Four areas of change in sense-making
Power and authority
For a time, when the ancient Greeks wanted an answer to a vital question, they would visit an oracle – someone who could get answers about worldly affairs from a divine patron, an authority. At other times and places, societies have put similar trust in a wide variety of individuals and institutions. Until recently, sense-making actors – like the press, academics, universities and some faith leaders seemed like unshakable authorities.
But technological and social changes are challenging them like never before. Today’s knowledge powers are digital platforms that control huge masses of data and shape our information diets with their algorithms. Then there are the influencers, whose charisma and social media savvy enable them to shape opinion on a never-before-seen scale. This shakeup clears space for new voices to be heard. But it also makes room for a bewildering array of mis- and disinformation, including conspiracy theories. So, while our sense-making future might be more democratic, it may be harder to agree on who or what to trust.
Partnerships with non-humans
What do all of these texts have in common?
They are all written by humans.
And how are these different?
They are written by machines.
If you stop and think about it, that is a staggering development. We live with a growing collection of machines that make sense. They can write, diagnose diseases, make art, evaluate loan applications, and contribute to hiring decisions. And they are utterly novel participants in sense-making. With unique logics and processes, these artificial intelligences may also help revitalize our ancient sense-making partnerships with animals and plants, directly translating their sensory experiences in ways that allow us to feel what they feel. The upshot is a growing range of digital and biological partnerships capable of producing unprecedented kinds of knowledge. Such knowledge, could be game changing – even when it emerges through processes that most of us find hard to understand.
Think about where human sense-making began: in natural environments. Our senses, cognitive systems, and social tools, like language, evolve to help us compete and survive in those contexts. But the spaces we make sense haven’t remained static. The shift from natural to built environments changed the sense we made. Buildings makes different demands on our senses than natural spaces. They sustain different kinds of social relations, but that historical shift was no more dramatic than two shifts taking place right now. On one hand, climate change is transforming our planet. This means new physical conditions that will shape how we make sense of things – though maybe in ways that won’t always be obvious. On the other hand, the explosion of virtual spaces, such as game worlds, virtual and augmented reality workplaces, classrooms and parks, means entirely novel contexts equally certain to affect the sense we make.
There is an old story about a room of people taking on an ambitious project. A tower linking heaven and earth – their common language to find a shared reality. And as long as it lasted, progress was good. But when divine punishment splintered language and reality alike, the project collapsed.
Today, our ability to agree and work together still depends on us inhabiting largely the same reality and that depends on things like shared mental models, stories, ways of knowing, and standards for separating truth from fiction. This shared reality doesn’t have to be complete or perfect but we need just enough to agree on the nature of problems – not to mention the right solutions. Currently, our shared reality seems to be shrinking. Filter bubbles and echo chambers amplified by new technologies undermine it. So does the loss of a unified media landscape with clear standards. Ditto the breakdown of consensus on historical narratives and ideal forms of social, political, and economic organization. This could eventually lead to a new and more inclusive form of shared reality. If not, a future of splintered realities may make it difficult to sustain the kind of collaboration necessary to address wicked problems.