Commentary

Why The World No Longer Makes Sense

Does it seem the world no longer makes sense? That may not just be you. The world may in fact no longer be making sense.

In the late 1960s, Karl Weick introduced the world to the concept of sensemaking, but we were making sense of things long before that. It’s the mental process we go through to try to reconcile who we believe we are to the world in which we find ourselves.  It’s how we give meaning to our life.

Weick identified seven properties critical to the process of sensemaking. I won’t mention them all, but here are three that are critical to keep in mind:

  1. Who we believe we are forms the foundation we use to make sense of the world.
  2. Sensemaking needs retrospection. We need time to mull over new information we receive and form it into a narrative that makes sense to us.
  3. Sensemaking is a social activity. We look for narratives that seem plausible, and when we find them, we share them with others.

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I think you see where I’m going with this. Simply put, our ability to make sense of the world is in jeopardy, both for internal and external reasons.

External to us, the quality of the narratives available to help us make sense of the world has taken a nosedive in the past two decades. Prior to social media and the implosion of journalism, there was a baseline of objectivity in the narratives we were exposed to. One would hope that there was a kernel of truth buried somewhere in what we heard, read or saw on major news providers.

But that’s not the case today. Sensationalism has taken over journalism, driven by the need for profitability by showing ads to an increasingly polarized audience. The process has dragged the narratives we need to make sense of the world to the extremes that lie on either end of common sense.

This wouldn’t be quite as catastrophic for sensemaking if we were more skeptical. The sensemaking cycle does allow us to judge the quality of new information for ourselves, deciding whether it fits with our frame of what we believe the world to be, or if we need to update that frame.

But all that validation requires time and cognitive effort. And that’s the second place where sensemaking is in jeopardy: we don’t have the time or energy to be skeptical anymore. The world moves too quickly to be mulled over.

In essence, our sensemaking is us creating a model of the world that we can use without requiring us to think too much. It’s our own proxy for reality. And, as a model, it is subject to all the limitations that come with modeling. As the British statistician George E.P. Box said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

What Box didn’t say is, the more wrong our model is, the less likely it is to be useful. And that’s the looming issue with sensemaking. The model we use to determine what is real is become less and less tethered to actual reality.

It was exactly that problem that prompted Daniel Schmachtenberger and others to set up the Consilience Project. Here’s the idea: The more diversity in perspectives you can include in your model, the more likely the model is to be accurate. That’s what “consilience” means: pulling perspectives from different disciplines together to get a more accurate picture of complex issues.  It literally means the “jumping together” of knowledge.

The Consilience Project is trying to reverse the erosion of modern sensemaking -- both from an internal and external perspective -- that comes from the overt polarization and the narrowing of perspective that currently typifies the information sources we use in our own sensemaking models.  As Schmachtenberger says, "If there are whole chunks of populations that you only have pejorative strawman versions of, where you can't explain why they think what they think without making them dumb or bad, you should be dubious of your own modeling."

That, in a nutshell, explains the current media landscape. No wonder nothing makes sense anymore.

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