#3: Reality mining

Negative capability, seeing what's actually there, and situationally appropriate innovation.

I’m Vaughn Tan—my research focuses on understanding individual and collective responses to uncertainty and I teach strategy and design at University College London’s School of Management. The Uncertainty Mindset is a weekly newsletter in which I noodle on unknown futures and how they affect thinking and acting. Ideas are likely to be half-baked.

Last weekend I went to Oxford to see to some friends whose bakery is designed around a specific idea of success, and to talk to someone about grain. (Look forward to future issues of this newsletter on how strategic uncertainty affects mission-driven businesses and how wheat can be responsive to environmental uncertainty.)

Saturday night found some of us in the Punter, a Thames-side pub convenient to the Oxford train station and distinguished by unusually good fenestration. Conversation turned to Negative Capability, which John Keats defined as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—it is the ability to not know without being paralyzed by not knowing.

Because creative work is often minimally structured (and thus full of not-knowing), negative capability is most often talked about and valued in that context: Keats identified it as a quality found in a “Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously.” (Both quotes are from a letter from Keats to his brothers in December 1817.)

But it’s valuable more generally than that.

The most obvious use-case is in situations where not-knowing cannot be avoided. Imagine that you’re a diamond-seeking miner in a deep tunnel, without the benefit of modern sensing technology that reveals the specific detail of the geology ahead of you. As your pick-ax chips away at the stone, it uncovers this specific detail: a kimberlite pipe, or a zone of clay, or whatever. Your progress as you tunnel is analogous to the future unfolding. As time progresses, your action (tunneling) reveals new information which was unavailable before (you discover what you’re tunneling through) and reduces uncertainty. This soldier-on form of negative capability is required to continue to act (by tunneling on) even if it isn’t clear what lies ahead (perhaps diamonds, perhaps a pocket of highly flammable methane).

What I want to focus on instead is a different type of not-knowing. It’s not about the future (or, to be more precise, about temporal information asymmetry). Instead, it’s about seeing what is already there.

Back in the mine, instead of tunneling on, you set down your pick-ax and cast your eyes about. The beam of light from your headlamp illuminates the rough-hewn walls of the tunnel around you. Instead of looking to the territory ahead, you consider what is here and now. While eating your approved mining snack (maybe a PGI Cornish Pasty), you engage in an exercise to induce beginner mind. Your previously diamond-focused mind gradually, then suddenly drops its preconceptions of value—and becomes able to perceive other things and make sense of them as being valuable too. In that moment, you see that the reddish lumps studding the walls of the tunnel are rubies. (Admittedly, this is geologically unlikely).

The ability to temporarily or continually suspend focus on a singular idea or system for thinking about value is another form of negative capability. To allow multiple possibilities for what is valuable to simultaneously exist requires choosing to not know what is valuable. This form of negative capability is about being able to drop preconceptions and thus to more comprehensively understand what resources and constraints are currently available. This allows other possibilities inherent in the moment to be perceived and acted upon.

To be clear: where soldier-on negative capability enables action in the face of externally imposed uncertainty, beginner-mind negative capability enables internal maintenance of uncertainty. The former is useful as the world becomes more unavoidably uncertain. For instance, right now, not knowing what the hell is going to happen with Brexit is unavoidable; negative capability would allow goal-oriented action without paralysis—and an uninformed observer might conclude that there appears to be a negative capability gap in UK politics.

The latter, the beginner-mind form, can be the foundation of sophisticated and elegant action—and not only in artistic or creative work. Negative capability is visible in every instance of situationally appropriate innovation I can think of. Having the ability to see the trimmings from preparing meat not as waste but as potential ingredient (“It would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet”) eventually influenced the trajectory of a city’s restaurant culture. Being able to see low-grade wood fuel not as a constraint to be eliminated but one to be incorporated in the design of cookstoves changed the economic outcomes and respiratory health of millions of people and contributed to slowing the rate of anthropogenic climate change. Seeing that existing human biomechanics are a resource to be enhanced instead of a constraint to be mitigated was the basis for a successful product company.

Innovation (which is distinguished from creativity by the requirement of usefulness combined with novelty) is almost entirely about creating new ways to understand what value is. The beginner-mind form of negative capability is useful for creativity, as Keats noted, but is essential for pragmatic imagination which results in grounded and situationally appropriate innovation. It allows more complete perception—and thus fuller use—of the situation. This means not only being able to use resources that others would not see, but also to accommodate constraints in ways that others would not be able to conceive of. Negative capability of this second type is an essential resource for effective reality mining: achieving desired outcomes through sophisticated actions that suit the fine detail of situations as they currently are.

Both forms of negative capability (soldier-on and beginner-mind) are rare and valuable in an increasingly uncertain world where innovation is prized. They also seem to be internally generated abilities that can be enhanced and strengthened by frequent exposure to situations of future uncertainty or value uncertainty. You might imagine that people and institutions are investing in increasing their negative capability … but this appears to be the exception not the rule.

If negative capability is trainable, it can also be lost by lack of use or through active suppression. I’ve taught since 2005, becoming a so-called “teaching professional” in 2013. In both undergraduate and doctoral students, I’ve noticed that modern higher education in general (but especially here in the UK) appears to increasingly retard negative capability by emphasizing measurable performance and encouraging specialization. The most disturbing thing is a strong sociocultural and institutional pressure on students to foreclose on possibilities very early. Instead of designing education to train students to be better reality miners, we seem to be doing our best to shape them into maladapted automatons.


Not unrelated miscellany

  • Burkhard Bilger writes about tunneling machines in the New Yorker.

  • William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (original pub. date 1930) explores multiple ways in which text can be intentionally ambiguous. For Empson, ambiguity is when “alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading.” My take is that the authorial decision to be intentionally ambiguous represents an attempt to design a system (in this case a text) for negative capability.

  • Marshall McLuhan distinguishes between hot media (which engage fewer senses more totally) and cool media (which engage more senses less completely)—users are forced to interact more deeply with cool media content because it has gaps that require active meaning-making. For more on this, see Understanding Media (original pub. date 1964). Chilling down media aggressively may be a path forward in negative capability training.

  • The hunger for security and certainty (which is the obverse of negative capability) may be the root of distress in a world of increasingly unavoidable external uncertainty—acknowledging and dwelling in internally induced uncertainty reduces the distress arising from futile attempts to control the uncontrollable. Alan Watts explains this better than I can in The Wisdom of Insecurity (original pub. date 1951).

  • The ability to see comprehensively (or less filtered-ly) is also a quality of good investigators and scientists of both social and physical phenomena. In “Corsons Inlet,” A.R. Ammons shows how negative capability brings with it serenity and the ability to see better: “no arranged terror: no forcing of image, plan,/ or thought:/ no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept:/ terror pervades but is not arranged, all possibilities/ of escape open: no route shut, except in/ the sudden loss of all routes:/ I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will/ not run to that easy victory:/ still around the looser, wider forces work:/ I will try/ to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening/ scope, but enjoying the freedom that/ Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,/ that I have perceived nothing completely,/ that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk” (the whole poem, which is not long, is very worthwhile). (To say nothing about how a tabula rasa is believed to be the ideal beginning state for those undertaking Old Skool Ethnography.)

  • Negative capability is important for organizations too, though it takes a different form in that context. In The Sense of Dissonance, David Stark and his co-authors write about how heterarchies—organizations in which multiple systems of value are simultaneously valid—are uncertain at any given time about where value lies. This creates internal friction and negotiation which (counter-intuitively) increases the likelihood that they can adapt and innovate in response to environmental change.

  • Years ago, a friend at work gave me a copy of Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity; reading it precipitated a major change in personal direction. The greatest impact was from the narrative cases of individuals who had worked for years to become people they eventually realized they didn’t want to be. My takeaway: early specialization combined with path dependence and growing external uncertainty produces deeply unhappy people. (It’s possible that I’ve gone too far to the other extreme.)

  • Yes, I know about the other definition of reality mining—not unrelated, but also not the same thing.

Uncertainty and complexity?

Venkat emailed in response to issue #1 to comment that,

Your 3 complications of basic world 2 seem like: emergent effects, sensitive-dependence effects, and agency effects. Is that a reasonable gloss? If so, all 3 are aspects of complex systems and you're saying a strict risk mindset is a poor way to understand complexity. But I’m not sure the distinction is that sharp. A deductive knowledge of probability is simply unmodeled and ignored natural emergent interactions + sensitive dependence. A die roll is unpredictable because of type 2 effects: insufficiently precise knowledge of initial angular momentum, elasticity, and surface geometry of the due/surface. Observed inductive priors might have a source in all 3. The weather affecting crops is emergent interaction + sensitive dependence uncertainty. The real distinction might not be source of unknownness but the extent to which well-behaved statistical models describe them, respecting central limit theorem etc.

My half-baked reaction is that unknown-ness is about—but not only about—complexity. Certainly, some of it is a result of unpredictable interactions that result in emergent order, path-dependence, or asymmetric information (which is more likely in a complex system)—these varieties of the unknown are externally imposed and often constrain action. Other than temporally asymmetric information, presumably any uncertainty originating in emergence or path-dependence can be resolved with sufficiently sophisticated modeling. But there are more interesting varieties of the unknown. The beginner-mind form of negative capability suggests that these are likely to be internally induced—and that they can be generative instead of constraining:

One tires of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one's native land, one travels abroad; one is europamüde, one goes to America, and so on; finally one dreams of traveling endlessly from star to star. Or the movement is different but the same. One tires of porcelain dishes, one dines off silver; one tires of that, one dines off gold; one burns half of Rome to get an idea of the conflagration at Troy. This method defeats itself: it is the bad infinite. What did Nero achieve? Antonine was wiser; he says, “It is in your power to review your life, to look at things you saw before, from another point of view.”

The method I propose consists not in changing the soil but, as in the real rotation of crops, in changing the method of cultivation and type of grain. Here, immediately, we have the principle of limitation, which is the only saving one in the world. The more you limit yourself, the more resourceful you become. A prisoner in solitary confinement for life is most resourceful, a spider can cause him much amusement. (That’s from Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.)

I’ll be exploring the possibilities of self-induced uncertainty in much more detail—email me if you want to think about it together.

On loop

Last February, when I escaped the British winter (irresolutely chilly, damp, overcast, lots of root vegetables) to apply my shoulder to the writing wheel in Venice, California (dry, sunny, warm in the day, great citrus), I found what looked like a bootleg compact disc in the apartment I rented.

It turned out to be a self-manufactured album from a mysterious band called Sundown Songs. (I can barely find anything about Sundown Songs online. They seem to have vanished.) The title was Like a Jazz Band in Nashville—very modern lyrics embedded in music that ranges in style and delivery across old American folk, from Emmylou Harris, to Woody Guthrie, to Hank Williams Sr., to Barbara Dane. I especially enjoy “East to Maine.”

If you liked this issue, you could click on the little ❤️️ and share it with people who might like it too. Please send comments, suggestions, and satisfying dog videos to <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>. You can also get in touch on Twitter @vaughn_tan and Instagram @vaughn.tan.