"Introducing not-knowing" by Vaughn Tan

"Introducing not-knowing" by Vaughn Tan

Originally posted by Vaughn Tan on his Substack, The Uncertainty Mindset.

P.S. Vaughn also has an upcoming salon series, “Thinking About Not-Knowing, starting this week, January 19th!

This is an introduction to the series which explains

  1. The origin story for this discussion series (I promise it’s relevant);
  2. Why it’s essential now (much more than even a decade ago) to understand not-knowing;
  3. Why we need to and should want to deal with not-knowing;
  4. How the series is organized, and why.

The origin story

I have a provisional view about not-knowing. I expect this view will change when it comes up against different and possibly opposing perspectives. The discussion series and maybe-book-project about not-knowing I’m running is a way to force myself to articulate my current view on not-knowing and bounce that around with people who are interested in not-knowing but who may have a different perspective and background. I’m particularly interested in non-academic perspectives, in how people think about not-knowing in their daily lives, whether it is because they make art, or are venture capitalists, or are creating new technologies, or starting a one-person business, or moving to a different country where they don’t speak the language. (You should join!)

idk #22 (Los Angeles, 2018).

I’m supposedly a strategy professor in a business school, but I was trained as an organizational ethnographer. Which means that I was trained to spend time watching how individuals work in all sorts of teams — from R&D teams in businesses, to temporary collaboratives of artists and craftspeople, to tech startups, to communities of grain growers and regenerative farmers.

I spent almost a decade researching and writing my first book, The Uncertainty Mindset. This included many years watching teams of innovation chefs coming up with new ideas in food. The book looks at cutting-edge culinary research kitchens and uses them as a lens for explaining what it means to explicitly differentiate between risk and uncertainty, and how accepting uncertainty leads to organizations that can innovate and adapt.

That first book had some sunk-cost fallacy effects going on. So many years of time and work (and reputation) made me unable to admit something which I had already been feeling in my gut by the time I finished the first draft: That the way I was thinking about uncertainty and risk was incomplete in ways that needed to be explored and fixed. I had to finish the manuscript and get it to the publisher. So I ignored my gut, finished the book, and packed it off to the publishers in 2019. (But! I still believe The Uncertainty Mindset is a useful way to understand how teams can build themselves to flourish in uncertain times — of course you should buy the book.)

Then Covid happened at the beginning of 2020. By the end of 2020, with the prospect of working remotely through 2021, I’d moved out of London to a remote mountain house in the center of France (without being able to speak French).

In my first book, I had committed myself to presenting uncertainty as an essentially monolithic thing contrasted with risk, as Frank Knight had originally done many decades ago.1 Through the practice of everyday life during an inexpressibly strange pandemic, it rapidly became clear to me, that it wasn’t wrong to say that “risk is not the same as uncertainty” but it was certainly incomplete.

Through the lockdowns, and especially by observing the huge range of responses to a shared crisis by governments, companies, and individuals, it became abundantly clear that actually there were different kinds of uncertainty or, more properly, different kinds of not-knowing — situations in which our knowledge of the situation is incomplete, where we simply don’t know fully what’s going on or what will happen. (I’m going to use the phrase “not-knowing” from here on, because even using the words “risk” and “uncertainty” is a source of profound current confusion, as we’ll see in Session 5.)

Just a few examples in the Covid context may illustrate. How bad would Covid be for people who got it? How long would the effects of Covid last? Should we use a traditional killed virus vaccine or an mRNA vaccine? How effective would the mRNA vaccines be? What should we do to reduce vaccine hesitancy among high-risk groups? Is it worth it to shut down whole economies for months to reduce the number of people who got infected with Covid? How much would payroll support help businesses survive through lockdowns?

Looking closely at the fog we’ve all been in for the last few years, it seemed to me that there are at least four different types of not-knowing:

  1. Not-knowing what concrete outcomes are possible;
  2. Not-knowing what actions we can take to achieve particular outcomes;
  3. Not-knowing how likely an outcome would be given particular actions taken;
  4. Not-knowing how much to value a particular outcome.

These different types of not-knowing push and pull on us in different ways. Treating them as all the same and acting on them as if they are all the same makes neither instinctive nor logical sense. The frankly haphazard (or nutty) reactions by many governments, businesses, and people to Covid highlighted how we have no coherent framework for thinking clearly about the different types of not-knowing and what we can do about them.

Just to be clear, though I’ve used Covid to illustrate these different types of not-knowing, they actually permeate everyday life for us as individuals, as leaders and employees of organizations, as citizens of countries. A CEO building an R&D strategy deals with not-knowing (how likely particular outcomes will be given particular actions she takes). A person deciding to move for the first time from a big city to a tiny hamlet deals with not-knowing (how much he values the amenities of city life vs being unbothered by other people cluttering up the landscape). And so on. No matter the context, we make poorer decisions and are less happy when we lack coherent ways of thinking about and dealing with not-knowing.

So that’s how I came to my current view on things. Which is that risk is now so well-understood that we overuse our understanding of it. But risk is just one of the many types of not-knowing. Not-knowing isn’t monolithic. It has texture, and understanding this texture is essential for dealing with it properly.

In other words, my gut feeling had become something I could no longer ignore. This series of essays and discussions-that-might-turn-into-a-book is an attempt to silence my gut by investigating the texture of not-knowing. My goal — which I hope is also our goal — is to understand the other types of not-knowing so that we can develop tools and approaches for coping with them properly, learning to do well in spite of and even because of them, maybe even having fun with them.

Why now? (Because this time it’s different.)

We live in a strange time and things seem to be getting stranger more quickly. The planet has been quite literally aflame in the last few years. Or frozen, flooded, plague-ridden, at war, in economic crisis, beset by locusts, in political crisis, massively defrauded, verging on nuclear disaster, and/or many other scourges of humanity both traditional and modern.

But things like this have happened before. A few months ago, in a house far up a winding road in Liguria, I came upon an issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. Each issue assembles excerpts of past writing, both fiction and nonfiction, around a single topic. Spring 2016 was on Disaster, and featured writing about natural and man-made catastrophes from ancient times to the present. Disasters create situations where the future becomes partly unknowable — disasters feel like the end times because they make things change in ways we can’t expect. They create situations of not-knowing that sometimes reverberate forward in time.

Other than the style of the writing, the disasters reported or imagined in that issue of LQ felt very contemporary. The message of history is that the end times have been happening for thousands of years, yet humans are still here. This is why I’ve been told by quite a few people that humans have literally always lived in and had to deal with uncertainty and risk, deal with not-knowing. The question hangs in the air: Why should we care more about it now?

I want to propose that thinking about not-knowing is in fact more important now than ever before. Thinking about not-knowing is especially critical now to understand why we’re facing our current overabundance of crises, how we can manage them, and also how we can have equanimity or even be happy in an uncertain world.

When we zoom far out, there are three reasons why this time is different.

First, the world today is much more interconnected than even a decade ago, which means not-knowing spreads and re-seeds itself more quickly and widely. We have always experienced uncertainty and unknowability, but our new interconnectedness means that sources of not-knowing are almost never localised anymore.

Ideas now spread faster and in less predictable ways. Loss of confidence that causes one bank to collapse might, in the past, have largely affected the few thousand depositors of that bank. More recently, such loss of confidence might create a global financial crisis because of previously invisible connections between that bank and financial systems in other countries (as it did with Lehman Brothers and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008).

Physical stuff spreads faster and more unpredictably now too. In a world where long-distance travel is expensive and uncommon, a highly contagious new disease that shows up in a country might stay largely in that country for long enough to figure it out and put appropriate controls in place. When airlines connect countries with multiple cheap flights each week, a new disease can spread faster than our ability to understand it (as was the case with Covid-19). Not-knowing, whether virtual or embodied, often seems to be contagious. When it isn’t understood and treated appropriately, it generates more not-knowing.

1: Our world is now more interconnected than ever before. This allows not-knowing to spread faster and produces more situations of not-knowing that then we need to respond to.

Second, we are now much more able than before to do things that affect the world, and we don’t always understand the full extent of our power.

One example of this is the combination of the internet, social media, and ubiquitous recommendation algorithms. These have given us the ability to communicate with others and find and share our ideas much more easily than would have been possible even ten years ago.

This seems unambiguously good until we discover, for example, that recommendation algorithms may create filter bubbles and echo chambers that affect our collective ability to have democratic discourse, and that social networks have become very effective ways to coordinate domestic terror attacks or spread misinformation with serious consequences.

Our actions have always had consequences that are both expected and unexpected — the unexpected consequences create their own situations of not-knowing. The problem is that our actions are now much more powerful.

2: Our actions now have more power, so our actions have become more consequential than before. We now produce more unexpected consequences when we act, and these sources of not-knowing affect us and the world around us more.

Third, we’re now more conditioned, partly by being surrounded by modern science and technology, to believe that our knowledge and control is greater than it really is. This is a form of hubris that leads to bad decision making. We saw a lot of this in Covid response by governments and the collapse of FTX — to name just two of an enormous number of examples.

Subtly different and more profound than that, when we believe that we should know more and be more in control than we really are or can be, we become unhappy for reasons we can’t even articulate. I saw this in my undergraduate students when they suddenly switched to entirely online education at the beginning of 2020.

When we are put in a situation of not-knowing, we now feel more powerless than before because we feel like we should know and we should be in control. Where, in other words, is the power that we deserve? We have a sense of being denied something that is ours by right, accompanied by the feeling that there is nothing we can do about the deprivation. This helplessness and ineffectiveness is a huge part of why failure to recognise not-knowing affects us emotionally — we lose our equanimity and our ability to deal with the situation we actually face because we believe we deserve a different, better situation.

3: There is a mismatch between a world increasingly filled with not-knowing and our mistaken belief that we know (or should know) everything. This mismatch leads us to manage not-knowing inappropriately and also makes us unnecessarily unhappy.

A stick … and a carrot.

There are two sides to why we should care about not-knowing: Because we have no choice and because we probably want to.

In other words, there is both a stick and a carrot.

The stick is that we are increasingly forced to confront and cope with not-knowing. We have no choice but to learn how to manage it. The carrot is that not-knowing can be something that is productive and desirable.

Earlier, I talked about not-knowing in the context of catastrophe and disaster. That’s how we often think about it. It’s true that when we don’t know what will happen, we can’t plan effectively (bad) or our carefully built plans fail (also bad). The series will explore what types of not-knowing are bad and how we can mitigate the badness.

But not-knowing has another side, a good side. It provides space for newness and for change — nothing else can do this. Artists, innovators, scientists, and social movements have known this forever.

Richard Feynman, for instance, said “I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.”2  But this kind of thing doesn’t get said quite enough, which is why scholars of art or innovation or science or whatever often treat not-knowing as a bad thing: “Theorists are apt to vex themselves with vain efforts to remove uncertainty just where it has a high aesthetic value.”3

The fact remains that not-knowing is how we can build new things, how we learn, and how we change — this is a big and important carrot. During the series I especially want us to think together about what makes not-knowing good, how we can expose ourselves to more good not-knowing, and how to make it work for us.

But the two sides of not-knowing are just that. They’re two sides of the same, textured and complex thing that is not-knowing. A think that we’re currently blocked from navigating and managing properly. The blockers are 1) cognitive baggage that weighs us down and stops us from understanding it clearly, and 2) affective baggage that makes it hard for us to act on our understanding.

The plan

This plan is provisional. It is probably going to change. At the moment, it looks like this:

Part 1: Motivation (the first two sessions). Here we set the stage for the rest of the series by considering why the world we inhabit is becoming more uncertain, how that forces us to think more clearly about not-knowing, and why doing so is a path to being happier and more successful.

Part 2: Clearing the ground (session 3-5). To begin, we explore three obstacles to thinking clearly about not-knowing. First, our affective, gut/intuitive fear of the unknown (both from evolution and from social dynamics) which prevents us from looking closely at situations of not-knowing. Then two barriers which are cognitive. The first is our long-standing habit of calling everything risk and thus thinking of many forms of not-knowing as risky when they’re not. The second is the growing practice — especially among computer scientists and technologists — to claim that they have methods for dealing with “true uncertainty” (spoiler: they usually don’t).

Part 3: Laying the foundations (sessions 6-9). After sweeping away these affective and cognitive blockers, we can start thinking clearly about the different kinds of not-knowing we face. Each of these sessions focuses on one of the four different broad types of not-knowing mentioned above. We’ll unpack each type’s implications to understand why and how to respond to it differently from the others. Each of the four sessions also asks what it means to take successful and effective action given that particular type of not-knowing.

Part 4: Building a toolkit (sessions 10-13). The tools we need to deal with not-knowing are both cognitive and affective, tools for managing how we think and how we feel. The decision-making approaches and tools that we’re used to are ultimately only appropriate for situations of formal risk. These approaches and tools are sharp-edged, legible, explicable, and easily put into books. Tooling up for other kinds of not-knowing is particularly hard because it requires fundamental changes in how we think about why we act (intent), how we think about taking action (causation), and how we understand success (values). The appropriate approaches and tools for other kinds of not-knowing look and feel different: They are more amorphous, less legible, and resist being grasped quickly. They rely a lot on tacit knowledge that only develops with practice and repetition. We’ll talk about what some of these different approaches and tools might be, and how we can use them.

You can find provisional details of each session on this page.


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1 Chapters 7 and 8 (beginning on page 197 in this version) are where Knight discusses the distinction between risk and uncertainty.

2 From The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a 1981 documentary interview with and about Richard Feynman, the physicist — which is very enjoyable.

3 Donald Francis ToveyEssays in Musical Analysis, vol. 3 (1936).