The Seventh Sense

Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks


By Joshua Cooper Ramo

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Endless terror. Refugee waves. An unfixable global economy. Surprising election results. New billion-dollar fortunes. Miracle medical advances. What if they were all connected? What if you could understand why?

The Seventh Sense is the story of what all of today’s successful figures see and feel: the forces that are invisible to most of us but explain everything from explosive technological change to uneasy political ripples. The secret to power now is understanding our new age of networks. Not merely the Internet, but also webs of trade, finance, and even DNA. Based on his years of advising generals, CEOs, and politicians, Ramo takes us into the opaque heart of our world’s rapidly connected systems and teaches us what the losers are not yet seeing — and what the victors of this age already know.


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Three hundred years ago the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution began their pounding work on the foundations of an ancient order. Like twin hammers, these forces demolished most of what once seemed permanent: Kings, alchemists, popes, feudal lords—they were all undone.

Today, a fresh hammer is cracking our world. The demands of constant, instant connection are tearing at old power arrangements. The formation of networks of all kinds, for trade and biology and finance and warfare and any of a thousand varied needs, is producing new and still dimly understood sources of power. They are eroding the roots of an older order even as a new one is beginning to appear.

That last great shift of the Enlightenment was a violent and wonderful transformation. It produced winners and losers, triggered tragedy and lit fresh triumphs. What lies ahead of us is the same. A new landscape of power is emerging now. This book is its story, and the tale of the instinct that will divide those who master it from those who will be mastered by it.


The Nature of Our Age


The Masters

In which the immortal problems of power are discussed and the possibility of a new instinct is introduced.


One morning in the spring of 1942, a young Chinese scholar named Nan Huai-Chin packed his bags in Chengdu and began walking out of the city. He was headed south and traced a route along the Min River toward E'Mei Shan, several hundred miles away, deep into Sichuan province. E'Mei Shan—Eyebrow Mountain—was and is one of the holiest Buddhist sites in China.

Nan was an unusual young man. At eighteen, he had won a national sword-fighting competition against men twice his age. At twenty-one he had taught politics to China's top military officials. A year later he led a thirty-thousand-man army in the mountains of Sichuan. If you look at photos of Nan in those years, more or less at the moment he left Chengdu for the mountains, you see a clean-shaven and soft-skinned man. He is handsome, with electric eyes. You can see, if you know to look, the rough intensity of the man he'd become during the anti-Japanese war, a toughness in his stance; some hint too in his grimace of a sword fighter's mercilessness. This was long before Nan was regarded as one of the finest living exemplars of the Chinese Buddhist tradition, before he became known as Master Nan. This was before his flight from China with the Kuomintang in 1949, once the Communists came to power, before his decades of wandering and his eventual return to the mainland. All that lies ahead of the man you see in the photo. The man in the photo is young, energetic. He is certain.

In Nan's youth, in his early sword-fighting days, he had come to understand that mastering the blade of his sword meant first training his spirit to the highest possible level of sharpness. When attacked or when attacking, the spirit of a truly masterful fighter moves first, then—instants later—the sword. It was a desire to sharpen that inner blade that had led Nan to E'Mei Shan and to the study of Ch'an Buddhism. Ch'an—you may know it by its Japanese name, Zen—is the steeliest of the Buddhist traditions. Its adherents explain that enlightenment in Ch'an demands concentration intense enough to make and then smash diamonds. It promises, as a result, unmatchable insight into the nature of life.

So, with the anti-Japanese war still smoldering, Nan traveled through his convulsing country and up E'Mei Mountain, where he found a Ch'an lamasery near the peak. Once there, during three years of constant effort and meditation and deprivation, he achieved a breakthrough to samadhi, that state of spiritual alignment in which the world and your own soul become as transparent as water. Fear vanishes, as do lust and any real confusion about the deeper currents of life. You become, the priests like to say, as resilient as a mountain spring: No matter what mud is thrown in, it is simply and naturally bubbled away into clarity.

From the E'Mei temple, with this fresh, clear-running mind, Nan began a quest to sharpen his spirit even further. The journey took him, year after year, from master to master in China, from monastery to university to rural Tibetan huts. These were the places where the last bits of some of China's most ancient traditions had been carried, places where classical wisdom had survived a hundred years of national chaos. Nan's wandering education resembled the way in which, in millennia past, monks would make spiritual treks around China, seeking an ever-sharper edge to their insights by engaging in "Zen combat": arguments between sages to see who could feel the underlying nature of the world with greater fidelity. Solitary monks would stride into packed monasteries and engage the wisest abbots in winner-take-all tests of insight. The aim was to really know the secret sources of power that produced earthquakes, revolutions, and poetry. "Ten thousand kinds of clever talk—how can they be as good as reality?" the famous Ch'an master Yun Men once said in the midst of such a fight. True wisdom, it was believed, transcended mere talk.

Nan was trying to cultivate in himself deep ways of feeling and sensing the world. During his wandering study, he followed a path that would lead him to enlightenment in more than a dozen different schools of Buddhism. He mastered everything from medicine to calligraphy. His youthful success at sword fighting, it emerged, was a sign of a prodigal genius. He became, in the twentieth century, recognized as one of those crucial human vessels by which ancient tradition is preserved and carried forward for new generations.

After a few years of study, Nan left the mainland for Taiwan. He lived for decades between Taipei and Hong Kong and America. During this time his fame as a teacher grew. In the mid-1990s, as China opened itself to the world again, Nan returned. He had been invited by some of the country's most powerful families, the children of Communist revolutionaries who were groping for a sense of history and identity. They wanted to absorb the lessons of Chinese culture that Nan had internalized; they hoped to bend them into tools they could use to shape a Chinese future. Might the old habits of the country, with their ancient roots, have something to offer a nation nearly splitting with the energies of modernity? Master Nan agreed to set up a private school. He selected a site on the shores of Lake Tai, in Jiangsu province, not far from Shanghai. He chose the location carefully: The still lake water near his campus was like a giant bath of calming yin energy that balanced the urgent, aggressive yang energy of 1990s China into a kind of harmony. Ash trees shaded the study rooms in the summer. Wild peonies erupted in pink and white each spring.

It was here, when he was eighty-nine years old, that I first came to know him.


What Master Nan was trying to teach at his Lake Tai campus was in the end not so different from what he had begun trying to cultivate on that long walk out of wartime Chengdu. How in the face of a burning, changing, and shifting world does one train an instinct for the essence of what is going on? At the turn of the last century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that humans needed a "Sixth Sense" to survive what then seemed like insane madness: the Industrial Revolution. He didn't mean by this that we should all go study history. At least that wasn't all he meant. He thought a Sixth Sense should be a feel for the rhythms of history. There was a certain pace and tone to human life, he said, sort of like a runner on a long race, and you or I would need a sense of the whole course in order to pace ourselves. Without it, we might end up slowing down at the wrong moments. Or—and this particularly worried him—we might run too fast and exhaust ourselves just as a big hill was coming up. Nietzsche thought the world was about to have to face a very steep, unforgiving incline on the way to a new kind of social order, and that most people in the 1890s were skipping along as if it was all downhill from there on out. A feeling for history, he hoped, might help. But he also felt pretty sure no one would develop this new sense. He expected tragedy. "The more abstract the truth you wish to teach," he said, "the more you must allure the senses to it." But no one was attracted to the idea of danger in those gilded days. Very few people tuned their instincts to the age. And, as two world wars later showed, Nietzsche had been sadly correct about the impending tragedy.

This book is the story of a new instinct, what I have called the Seventh Sense. If Nietzsche's Sixth Sense was tuned for a world of changing industrial power, the Seventh Sense is meant for our new age of constant connection. I don't just mean connection to the Internet, but to the whole world of networks that surrounds and defines us everywhere now. Financial webs. DNA databases. Artificial intelligence meshes. Terror or narcotic networks. Currency platforms. Connection—and ever faster, smarter connection—is transforming our lives just as trains and factories tore into Nietzsche's age. As a result, we live in a world that is both terribly exciting and awfully unsettling. A financial crisis that seems to drag on endlessly, despite the efforts of our best minds and most energetic central banks. A historically expensive decade of war against terrorists that produces more terrorists. A global ecosystem that seems beyond repair. New pandemic diseases arriving like clockwork every year. Endless refugee waves. Domestic politics that have been transformed into shouting extremism. The point of this book is that every one of these problems has exactly the same cause: networks. And by understanding how they work, we can begin to shape this age, instead of being used by it. "Man's habits change more rapidly than his instincts," the historian Charles Coulston Gillispie once wrote. That's us. We have all the habits of a new age. The phones. The emails. The ADD clicking of our keyboards. The hand sanitizers. Now we need to develop the instincts. Because anything not built for a network age—our politics, our economics, our national security, our education—is going to crack apart under its pressures.

In the first part of this book I want to tell the story of just how all our networks fit into that long marathon of human history that so concerned Nietzsche. How should we relate the way we think about the world now to, say, how we think of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, or the Dark Ages? This is important for all the same reasons a Sixth Sense once was: We need to understand that we're not living at a normal moment. The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason tore up almost every institution in Europe. The Industrial Revolution that followed produced our most violent wars. We'll come to understand how a world where we're all connected, all the time, represents every bit as profound a shift. Maybe more profound.

The second part of the book explains just how the networks operate. Here we'll travel in the company of hackers and activists and diplomats and terrorists who all have this new sensibility. They use the hidden lines of network power to build and destroy. Just as some people can look at a Picasso and unpack a whole story of meaning and passion, people who have the Seventh Sense can look at any object and see potential that is invisible to the rest of us. An entrepreneur with the Seventh Sense looks at a spare bedroom and sees the possibility of a network to unseat hotels. A financier looks at a currency and sees a way to make it algorithmically alive. A new and young discipline called "network science" will give us a framework for thinking about this because it shows how systems as different as the human brain and Facebook in fact follow similar patterns. We'll use these lessons. They will teach us where power really sits in the networks—and how it might be used.

Finally, in the third part of this book, we'll begin to feel out the future with our new sensibility. What can we actually do? This turns out to be an important question because if we don't act, if we just let the new age happen to us, it's likely to pretty quickly slip out of our control. Already many of the most important forces that affect our lives are hard for us to understand, obscured by technical expertise or by speed. Once we get to the root of the networks themselves, once we can see them with the same Seventh Sense that revolutionaries have, however, it will be obvious what we need to do. It's probably likely that we'll have to reinvent most of our politics and economics for the age ahead, for instance. And we'll talk some about that, but I'll linger particularly on the problems of war and peace. Just what might the future of world order be? Pretty much any expert you talk to describes a world heading into chaos, with an ever weaker America. In fact, once we look at the networks, they suggest a very different outcome. Yes, human history has been paced by wars and power struggles between nations. This is what Europe endured in the last five hundred years. But think about all of history. Some systems endure for centuries. The Roman Empire. Chinese dynasties. Assyrian or Mughal kingdoms. The decline of the United States is a popular subject now—in Washington and also in places that are less friendly to American interests. But the networks, when we understand them properly, suggest something very different is possible. In fact they tell us exactly how our most vexing problems—the very problems networks have created—might be solved.

Old-style ideas will, however, lead us down dangerous paths. Our leaders today are, as a result, often imperiling us in ways they can't understand. Honestly, these figures are not mentally prepared to fight any sort of battle on this landscape, whether it is against terrorists or income inequality or pandemic diseases. They probably never will be. The language and habits of this new world are simply too obscure for them. This book is not, in any event, written for them. It is written for those coming to power and those already in power—even if they don't know it yet. It is written for those who are inheriting the possibility of that last generation's inventions and the price of their errors. By this I mean the cohort bred into the age of connected acceleration, the first generation of leaders and students and war fighters not to find the digital strange, but rather natural and curious and wonderful in its power. This book is for those who will have to build and manage machines that are smarter than humans, for those who will create a new network, and for all of us who want to turn the energies of a disruptive age to constructing an order that feels secure and just.

But before we can get to that point, before we can really begin building with the tools of this new age, we need to know how they work. And that demands an adventure of our own, one that leads us through our own burning world and toward a bit of enlightenment—not unlike Nan Huai-Chin's walk to E'Mei Mountain in 1942.


Before I moved to Beijing in 2002, a friend took me aside and offered this thought: "Your life in China will change the way you see the world. But if you want to get the most out of it, you have to understand that, as important as being bilingual is, it is as important to be bicultural." I had not honestly thought of this as part of my plan, but it seemed like good advice. I have hewed to it as a personal law ever since. From my first days in China, I lived almost entirely among the Chinese. I can, for instance, nearly number on one hand the meals I shared with Westerners over my years there. This advice, to learn to be bicultural, really did change my experience of living in China. It changed how I saw the world. It presented moments of really honest and searching confusion. I had conversations in which I understood every word and yet had no idea what my interlocutor meant. But the decision produced, at least, a fortunate encounter that led me to Master Nan's school.

Several years after I arrived in Beijing, I was out for dinner one evening with a close Chinese friend. My friend is a remarkable woman. If you ask how China had progressed from poverty toward prosperity in record time, it is partly because of people like her. She had studied in China, had moved overseas and mastered the technical arts of economics and finance, and then returned eagerly to help in the construction of modern post-reform China. Nearly any time the government had some new and difficult financial problem to manage, she would be shuffled into the nervous hands of some baffled minister or vice premier. She had, in her various activities, helped put the Chinese stock exchange on its feet, rebuilt bankrupt banks, and overseen the construction of China's first sovereign wealth fund. Though only a few years older than I, her unique skills and absolute loyalty meant she had seen much of the development of China's speed-train economy—part miracle, part near accident—from zero-distance range.

As she and I were finishing dinner that evening, a door opened to a nearby private dining room. Chinese often eat out in private rooms, and the best restaurants are usually warrens of well-appointed secret spaces, a reminder that in China door after door after door leads to ever more secure sanctums—think of the nested power architecture of the Forbidden City. When the door near us opened, a stream of senior Chinese party figures paraded past, hovering around an intense, square-jawed, and smiling man who was soon to become one of the most powerful figures in China. As this man walked past, he nodded hello to both of us. I asked my friend once he had left: "How do you know him?" I expected that her contact with senior leaders on financial matters would explain the connection. Her answer surprised me.

"We both have the same master."

I had been living in China then for only about four years, so I was still a bit surprised to learn in this unusual way about what I would later come to know—and see and even experience myself—as the spiritual life of China's Communist officials, particularly those at the absolute top. The master my friend was referring to was Master Nan. Though he was largely unknown outside China—I am sure you had not heard of him until a few pages ago—inside the country he was an icon. His books about Buddhism and philosophy sold millions of copies. His lectures are watched on DVDs and the Internet, and he owns a fond fame that reaches across generations and transcends politics and art and philosophy. You are as likely to find a copy of his book on the desk of a university president as stuffed into the back pocket of a tea server in Kunming.

As you can imagine, when my friend first introduced me to the idea of someone like Master Nan serving as a spiritual mentor to the figures leading this huge country, figures I had met and worked with in the brutally rational business of everyday life in a modernizing China, it raised all sorts of questions. We both have the same master? But in China, one thing you discover quickly is that honest understanding of anything isn't achieved by asking lots of questions, particularly not the direct sort. Yun Men, the old Buddhist sage, had it right when he said that ten thousand kinds of clever talk get you nowhere meaningful. But with my friend's one sentence, our dinner conversation, which had been moving pleasantly through the eddies of China's politics and economics, passed into deeper water, where it has stayed in the years since.

Master Nan's particular passion, I learned that night, was a branch of Chinese Ch'an Buddhism that had, about a thousand years ago, provided the seeds for the Japanese school of "instant illumination," known as Rinzai Zen. Rinzai is famed in the West for asking students to grapple with koans, the sorts of puzzles—What was your face before you were born? or What is the sound of one hand clapping?—that can never be approached or answered with reason alone. They require pure, trained instinct. Koans are not like math problems or word puzzles so much as questions that have to be answered with your whole soul. We don't really have an educational concept like this in the West, but the aim of Rinzai meditation and learning is to arrive at a sudden and complete understanding of the true nature of the world. Such "instant illumination" marks a very Eastern sensibility: Real truth resists the grasp of mere logic. It can't be simply explained, or taught with words alone. It calls on more immediate feelings, like a tumble into love or the pulled fuse of instant fury. In Rinzai study, the aim is to use meditation and focus and exercise—and the occasional slapping sharpness of a hardwood "enlightenment stick"—to tighten and compress your mind as a way to open it. A moment when all sorts of invisible relations become unforgettably obvious. The goal is instant, blazing enlightenment.

I had been a student of Rinzai since I was sixteen. So it was that, in the springtime of the year after that dinner in Beijing, I had the luck to be invited to Master Nan's campus.


It is often said that during the days when Master Nan's Lake Tai campus is open for training, when hundreds of rich and well-connected elites from all over the Chinese-speaking world converge there, it is the best networking spot in the country. But on the weekend of my first visit, the Tai Hu Great Learning Center was closed to outsiders. Only about ten of us were present, my friend and I included. We were all, together, students. On our first morning we walked to a large hall overlooking the lake and sat down quietly on benches to meditate. And on our first evening, Master Nan sat with us during dinner, looking young and vital and twenty years short of his eighty-nine, barely eating. Above the bridge of his nose, I noticed, was a small bump. This is the mark that emerges, according to Buddhist tradition, when your self-cultivation and meditation have led you to deep breakthrough, when energy begins to slip out of your head at that "third eye" spot and into the world, leaving a little half marble of flesh as physical evidence.

As we finished dinner, Master Nan asked me what was on my mind. In later years I would learn that this was his habit, to hand the floor over to his guests for a bit—whether they were politicians or industrial titans or innocent visitors—before entering into his own reflections. He pursued me with careful questions, his voice purring with a thick coastal accent. At times, his questions seemed removed from my main points, but I quickly came to see them as needles. ("When he uttered a phrase," it was said of Yun Men, "it was like an iron spike.") Many of those present were jotting notes: Whatever Master Nan thought important, his students felt, must be worth putting down.

I knew that the records of Master Nan's lectures and discussions were often circulated by email. With subject lines such as "Understanding This Chinese Generation" or "Master Nan Answers Questions about Chinese and Western Knowledge," they were real-time maps of the usually invisible dance our daily lives do with history and philosophy. We live now, of course, but Nan was always aware that we live within a historical flow too, in a particular moment, amid constant change. Remember that the foundational text of Chinese civilization is the 3,500-year-old Yi Jing, the Book of Changes. Chinese begin consideration of any question with the idea that flux is the only constant. Problems rarely go away for good; they simply alter their shape. Victory never endures indefinitely. Anyhow, there is no "done." A world of ceaseless change means that a useful education involves not merely the mastery of facts, as it might at a Western university, but also the training of a vigilant instinct. A version of this same aim, to adjust and thrive amid change, was at the heart of Master Nan's teaching. It made his ideas, in a Chinese age of constant shifts, magnetically appealing.

The circulation lists on his lecture notes were the Chinese equivalent of a roster that included Alan Greenspan, Colin Powell, and Warren Buffett. "I just had a very senior leader here," Nan told me during a visit several years later. I had seen the high security at the compound and the military cars whipping in and out all day. "He asked me what books I could recommend to understand this period we are living in. I said, 'I could give you some books, but you wouldn't understand them.'" Master Nan laughed. The iron spike. "This can't be understood by reading!" Master Nan was trying to educate his students in the original principles of Ch'an: a set of psychological, philosophical, and physical tools to discover and then use the deeper patterns of our world.


After wearing his guests down with relentless dinnertime questioning during my first night at the Lake Tai campus, Master Nan offered his own views of our age. What he saw, he explained, was a world pressing too hard on a fault line. We faced, he said, choosing his words carefully, an "epochal" quake. We were at a moment when the river of change he had spent a lifetime feeling out was about to shift its course over the landscape, drowning many of the reliable, old routes. The origins of this change were buried in the very things we hoped might, in fact, save us from shock: money, information, speed. "People are now constantly connected to computers and machines, and this is changing the way they think," he said. "People just cannot make sense of what is happening. There is no respite. The world is going to go faster and faster in this regard.

"In the nineteenth century the biggest threat to humanity was pneumonia," he continued. "In the twentieth century it was cancer. The illness that will mark our era, and particularly the start of the twenty-first century, is insanity. Or, we can say, spiritual disease." He paused. "This next century is going to be especially turbulent. It has already begun. And when I say 'insanity' and 'spiritual disease,' I don't only mean inside the minds of individuals. Politics, military, economics, education, culture, and medicine—all these will be affected."

I could sense the logic behind Master Nan's argument. The nineteenth century had packed much of the world into Dickensian urban pits. These became petri dishes for pneumonia. Too much industry and urbanization, too fast. The twentieth century of plastics and artificial, untested, unsafe materials had torn away at our genetic base and brought a plague of cancers. Too much science, too fast. In our age, in the twenty-first century, he felt that a wasting disease would be carried by information, by cell phones, by packets of data, by every bitstream we jacked into our lives—and it would go right for our brains. Our institutions and our ideas about power and stability would fall apart. A profound and destructive shift—what Nan called a jieshu,


  • Praise for The Seventh Sense



    Winner of the getAbstract 17th International Book Award
  • "A fascinating guide to the way the world is changing."—Malcolm Gladwell, author of David and Goliath
  • "Joshua Cooper Ramo has a unique intelligence and a unique voice, which illuminate this fascinating book. The central new reality of the world we live in today is connectivity. People, computers, other machines, almost everything is getting linked and these new networks are spewing oceans of information. How should we navigate this brave new world? Ramo writes with ease and authority about the technology, history , and foreign policy of this power shift, giving us an essential guide for the future."—Fareed Zakaria, author of In Defense of a Liberal Education
  • "This book paints an accurate and timely picture of the world we live in and how it is changing."—Mareo McCracken, Inc.
  • "In this hyper networked world remade fresh every day, with new perils and new opportunities, there is one book to be sure to read: Joshua Ramo's new book, a masterpiece, The Seventh Sense. To understand the tsunami of the networked age, you need history, biography, tech, philosophy, politics--and you want a book that has a depth beyond whatever else you could be streaming, podcasting, or wiki-ing. This is that book."—Reid Hoffman, Chairman/Founder of LinkedIn and Partner at Greylock
  • "Joshua Cooper Ramo has written a book that combines historic sweep and incisive detail. A great book, and a useful one. The Seventh Sense is a concept every businessman, diplomat, or student should aspire to master -- a powerful idea, backed by stories and figures that will be impossible to forget."—Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs and The Innovators
  • "If this book were read and understood by our next president, America would be a stronger country and the president would have an agenda for global leadership. Ramo's fascinating work serves a critical public purpose."—Bill Bradley
  • "Provocative reading... [Ramo] offers plenty of interesting scenarios for such things as global power shifts, AI-enabled weapons systems, and the like.... For policy wonks with an eye toward the middle term, Ramo provides a good effort to make sense of it all."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "The Seventh Sense ultimately isn't just about witnessing the power of human connections, but also harnessing that power to change the world. Highly recommended."—Midwest Book Review
  • "This book is the best yet on reviewing the ever more tightly woven, connected, pervasive networks - accelerating due to their interactivity - that now dominate our globalized human societies.... Ramo surveys this new world of interconnected networks in penetrating detail with deep knowledge of current global geopolitics and human history."—Hazel Henderson, Seeking Alpha

On Sale
Apr 3, 2018
Page Count
352 pages
Back Bay Books

Joshua Cooper Ramo

About the Author

Joshua Cooper Ramo is the author of the international bestseller The Age of the Unthinkable. He is co-chief executive officer and vice chairman of Kissinger Associates and a member of the board of directors of FedEx and Starbucks. His first book, No Visible Horizon, chronicled his experiences as a competitive aerobatic pilot.

Learn more about this author