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  • Living

Bookshelf – The Big Mo: Why momentum rules our world

Wednesday, 13th April, 2011 10:11am


By Mark Roeder

Virgin €14

MOMENTUM can be a powerful force for good but if we're oblivious to the impact it's having on us, and try to surf it regardless, then the wave can be transformed into a devastating tsunami.

This is the gist of The Big Mo in which Mark Roeder tries to explain how so many vital aspects of our existence — politics, finance, media and more — are now dominated by this force, which few of us can understand, never mind tame.

One of the ironies of a book such as this is that the momentum in question probably makes it unlikely that those who could benefit most from reading and understanding it, will ever get the time to sit down and do so. Politicians, media pundits, corporate moguls and the like are mostly trying to keep their heads above water as they are swept along in the current tide of momentum so all they can do is attempt to absorb a few salient bullet-points before the next "must read" volume comes along.

An added irony, as the tidal wave of momentum sweeps the media along, is that our leaders and shakers are increasingly relying on a contemporary version of the telegraph to keep up with new trends.

Albert Reynolds' one-page policy seems positively academic compared with current trends. But that's momentum for you.

Fado, fado when I was in primary school, the class went on an outing to Croagh Patrick. We got to the top after much puffing and complaining and ate our banana sandwiches. Everything went at a pace ordained by physics and stamina. You rarely fall up a mountain. On the way down, however, I learned a lesson in momentum that's still with me.

One boy at the back began picking up speed as we were making our way down the steepest section just below the summit. He crashed into a few more and pretty soon half the class were hurtling as fast as our little legs could carry us down the sacred mountain.

I can still feel the terror induced by having to run faster to keep upright and trying at the same time to find a safe place to fall. Finally, I was going so fast that I knew I either risked possible injury by throwing myself to the ground or certain injury by running over the edge. I hit the ground and lived, obviously, suffering a few scratches and bruises.

Brother John surveying the wreckage, which resembled the aftermath of a Napoleonic battlefield, shook his head, and asked why we hadn't heeded him. He'd warned us of this very eventuality. If I met him today I'd refer him to Mark Roeder's The Big Mo and explain that momentum took over and we were powerless before its force. Much the same could be said of our late property boom.

What prompted me to read this interesting but taxing book is my ongoing and quaintly old-fashioned quest to understand the evolving world around me. The problem is that if I take the author's thesis seriously, then by the time I finished reading the answer, someone has changed the question.

Roeder is a corporate banking heavyweight and is fascinated by how organisations at the core of the global financial sector no longer seem to know what is going on. They surf waves and hope they'll be washed up on friendly shores.

Take sub-prime mortgages for instance. Who would have thought there was so much money to be made giving mortgages to people who hadn't a hope of paying them back?

But once it was discovered that the mortgages can could be kicked down the road, to use the current phrase du jour, the big Mo took over.

Dodgy mortgages were packaged and sold on to other institutions before the ink was even dry on the deeds. Once the first institutions raked off a profit, and their head honchos took their bonuses, they were thrown into the global melting pot and other hyenas moved in for their share.

They repackaged them and flogged them on and so did the next. And on and on it went until one day the game of musical chairs stopped and it was realised that Seanie Fitzpatrick and Co had no clothes on and the house of cards came tumbling down.

These "momentum surfers" often lack ethics and values but set trends, shape opinion and frequently lead us to disaster, the author argues.

"They usually develop a critical blind spot because they are so focused on the motion of the game, they often lose sight of the game strategy. They want to keep the game moving forward at any cost, so obstacles are downplayed or ignored."

The result? "The momentum surfer will almost inevitably transform the wave into a destructive tsunami."

Anyone who gets in their way, such as Morgan Kelly, George Lee, David McWilliams et al is ridiculed and ignored. Nothing can be allowed stand in the way of the Big Mo — as brother John learned all those years ago on Croagh Patrick.

Roeder argues that the momentum of our age, for good and for evil, is momentum itself. This is most evident for me in the 24-hour news cycle. The more news that's produced the less we seem able to grasp. Shallow is the new depth. Glib is the new analysis.

We are suffocating under the weight of a maelstrom of information and data but fear stepping off the treadmill lest we lose our place in the loop.

One of the most worrying aspects of the soup of information we wallow in is that we have less and less opportunity to analyse what we are being fed. Just who decided Gadaffi is bad and mad and the rebels are good and pure? They probably are but the story is spinning so fast there's no time to access it. Remember Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction?

How is momentum impacting on technology, global politics, environmental issues - the author challenges us not to go along with the notion that everything shiny, and fast, is better.

To end on an optimistic note for the more mature reader, the author argues that those of an age not to be totally absorbed in the communications revolution are better equipped to make sense of the world, because we retain a wider focus of attention and ability to retain information that momentum is draining from the twitter generation.

As George Soros said when warning of the financial meltdown:

"There is no shortcut to wisdom and experience; it comes from a lifetime of observing what's important and what's not, and from separating reality from delusion."

Amen to that.

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