Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Sense-making in a “Shapeless” World

It’s been said that we’re living in a “shapeless” world. What is meant by this is that our understandings about the geopolitical shape of our world has become fuzzy, hazy, or contradictory.  People, whether formally recognized as decision-makers or not, must make decisions. Some are becoming aware of having to work harder to make make sense of things.  They might wonder if they have the necessary tools to do so.  Often, however, people (especially experts) would not want to admit such uncertainty.

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author on Arches 140 lb. Cold Press paper (October 2015)

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author on Arches 140 lb. Cold Press paper (October 2015)

There is a deeply-held belief in modern life that knowing things and eliminating uncertainty gives us more power and security, and that anyone who exhibits uncertainty and/or reflectiveness is therefore weak and indecisive.  (This is related, as well, to being perceived as  “doer”–a “climber”, a “mover” and a “shaker.”)  Deeply ingrained concepts of success are tied to our perceptions of others as confident, bold, and expert.   Certainly, we know, the stock market does not like uncertainty, and that’s because it’s made up of people having to make decisions. People do not like uncertainty and, for some potential setbacks, go so far as to buy insurance to protect themselves so as to better manage risk.

Up to now at least, accumulating facts, expertise, and scientific knowledge–and mastering the material world–seemed to suffice for decision-makers.  So, what’s changed today?  Cannot the facts of any matter provide us the answers we need to steer a safe course through choppy waters?

Of course, it is debatable what shape the world was in when it had more shape in our minds: the “Cold War” comes to mind. It gave shape to things, but perhaps not a shape most of us, at least those with any appreciation of history, would care to repeat. There also was the shape of the 1990s when it seemed to many that technological advances and globalization would inevitably lift all boats.  The Financial Crash of 2008 upended many experts’ basic beliefs about the essential shape of the world, and many experts today acknowledge that nothing yet has taken the place of the old certainties now pretty much ripped to shreds.

Into this incoherence comes a new book that may help us to self-diagnose, at least. Our yearning for “shape” is the focus of this book by Jamie Holmes, a “Future Tense Fellow”, at the New America Foundation, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, (Crown Publishers, New York, 2015).  Drawing from many interviews and lively case studies, Holmes looks at how we make sense of the world. He studies the neurological wiring that makes us calm or agitated in varying states of certainty or uncertainty.  He finds that uncertainty is an “emotional amplifier”:  “it makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure especially enjoyable.”  Holmes examines how the world of medicine has changed in a data-abundant world, for instance.  And he delves deeply into  how our sense-making minds naturally work to solve the puzzles of every day existence.  So, what has changed that makes the world seem shapeless, at least to some, today?

The paradox of modern existence, according to Holmes, is that “technological acceleration–in transportation, communication, and production–should provide more free time” but, in fact, most of us feel “continually squeezed” by overwhelming options and limited time to assimilate and evaluate information,” he writes.

Indeed, abundant information has created more uncertainty!  So much information “makes even the simplest decisions–where to eat, which health plan to sign up for, which coffee maker to buy–more fraught.”

Avoiding this reality or denying it would be of little use, Holmes writes.  “Managing uncertainty is fast becoming an essential skill.”  In his prologue, he cites economist Noreen Hertz’s argument that “one of today’s fundamental challenges is “disorder–a combination of the breakdown of old, established orders and the extremely unpredictable nature of our age.””

In his book, Holmes demonstrates that “being able to handle ambiguity and uncertainty isn’t a function of intelligence.”  (Interesting too that being a “superforecaster” also is not a function of intelligence (see previous post).  But it is an emotional challenge.  This is because individuals have varying needs for “closure,” a concept developed by psychologist, Arie Kruglanski, Holmes writes.  People who understand this concept, even merely intuitively, actually can manipulate others’ discomfort with ambiguity.  “When our need for closure is high, we tend to revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions, and deny contradictions.”  This is the stuff of radical and dangerous shifts in popular attitudes over the course of history; it merits our deeper understanding.

What’s important in this work is Holmes’ seemingly original and certainly unusually accessible treatment of the importance of contextual circumstances in changing individuals’ need for closure.  This trait is not as hard-wired as many of us might assume.

Learning how to deal with what we don’t understand is a critical skill becoming more necessary for all of us in this “shapeless” and still fairly new century, according to this author.  It turns out that uncertainty and contradictions provide the environment for people to unleash their creativity.  Making sense of a shapeless world requires imagination and other cognitive skills which most people have but may not have had occasion to exercise as much as they would have liked.

Speaking of which: due to an abundance of choices, and must-do’s, today, this subject will be continued at a later date here on this blog, of that I am fairly certain.  Understanding what our options are for making sense of complexity is a subject that deserves our undivided attention.  Having read this book, I am confident that it does too.  So, to be continued…

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