Tag: ambiguity

We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take us on or spare us

So said Marcel Proust, that famous connoisseur of les petites madeleines. While I don’t share his effete view of the world, I do like French cakes and definitely agree with his sentiments on wisdom.

Earlier this week, Eylan Ezekiel shared this Nesta Landscape of innovation approaches with our Slack channel. It’s what I would call ‘slidebait’ — carefully crafted to fit onto slide decks in keynotes around the world. It’s a smart move because it gets people talking about your organisation.

Nesta's Landscape of innovation approaches
Nesta’s Landscape of innovation approaches

In my opinion, how these things are made is more interesting than the end result. There are inevitably value judgements when creating anything like this, and, because Nesta have set it out as overlapping ‘spaces’, the most obvious takeaway from the above diagram is that those innovation approaches sitting within three overlapping spaces are the ‘most valuable’ or ‘most impactful’. Is that true?

A previous post on this topic from the Nesta blog explains:

Although this map is neither exhaustive nor definitive – and at some points it may seem perhaps a little arbitrary, personal choice and preference – we have tried to provide an overview of both commonly used and emerging innovation approaches.

Bas Leurs (formerly of nesta)

When you’re working for a well-respected organisation, you have to be really careful, because people can take what you produce as some sort of Gospel Truth. No matter how many caveats you add, people confuse the map with the territory.

I have some experience with creating a ‘map’ for a given area, as I was Mozilla’s Web Literacy Lead from 2013 to 2015. During that time, I worked with the community to take the Web Literacy Standard Map from v0.1 to v1.5.

Digital literacies of various types are something I’ve been paying attention to for around 15 years now. And, let me tell, you, I’ve seen some pretty bad ‘maps’ and ‘frameworks’.

For example, here’s a slide deck for a presentation I did for a European Commission Summer School last year, in which I attempted to take the audience on a journey to decide whether a particular example I showed them was any good:

If you have a look at Slide 14 onwards, you’ll see that the point I was trying to make is that you have no way of knowing whether or not a shiny, good-looking map is any good. The organisation who produced it didn’t ‘show their work’, so you have zero insight into its creation and the decisions taken in its creation. Did their intern knock it up on a short deadline? We’ll never know.

The problem with many think tanks and ‘innovation’ organisations is that they move on too quickly to the next thing. Instead of sitting with something and let it mature and flourish, as soon as the next bit of funding comes in, they’re off like a dog chasing a shiny car. I’m not sure that’s how innovation works.

Before Mozilla, I worked at Jisc, which at the time funded innovation programmes on behalf of the UK government and disseminated the outcomes. I remember a very simple overview from Jisc’s Sustaining and Embedding Innovations project that focused on three stages of innovation:

Invention                     
This is about the generation of new ideas e.g. new ways of teaching and learning or new ICT solutions.

Early Innovation
This is all about the early practical application of new inventions, often focused in specific areas e.g. a subject discipline or speciality such as distance learning or work-based learning.

Systemic Innovation
This is where an institution, for example, will aim to embed an innovation institutionally. 

Jisc

The problem with many maps and frameworks, especially around digital skills and innovation, is that they remove any room for ambiguity. So, in an attempt not to come across as vague, they instead become ‘dead metaphors’.

Continuum of ambiguity
Continuum of Ambiguity

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an example where, without any contextualisation, an individual or organisation has taken something ‘off the shelf’ and applied it to achieve uniformly fantastic results. That’s not how these things work.

Humans are complex organisms; we’re not machines. For a given input you can’t expect the same output. We’re not lossless replicators.

So although it takes time, effort, and resources, you’ve got to put in the hard yards to see an innovation through all three of those stages outlined by Jisc. Although the temptation is to nail things down initially, the opposite is actually the best way forward. Take people on a journey and get them to invest in what’s at stake. Embrace the ambiguity.

I’ve written more about this in a post I wrote about a 5-step process for creating a sustainable digital literacies curriculum. It’s something I’ll be thinking about more as I reboot my consultancy work (through our co-op) for 2020!

For now, though, remember this wonderful African proverb:

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." (African proverb)
CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

Tolerating uncertainty

Although claims about the ‘unprecedented’ times we live in can be overblown, I think it’s reasonable to state that we exist in an uncertain world.

This article by Kristin Wong in The Cut talks about the importance of being able to tolerate uncertainty, as this “improves our decisions, promotes empathy, and boosts creativity,” — according to Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America and author of the book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing.

Uncertainty can create cognitive dissonance, the discomfort of holding two contradictory thoughts, opinions, or beliefs. Ironically, though, not being able to deal with uncertainty can be equally distressing. An intolerance of uncertainty is linked to anxiety and depression. So how do you get better at tolerating it?

The article suggests that you start off with a quiz to ascertain your tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty. However, life is short, so I’d skip that and move onto the meat of the article.

We’re better or worse at tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity in different situations. It’s not like we have a single emotional gear.

There are certain times you might be extra susceptible to certainty, Holmes suggests. “Our need for closure is heightened when we’re rushed, bored, tired, or tipsy,” he said. So when you’re feeling any of those things, or maybe all of them, be aware that you might be prone to cognitive closure at that time.

Your desire for certainty probably also varies depending on the situation. You might be anxious over your bank account, for instance, but you don’t really care how you did on your performance review. Pinpoint these concerns, then avoid what Michel Dugas, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec in Outaouais, calls “certainty seeking behavior.”

In order to improve our relationship with uncertainty, we need to get our of our comfort zone, and out of our heads.

“Two ways to get comfortable with uncertainty, perhaps surprisingly, are reading fiction and multicultural experiences,” Holmes says. “Make reading short stories or novels a habit. Likely because it invites us inside the worlds and minds of characters unlike ourselves, fiction makes ‘otherness’ less threatening.” He adds that both fiction and multicultural experiences not only lower our need for closure and help us make better decisions, but they also make us more empathetic. Research, like this 2010 study, shows that multicultural experiences fuel creativity, too.

Travel, reading, learning a new language, experiencing another culture — these all present new experiences to your brain, which force you outside of your comfort zone in rewarding ways. Also: They are fun. Sounds like a pretty certain win-win.

I’ve actually read Holmes’ book. I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m a Philosophy graduate who’s already done some work on ambiguity, but I found it underwhelming. It is worth, however, thinking about ways in which we can all deal with uncertainty.

Source: The Cut (via Stowe Boyd)

Conversational implicature

In references for jobs, former employers are required to be positive. Therefore, a reference that focuses on how polite and punctual someone is could actually be a damning indictment of their ability. Such ‘conversational implicature’ is the focus of this article:

When we convey a message indirectly like this, linguists say that we implicate the meaning, and they refer to the meaning implicated as an implicature. These terms were coined by the British philosopher Paul Grice (1913-88), who proposed an influential account of implicature in his classic paper ‘Logic and Conversation’ (1975), reprinted in his book Studies in the Way of Words (1989). Grice distinguished several forms of implicature, the most important being conversational implicature. A conversational implicature, Grice held, depends, not on the meaning of the words employed (their semantics), but on the way that the words are used and interpreted (their pragmatics).

From my point of view, this is similar to the difference between productive and unproductive ambiguity.

The distinction between what is said and what is conversationally implicated isn’t just a technical philosophical one. It highlights the extent to which human communication is pragmatic and non-literal. We routinely rely on conversational implicature to supplement and enrich our utterances, thus saving time and providing a discreet way of conveying sensitive information. But this convenience also creates ethical and legal problems. Are we responsible for what we implicate as well as for what we actually say?

For example, and as the article notes, “shall we go upstairs?” can mean a sexual invitation, which may or may not later imply consent. It’s a tricky area.

I’ve noted that the more technically-minded a person, the less they use conversational implicature. In addition, and I’m not sure if this is true or just my own experience, I’ve found that Americans tend to be more literal in their communication than Europeans.

 To avoid disputes and confusion, perhaps we should use implicature less and communicate more explicitly? But is that recommendation feasible, given the extent to which human communication relies on pragmatics?

To use conversational implicature is human. It can be annoying. It can turn political. But it’s an extremely useful tool, and certainly lubricates us all rubbing along together.

Source: Aeon

Foucault understood the power of ambiguity

To have a settled position on anything is anachronistic. There has to be an element of ambiguity in your work and thinking, otherwise you’re dealing in what Richard Rorty called ‘dead metaphors’.

Foucault understood this by never espousing a theory of power:

Herein lies the richness and the challenge of Foucault’s work. His is a philosophical approach to power characterised by innovative, painstaking, sometimes frustrating, and often dazzling attempts to politicise power itself. Rather than using philosophy to freeze power into a timeless essence, and then to use that essence to comprehend so much of power’s manifestations in the world, Foucault sought to unburden philosophy of its icy gaze of capturing essences. He wanted to free philosophy to track the movements of power, the heat and the fury of it working to define the order of things.

By not spending time defending your own position, you have time to recognise and critique what you see you be wrong and insidious in the world:

Foucault’s skeptical supposition thus allowed him to conduct careful enquiries into the actual functions of power. What these studies reveal is that power, which easily frightens us, turns out to be all the more cunning because its basic forms of operation can change in response to our ongoing efforts to free ourselves from its grip.

I’m reading China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution at the moment. It’s making me re-realise that power is never given, it’s always taken.

Source: Aeon