Sometimes what we think we know is more consequential than what we actually know. As we nestled into our beds on the night of September 10th, 2001 most of us did not know that we would awaken to a terrorist attack that would unleash a decade of global unrest. Few among us foresaw the meltdown of financial markets in late 2008. And many were unable to believe it possible that we would witness the ascension of an African American to the White House that same year.
The world is a profoundly complex place where subtle dynamic patterns shape the trajectory of everything from personal relationships to emergent social order on a planetary scale. How do we grapple with this complexity when the consequences of our ignorance are so severe? This question cuts to the heart of our sensibilities about knowledge and reason. What we don’t know is often shrouded in a mask of presumed knowledge — we tend to think we know much more than we actually do.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has brilliantly captured this troubling observation in what he calls the “Black Swan” Theory, which states:
“Our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according to our current knowledge)–and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated. […] In spite of our progress and the growth of knowledge, or perhaps because of such progress and growth, the future will be increasingly less predictable, while both human nature and social “science” seem to conspire to hide the idea from us.”
As a student of social change who also delves into epistemology (the study of knowledge) and complex systems, I resonate deeply with this central concern of Taleb’s. Not only do we not know, but often we don’t know that we don’t know! I call the boundary between presumed knowledge and the “great beyond” the Horizon of Ignorance.
The human condition contains many ironies, not least of which is the fact that our brilliant ingenuity is only possible because we are blind to its operations. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their treatise Philosophy in the Flesh, introduce the notion of the Cognitive Unconscious to convey that our inner mental workings cannot be revealed by introspection alone. For example, the ability to see the environments we are embedded in requires that we be unaware of the photons that hit our retinas and the information processing done by our brains to make a tree look like an oak or a room look like the den. Note the significance of the word “require” in the previous sentence. In a profound sense, we cannot know that we don’t know.
More specifically, the Horizon of Ignorance is the great blind spot that we cannot see when our habitual thoughts and behaviors run smoothly. Our implicit beliefs, mental models for the workings of the world around us, and our presumptions about cause-and-effect act as a barrier to truly understanding what is happening. In a deeply connected world like ours, where small alterations in one domain can ripple across a dizzying array of coupled systems, we must somehow come to grips with our bias toward the known.
Innovation and Misplaced Causation
As we seek to understand the changes around us (and gain some ability to shape the future), we must take care that we don’t misunderstand causality. Our tendency to evoke “just so” stories to explain away our discomfort with the unknown is a blinder that keeps us from withholding judgement long enough to see with beginner’s eyes. This is especially problematic when we need innovation in order to survive and thrive.
A powerful demonstration of this blindness can be found in Kathryn Schultz’s TED Talk titled “On Being Wrong”:
She asks the question “What does it feel like to be wrong?” The answer: “Exactly the same feeling as being right.” In other words, we are neurologically wired not to feel our own mistakes as they happen, which blinds us to error as we presume a correctness that has yet to be displaced (and may never be).
In the context of innovation, this is especially important because we need to understand the ecosystem dynamics out of which creative solutions grow and spread. Having a memorable “just so” story about a lone innovator only masks our blindness to the more nuanced realities of contingency and emergence that were vital for new ideas to gain widespread adoption.
This is a critical lesson for us to learn now as we move through what my friend Rick Ingrasci calls “The Decisive Decade”. In a very real sense, we humans will decide whether complex civilization sticks around through our collective actions in the next several years. We are beginning to see the tipping points (indicative of deeper phase transitions) like the unexpected release of methane that is now driving global climate change at an accelerated pace. It is the highly improbable — yet profoundly impactful — events like this that Taleb warned us about.
Harnessing the “Unexpectable”
So how do we move beyond the Horizon of Ignorance? What can be done to harness the unexpectable when our static models of reality break down and fail us? I’ve come up with two ideas about how we can make progress in this seemingly treacherous terrain.
Idea #1: Shed Light On Our Blind Spots
It is lucky for us that many researchers have been studying our blind spots for decades now, in a variety of fields comprising the cognitive and behavioral sciences. I’ve been hard at work shedding light on the for some time (see these videos for a glimpse of where the state-of-the-art is going).
Idea #2: Cultivate the Science of Letting Go
Considerable work has been done on the nature of human creativity. We are now realizing that a comfort with the unknown can be highly generative if the following conditions are met:
- Knowledge creation is treated as an open-ended process;
- Failure is encouraged as a legitimate way to learn;
- Risk-takers are welcomed and supported by the community;
- Systems of resilience are maintained to keep failure from being catastrophic, whenever possible.
This partial list, although incomplete, is highly suggestive of how we need to engage in cultural change if we want to succeed in a Black Swan world. We must remain skeptical of what we think we know (#1). And cultivate insights into the nature of our blindness so that hardships remain manageable (#4). In so doing, we will encourage social entrepreneurship (#2 and #3) and turn our lack of knowledge into an engine for creativity.
Of course, this is only the beginning. We’ll need to rethink our approaches to education, recognize the false dichotomy of government vs. business (both are a vital part of any healthy economy), and engage in iterative design practices to continually improve upon our built-in shortsightedness.
These are a few of my thoughts on the matter. I’d love to hear yours!