Rorschach

Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss psychologist, believed that the interpretation of ambiguous designs could be used to assess an individual’s personality. In 1921, he selected ten inkblots published in his book Psychodiagnostik which today form the basis of the famous ‘Rorschach test’ featured in many thrillers; they even inspired Andy Warhol.


A couple of months ago, M.I.T.’s Media Lab introduced Norman, the world’s first psychopath AI. Its inventors wanted to illustrate the danger of AI gone wrong when biased data is used in machine learning algorithms. To do so, engineers fed Norman with disturbing images when training its algorithm. They then compared its interpretation of the Rorschach inkblots with that of a standard feed. The results were striking: Norman saw death, murder or suicide when each of the Rorschach cards was flashed in front of it, which contrasted with the benign images seen by the standard AI.


The image of the global economy is also subject to interpretation. By extension, any economic assessment may say something about the personality of the commentator. Last December these notes advocated that the global economy was ‘in a good place’. The same assessment was made again in ‘What You See Is Not What You Get’ in April. My interpretation of the broad macro-economic picture remains unchanged


As for Card I of the Rorschach test, some may see a beautiful butterfly while others may see a moth, focusing on the ugly downside risk: Europe’s economy is sputtering and subject to various sources of political uncertainty, including at the EU level; instead of being successful, central bankers have miserably failed to drive up inflation; or, as ominously, global inflation is just a time-bomb; in the meantime, rising real interest rates in the West will savage economies and the stock markets; China’s fragile economy is at risk of being upset by a possible trade war, which would not be good for anyone (see ‘Nitro China’ in March 2017); and don’t even mention the risk of (geo)political blunders … I do not dare to think about what Norman would see today if confronted with this picture.


The graphic novel ‘Watchmen’ is an unmissable pop culture oeuvre from the late 1980’s. It features Walter Kovacs aka Rorschach, a vigilante and anti-hero who wears a distinctive mask that features changing patterns resembling the inkblots created by his namesake. In one of his darkest moments, Rorschach comments: ‘Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It’s us. Only us.’

Wherever one looks, it is a Rorschach test. Like Norman, individuals are what they see. The collective interpretation of any picture in itself shapes the world, in economics and beyond.

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