much would change. But if his daughter were killed in a botched assassination attempt and the Chinese were able to trace it back to the US government? It’s conceivable that Xiang could use his considerable influence to single handedly end China’s purchase of the US debt.”
From there, Kate Beckett and Richard Castle are quickly able to deduce the chain of events that were foretold by Nelson Blakely and his linchpin theory. An inability to borrow money by the deficit-running federal government would lead to austerity measures that would severely affect the abilities of the military to meet its international obligations. Without a US presence in various regions of the world, other countries with conflicting agendas would essentially be free to pursue their own interests. This would inevitably lead to war, and with the United States hampered by a financial crisis, it would quite likely be a war that was not winnable from a US perspective. Thus “the end of our country as we know it.”
How does this example of linchpin theory relate to the X-events that John Casti explores in X-Events: The Collapse of Everything? “X-events of the human—rather than nature-caused—variety are the result of too little understanding chasing too much complexity in our human systems,” he writes. “The X-event, be it a political revolution, a crash of the Internet, or the collapse of a civilization, is human nature’s way of reducing a complexity overload that has become unsustainable.” In the scenario outlined on Castle, the financial burden of both domestic and foreign policies has resulted in a complexity in regards to the nation’s budget requirements, while the solution is the simplified borrowing of additional funds from China. Take away the ability to borrow, and the United States collapses under the burden of its complex system of overspending that has few options and less freedom to maneuver.
Such a chain of events has historical precedent as well. “Examples of such mismatches abound,” John Casti argues. “Take the Roman Empire, in which the ruling classes used political and military power to control the lower classes and to conquer neighbors in order to extract tax revenues. Ultimately, the entire resources of the society were being consumed simply to maintain an ever-growing, far-flung empire that had grown too complex to be sustained. The ancient Mayan civilization is another good case in point, as is the former Soviet Union. Some scholars, including historian Paul Kennedy, have argued that the American empire, which spends over $23 billion a year on foreign aid and consumes far more than it exports, is in the process of coming undone for much the same reason.”
While John Casti would thus agree with Nelson Blakely’s scenario regarding the collapse of the United States in theory, he does not concur that the end result would be inevitable. “I do not believe that there is any person or method, living, dead, or yet to be born, that can reliably and consistently forecast specific X-events,” he maintains in X-Events: The Collapse of Everything. A major reason for such doubt rests with the fact that there is so little data available for accurately predicting X-events. By definition, after all, an X-event is a rare event, and theoretical models are ultimately based on an abundance of readily available data. “While probability theorists and statisticians have developed an ingenious array of tools ranging from subjective probability theory to Bayesian analysis to extreme-event statistics to try to circumvent this obstacle, the fact remains that nailing down a probability you can believe in for a rare event to occur is just not possible,” Casti further elaborates.
In addition to discussing the field of X-events in his book, John Casti offers his own linchpin theories in regards to potential catastrophic events that could reshape the landscape of modern day society. Internet failure, food supply shortages, the collapse of globalization, disease pandemics and even the overthrowing of humanity by intelligent robots are all outlined within the pages of X-Events: The Collapse of Everything. Casti did not write his book as a prediction of world-wide doom, however, but instead as a demonstration that continual reliance on complex systems could potentially lead to Earth-shattering events if left unchecked.
“The entire industrialized world relies on a continuing infusion of ever more advanced technology,” he offers as one example. “Moreover, the systems that underwrite our lifestyle are completely intertwined: the Internet depends on the electrical power grid, which in turn relies on energy supply from oil, coal, and nuclear fission, which likewise rests on manufacturing technologies that themselves require electricity. And so it goes, one system piled upon another piled upon yet another, everything connected to everything else.”
On the ABC drama Castle, Dr. Nelson Blakely is quoted as saying, “You only needed to knock over one domino, but if it was the right domino, the rest would fall.” As John Casti makes clear in X-Events: The Collapse of Everything, there are an overabundance of dominoes in the world that could lead to chaos if the systems to which they are connected are not made less complex. In many ways, it is an argument that even Kate Beckett of Castle would no doubt agree. At the end of the “Pandora/Linchpin” double episode, Richard Castle asks her, “Do you think Dr. Blakely was right about the linchpin? Do you think we actually saved the world?”
Beckett in turn simply replies, “I think that we saved a little girl’s life, and that’s enough for me.”
Anthony Letizia (July 2, 2012)