The Humbling Effects of Uncertainty

Total Perspective Vortex
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MAIM 2014: Throughout the next month we, the class of 2014, will be exploring themes that shape our collective vision of innovation, serving as inspiration for our upcoming final Degree Show. These key themes include: experimentation, chaos, risk, uncertainty, creativity and, of course, innovation.

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is confusing, scary and miserable for the families of those on board. The ambiguity is one of its most difficult aspects, as it leaves those families in between hope and grief, not really able to do either. It also leaves those of us not personally affected more than a bit uneasy. We usually have so much information, we usually can figure things out, we usually don’t lose big things.


There’s something about not knowing that hits us deep. Daily life usually does not strike such a blow, but every once in a while we get put in our place. It’s like being forced into the Total Perspective Vortex from Douglas Adam’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, a torture device that shows you how infinitely small you are compared to the Universe.


We like feeling in control, equipped with knowledge; on top of the world, or at least the world inside our own heads. The media coverage about MH370 demonstrates this. We want information to pierce the obscurity. We want someone to do something. We want governments and corporations to take the right steps towards reducing the uncertainty. And they well should.


Contrast this with a normal lecture day in the safe, creative fortress of Central Saint Martins. In MA Innovation Management, we are told that uncertainty is ‘great’. It offers opportunity for learning and new discoveries. Joseph Schumpeter agrees that fundamental uncertainty is inherent to all innovation. Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder defines antifragile as the ability to face shocks and get better, saying the antifragile emerge from uncertainty stronger for the experience.


But it would be tactless to tell people to get comfort from the productivity of uncertainty. Or even like it. And I stand with Taleb against increasing antifragility at the expense of individuals. As us innovators tout the benefits of uncertainty, how can we work to deliver the basic certainties of safety and health in increasing measure?


While we emotionally dislike uncertainty, it has been shown molecularly endemic to everyday life. According to Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, we can’t even get a handle on the smallest specks: we can’t measure both the position and momentum of a particle with precision. The more accurately we measure one, the more the other eludes us. We can’t find a Boeing 777; we can’t find atoms.


But maybe this is the beginning of humility. And maybe humility is a beginning of knowledge. In response to uncertainty we are driven to seek information; when one of our paradigms fails us we are willing to try anything. As artist Bonnie Camplin says, “no truth is forever”, but maybe that is because no truth is complete. Admitting the fundamental reality of uncertainty can be a driving force on a daily quest to knowledge.