Two heads are supposedly better than one - but they can also be more destructive, as Michael Baxter argues in The Blindfolded Masochist.
The book’s tagline - “Creation versus destruction, the power of economic networks” - is somewhat misleading.
Although it is advertised as being about the economy and the financial crisis of 2008, this is not really the main theme of the book and it is more a philosophical look at how networks affect behaviour, society and our thinking.
The author argues that networks are guilty of steering society in the wrong direction and are responsible for the financial crisis.
According to Baxter, networks exist all around us and can be made up of anything that forms a collective, ranging from people and animals to cells.
To illustrate the destructive nature of networks, Baxter uses the example of a massive shoal of sardines navigating their way through the Pacific Ocean.
They swam in tight formation and seemed to have a collective intelligence. They navigated into Redondo Beach’s King harbour, California, but failed to reverse course and got trapped in their own creation – sucking all the oxygen supply from the shallow waters and suffocating en masse.
Baxter also uses bankers to illustrate how networks can be destructive.
Before the credit crunch, the action of one banker in isolation was not dangerous but when the model of securitisation was copied by a network of bankers it became destructive.
He argues that individuals in a collective are less likely to question what they are doing and tend to assume that someone in the group is in the know.
Baxter is not against networks, but thinks they need to harness their power for good. The brain, for example, is a successful network made up of around 100 trillion connections, which could not achieve alone what they do together.
Baxter argues that in today’s society, using networks correctly has never been more important, especially with the advent of the internet, which he predicts will fuel their growth.
The book is short and easy to read, despite touching on issues that are at times complex and technical.
The author uses examples throughout the chapters to illustrate his thinking, but while these are useful at times, he tends to overdo it.
His references often add nothing to his point and break the reader’s flow. Because the book is technical and complicated in places, the extensive use of references can make it hard to follow. Baxter does make some interesting observations, however, about the pros and cons of networks, but he doesn’t really go into enough detail about what can be done to rectify the problems they can cause.
He touches on the solution near the end of the book with the conclusion that education is the way forward and individuals need to start thinking for themselves in order to gain benefit from working within networks.
The book is at times rather one-sided and does not present much food for thought from an opposing perspective.
But at 160 pages, The Blindfolded Masochist is worth a read, especially for those in an industry such as the mortgage market, which relies on networks functioning correctly. If anything, it might provide a useful reminder that following the crowd is not always the best thing to do.
Book review by Natalie Thomas