Playing it safe, utopia

The expression, “playing it safe,” is often used pejoratively in the US. Safety-first, Teddy Roosevelt said, will kill America. Political scientists David Edelstein and Ronald Kreb counseled a greater pragmatism in U.S. foreign policy in like manner:

…pragmatism calls for a more experimental approach to foreign policy. Creativity emerges only from an organizational and political environment that eschews rigid strategy and tolerates failure. Successful organizations adapt fluidly to changing circumstances, create cultures that permit experimentation, and learn from their errors. The first rule of foreign policy should remain “Do no harm,” but much international harm can come from playing it safe. The United States must cultivate a bureaucratic and political climate that is forgiving of small failures. Only in that atmosphere can the country’s foreign-policy makers go after the big wins—and leave strategizing behind. (my bolding; accessed online on September 19 2010 at

Our research on society’s critical infrastructures, however, suggests there should be no-go areas in policy, including foreign policy, precisely because what constitutes a “small failure” and “forgiving” are not possible to predetermine or define in a foreign affairs world of high unpredictability and complexity.

–Pause and consider what harm is created by “playing it safe” and under what conditions. “Innovate or evaporate” sums up one set of conditions. If we don’t change, we die, as in Lampedusa’s “If we want that everything remains the way it is, everything must change.” There is no alternative, Mrs Thatcher repeated.

There is also the problem with that word, “playing.” It’s as if people are not serious because they are just playing around, when they could/should go further. It’s as if you’re standing still by playing safe in the same way that “maintaining the status quo” has often been (wrongly) equated to a do-nothing option. Here playing it safe borders on indifference, no longer mustering anything more than going through the motions. (And who wouldn’t seek the shelter of “playing it safe” after being continually harangued to “take control of foreign affairs”?)

Then, there is the sense in which “playing it safe” is impossible anyway. People continually deviate from the prescriptions of probability and expected utility. Or better yet: Prescriptions of probability and expected utility continually deviate from people’s actual behavior. Many people play-act safety, not because they are burned-out but for the opposite reason: They’re going to do otherwise, period.

–But whatever the case at hand, the more immediate question, empirically and logically, is: Under what conditions is not playing it safe the equivalent of running into danger?

One example will have go suffice. Say you are on one of the upper floors of a skyscraper, looking out on the morning. That is Reality 1: You are the observing subject looking out at reality. After a point, you realize that spot in the distance is actually a plane headed toward you, here in the World Trade Center. That is Reality 2: You become the object of reality, in that grip of the real, and no longer the observer.

There is, however, Reality 3. This is of the air traffic controllers during 9/11. Neither the observer of the first reality nor the object of second, these professionals achieved the unprecedented without incident that day. They were instructed to land all commercial and general aviation aircraft in the United States—some 4,500 aircraft—and did so. They played it safe.

Without overdrawing the point, so too do we demand our professionals land those water, electricity, transportation, telecommunications, and many more critical services every day without major incident. If that is also playing it safe in high-risk situations, I’ll take it any day.

–If so, then Reality 3 is the domain of really-existing utopia. I’ve had little good to say about macro-designers and their utopian visions in this blog. But my critique of macro-design is not a critique of utopianism.

In fact, the search for utopia and the search for the reliability I’ve been talking about have been tied together for a very long time. Sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, wrote: “To put it in a nutshell, we dream of a reliable world, one we can trust. A secure world. ‘Utopia’ is the name which, courtesy of Sir Thomas More, has commonly been given to such dreams…”

These are the utopians I’ve been describing. They are the ones in the operational middle who see something new in translating the patterns they see and the scenarios they face, something critical that was not there before nor could be there without that real-time translation and improvisation. This is the utopianism of Reality 3; this is the only utopianism we now practice. Pity, we may be losing these professionals before most of us even knew they were there.

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