Constipated by Certainty

The digital world is a hard edged one. Computing’s molecular level is binary coding, where all is either 1 or 0. Data must exist in one state or another, recorded in only one sharply ruled box on the spreadsheet; only one option must be ticked on the questionnaire, or the whole data set becomes invalid. 

Categorisation is a process of simplifying and fixing things in place, pinning them down. It makes the defined thing dense, impenetrable and undeniable; enduring, yet at the same time diminished, lacking in potential and numinous mystery. Categorisation encourages rigidity, singular identities, oppositions, conflict. The mutual exclusivity of categories (and hence tribes) sets one label against another, breeds antagonism. 

Tribalism and hostility are natural human states, but our sentient, cognitive states are fluid and unreliable. We are creatures of blending and ambivalence, of indeterminate states and confusions. We are changeable and self-contradictory. That’s why we seek certainty and explanations.

In the world before Google we had to live with this desire being thwarted – never discovering the answers to many of our questions, and thus allowing more than one possibility to exist simultaneously in our brains. Isn’t this what Keats meant by Negative Capability, a phrase he coined in 1817, and that he felt was fertile ground for creativity? 

Younger adults, especially, are at an age of self-determination. They crave certainty and the safety and predictability it brings, as they set out alone into the world beyond the family and try to establish themselves. 

The internet, virtually wired into the brain of anybody under 30, gives us the illusion that such certainties are the normal state of affairs. Even when we define the categories ourselves and create the labels and neologisms, they become instantly hard and crystalised: set in stone. And any attempt to question our positions, or moderate or alter our stance, must be an act of aggression, of enmity, a Viking raid, to be greeted with alarm and distress and rage. 

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