We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives us abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind.The Great Dictator (1940)
— Charles Spencer
„Charlie Chaplin jr.“
After the big epoch of Enlightenment and several industrial revolutions, we are currently living in an aeon of speed and exponential growth. In an era of information abundance and almost unlimited access from anywhere and anytime on any resource. We are living in a fickle, fast-paced and volatile period with loads of ambiguity and upside downs or gyroscope-like cycling, hare jumping and sometimes huge confusion. For some, we live in the age of the knowledge worker and a phase of ambidextrious necessity. The golden machine (learning) and artificial intelligence saeculum that will support further blooming of mankind – or even its extinction. Are we heading straight and heads first from light into nebulae, mists of confusion? A foggy mysterious landscape in which we need super fog lights and gigantic spoons? Sparkling lighthouses at certain, dangerous and important places? Or are there already too many lighthouses at all with contradictory fires? Even though our IT Systems become more and more – or maybe sometimes just seem to become – sophisticated, we are at a tipping point, at which we are at the edge of turning from becoming better to jumping with a backflip into the worse: An informed highspeed misinformation society. Or to say it with Jung:
Good does not become better by being exaggerated, but worse, and small evil becomes a big one through being disregarded and repressed. The shadow is very much a part of human nature, and it is only at night that no shadows exist.Psychology and Religion
— Carl Gustav Jung
According to the “Paradox of Choice”, which has also become well-known due to Barry Schwartz’ likewise named book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” (Schwartz, 2004), too many options, i.e. too much information and too many sources, can also lead to some kind of paralysis. Schwartz focusses more on behavioral economics with respect to shopping, but the basics can be applied to this, too: Even though the ability and opportunity to choose is necessary for well-being and liberty. Nevertheless, too many options or a too wide range of option areas can lead to a situation where rather no decision is made instead of making the wrong one. But this in fact is also a decision and might be worse – or better, but it would depend on fate or luck, not necessarily on a deliberate and objective-oriented action. Not confusing this with the conscious decision of not to act.
The negative features of choice increase with the number of options available as well as the cumulative number of choices that have to be made within a certain amount of time. This is related to the fact that, as options increase, especially the more contingent the attributes of the options are, the differences are no longer clearly recognizable, which may lead to some kind of differentiation overflow. Even worse, if choices are interrelated. Another aspect is that in this abundance we also suffer from some kind of insatiable thirst acompanied by a “not enough time feeling” (e.g. to evaluate information) that speeds up this vicious circle that is producing psychological distress: “As a society, we have achieved what our ancestors could, at most, only dream about, but it has come at a great price. We get what we say we want, only to discover that what we want doesn’t satisfy us to the degree that we expect. We are surrounded by modern, time-saving devices, but we never seem to have enough time.” (Schwartz, 2004, p. 221)
Daniel Kahneman is writing in a review on Schwartz’s book: “This book is valuable in two ways. It argues persuasively that most of us would often be better off with fewer options and that many of us try too hard to make the best choices.“
Not that nowadays there are very often already just too many options available, and that this is already hard enough as we have seen, the situation gets further enflamed by the fact that you might loose overview on which sources to consider at all or one gets stuck in distinguishing source reliablity. The dilemma is further increased if there have already been credibility deficiencies in the past – vice versa, from both persepctives sometimes irreparable.
But how much is too much? Where to stop? How many to choose? Well, this is more a question that needs to be answered individually. And it can be compared to the acervus/sorites conundrum or heap closure or paradox of the heap: In a heap of sand, one grain more or less does not matter. But one grain is not yet a heap, two grains are not yet a heap, if we add one more, it is not a heap, etc. Since there are heaps of sand, there must have been a certain grain, by the addition of which the heap was formed. So it depends on one grain more or less. How many grains make up the heap? (translated from Wikipedia)
Neuroplasticity & Speed of Change
In addition to these influences from the outside, what is happening inside of any human? How do we process all of this? This is closely related to learning mechanisms of the brain and therefore with its neuroplasticity, too. “Neuroplasticity describes the property of the brain to be changeable through training. Neuroplasticity is thus the basic prerequisite for any form of learning. Training alters the connections between nerve cells in the brain by making them stronger or weaker. A symbol for this is the proverbial “trampling path”, which develops into a highway through frequent use. But the reverse is also possible: connections can regress if not used.” (Tinnitracks, 2020)
So what to do with the highways, when changes occur too quickly? New information is coming in before the old one has been processed apropriately and new trampling paths can turn into highways? Or that highways are already needed, where just a trampling path is existing? Especially if one has such a big and fast sports car now, that one cannot quickly transform into a tiny hovercraft or Jeep for rough wilderness? Suddenly you are faced with similar predicaments. We see, learning and the related adaptive processes might need more time than currently available.
Linear versus exponential thinking. Retardations. System Dynamics. Adaptability.
Another aspect is the dilemma that many things in our modern world follow exponential rules. Unfortunately our brains are – historically – not used to this imense increase in speed, magnitude or volume. The brains of our evolutionary state are – perhaps just currently – not designed and equipped for this. Especially equipped. But we need to learn it, to feel it in our guts at least. Establishing heuristics. “That’s why car companies should stop developing dashboards with knobs,” Pascal Finette, member of Singularity University, says (Fichter, 2017). The should stop this now, because 30 linear steps are an imaginable distance, but 30 exponential steps is comparable to 26 times around the world. Which is much much more. The human mind cannot estimate exponential changes or comprehend them sensually. Therefore we must be very careful when dealing with such things, especially when environment and even our lives are depending on these decisions. (Leitenberger, ?) In a physical world, usually linear thinking is sufficient – like estimating the distance to the car in front of us. But we are more and more connecting to virtuality where are almost no boundaries in n-Dimensions. Our connectedness leads to a highly interdependent system, which at first is just complicated but increaes in complexity by further integration.
So it is the same with an information overflow: The more, the worse. Trade-offs, setting boundaries and a scope is inevitable. Using adaptability and applying it on ourselves and organizations.
“The brain works self-referentially, i.e. it always refers to past experiences, established synapses and patterns. That’s why it’s so difficult to imagine exponential growth – and that’s what we need to do to adapt corporate culture and behavior to the developmental tempo of AI and digitization. But above all, it is necessary to redesign our organizations accordingly and make them more adaptive, more adaptable.” (Bösenberg, ?)
What to do now? Well, finally, there is only one way: Help yourself. You must literally pull yourself out of the swamp by grabbing you at your own hair. There will be no saviour – probably.
Rescuing Some “Clairvoyance”
Taking back some power, getting back a more clearer view, less distress and making better or more adequate decisions, need mitigation and elimination of the related components, which demand some discipline and repetition in interrations or even some mindset adjustments. Tearing down a vicious circle is just possible, if components are viably changed.
Sapere Aude – Have the Courage to Use Your Own Mind.
One slogan of Enlightenment, Sapere Aude, seems to be necessarily en vogue – as it usually is, by the way. What is right? What is wrong? Acting? Waiting? Relying on Crowd Wisdom? Or are these people rather lemmings, jumping – intentionally or not – from a cliff? Trusting in oneself’s ability to make appropriate – even if insecure – decisions is key. In the VUCA-World learning to handle insecurity and instabilty is essential. Not letting oneself to much interfere with the noise around. Confusing by plenty of strategies and opinions. Trusting in gut feelings and heuristics. Common sense. Relying on heuristics. Not letting one be kept up or pushed around by sarcasm, pompous statements or humilation attemps – these can usually be ignored. While on the other hand not switching to absolute ignorance mode and therefore risking to miss valuable input. But keeping simultaneously in mind what the underlying goals of the information provider could be. What is high at stake and a giant jeopardy is the following: Assuming that the person I got the information from adequately researched it – this is really cataclysmic, especially when combined with ripple effects. The crux is though, you cannot do your own research on EVERY topic. But keep it in mind.
What else can we do in a more practical sense?
First (1) of all we must decide which topics really matter in our lives and focus our time and energy on these aspects. This also requires to make trade-offs, i.e. letting many other opportunities pass by. This is not easy. But sine qua non. Another part is the process costs that are related to the benefit or result of the decision to be made: “[…] If the ability to choose enables you to get a better car, house, […] vacation, or coffeemaker, but the process of choice makes you feel worse about what you’ve chosen, you really haven’t gained anything from the opportunity to choose […]” (Schwartz, 2004, p. 222). So it is not just the result that matters but the consideration of the related process, too. This does also apply to the sources of which we get information from.
Related to this first tool is second (2) to decide to be an active chooser, who knows when to choose, when to skip options and when and how to create new opportunities for themselves and everyone else. When overwhelmed we quickly turn into pickers, as there is no reflection time. But a picker is a passive selector from whatever is available. In order to increase time we must also be willing to rely on habits, norms, and rules to make some decisions automatic and in doing this, freeing some time for more important topics and avoid following the herd apathy.
Third (3) we need to learn what “good enough” means. We must learn what it means to be a satisficer. As Schwartz is exemplarily saying: “It is maximizers who suffer most in a culture that provides to many choices” (Schwartz, 2004, p. 225). This mindset needs to be actively cultivated rather than merely being resigned to it. Deciding deliberately makes comparison with others less significant. This needs a change in attitudes of course and freeing oneself from the stress of always believing that the better is just around the corner. But one day, you even do not care anymore if you miss a better opportunity and receive some gloating.
A fourth (4) tool is to keep in mind the opportunity costs of opportunity costs. Even though it is usually a good idea to think about alternatives in order to not overestimating how good the best option is. Pondering around too much on opportunity cost will on the other hand lead to another vicious circle. Which happens when setting all in relation to unchosen options. It is very often difficult, in some cases even impossible, to judge how good an option is except in relation to other options. But usually there is no obvious absolute standard to compare to, so some reflection on opportunity costs is essential – the emphasis lies on ‘some’.
Five (5) it helps if you define more decisions you make as nonreversible, which increases your engagement to the process and to the results. In case of information sources, this may mean that even there might be – somewhere – a more detailed or a one further more perspective on the same topic, you should decide on trustful sources and go ahead with them. Choose wisely if you want to take on further ones and consider replacement of others. As in presentations, so it might be regarding information sources, 5 plus/minus 2 is a useful rule of thumb. Keep in mind, it is no perfect solution. And even when applying “Pareto-Thinking”, the honey pot can also be in the other 20%. And more and more actually might be there. So even though there is so much opportunity, for one lifetime, it might be a better option to live with “choice within constraints, freedom within limits” (Schwartz, 2004, p. 236).
Of course, e.g. in case of collaboration with others, all of this may be supported by adequate IT systems. That are available in abundance out there. Always ask yourself, when using such systems, if it is really necessary and useful. What are the desired results, how does the process look like. What are the opportunity costs? Consider the “correct” timing. Ask yourself if your information is verified. What to do, when it was not? What are the consequences. You might say, that all of this is common sense. Well, first, common sense is not always that common. Second, making the implicit explicit is in such cases never wrong, even if it is repetition – you transport it to the conciousness, which makes it more tangible and actionable. An old aphorism: Better a little too much than a little too little.
From a Huge Amount of Fractions to Deliberate and Adequate Action: Data > Information > Knowledge > Wisdom > Action
Is the more we know leading as a consequence necessarily to “a more we know”, to knowledge? Is there a causality or rather correlation? Where is the tipping point? The gigantic difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom or practical capacity for action is unveiling in the era of digitization. Not to mention smart decision-making, which is crucial – not just for managers or executives. It is essential for any ident-entity. Having sufficient information is sine qua non. Nevertheless, not just reacting or even proactive action is hip and hot, but also predictions that go beyond extrapolation – even if it’s considering exponential thinking. There are also furher system dynamics as well as retarded components that increase the difficulty level Adequate IT systems are providing the power of ingenious cockpits. Fortified by machine learning or AI far more than any autopilot. We need models that are capable to usefully depict complexity to generate wisdom for action out of data. We need to build a smart kaleidoscope out of the gigantic amout of fractions: Data, relations, time components and further parameters that are not negotiable.
One Last Thing – Remain Captain on Board
There is one last thing for this article that I must mention explicitely for a second time, especially in the era of digital transformation: Beware of reyling too much on automated, machine learning, KPI-based decision-making. One single failure can have a huge, gigantic impact that leads to totally different decisions and results respectively. Stay aware and awake. Additionally, many of the most important decisions, we have to make, cannot be fully measured in a rational, number-oriented way. There is still the irrational necessary, emotional intelligence, EQ, feelings, which are usually at the incipience and end of the each decision-process – with a rational analysis and synthesis in between – the tip of the scale. Individuals, identities need to remain captain on board of the IT cockpits, brave enough to take savvy use of one’s own mind, including I and EQ components, taking advantage of inherent forces, the powerful capabilities of mankind and unleashing veritable, full potential. Finally, no decision has ever been made until it is manifested in reality.
The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.Source Unknown
― Mark Twain