When ignorance does more than you think

Unstudied conditions are avoided as vigilantly as possible—right now, when it matters—by control room operators of large critical infrastructures mandated to operate reliably and safely systemwide. Having failed to fail because an operator was behaving ignorantly is orthogonal to high reliability management.

That said, ignorance has differentiated functions in large socio-technical systems—but in ways not captured by the happy-talk of trial-and-error learning, Experiment!, and innovation-starts-with-ignorance. Five under-recognized positives deserve highlighting:

(1) A longstanding proposition in organization theory and management has been that operators and managers cannot know everything and something like bounded rationality is required in order to decide and manage. More, a mandate for comprehensive decisionmaking would undermine reliability management at the complex system level, not enhance it. It is in these senses that the operations of other infrastructures with which a control room is interconnected are “unstudied conditions” for that control room. Either these connected services are there or, if not, this has to be worked around by that control room. Real-time management by a control room is so knowledge-intensive that its operators cannot be expected to understand just intensively how the other interconnected infrastructures and their control centers operate.

(2) The comfort zone of control room operators includes managing nonmeasured or unmeasurable uncertainties so as to stay out of unstudied conditions—unknown unknowns—about which system operators are by definition ignorant. The uncertainties are not denominated as calculable risk, but still operators may know more about consequences than likelihoods, or vice versa. Operators undertake uncertainty management because they differentiate uncertainties—albeit outsider experts often collapse uncertainties into ignorance per se.

(3) Large system control operators do innovate, and positively so, within their comfort zone. We see their improvisation in control room assembly of options just-in-time under conditions of high volatility (high unpredictability or uncontrollability in the outside environment). In fact, the evolutionary advantage of control rooms lies in the skills and expertise of its operators to operationally redesign in real time what is otherwise inadequate technology in order to meet the reliability mandates of the infrastructure.

There is a kind of learning-through-error-management going on, but the learners do so by avoiding having to test the limits of system survival.

What control operators of critical infrastructures do not do—or resist doing—is classic trial and error learning and experimentation. Why? Because professionals will not deliberately chance the first error becoming the last trial. Certainly the view—“It’s almost impossible to innovate if you’re not prepared to fail”—is orthogonal to the innovation-positive we observed in critical infrastructures.

(4) That said, some unknown-unknowns may be key to something like an infrastructure’s immune system for managing under risk and uncertainty. The complex and interconnected nature of large socio-technical systems suggests that “low-level” accidents, lapses or even sabotage may be underway that systemwide reliability professionals–like control room operators and their support staff–do not (cannot) observe, know about, or otherwise appreciate. This is less “ignorance is bliss,” than ignorance as mithridatic (immunizing through difficulty and inexperience rather than, say, homeopathically).

(5) Last but not least: When unstudied conditions and unknown-unknowns are feared because of the awful consequences associated with behaving ignorantly, the ensuing dread promotes having to manage dangerous complex technologies more reliably and safely than theories of tight coupling and complex interactivity suggest. Wide societal dread of systemwide failure takes on a positive function in these cases, without which the real-time management of dangerous technologies would not be warranted, let alone warrantable.

(It’s at this point that someone complains I’m advocating “the manufacture of dread for the purposes of social control through taken-for-granted technologies.” Which is oddly unreflexive on their part if they really believe what they say, since the very infrastructures they criticize enable them to render such judgment, here and now, and since their criticisms are presumably then a form of artificial negativity manufactured for the same social control.)

The primary implication I draw from the five features is this. There are cases where experimentation and innovation are recast in the face of unstudied conditions. The resulting differences, however, are many and vary substantially from what outsiders typically narrow down to Experiment! Adapt! Be resilient! Indeed, when you think about any such valorized list of ” key strategies important in the face ignorance,” you realize just how conservative are many outsider imaginaries: If such lists are said to capture almost everything that’s important, then maybe nothing’s so important after all.

Eco-labelling recasted

Current position. A rapidly growing area in the U.S. and abroad revolves around what has been called “environmental governance.” Here I focus on one such model. Delmas and Young (2009, 8) present a simplified schematic for understanding environment governance in terms of multi-level interactions (local, regional, national, international) among three main “actors” (public sector, private sector, and civil society).

Delmas and Young plot some interventions into Figure 1, drawing from the case studies in their edited volume, Governance for the Environment: New Perspectives, and their literature reviews. For our purposes, note the environmental arenas where multiple spheres overlap, particularly those related to what has been called eco-labelling, placed at the center of Figure 1 (the shared area of the three intersecting sectors):

One chapter in the volume (Auld et al 2009) gives considerable attention to eco-labelling interventions in terms of third-party certification schemes that ensure goods and services are sustainably sourced. We have programs that certify the produce is organically grown, the coffee is fair-trade, and the timber comes from forests sustainably managed. Such certification programs typically work on two fronts, first by incenting consumers to buy certified products, while discouraging them from buying non-certified products or services.

Recasting the role of eco-labelling. A major, persisting problem in the northern California Delta is deep concern over the reliability and safety of the levee (dike) system protecting island agricultural activities there. Nothing could seem farther away from the Delta levee crisis than eco-labelling, right? Wrong.

Imagine a third-party program (i.e., some organization different from the US Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Water Resources, and Delta-based reclamation districts) that certified whether or not any given Delta agricultural land (broadly writ to include livestock, aquaculture and non-traditional crops) was protected by levees that met a standard of high reliability in design and maintenance. Imagine consumers would be encouraged to buy “levee-certified” goods and services and discouraged from buying those that were not so certified. Imagine, in other words, the same infrastructure element—the levee—but now having a different function than just “keeping water out.”

For example, the wider buying public in California and beyond would be encouraged to purchase only those goods and services from adjacent country entities that had supported levee certification in and around the Delta water intake for the county (or with respect to any county in similar circumstances). In like fashion, the wider buying public would be discouraged in purchasing from those entities whose goods had been transported on the deepwater shipping channels passing through the Delta to Sacramento and Stockton, if those firms did not support levee improvements up to third-party certification standards along those shipping channels. In parallel, the wider buying public would be encouraged to buy agricultural products only from those Delta islands that had been levee certified and discouraged from buying that which was levee uncertified.

By extension and where eco-labelling falls within a shared space of private, public and civil society sectors, one can imagine a similar role for eco-labels in improving other infrastructures providing vital societal services.


Auld, G., C. Balboa, S. Bernstein, and B. Cashore (2009). The emergence of non-state market-driven (NSMD) global environmental governance: A cross-sectoral assessment. In: M. Delmas and O. Young, Eds., Governance for the Environment: New Perspectives. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, GB: 183-218.

Uncertain superlatives

Certainty has such a strong place in politics not just because it serves as the preferred foundation/platform from which to choose to act, but also because certainty supports and drives the belief that any such choice to act can be superlative, i.e., serve as the best or superior or optimal course of action.

A key part of the challenge of a politics of uncertainty is to insist superior and superlative are still achievable, and not in a diminished sense of the economist’s “second best.” The challenge is to show, with and through examples, where superlative and best are not only really-existing in the midst uncertainty, but also how uncertainty’s superlative and best are better than so many of certainty’s counterparts.

To that end, we obviously need to identify and underscore how uncertainty and its cognates, like experimentation, have led to positive–sometimes very positive–outcomes. Each of us probably has our own examples of this. Three additional pathways ahead are, I feel, under-acknowledged and deserve further consideration:

  • The first is to underscore how certainty can truly mislead, whatever your starting point, as in: Francois Jacob, Nobel Laureate, reflecting that “Our breakthrough was the result of ‘night science’: a stumbling, wandering exploration of the natural world that relies on intuition as much as it does on the cold, orderly logic of ‘day science’”. As in: Nothing quite smacks of certainty as do habits, inhibitions and defense mechanisms. As in: We all know of revered ideals that ended in irrelevance. As in: Humans are never fully in the present; we are ourselves now, but reserve other of our intermittent selves for later action. As in: When in doubt, make the puzzle bigger.
  • The second pathway is to recognize the impossible is never perforce a bar to action in the face of uncertainty. Here is Richard Falk writing on the critic and Palestinian activist, Edward Said: “To dedicate action to achieve the impossible should never be a matter of optimistic false consciousness. It is rather a recognition that there is no way for the rational mind, in light of present circumstances, to figure out a solution that accords with the postulates of a just peace. Yet at the same time there are present moral and political imperatives of carrying on the struggle to reach such a solution, because the future is unknowable and the present circumstance of occupation, oppression, dispossession, and dispersal intolerable.” The insight, I take it, is that we might well be in a position to do something but not know it until we start trying.
  • A third way ahead is to insist that uncertainty is real and unavoidable and that this “certainty of uncertainty” looks nothing like the certainties offered up by the political class and deskoid pundits. Lines from one of Norman MacCaig’s poems say it better than I can:

Who owns this landscape? –
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? –
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?

False questions, for
this landscape is
and intractable in any terms
that are human.

Fragments and short-cuts

When the initial conditions of an issue are complex, the cognitive disposition is to see, really see, the issue along all its major dimensions: to see it as if in the clear light of day and around which we could walk and examine it from all directions, close-up and at a distance. Instead of clarity, though, we are missing much. We want to see the figure in full—follow the shadow and you find the body—but are left with herms, partial torsos held on frail shafts, more an etiolated Giacometti than bodied Rodin.

Each issue’s presence is complex because it marks what is not (no longer) there as being also present. How is this important? Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and J-J Rousseau’s The Social Contract have a good deal of implications for inequality, but their resonance for that topic is also as “fragments” of larger unfinished works that the authors never got around to writing—this being markedly the unfinished business of any complex policy issue must be when more can and must be said but hasn’t (again for these two projects, think inequality).

One distinct problem to not seeing what is there, right in front of us by way of opportunities for recasting these still-complex issues more tractably, is the insistence that our values must shine clearly through all this mess.

We hanker after immediate evocation without all the beforehand description and explanation. It’s as if one can take a short-cut to conclusions, like that immediacy that sometime comes in opera: Judith’s high C in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the Baroness’s “Lulu” at the end of Berg’s eponymous opera, the vibraphone’s signaling of Tadzio’s entrance in Britten’s Death in Venice, the sounds and after-image of the guillotine slice at the end of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. It matters to me in ways I can’t explain (one reason would lead to another as in an infinite regress) that, while both pieces are astounding, the music of Orff’s Antigonae captures more in the moment than Honegger’s Antigone.

The evocative moment voids the distance that is entailed with having to think about (reflect on) what went before or comes after. It’s like what happens when I look at the photos in Emmet LeRoy Emmet’s Fruit Tramps (1989); I’m immediately “there,” with them, all push and shove included. I’d call this sentimentality, if it weren’t for the examples.

The shame of it all

Below is in full and without edit a recent letter to the editor of the TLS:

Sir, – Unless a substantial proportion of the world’s scientists are deluded and are (innocently) deluding us, articles that blithely project a long-term future extrapolated from a continuing present need to be challenged (see “The last mortals” by Regina Rini, May 17). Or rather the publishing of them. To make predictions based on the present could be an act of climate catastrophe denial, an act that recursively makes the catastrophe more likely. This article is particularly odd in that it posits the exact opposite problem to the one we (almost certainly) face. It’s not how we cope with watching the next generation sail off into immortality, but how we cope with leaving them to face the conclusion of our civilization. Even the most sophisticated actuarial programs would struggle to tell me my grandchildren’s life expectancy, but I’d bet it’s shrinking by the day. A more useful challenge for philosophers would be to ask why environmental and social collapse are increasingly inevitable now, why we don’t care, and perhaps why we seem not to care that we don’t care. Are we incapable of seeing the world as real? Better to deal with these sorts of questions than to go floating off into Elfland.


I wonder if Mr Steinhardt and like-minded people fully appreciate the obvious policy implication that follows from the intimidating tone and message, namely, so catastrophic is climate change that thinking about anything else is grotesquely irresponsible?

The implication in terms of the language used in this letter? Clearly, such people should be publicly shamed and humiliated, if it turns out that, yes, climate change is going on and yes, it is destructive, but still that does not excuse humanity from thinking about other existential issues.

The aim of the public shaming would be to make them so mortified by their having been wrong that they stop their bullying catastrophism. Only then would they have something much more palpable and personal to worry about and attend to, given anything less would be–for them–an irresponsible and unreasonable distraction from the full-time urgency of the matter.


“Design” is a trigger-word for me, when it encourages the unhelpful notion one can macro-design the micro. Contingency and context get in the way for any such arrow-straight causality.

To see why this might matter, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and the gloss on it by the critic, Helen Vendler. Here’s the poem in its entirety, centering as it does around Lowell’s leaving an asylum after a manic-depressive episode:


The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm –
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression –
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

The doctor is forgotten now
like a friend’s wife’s maiden-name.
I am free
to ride elbow to elbow on the rush-hour train
and copy on the back of a letter,
as if alone:
“When the trees close branches and redden,
their winter skeletons are hard to find—”
to know after long rest
and twenty miles of outlying city
that the much-heralded spring is here,
and say,
“Is this what you would call a blossom?”
Then home – I can walk it blindfold.
But we must notice –
we are designed for the moment.


I take up Vendler’s gloss when she turns to Lowell’s last line:

“In becoming conscious of his recovery by becoming aware, literally moment by moment, of his new capacities for the most ordinary actions of life, the poet seems that “we are designed for the moment”—that our consciousness chiefly functions moment by moment, action by action, realization by realization. Biologically, “we are designed for the moment” of noticing.”

What Lowell is doing in the last two lines is revisiting, I’d like to think, the first two lines, and making an important point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in one major respect. We notice the ideas-that-design without insisting that noticing is itself an idea or by design. Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because of the decidedly undesigned distractions—“Is this what you would call a blossom?”—in between.

By way of distraction…

–One way to rethink “having to cope with” is where distractions, positive or negative, are not possible.

What, though, is positive distraction? There are obviously the negative distractions of others that are good for you: Never interrupt your enemies when they’re distracted by the mistakes they’ve made, to adapt Napoleon. For many people, however, one’s distraction and one’s concentration are polar opposites, as when distraction diverts needed concentration. But what if it is all about distracting you from a dead-end concentration?

Jean Dubuffet, the painter, talked about distraction as an occasion for “attentive inattentiveness:” “[I]n this distracted state. . . it is a matter of paying great attention to inattention, of being very attentive to transcribing as skillfully and faithfully as possible what happens when an object is viewed without great attentiveness”. That is what I mean by positive distraction here. “Illumination,” novelist Nicholas Mosley put it another way, “comes not through analysis, but as a by-product of alertness.”

Positive distraction, as such an alertness, is when “going off-piste” is “being on track.” It is a way one traverses complexity we cannot transect. It’s recovering from a kind of stumbling.

–When walking around my neighborhood, I look for the stamp of different cement contractors set into the sidewalks they poured. One is dated 1927. But then, the Stolpersteine I stumble over on Freiburg sidewalks—those cobblestone memorials to Nazi victims—remind me that the past lasts into the present in quite different ways. It’s as if I read in both sidewalks news for today of sufficient importance as to break (into) my attention.

— Much has been made of the distinction between Type I or System 1 thinking—it is nonconscious and all but automatic, rooted in fear and emotion—in comparison to Type II or System 2 thinking that is conscious, deliberative, and not rooted in emotion or instinct. I’m asking you to recast conscious deliberation and analysis as positive distractions, that is, diversions from acting otherwise stereotypically or worse.

I am arguing that we are positively distracted from ingrained preoccupations when distracted by hesitations, scruples, ambivalences and reflections on: what we know and do not know; what we experience as unavoidable inexperience; and what we come to know as the very different kinds of difficulty.

–Patience is the time taken for such distraction, as in to realize that everyday my walk is a new walk (paraphrasing poet, A.R. Ammons). Patience sustains the alertness of finding again something complicated, something not as familiar or taken-for-granted as I supposed, the act of making and holding connections that would not have otherwise been.

–Patience, alertness and positive distraction are triggered, for me, when someone asserts that something holds and to which I respond by asking:

  • Under what conditions?
  • With respect to what?
  • What is this a case of?
  • What am I missing?

Under what conditions does what you are saying actually hold? Risk or uncertainty with respect to what scenario? Just what is this you are talking about a case of? In other words, what are you and I missing that’s right there to be seen but isn’t?

–It turns out that, having had the patience to study the issues more, species extinction and loss of biodiversity are of greater urgency than climate change—or so a major report recently found by being alert to best available evidence. (If you needed any more proof that we are making huge mistakes about life and death matters on the basis of ill-founded knowledge, just look major court proceedings involving “eye-witness” or “expert” testimonies.)

Yet, we’re told we have no choice but to experiment unprecedentedly in the face of looming catastrophe. (Not for these people the distractions, alertness and patience required for Beckett’s “failing better” or Adorno’s “living less wrongly”!)

As if, in other words, it would be unethical not to experiment when if anything calls for an explicit ethics it is to experiment only after having been alert to the best available evidence, messy as it inevitably is. For that matter, how is it ethical not to pull out of a mess going (really) bad the good messes to be had and supported—e.g., being alert to the better practices emerging with respect to reversing specific cases of species extinction and biodiversity loss?