In Times of Rapid Change, Turn and Face The Strange.
Two short riffs on the same key point:
“This is the epistemological crisis of the moment: There’s a lot of expertise around, but fewer tools than ever to distinguish it from everything else. Pure credentialism doesn’t always work. People have self-published a lot of terrible pieces on Medium, but some of the best early ones that explained stuff to laypeople were from tech guys.”
– Zeynep Tufekci, University of North Carolina sociologist
“In a pandemic, the strongest attractor of trust shouldn’t be confidence, but the recognition of one’s limits, the tendency to point at expertise beyond one’s own, and the willingness to work as part of a whole.”
— Ed Yong, The Atlantic
The systems we use to encode expertise tend to depend on relatively slow processes of collective computation and don’t typically work as measures of an individual’s actual extra-institutional networks or their ability to respond to novelty. Organizations and metrics tuned to slow and stable periods that favor efficiency and specialization tend to suppress generalists and improvisation.
In times of crisis, we want easy answers and that means looking for simple and certain ways of verifying the authority of our sources or of the people who present them. But it is precisely in these times that the relatively slow processes that produce credentials and confident claims can fail us, because the conditions of our environment move faster than those processes (peer review, degree programs in established fields of knowledge, electoral cycles, folk wisdom that encodes generations of firsthand experience). In these times we have to make the uncomfortable choice to listen to the marginal perspectives that are far enough from settled facts to draw connections others don’t; the very individuals and institutions that we can’t afford to listen to in periods of equilibrium that favor narrow specialization and economies of scale.
Paradoxically, this is its own cliché: the digital native kids know how to operate Jurassic Park’s computer system, not the expert consultants; only a child see’s the emperor without his clothes; jesters were a staple of medieval courts for their ability to say things status-seeking nobles would never let themselves think. SFI itself is an example of this: the Institute could only change the world from outside of the disciplines and bureaucratic frameworks that prevent big academia from funding pioneering fundamental research. But that’s exactly what is needed in a world experiencing future shock, which seems to be why jazz emerged in response to the trauma of industrialized global warfare.
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
– Hunter S. Thompson
“You never talk of likelihoods on Arrakis. You speak only of possibilities.”
– Liet-Kynes, Planetologist of Arrakis
Expertise is who and how you know. The pandemic makes this obvious.
The coronavirus crisis has exposed the networks out of which society is woven, but we’re not yet treating credibility as an emergent property of someone’s location in their networks.
Political authority, economic power, and academic prestige have always been more who you know than who you are — or, rather, as social science has made clear, who you are is who you know. A PhD does not encode your level of intelligence, your aptitude at making sense; it is a signifier of the social networks in which you’ve been embedded, and only as a proxy what you may have learned from them. When the media environment was printed books and journals, modern selves were the repositories of this information, and expertise had a different constitution than it does when the pace of publication climbs toward vertical and even experts can’t keep up with the required reading of their specialty. Now we live in a world where even the most hyper-specified domains are crowded rooms from which pour avalanches of new findings and science communication has as much to do with cutting through the noise as stating facts.
This matters when confronted with a novel situation for which prior models do not fit the evidence, when the state of the environment mutates more quickly than the collective computation of the primate hierarchies in which we are embedded can aggregate and crunch our local measurements. The U.S. Constitution was devised when letters could be carried by a horse and news was not updated by the hour. Universities evolved within an informational ecology that didn’t obsolete diplomas faster than they could be printed. The latencies built into systems that grew fat in stable periods make those legacy institutions and their pundits unreliable amidst a turbulent transition.
The result is not just a collapse of the consensus narrative, but of the significations by which we could recognize the people that society entrusts to tell it. Authority has not gone anywhere, but the problem of identifying whom to trust is now a meta-problem in its own way greater than the virus or its economic impacts. “Is there a doctor in the room?” is insufficient when the problem is distributed so widely, and its nature indeterminate and mutable enough, that no one has the training to perform a diagnosis.
When professionals half-joke that their job calls for someone who knows how to search the Internet to find somebody else’s walkthrough for the task at hand…
When education has to break the bones of standardized curricula and move to teaching students lifelong learning habits, how to be good infovores, their curiosity more crucial than some static and soon-overturned conclusive knowing…
When four-year election cycles seem as unfit for adjusting to the morphing circumstances as lifelong autocrats did to those that founded our democracies…
When social graphs disintegrate and signal an impending revolution, like the cells that form in pots of almost-boiling water…
When human resources stops asking who is the right person for the job description and starts asking who is the right person for the team…
We’re in a world where what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” is king: the skill of not congealing on an answer prematurely, the capacity to hedge one’s mental bets and keep one’s models open, fluid, and provisional. This looks a lot like having a diverse gut microbiome that can handle wide varieties of foods, or how a virus like SARS-CoV2 is less a fixed point in the genotypic space than a loose cloud of possibilities, evolvable enough to pivot to new hosts as they are offered. It’s why hyperconnected bank loan networks are vulnerable to cascading failures, but an archipelago can breed and harbor innovations that repopulate the mainland after mass extinctions. It’s why investors call for a diverse portfolio of assets and high-beta strategies are suited for a moment of extraordinary volatility. It’s why food webs that don’t depend entirely on one key species fare much better through catastrophe. It’s why sometimes stalemates lead to better answers than a fast agreement.
The coronavirus hits civilization in our softest unprotected spots: our just-in-time supply chains, the narrow margins of economies of scale, our atrophied communities and bottom-up civic social infrastructure, our ability as citizens to critically navigate competing narratives absorbed from sources we do not have time to adequately test because we are all to a head just skating on this growing volume of pertinent information.
But precisely for these reasons, we may have a chance to turn and face the strange. All of us grew up in a world too vast for anyone to understand. No single person comprehends a smartphone, or the economic networks in which it precipitated. Our necessary adaptations to the baffling complexity of postmodernity include a subtler and more nuanced grasp of context. It’s what Gestalt psychologists call “figure-ground reversal,” where you realize that the object you’re examining emerges only at the intersection of more objects, a moiré of ever-shifting, mutually-defining processes.
In common parlance, people talk about this in folk psychological terms like, “You are the combination of the five people you talk to most frequently.” If all of those five people share the same beliefs, it probably won’t matter in a crisis like the one we’re in if they’re all prestigious public intellectuals or they’re all plumbers.
Just like you can’t navigate a class-four cataract without good depth perception, one perspective isn’t going to cut it: news comes flying at us out of nowhere and the seemingly-stable evolutionary fitness landscape churns white with possibility. In equilibrium, homophilous social groupings, comfortable kinship with the people just like you, is cheap and easy; but in history-shaping punctuations in which tested maps are useless we’re advised to seek out people that the social climbers of mature societies regard as crazy. This is why jazz emerged out of the trauma of the First World War; sheet music for the symphony of modern progress was a joke, and multicellular improvisation reared its hydra heads to make new sense of a brave new world and its radical meaninglessness.
This is a test of our ability to find the others — not the ones who see the same world we’re habituated to perceive, but those for whom a different history yields usefully different insights. Find those with different priors. To do this, we will have to counter this pathology of our unconsciously constructed networks, systems made of presumptively unchanging atomistic human beings and solid axioms, with the deliberate assembly of novel networks made of humans-becoming and disposable hypotheses: a do-ocracy of those who can address the problems that we have now, whomever we may think they are.
It seems appropriate that we have calculus because of Isaac Newton’s “Annus Mirabilis,” his year of wondrous discovery while cooped up in quarantine as Cambridge shuttered through the Plague of London: “Who do we trust?” means not just measuring first-order properties of somebody’s CV, their intellectual velocity, but second-order properties of whom they’re capable of learning from, their intellectual acceleration. It means not only finding values for authority by integrating linear CVs, but over multiple dimensions of experience and how they interact — not only what a person learned in schools or former jobs, but in their lives outside of institutions and in ways that “key performance indicators” have yet failed to capture. It’s going to require stereoscopic thinking that can train both quantity and quality on a phenomenon, to see the optical illusion of identity as both a particle and wave, a noun and verb, a self and an adaptive web of algorithms.
What we will be when we emerge will only superficially resemble what we were. We will have found new ways to measure merit, hiring metrics that look more like contact tracing, peer review by tenure-less communities collaborating to confirm impermanent and open-ended knowledge within tolerable margins of uncertainty. We will have jettisoned the burdensome assumptions suited for a world of solid ground and fly small, fast, and light with less to lose.
You will not have the privilege of knowing who you are or whether to believe the news with total confidence, but that will save your life.
Further reading and listening:
Complexity Podcast’s Transmission Series:
Complex Time in Biology & Economics,
COVID, Crisis, and Creative Opportunity,
Rethinking Our Assumptions,
Embracing Complexity for Systemic Interventions,
Exponentials, Economics, and Ecology
- Raissa D’Souza on the inhibition of innovation by incumbency.
- Vinay Prasad & Jeffrey S. Flier on embracing heterodoxy.
- Nick Zych on generalists in times of rapid change.
- David Krakauer on how the pandemic has exposed the networks of civilization.
- Matthew Jackson on network centrality as social opportunity.
- Kirell Benzi on time and attention constraints with science communication.
- Jessica Flack on primate hierarchies as encoded environmental information.
- Anthony Eagan on the US Constitution’s balance of top-down and bottom-up.
- R. Maria del-Rio Chanona et al. on the economic impacts of COVID-19.
- Luu Hoang Doc & Jürgen Jost on using simple models when you only have bad data.
- Dan Mendelson on healthcare as a public good.
- Laurent Hébert-Dufresne & Vicky Yang on misinformation as public health data.
- Carrie Cowan on the future of education.
- Miguel Fuentes on network fragmentation as a sign of impending social crisis.
- Scott E. Page on the importance of diversity in teams and hiring for collaboration skills.
- Nicole Creanza on the power of cultural archipelagos in technological innovation.
- Santiago Elena on rapid viral mutation and the viral quasi-species at the edge of chaos.
- David Krakauer on the mountain, monastery, and metropolis in scientific discovery.
- Doug Erwin on mass extinctions.
- Bill Miller on high-beta investment strategies in a time of crisis.
- Jennifer Dunne on trophic network connectivity and ecological robustness.
- Albert Kao and the collective decision-making benefits of stalemates.
- Jessica Green on verifying product authenticity with the use of microbiome forensics.
- W. Brian Arthur on narrow margins in economies of scale.
- Sam Bowles & Wendy Carlin on restoring civil society & meso-scale support networks.
- Rajiv Sethi on our dangerous over-reliance on stereotypes due to temporal limitations.
- David Krakauer on creativity as a response to catastrophe.
- Stephanie Forrest on figure-ground reversal in cybersecurity and contact tracing.
- Manfred Laublichler on disruptions to evolutionary fitness landscapes.
- Mirta Galesic & Henrik Olsson on homophily and socially motivated cognition.
- Melanie Mitchell on the failure of analogies to perfectly capture novel phenomena.
- Chris Kempes on multicellularity as a way of preventing error catastrophes in cell repro.
- Marc Santolini on the emergence of new structures of global collective intelligence.
- David Wolpert on Bayesian priors & how they figure into estimating COVID probabilities.
- Simon DeDeo on questioning our cognitive & social norms when confronted by novelty.
- Mirta Galesic on deliberate aisle-crossing for the formation of less-biased estimates.
- David Krakauer on optical illusion & paradox resolved by multimethodological thinking.
- Caroline Buckee on contact tracing.
- David Kinney on uncertainty and value judgments in the scientific advisement of policy.
- David Krakauer on jettisoning burdensome assumptions.
- Andrew Dobson on the metabolism of bats as an adaptation to flight.