Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Certain Uncertainty

The date in which I write this article is on 11.11.11. There is symmetry in this row of number ones that does make you feel that there’s a significance to this day. As a matter of fact, there are many weddings taking place on this date, whether for good luck or so that couples could remember their wedding anniversary easier. Words that go round in Twitterverse is that if you make a wish on 11:11 on 11.11.11, it will come true: a sweet idea that has gone viral and as I’m typing this, generating a global outpouring of wishes that is making this date a Twitter trending topic.

It’s funny how as humans we are always fascinated and on the look out for the significant, particularly in numbers and dates and how they relate to our lives. We make a great deal of birthdays, anniversaries and commemorations of events that we find important in the course of our history and life’s journey.

We look back at our lives as a series of milestones comprising of dates and years signifying our achievements - when we finished high school, when we won that poetry prize, when we graduated from university, when we got married, when we got that first job or set up that business. Laid out in that fashion, it is easy to trace and make sense of the direction our life is taking. It creates meaning and makes us feel important.

Perhaps it’s precisely our ability to put our past in some kind of order - to see the symbolic in things and events and the desire to decipher and extract meaning out of them, as are our propensity to project our fears, desires and hopes on the things around us, whether in magic numbers or in our interpretations of disasters and natural phenomena - that have enabled us to survive for so long on the planet where other species have failed.

It is through the narrative that we create for ourselves, the myth that the workings of the world about us are replicas of the stuff that we carry in our heads that leads us to believe that there is an order to things. That there are meanings to events, even when they seem absolutely random or inexplicable. Our greatest achievement being the conjuring up of the idea of an omnipotent divinity; the ultimate anthropomorphism of our wishful thinking on an otherwise faceless Universe.

This ability to track neatly the course of our existence, taking note of a phenomenon and then trying to analyse how it came about and then making theories, conclusions and predictions about it, whether through science, philosophy or even economics and psychotherapy, rests on our ability to look at the past.

However, hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty vision. We are so much better at making generalisations and inferences on things that have already taken place. (Of course, that couple has a happy and lasting marriage. Their wedding day took place on 11.11.11. The day when all dreams come true!. In effect, there are probably many more wishes that came true than the ones made on 11.11.11, but you didn’t remember them because you didn’t jot down the dates in which they were made.)

Our confidence in our ability to see the pattern and to infer meanings to past events, however, easily turns into a confidence in our ability to predict the future. We look at the past in order to make predictions and conclusions about what lie ahead. And here lies the danger. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan, most of the significant events that happen in our lives, particularly huge disasters with major impacts, are impossible to predict. Presumably if we had been able to predict them, they wouldn’t have taken place or we would have taken steps to reduce the impact.

And yet, uncertainty is something that most of us are uncomfortable with and are unwilling to tolerate because it makes us feel that we are not in control. We study, analyse and theorise about the events that happen with the hope that they would not be repeated in the future, while at the same time we continue to be blind to the things we don’t know, simply because we don’t know what we don’t know.

This is because our view of the past is also incomplete and our understanding of what actually happened is incorrect. That the past is not a good predictor of the future is told by Taleb in his turkey story. A turkey fed daily by a farmer for a thousand days in a row cannot be blamed for thinking that this is its future for the rest of its life. It cannot predict that on the 1001th day it would grace the table at a Thanksgiving Dinner.

But still we like to stay on track, so we can trace some kind of progress and have this notion that we are going somewhere, even though in the process we might be taking ourselves further and further removed from what is actually happening and blind ourselves to the possibilities of uncertainty, not mindful of unintended consequences.

Unable to let go of our past, we continue to predict a future based on growth, numbers, indicators and statistics that only exist in our heads and yet we try to impose on our lives and in how we do things.

We refuse to accept and deal with uncertainty until it becomes a certainty. By which time, like the turkey, it’s already too late.

(Desi Anwar: first published in The Jakarta Globe)

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