In the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor woes in Japan, The Edge has focused on the issue of prediction. As always they’ve got a fascinating range of pieces, some of which, I completely disagree with, and some which are truly enlightening. All of them, however, are thought provoking. My initial favourite on reading through them all is the contribution from Douglas Rushkoff. He says (referring to these unusual, unpredictable events as “black swans” –
But, as black swan events like this prove, our reliance on the data continually fails us. We just can’t get enough data about our decidedly non-linear world to make accurate predictions.
This is a key point for me – the connections between things in our world are non-linear, because we live in a complex world, not a simple, mechanical one. Non-linear systems have certain characteristics including the phenomenon of “emergence” (which many of the Edge contributors refer to). The detail of emerging events and phenomena is unpredictable. So, what to do about that?
The coincidence of nuclear crises in Japan, combined with our inability to predict the events that precipitated it, forces another kind of predictive apparatus into play. No, it’s not one we like to engage — particularly in rational circles — but one we repress at our own peril. Science is free to promote humanity’s liberation from superstition or even God, but not from humanity itself. We still have something in common with all those animals who somehow, seemingly magically, know when an earthquake or tsunami is coming and to move to higher ground. And our access to that long lost sense lies in something closer to story than metrics. A winter bookended by BP’s underwater gusher and Japan’s radioactive groundwater may be trying to speak to us in ways we are still human enough to hear.
That bolding is mine, not Douglas Rushkoff’s. This is it. This is a great insight. We need to understand the importance of story, particularly when dealing with complexity, because there just never will be “enough” data.