Feb 14, 2013

Why We Must Embrace Chaos and Uncertainty

Why is Chaos Good? Or a better question is: What do we mean by chaos, at least for the purposes of this blog? From my perspective chaos is everything that does not follow a specific pattern or set of laws or processes.  However in the face of complex and chaotic systems, we as humans are pattern-seeking animals obsessed with control and predictions. That said, the truth is that much of what we perceive as patterns, order or signal is just noise in the chaos of life. The same goes for control, where our perception of control is only just that and often reality of our situations are much more chaotic and unpredictable than we'd like to admit. Here the modern human being lives in a paradox where he or she thrives on chaos but seeks order, comes alive in unpredictable environments but attempts to predict every situation, is a result of chaotic mutations and evolutionary forces but attempts to control every aspect of his or her bodily functions and exposures. The irony is also interesting in that humans are a result of and have evolved from chaos while modern society can only function if we seek order and predictability.


Looking back at history, humans have evolved in unpredictable and chaotic hunter-gatherer environments where food, health, safety, security and sex came and went unpredictably. There were days of famine and days of feasts, days of prosperity and days of death and dying due to disease or being attacked by animals or other tribes and countless mating opportunities or dying with no offsprings.  However, to function in today's world, we have been consciously convinced that we need safety, security, and predictability while we unconsciously desire and thrive in uncertainty and chaos. We've been chasing the corporate dream job while we thrive and enjoy the chaotic environments of small businesses, start-ups, artisan or skilled work (handyman, restaurant, carpenter, etc).   

It seems that the aim of modern society, economy and technology is to make life as predictable as possible by making every aspect of life measurable, controllable, easy to forecast and manipulate for the sake of comfort.  Surprises are becoming too anxiety-provoking for people.  We depend on information to just function.  We now exactly know ahead of the time the weather forecast (the weather channel), our weekly meeting forecast (iCal / Outlook), future dates (match.com), and quality of products and services we are yet to receive (Yelp, Amazon, etc).  Information has left very little to chance, coincidence and surprise.  Even most of what we do for work has been reduced down to standardized processes with user manuals and step by step guides leaving very little room for brainstorming, autonomy or Thinking. 
 
The hope of this blog is not a return to the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors but to emphasize the need to appreciate and accept the chaos that is life.  Our obsession with control and predictions narrow our vision and prevent us from seeing more possibilities and outcomes, or considering other points of view or data that disagree with our ideologies or egos.  We use the magic of statistics and the miracle of Big Data to justify preconceived notions or ideas instead of admitting that much of what we perceive is noise.  Here the financial crisis of 2008 is a great example of how Big Data + Complex Algorithms and Statistics were used to justify what everyone secretly knew to be not true: the infinite rise of housing prices.  In this sense, statistics and data analytics are the old tools we have to survive in the age of Big Data but these same tools can easily be used to justify an illusionary end depending on the data set we choose (garbage in garbage out).  Appreciating and acknowledging chaos is good because it makes us humble to the fact that even our most sophisticated statistics equations or computer algorithms are inadequate in measuring and predicting life with its countless variables and complex network of connections. Chaos is good because chaos enables life and chaos is what we thrive on when we are most engaged, curious and alive.  As much as some of us like to convince ourselves that we need order and comfort our brains are wired for chaos and surprises and we easily get bored and lose interest when faced with chronic order.  Chaos is interesting and our lives should be as well.  Here are some great minds elaborating on the notion of chaos and life:   
I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I'm not accommodated. I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I'm still surprised. That's why I'm against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.
-Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Heschel
This 'goal-driven' attitude hurts deeply inside my existential self...If I could predict what my day would exactly look like, I would feel a little bit dead...This is the central illusion in life: that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing—and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness.
Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.
-Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth
In these confused and restless zones in which present blends with future in a world of upheaval, we stand face to face with all the grandeur, the unprecedented grandeur, of The Phenomenon of Man What has made us so different from our forebears, so ambitious too, and so worried, is not merely that we have discovered and mastered other forces of nature. It is that we have become conscious of the movement which is carrying us along.
-Teilhard de Chardin, Planetary Mind & Our Spiritual Evolution
Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring; and, as if through a troubled dream, it hurries back to the old unconsciousness. "We are not at home in the world, and thus homelessness is a deep truth about our condition. Here, indeed, is the root of original sin: through consciousness, we ‘fall’ into a world where we are strangers. Hence our deep-seated desire to return to “the primordial point of rest”: the landscape of childhood and the safety of the family hearth.
We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.
-Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra And Simulation
I accept the chaos. I am not sure whether it accepts me.
-Bob Dylan
Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.
-Voltaire

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