How Many Dominoes Must Topple Before One Falls on Us?

Everything’s abstract until it happens to us.


Dominoes falling are abstractions until one falls on you. Lines of dominoes toppling are an apt analogy to highly centralized systems that are tightly bound, that is, all the transactions that flow through the centralized hubs are interconnected, so when one domino falls, it topples chains of dominoes that then topple other chains.

Two concepts help illuminate this systemic vulnerability to cascading disruptions: dependency chains and path dependency. Dependency chains are set up when each critical component is dependent on a long line of other components working perfectly. One example is our dependence on our vehicle. If one component in our vehicle fails and it breaks down, our life loses functionality: we can’t get to work, drop the kids off, pick up meds at the pharmacy, etc.

Path dependency describes the way initial decisions constrain all future outcomes and decisions. For example, moving to the countryside means we can’t walk to essential services, we absolutely need a functioning vehicle. The decision to move constrains our options and limits what decisions are within reach.

Some lines of dominoes fall outside our field of vision–until a domino lands on us. A contemporary example is healthcare. Consider the eventual consequences of this:
43% of physicians regret their career choice: AMA

In major metro areas, the dominoes falling in healthcare aren’t yet visible, but in rural counties healthcare is already constrained by shortages of doctors and nurses. Care is implicitly being rationed by long wait times for appointments with specialists. Patients are shunted around for more tests but slots for actual treatment are limited.

Regions which have chosen to close down plants generating 24/7 electricity in favor of intermittent “green” energy and battery backups (green is in quotes because there’s nothing green about the production of solar panels, wind turbines or batteries) have established dependency chains and path dependencies that can lead to electricity being rationed via rolling blackouts.

The longer the chain of things that have to work perfectly for us to get what we need, the greater our vulnerability to something down the line breaking down. Thanks to recency bias, we take it for granted that long global supply chains and complex infrastructure will all continue to work perfectly. The entire chain is invisible to us. We only see and only care about the last step: the gasoline in the service station tanks, the goodies on the supermarket shelves, and so on.

We only care when we can’t get a doctor’s appointment until 6 weeks from now, or we experience rolling blackouts.

We also don’t care about constrained options and decisions until a couple of dominoes land on us and we realize just how dependent we are on things we have no control over. Everything’s abstract until it happens to us.

Once we understand that the choices we make now have the potential to make or break our future lives, we become more motivated to tease apart dependency chains and path dependencies and figure out what we can do to decrease our vulnerabilities by increasing our self-reliance.

How many dominoes must topple before one falls on us? Very likely fewer than we think.

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