Ambiguity Defines the Human Experience

We would be mistaken to emulate the certainty of our computers

Douglas Rushkoff
Nov 19, 2020 · 4 min read
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Photo: SEAN GLADWELL/Getty Images

You know that moment when a dog sees something he doesn’t quite understand? When he tilts his head a little bit to one side, as if viewing the perplexing phenomenon from another angle will help? That state of confusion, that huh?, may be a problem for the dog, but it’s awfully cute to us. That’s because for humans, a state of momentary confusion offers not just frustration but an opening.

Team Human has the ability to tolerate and even embrace ambiguity. The stuff that makes our thinking and behavior messy, confusing, or anomalous is both our greatest strength and our greatest defense against the deadening certainty of machine logic.

Yes, we’re living in a digital age, where definitive answers are ready at the click. Every question seems to be one web search away. But we are mistaken to emulate the certainty of our computers. They are definitive because they have to be. Their job is to resolve questions, turn inputs into outputs, choose between one or zero. Even at extraordinary resolutions, the computer must decide if a pixel is here or there, if a color is this blue or that blue, if a note is this frequency or that one. There is no in-between state. No ambiguity is permitted.

But it’s precisely this ambiguity — and the ability to embrace it — that characterizes the collectively felt human experience. Does God exist? Do we have an innate purpose? Is love real? These are not simple yes-or-no questions. They’re yes-and-no ones: Mobius strips or Zen koans that can only be engaged from multiple perspectives and sensibilities. We have two brain hemispheres, after all. It takes both to create the multidimensional conceptual picture we think of as reality.

Besides, the brain doesn’t capture and store information like a computer does. It’s not a hard drive. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between things we’ve experienced and data points in the brain. Perception is not receptive, but active. That’s why we can have experiences and memories of things that didn’t “really” happen. Our eyes take in 2D fragments and the brain renders them as 3D images. Furthermore, we take abstract concepts and assemble them into a perceived thing or situation. We don’t see “fire truck” so much as gather related details and then manufacture a fire truck. And if we’re focusing on the fire truck, we may not even notice the gorilla driving it.

Our ability to be conscious — to have that sense of what-is-it-like-to-see-something — depends on our awareness of our participation in perception. We feel ourselves putting it all together. And it’s the open-ended aspects of our experience that keep us conscious of our participation in interpreting them. Those confusing moments provide us with opportunities to experience our complicity in reality creation.

It’s also what allows us to do all those things that computers have been unable to learn: how to contend with paradox, engage with irony, or even interpret a joke. Doing any of this depends on what neuroscientists call relevance theory. We don’t think and communicate in whole pieces, but infer things based on context. We receive fragments of information from one another and then use what we know about the world to recreate the whole message ourselves. It’s how a joke arrives in your head: Some assembly is required. That moment of “getting it” — putting it together oneself — is the pleasure of active reception. Ha! and aha! are very close relatives.

Computers can’t do this. They can recognize if a social media message is sarcastic or not — yes or no — but they can’t appreciate the dynamic contrast between word and meaning. Computers work closer to the way primitive reptile brains do. They train on the foreground, fast-moving objects, and surface perceptions. There’s a fly; eat it. The human brain, with its additional lobes, can also reflect on the greater spatial, temporal, and logical contexts of any particular event. How did that fly get in the room if the windows have been closed?

Human beings can relate the figure to the ground. We can hold onto both, and experience the potential difference or voltage between them. The fly doesn’t belong here. Like the rack focus in a movie scene, we can compare and contrast the object to its context. We can ponder the relationship of the part to the whole, the individual to the collective, and the human to the team.

This was section 59 of the new book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, which is being serialized weekly on Medium. Read the previous section here and the following section here.

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From ‘Team Human’ by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2019 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of…

Douglas Rushkoff

Written by

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://medium.com/team-human

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of preeminent digital theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s most urgent thoughts on civilization and human nature.

Douglas Rushkoff

Written by

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://medium.com/team-human

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of preeminent digital theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s most urgent thoughts on civilization and human nature.

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