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Aftermath - Thinking the Unthinkable. Asking What is Not Asked - Thomas Bjelkeman

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.

I was reading a rather entertaining book by the author Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives, which is Lovecraftian horror, with unspeakable mind-sucking, planet-killing horrors from the back of beyond, married to computerized magic, a deeply secret Occult Secret Service, with the main character being a special agent come IT system administrator. I soon realized that this actually reminded me of Vinay Gupta. I mentioned this to him, and he said:

“I'm disturbed that lovecraftian scifi explains _anything_ about me. (TENTACLES!)” [1]

But it does Vinay, it does, and here is why.

For you who don’t know Vinay Gupta well, I would like to summarize him as the person who thinks the unthinkable. Not just any old unthinkable, but unthinkables like:

  • What really happens if the swine flu has a 30% death rate worldwide. How will society actually react?
  • How do you put together a realistic plan for when a city is destroyed by a nuclear device? 1
  • What do you actually do when the GDP takes a 40% nosedive in an economic crash?

You will find quite a lot of people claim to investigate these type of things, but most people only work with what they consider “plausible”, which isn’t anywhere near these type of disasters.

The characters in Stross’ novel work with the unthinkable, they face the horrors that are so horrible that nobody wants to know. They do this with a good understanding of physics, mathematics, engineering, information technology and a mind ready to deal with what normal people blank out at, and they do it with an attitude. Vinay would fit right in.

Vinay’s horrors do not have tentacles. But they are no less scary, because they are actually real, and if you scratch the surface of the disaster plans you may be pointed to by anyone that claims to think about the unthinkable, you will notice that they don’t really deal with the worst case scenarios. They essentially deal with blips. Not crashes. People have a blank spot where the real disaster lies. They can’t see it, they blank out. Vinay doesn’t blank out, he rolls up his sleeves and says: “OK where do we start?”

He is often quoted as saying, "I don't get out of bed for less than 1% mortality." (And he is talking global scale.)

Vinay is a former information technology systems analyst and programmer. Now his work is primarily large scale world systems analysis. He told me recently:

“You realize that we live in the manuscript of a Bruce Sterling book, don’t you? It used to be a William Gibson script. When I worked with an online gold backed bank in Florida, struggling with how to deal with the Mafia, that was Neil Stephenson. Now the script has changed. It is clearly Bruce Sterling who writes the script now.”

1. Vinay recently recounted an episode when he worked with the Pentagon: “What I discovered, what really broke my life in a way, was that I was better at certain aspects of policy around the bomb than the State. [2] I struggle with that. I maintain the work partly because I was told, by people involved in reacting to nuclear terrorism, in no uncertain terms that my plan was better than the official plan. [3] I was told that if a bomb was used on a US city they would probably use the plan, but could not be seen, politically, preparing to use it.” [4]