The digital world is literally driven by ones and zeros. This means it is a world of either/or, in a very strict sense. A bit can either be one or zero, nothing else. The analogue world is quite different, since there are not only ones and zeros, but everything in between. It’s a world of ambiguity. That’s how we mere human beings perceive our world, at least.
Between digital ones and zeros, there is no room for ambiguity. For example, if black would equal zero and white would equal one, how would we display grey, that is neither white nor black? We work with approximations and high resolutions. A mix of black and white leads to the perception of grey.
With a certain shade of grey, ambiguity is still relatively low. High ambiguity means high uncertainty about what the right shade of grey is. We don’t have enough information. It could be white, it could be black, or something in between. We only know probabilities: how likely it is for a certain shade of grey to be the right one.
In the old, pre-digital world, ambiguity was the domain of management. The higher ambiguity was, the higher level of management needed to be involved. If no one knew the right thing to do, top management had to make the decision. Then, we took their decision for granted, acted accordingly and blamed the boss when things went wrong.
As long as the boss had a fair chance to make the right decisions, hierarchical decision-making made sense, quite literally. But these times are long past. Ambiguity is now everywhere, and it’s constantly high. Top management has lost its information advantage. High level decisions have become guesswork.
The technology paradox
Paradoxically, digital technology – which has no inherent ambiguity – has driven overall ambiguity levels to new heights. How could that happen? The interplay of complexity, exponential change, uncertainty and volatility leads to high levels of ambiguity. A complex world is a world that changes fast and exponentially, breeds uncertainty, volatility and ambiguity.
Uncertainty is an aspect of ambiguity. We’re unsure what we have to do and how we will do it. This is a direct result of complexity, and exponential change comes with volatility. Digital technology has added a lot of complexity, exponential change and thus volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity.
This situation demands making decisions with incomplete information, and changing decisions along the way, as soon as they become apparently wrong. In our world, this process tends to be evenly distributed. Hierarchies are crumbling and getting flat. We deal with ambiguity by distributing it. A network can absorb ambiguity more efficiently and effectively than a hierarchy can.
Politics is inevitable
Ambiguity leads to experimentation. If we don’t know what the right thing to do is, we need to formulate a hypothesis and try it out. If we don’t know how to do it, we need to sketch out a possible solution and test it. This is a scientific engineering approach. Once limited to the realms of science and engineering, it’s now applied to the whole world — for better or worse.
Ambiguity is the classical domain of politics. A society, regional or local entity resorts to politics when the right thing to do is unknown. The political process makes decisions about questions science or engineering can’t answer. For example, where values conflict, a solution can’t be engineered.
Politics is often despised, because it doesn’t look pretty. But politics is inevitable. Liquid modern societies find it increasingly hard to get to a single, morally perfect answer to their fundamental questions. Where ambiguity is high and engineering is no solution, we must make political decisions.
Digital technology and especially social media have dramatically lowered our tolerance towards ambiguity. This leads to totalitarian or authoritarian thinking, the rise of populists, or the fragmentation and polarisation of our societies. All these are strategies to reduce ambiguity.
There is at least one country that combines an authoritarian regime with engineering and experimenting, and that is China. The Chinese model is again put to a test by the coronavirus outbreak. It may well turn into an existential crisis. Meanwhile, the US is gearing up for a presidential election with at least one populist candidate. And maybe two.
All this will be interesting to watch.