There are six key components to sense-making: The information ecosystem; natural and built surroundings; institutions; culture; sensing, feeling, and thinking bodies; and mental models. Each component has a distinct function that is essential to the processes individuals and groups use to gather and interpret information, construct meaning, make decisions, and take action. Though distinct, they are also connected to one another in a dynamic relationship that is constantly evolving as the world changes. This means that significant changes taking place in one component of sense-making inevitably ripple through some of the other components, often with surprising outcomes.
The structures and spaces where we find and engage with information. Some of that information is raw and some is highly refined. It includes traditional information sources, such as the media, movies, and everyday conversations. However, it is increasingly dominated by digital interfaces and experiences, such as social media, online games, and streaming services. Today, despite unprecedented access to information, dominant digital technologies influence the information we encounter, and can interfere with our capacity to process and validate that information. Limited digital literacy means that some of the technologies (e.g. AI and Adtech[i]) shaping our experiences remain opaque and mysterious to most of us.
Natural and built surroundings
The physical environments that directly and indirectly shape our sense-making. Our senses, emotions, and cognition interact with our physical contexts in ways that affect how we experience the world. This includes built surroundings, such as public and private buildings, urban green spaces, and neighbourhoods. It also takes in natural environments, such as parks and wild spaces, and infrastructure, such as transit systems, electrical grids, and fibre optic networks, that shape how we access and process information.
Organizations that produce and distribute knowledge as part of their core mission. Institutions take various forms and influence sense-making in different ways. They all share a degree of authority that derives from their inherent qualities, such as tradition, reputation, wealth, or age. An institution typically produces and distributes knowledge, while simultaneously championing a specific way of understanding the world. Familiar examples include traditional media, religions, governments, and universities. Novel entities, such as technology platforms and websites, are assuming the role of sense-making institutions—they are the new libraries, archives, and publishers.
The practices, customs, and material creations shared by a particular group or society. Culture includes common practices, activities, and ceremonies, and is a key determinant of sense-making. Its role is twofold. First, as the context in which we grow up, it sets a baseline of assumptions and expectations, including norms for understanding our world. This perpetuates unconscious biases by building them into future generations. Second, culture shapes the information we encounter. Some cultures share stories orally, others prefer text, dance, or visual media. Each of these media has a unique “language” with rules that shape the raw information we use to make sense.
Sensing, feeling, and thinking bodies
The internal systems that are humans’ primary filters on information and experiences. We might expect our senses, cognitive processes, and emotional systems to be ideally suited to the information ecosystems we create. This is not always the case. A range of cognitive biases and emotional factors can thwart our attempts to be rational. Likewise, aspects of the present information ecosystem are designed both to exploit and confound our biological capacities through engineered addiction, information overload, and emotional activation.
Frameworks that help people understand complex concepts and systems. Mental models include both concepts (e.g. nation, gender, capitalism) and knowledge norms (e.g. humanism, the scientific method, and Indigenous ways of knowing). Most of us likely have hundreds of mental models that are internalized and operate without conscious application. Some of these paradigms are robust and others are flawed. Some probably contradict one another. But as a general rule, mental models function as sense-making “shortcuts” that help us deal with uncertain or highly complex circumstances.
[i] Elizabeth A. Watkins, “Guide to advertising technology,” Center for Digital Journalism, last modified Dec. 4, 2019, https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/the-guide-to-advertising-technology.php.