Over the years, a variety of terms has been used to describe people’s difficulties grasping and controlling the world around them. There was dynamic, high-velocity, disruptive, turbulent, and so on. Until recently, this has culminated in the notion of VUCA—Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.
But, since a year or two, there’s a new kid on the block: BANI. It says that the world today is Brittle, Anxious, Non-Linear and Incomprehensible. Plausible as that may sound and in sync with the way many people may feel today, there’s a need to clarify this concept and unravel its four components.
A little history. The creator of this concept is Jamais Cascio, an American anthropologist, futurist, and author. Triggered by the various crises our world is facing—climate, pandemic, inequality, and global instability, to name a few—he concluded that existing concepts such as VUCA are not appropriate for a rapidly evolving world. A new concept was needed, and this was BANI.
Others have clarified the concept before, such as BANI as the “underrated gate to the future”, BANI as a tool that could help us make sense of the chaos around us, and BANI as a dystopia-like scenario. One element that ties these explanations together is that they describe what a BANI world looks like and how the world has become more brittle, anxious, non-linear, and incomprehensible than before.
However, this may not be the right approach. Because, more than anything else, BANI says something about people and how they have mistakingly perceived the world up to now. In that sense, BANI should instead be seen as a correction, or a reality check, intending to shatter four illusions of humanity’s current perceptions of the world.
Brittle – The Illusion of Strength
Brittle means being fragile, breakable, while seeming firm. It refers to something that is not as strong as it seems. It is illusory strength, the belief that “everything will be alright” and the assumptions that “we all know are true,” except that they aren’t. Brittle refers to the myths that people tell themselves and each other to feel better and more secure.
The world has been around for eons, we tend to negate its indestructibility and durability because of its seemingly infinite lifespan. But it is fragile and it has always been. The fact that people didn’t (want to) see this, and instead assumed that it was unbreakable, doesn’t change that. And that’s what this “new” concept really reveals: that people finally discover that the world, especially its nature, economy, and peacefulness is a fragile, convoluted interconnected ecosystem. Embracing Brittle means letting go this first illusion, the Illusion of Strength.
Anxious – The Illusion of Control
Anxiety refers to a feeling of helplessness, of being overwhelmed by everything that one faces. It comes with stress and worrying and a fear of not being able to cope with what the world asks—and not really knowing what will come in the first place, thereby making it hard or impossible to make the “right” decisions.
Anxiety is largely a byproduct of information. The more people hear and see, especially bad news, the more anxious they get. Because, there’s only so much one can do. And with realtime news coming from all over the world, bombarding us 24/7, it is no surprise that people become anxious—because they’re not in control anymore.
Like the Brittle concept, this says more about people than about the world. Anxiety is a subjective feeling caused by a gap between what one expects and what one experiences. People expect control and for a long time they have been able to hold on to that illusion. The last decades may have been relatively quiet in the Western world, but unrest, war, and crises have always been a normal part of life on this planet. This means people have never been in control. The key difference is that they now finally start realizing that (again)—the Illusion of Control.
Non-linear – The Illusion of Predictability
Non-linearity is already a popular concept for a longer time. In innovation, for example it basically says: there’s no simple straight route from A to B. Instead, there’s detours, dead ends, and unexpected outcomes. It’s also part of the common vocabulary in statistics, where it refers to a relationship between two or more variables that’s not a straight line.
The fact that people increasingly talk about non-linearity again doesn’t say anything about the world in which they live. Non-linearity has always been there and it is a natural feature of any complex system. It is commonly known as the “butterfly effect,” the fact that a chain of cause-effect relationships started by a small event (a butterfly flapping its wings) can result in highly unexpected and disruptive events (a tornado at the other side of the ocean).
This is not something new. It’s a default characteristic of any complex system. What is new and highlighted by the BANI concept is that there is now increased awareness of the non-linearity of our world. This breaks a third illusion, the Illusion of Predictability.
Incomprehensible – The Illusion of Knowledge
Finally, incomprehensible refers to people’s experience that they don’t understand what is going on. They can’t oversee it, can’t grasp it, can’t interpret what happens, and why. This means they can’t find the answers they are looking for and, as far as they do get answers, that they can’t make sense of the answers either.
This comes with a fourth illusion, the Illusion of Knowledge. People might have thought they understood the world. But they never have. It’s for this reason that experts and scientists frequently say things as “the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.” The world is a mystery, despite the carefully built up illusion that we understand it. And maybe that’s not something to worry about. On the contrary, it makes the world and our lives worthwhile. Or as Einstein told us: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
It’s Not Our World, It’s Us
Every word we use and every concept we use to describe the world around us says something about ourselves. This was the case with “dynamic,” “turbulent,” “VUCA,” and all other concepts used to describe our difficulties with grasping and controlling the world. But BANI takes this to a new level. Rather than saying something about the world, it first and foremost says something about how we perceive it. It is not the world that has become more Brittle, Anxious, Non-Linear, or Incomprehensible. It us us who finally have to let go the illusion that it is not.
As such, BANI is one great reminder for all of us. We’re living in a world that’s delicate, uncontrollable, unpredictable and impossible to comprehend. Let’s celebrate, accept, and wonder.