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The New Face of Uncertainty

June 5, 2014, 4:52 PM
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In my last post, I talked a bit about the fundamental purpose of technology: reducing uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a double edged sword in the human experience - it provides us with excitement, but it also causes us a great deal of stress and discomfort. One of the tricks of life is learning how to stay on this razor’s edge between adventure and catastrophe.

However, the battle between our drive for certainty, and our drive for excitement, is not evenly matched.  We have a cognitive bias towards the negative or dangerous aspects of our experience. This is why we’re taught the “criticism sandwich” (give critical feedback in-between two compliments), and told to do five nice things for every mean/hurtful thing in our personal relationships. The negative grows particularly large in our predictably skewed perceptions.

Yet, from this seemingly unfortunate bias grows much of our drive to create new technologies. In our battle against the dangerous and uncertain aspects of life, we’ve come up with things like bridges, airplanes, spaceships, and vaccines.

But we must also remember that there are no absolutes in human perception. $100 is a large amount of money to some, but pocket change for others. 5’11 is a towering, and overwhelming, height for a toddler, but normal and expected for an adult. Our life situations determine our baselines, and our experience is bounded by these happenstance dimensions. And, in the opening decades of the 21st century, many of the great uncertainties that have been a mainstay of the human experience have been wiped from the modern world.

In developed societies, the chances of dying in the initial decades of life are extremely small, and overall life expectancies have never been greater. Food is so easily available, and abundant, that overeating is the dominant nutritional problem facing Americans. So, when all of the big uncertainties in life have been tamed, which remain? Which new ambiguities enter the spotlight?

That’s when the complex and nuanced uncertainties of life come into focus: social uncertainties, spiritual uncertainties, purpose-driven uncertainties. In other words, the obsessions of modern iPhone wielding, Facebook friending millennials entering the workforce today.

“Am I missing out on fun things to do? Did I get more birthday wall posts than so and so? Am I still popular?” The social realm is fluid and unbelievably complex. We humans are, in many ways, the most unpredictable and complex force on the planet. While we’re getting quite proficient at statistical prediction for simple behaviors, predicting the behavior of any given person is an impossibility. A friendship between two people is an ever-evolving entity that morphs and changes based upon context, mood, and so on. And, that’s just the complexity present in a diad. Now, let’s expand our scope to groups of friends, all interrelating in a larger community, such as a college. The complexity of the social graph at even this scale is astounding. And, since we’re wired to pay constant attention to the social connections, status, etc. of all those people, staying current in our social worlds is an endless job - as over a billion Facebook users can tell you.

In addition, with our general safety guaranteed, we can spend time asking questions like: “What am I really meant to do? What is my passion? Which career would best suit my unique skills?” While these are interesting questions, they are also unanswerable. Each of us is capable of performing thousands, if not millions, of jobs. Each of us can also choose between studying millions of different topics in a depth never imagined before the advent of the Web and Wikipedia.

As a species we have started to unshackle ourselves from the great behemoths of corporeal uncertainty. But, in the same stride we’ve attached ourselves to lesser, but more devilish concerns that keep evolving at a blistering pace. And, as a look around any train or bar will show you, these concerns, while less existentially threatening, have grabbed our attention and have created obsessions just as powerful as those we’ve left behind. 

Image credit:  alphaspirit/Shutterstock

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The New Face of Uncertainty

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