The Utility of Ambiguity

Old-school browser tabs. Finding functional solutions to information or knowledge management and seeking optimised user interfaces is nothing new. This particular device and engineering solution (pictured above) was designed to allow researchers to “rapidly” switch between pre-selected texts.

Most of the innovations and creative engineering solutions we currently deploy are really only refinements and recombinatory conceptual iterations of existing heuristics and their related problem spaces. The word “Innovation” and its bundled suite of associations and assumptions finds itself in our shared information culture as a word so ubiquitous, so widely over-used and yet also and simultaneously so diversely or poorly-defined and misunderstood.

It appears that a degree of ambiguity may be an inverse function of the generalised utility of any concept.

Said one mirror to another…

The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes: the edifice of logic and rationality occupies a necessary place upon (and from) which to build our world but as an essential efflorescence of (or from) an emergent algorithmic complexity of information or energy as intelligence or the hyper-extended cognition of technology and collective human presence, it is at an axiomatic and foundational level unable to loop back upon (or through) itself and magically bootstrap its own explanation into the kind of structured order that such rationality conditionally requires to obtain (or attain) closure. The power of the machine, of Boolean order and an associated sequential, iterating process of logic and structured abstraction depends in fundamental ways on a single-threaded narrative focus in (and through) which intelligence reflexively identifies, maintains and validates itself. From within the richly-structured logical momentum and semantic abstraction of representation, of a second-order mapping and a taxonomy or topology of grammatical and cognitive ontological resonance – we are ineliminably bound to the method and grammar of our aspirations with no hope of obtaining an escape velocity into that metaphysical sky from which to retrospect and disentangle our own elemental limitation.

Some things are best left indistinct. It is of their nature to be incoherent and inaccessible in the logic and grammar our common tongue(s) other than through metaphor and ambiguity. The discontinuity of incoherence and uncertainty also represents an opportunity for creative imagination. It is particularly difficult to discern the point when there fundamentally is none.

Rationality is (a) key, but it can not explain (or unlock) itself. So, let’s go back to the coloured building blocks and well-worn crayons of faltering intelligibility we know of as “our world” and embrace our glorious ignorance because it is all we have and all we are. As one mirror said to another:

Uncertainty

It seems to me that the most superficial and transient things are those to which we (mysteriously) attribute the most significance and meaning. This is always bound to create insecurity and friction because those foundational symbols and narratives of self and world which we attribute the source of our own existence and purpose are just as transient and contingent as everything else. We tend to double down on our bad bets, relentlessly pursuing continuity and certainty in what is fundamentally a discontinuous, volatile and uncertain world. Even a mature narrative of impermanence and endemic metamorphosis can sometimes be little more than an existential security blanket and psychological symptom or emotional longing and mischievous self-misdirection in search of a non-existent wholeness or meaningful completion to things.

Untruth

Belief has always been quite easily uncoupled from reality, from facts. The role of belief appears often to be that of emotional security blanket and psychological sedative against the harsher facts of reality. Hiding from one (plausible) set of facts and observations by superimposing a filter of contingent falsities on top of it is nothing new but is currently supported and nurtured by the ways in which the intrinsic ambiguities and uncertainties of consensus reality can be augmented and distorted by political and ideological tactics and technologies which generate ideologically-biased value and economic wealth. In the current information environment uncertainty is wilfully cast upon facts and verifiable truths in a manner which calls not just the unwanted, uncomfortable truths into question, but which casts doubt more broadly upon the possibility of any verifiable truth at all. Ignorance is manipulated in callous and Machiavellian ways but the longer-term consequences and cultural fall-out remain yet to be seen.

Truth and Falsity

The extent of the intricate interdependence and interconnectivity of the system of communications and information we are embedded in (and encapsulated by) has probably reached some kind of transitional stage in which the ambiguities proliferate (to some extent) uncontrollably in the way they do. There exist logical principles which can be used to conceptualise and illustrate this process.


There is an ongoing public debate in our shared information spaces concerning matters of Truth and Falsity. News reports, opinion pieces, media bytes, memes, social media posts and even Twitter’s staccato rhythms of 140-character platitudes are all both constitutive of, and examples of, this debate. There is an ongoing, billion-part choral work of sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious voices and cascading patterns and ideologies. The one certainty in all of this being that there is no one certainty in all of this.

While discussions around the Truth or Falsity of any particular informational artefact are as valuable as is the personal ability to differentiate credible fact from fiction, this focus on the parts, the cascading waves of ideology and influence across this communications network, this is actually in subtle ways to (as the saying goes) miss the forest for the trees. While we are clearly witnessing an accelerating information and communications environment in which fact and fiction in their broader cultural contexts are becoming fuzzy and indistinct, where those Truths that are not clear and self-evident (and even some that are) become shrouded in doubt – our concerns with details and the atomic, microscopic elements and species of opinion, assertion and ideological bias might at times shroud the larger macroscopic image and holistic emergent logical entity from our comprehension.

At the holistic level, we are witnessing the emergence of what is perhaps an ongoing phase transition in the overall recursive semantics of global information systems. All facts and knowledge are defined in some sense circularly, from within this ballooning system of reference and meaning. There exists a certain indefinitely extensible logical matrix of self-reference in which the increasing complexity of cross-reference, interdependence and interconnectivity is coiling around itself in endlessly creative and self-organising, emergent ways. Any system when viewed at a holistic system-of-systems level of abstraction can always only ever act in such a fundamentally self-referential manner.

At the point where Truth and Falsity become indistinct and in doubt, we find ourselves in what may be an authentically Gödellian semantically and logically rotating space, warped back upon itself in the impossible task of seeking an externally Objective (i.e. meta-) view from where to determine fidelity or truth; which at the point of formulation becomes just another element incorporated, assimilated, aggregated within (and into) the growing mass-density of this internally accellerating space. That the structure of this space inevitably reflects and illustrates something of the natural patterns and tendencies of information storage, flow and dynamics which led to consciousness and subjective individuation is probable.

Further to this, we are witnessing at this historical and technological moment precisely the kinds of Truth/Falsity ambiguity you would expect to see within such an accellerating and incomplete system of increasing complexity and self-reference. The proliferating ambiguities of Truth and Falsity (and even where they are not being wilfully manipulated) may be inevitable consequences in a system where the interconnectivity and cross-reference has elevated to an order of magnitude beyond a certain threshold of individual or collective cognitive intelligibility. Truth and falsity have fundamentally gotten away from us and out of our conscious control, not just because of the various psychological and ideological biases and motivations or interests which are playing themselves out on this shared Global stage, but because this complex reflexive system of logical self-reference very likely requires these ambiguities (and grey-areas between facts and fictions) to continue to internally extend itself. The expansion of ambiguity may just be the way this system intuitively, natively functions.

Our Global information and communications systems no longer support and service us so much as we support and service the needs of our Global information and communications systems. These systems owe us no debt of intelligibility or internal consistency, of transparent boundaries between Fact and Fiction. This may be the defining Enigma of our information age.

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Logical incompleteness and self-reference generate ambiguity.