I woke up the other day only to realize that I’m the stupid everyone else is with…
Call me Ishmael. Our obsessive quest for precision and certitude via all things digital is a great white whale that — like Ahab — we chase at our own peril. Of course, great white whales aren’t designed to be caught, only chased. But now — two generations later and well past the point of no return — we find that our ability to innovate in the overwhelming evidence of diminished performance across all social metrics is likewise compromised and greatly diminished.
We need to disabuse ourselves ASAP of the narcotic but tragic notion that innovation is a byproduct of technology, and that every problem will be solved as better technologies inspire better metrics, better methodologies, and better management decisions. This blind and backwards faith in better life through better technology inhibits and truncates our true ability to innovate in much the same manner that our massive inventories of time-saving devices now consume and steal so much of our precious time. As Dr. Phil might ask: “How’s it workin’ for ya?”
In response to the above, I’d like to re-introduce my formula for innovation, the same formula I introduced a couple of decades ago at a digital tech conference when it was already painfully apparent that we had surrendered our individual and collective futures to swarms of youthful, well-funded technologists who — predictably and without delay — converted the financial, media, marketing, and entertainment industries into ersatz extensions of global technology companies. So here’s my formula for innovation…
Ignorance + Intent = Innovation.
Translated into less secular terms, the same formula might read…
Uncertainty + Faith = Inspiration.
Both are predicated on our willingness to embrace what we don’t know as the path to wisdom. Ignorance, I argued at the conference, has much to recommend it, including an endless supply, its juxtaposition as the first step of every journey, and the lack of demand to drive up the price on the back end. Ignorance, it seems, is a much better place to start a journey than to end one.
Despite what those with vested interests in the vast, technology-driven knowledge industry may claim, few of the world’s intractable problems remain so for a lack of knowledge, and in the end our failure to resolve them has little to do with how much we know or don’t know. Our failure to resolve them is largely a failure of imagination. Some would say that we lack the will as well, and that may be perfectly true. But the will to do something assumes something to do, and we can’t begin to do something that we can’t imagine first. Contrary to the claims of experts (those who promote knowledge as the panacea for all things), the key to imagination and innovation is uncertainty, not knowledge.
Uncertainty, not knowledge, is the essential human condition for a reason. The Big Bang and Creation were God’s jobs. The tasks to imagine, explain, and/or replicate them, albeit on a far more modest scale (until recently), are ours. Imagination is our very own little big bang. Nowhere is our imagination more threatened than in the reductionist arrogance of ponderous digital scale, where — for some reason — we seem perfectly content to take our little big bang and render it ever smaller at every opportunity.
““If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.” — Yogi Berra
There were two great digital battles in the early 21st century: the battle for bandwidth, and the battle for Big Data. Both were battles for brute power. The battle for bandwidth went face-first while the battle for Big Data went in through the backdoor. Either way, power has little patience for wonderment and mystery, the offspring of uncertainty.
Consider the words of King Solomon, certainly among history’s wisest of men, on his own mastery of knowledge:
I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. – Ecclesiastes 1:16-18
We shouldn’t delude ourselves: The battle for data is — first and foremost — a battle to obliterate uncertainty via the attainment of absolute knowledge and absolute power. Now consider the words of Jacob Bronowski, author of The Ascent of Man, as he stands ankle-deep in the ash ponds of Auschwitz:
To this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
Science, is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you in the name of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.’
…I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.
The now AI-driven battle for data is nothing less than a battle to acquire the knowledge of gods, a battle to reduce the hearts, minds, and souls of men, women and children to commercially parsed and endlessly brokered bits and bytes. The battle for data — like all great power struggles — is a battle characterized over and over again by arrogance, dogma, and ignorance.
There’s a far better, far more effective way. It begins by accepting that the true opposite of knowledge is not ignorance, but uncertainty, and that wisdom — the true opposite of ignorance — only begins to accrue when we fully embrace how little we can know with any certainty at all. Wisdom begins to emerge with a more explicit and humble understanding that pride comes before the fall.
Like their predecessors in times past, those who wish to innovate in the years ahead will embrace and invest in uncertainty, not knowledge, as our most potent and plentiful resource for success. They will examine their own ignorance first. Only then will they discover that the best way to restore inspiration and innovation is to cure our itch for absolute power and knowledge, and pursue instead a more profound sense of wonderment in ourselves and others — something that will only happen if and when we embrace our own uncertainty.
Otherwise, we will lose our ability to touch people entirely, as witnessed in the 21st-century Rise of Huxwell. The only human act we are likely to encounter in our postlapsarian desperation to recover what we’ve already lost is the callous disregard and institutional nihilism that further reduce our hopes and dreams to oceans of faceless data.
Rather than investing our hopes and dreams in technologies that reduce them to data and numbers, we should be devoting our time and money to the creation of things that endure, things worth engaging in the first place. Like faith. Like strong families. Like strong communities. The true feast for our hearts and minds begins when we embrace our uncertainty.
This originally appeared on The Quality of Life Resistance Movement and was reprinted with the author’s permission.