As I wrote in my previous post, I am currently working on designing a series of interventions that should support learners in developing openness. For quite some time I have done a bit of thinking in order to understand how to approach this task, which in the end is eminently practical.
One big issue that I have encountered is that we have ambiguous feelings towards uncertainty. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we hate it. So, I started thinking, if there is, say, “bad” uncertainty, which is clearly distinct from “good” uncertainty. For example, I would like to have a stable job. In that department of my life I prefer certainty. But in other departments, I’d prefer uncertainty. For example, I can hardly submit myself to situations in which everything is already decided. No freedom, no room for exploration. So, what’s the deal?
As I started reflecting on uncertainty, I came up, though, with a different perspective. Or, better, I started entertaining the idea that perhaps the problem lies in the fact that we simply lack the proper “tools” to face uncertainty. And that causes us to withdraw or refrain from facing uncertainty. In other words, we may see uncertainty as something “bad”, simply because we lack the possibility to leverage on it. (Interestingly, Taleb stressed that it’s the way in which we are exposed to uncertainty that can be said to be good or bad.)
The example I came up with in my previous post is the following: imagine that you are told to write down your thoughts regarding the film that you watched yesterday. But then you are told that you cannot delete anything that you have written down. So, everything will stay. You cannot delete words, you cannot rearrange paragraphs, you cannot edit your text, etc.. Now, imagine that this is part of an assignment. So, your text will be actually assessed by somebody else. Starting to feel anxious?
Imagine now that you are told that this is all a prank. You can actually edit your text and take the time you need to do so. Imagine also that you are told that you are not going to be assessed. Most likely, the pressure you have previously experience will simply go off. What a relief! Now you can focus on sharing thoughts and impressions about the film.
What I want to point out with this example is that the way we react to uncertainty might be related, as I noted before, to the “tools” that we have to handle it. I use the word “tools” in a loosely sense. This, though, is not enough. It’s not enough to say that we need proper tools to deal with uncertainty. We need to characterize them.
One way to do that is to turn to the cybernetic concept of variety. Variety can de defined in relation to the number of possible states of a system. When we look at this definition heuristically, we may say that variety has to deal with, say, the number of possibilities that we may need to entertain before we can make up our mind. Typically, when we write a text, we have to deal with a series of decisions: which words to use, how to organize the text, the kind of plot we would like to present, etc.. If you are not a native speaker, that also means that you have to face the uncertainty related to possible language mistakes. Should I use “on” or “of” here? I am not sure. These sorts of things.
Now, lucky us, when we compose a text, we can actually edit the text, as we write it. And it’s not just about the words to use. Interestingly enough, writing helps us clarify our thoughts. So, as we write, our thoughts get materialized externally. Once we have them literally before our eyes, we may have the chance to further them and /or amend them.
The important to point to make now is this: we are in the position to decide over the different options and then leverage on uncertainty, precisely because we have a “tool” that allows us – and this is the crucial insight – to entertain the different possibilities that are cropping up. In other words, we don’t need to pick up the first words that come to our mind. And we just don’t need to transfer our thoughts onto paper without any roundabout or turnaround.
We may say that the sort of “approach” or “system” that we are using has, to go back to cybernetics, requisite variety. What does that mean? That means that the “system” or “approach” we are deploying allows us to contemplate or entertain the possibilities that are cropping up before our eyes. Incidentally, the number of possibilities become a “measure” of the complexity of the activity we are involved in. The more complex an activity is, the more possibilities we may need to contemplate before we make up our mind. Requisite variety is predicated on the “approach” or “system” that we use to handle uncertainty. Also, requisite variety characterizes a “system” that is basically able to match the amount of variety of the situation we are in. In other words, the system we are using allows us to absorb variety. In plain English that means that we can face uncertainty.
Another term that we can use in relation to facing uncertainty is amplification. The tool that we are using to absorb variety amplifies our ability to face uncertainty. Interestingly, we can also turn the whole thing upside down by saying that, if we make use of tools that amplify our ability to absorb variety, then we will be able to leverage uncertainty* (this deals with research and science. I will come back to this point in the future). And this leads us to the last point.
Implicitly, what I have been arguing all along this post is that we withdraw from uncertainty – we don’t want to face it – when we basically lack the proper “tools” to contemplate the different possibilities that are cropping up. And that is responsible for the uneasiness we feel in those circumstances. That is, we lack tools that would amplify our ability to absorb the variety generated by having different options.
Now, what can we say about our thirst for uncertainty? Why is it that uncertainty is good? Or, better, why is it better to face uncertainty?
One way to put it is that uncertainty exposes us to the world. Or, better, uncertainty can be compared to an invitation to dance with the world. It implies, in other words, entering in a dialogue with something that is larger than us and that therefore can bring us to another level of existence.
*I screenrecorded the whole process of composing this blogpost. The whole video was more than 1 hour long. So, I had to shorten it by speeding it up.