Interview with Alicia Juarrero

Alicia Juarrero

Keynote: Think Safe-Fail to thrive under conditions of uncertainty

Alicia talked brilliantly on the pervasive application of the scientific method and the effect it has had on diminishing the importance of context. She gave the example of the canoe and the raft. The former is beautiful, symmetrical but unable to withstand turbulence as it works best with stability and equilibrium. The raft is a “messy” design – but much more capable of handling different water conditions, or contexts, because of its resilience and adaptability.

HM: You talked about how the social sciences has for a long time emulated the scientific method. Do you think there’s a link between positivist thinking and environmentalism?

AJ: Oh I think that’s true, I think what environmentalism has done is to have shown that the environment cannot be modelled in an algorithmic, deductive fashion. But not because we don’t have all the information or because we are ignorant of certain pieces (and hopefully at some point we will be able to do it) but rather because a complex dynamical system is by its very nature a qualitatively different kind of phenomenon. Absolutely I think that’s true, because before we thought there was a one to one relationship and that was the reason for my example of the forest fires [Smoky the Bear, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”]. People thought, do it this way then this and this will happen. But we learned that this was not so.

I liked a lot what you were saying about how context changes everything, and I wanted to ask you about globalisation this notion of “universal values”. If you have a trans-sovereign problem can you have a trans-sovereign value as part of a solution – or does context weigh too heavily in the scales?

I really don’t know the answer – but I can give you a metaphor. Aristotle talked about medicine as a discipline where if a physician said to you when something went wrong “Well I just went by the book”, you’d be horrified. Because that would be almost proof that this were a poor physician. Aristotle said that this does not mean that the principles of medicine are wrong or that there are no general principles of medicine. In certain areas such as medicine, law and ethics he said there are principles that have to be adapted, modified and applied, depending on the circumstance. You would say the context.


So scientific theory, say physics, has this idea of universal, formulaic values but there may be moral and ethical values and principles and they are more like those principles of medicine that would be general – but when it came to applying them you really have to be aware of the culture enough to be able to apply it in an appropriate manner.


Now it’s easier to teach the abstract. To be able to acquire the feel for the nuances of the culture is very difficult. But that is why we’ve seen the rise of virtue ethics in the last 15-20 years. Virtue ethics has come to the forefront because for example, there are no moral principles that are universal like the 10 commandments. Rather there are principles that apply to a parent as a parent, a citizen as a citizen, a professional as a professional and so automatically you’re building in the context. Because you cannot be a parent, or a citizen by yourself, out in the wild with nobody else.

It was Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein who said “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” and you were talking about how “causality is the limit of constraints”…

Well efficient causality, billiard ball causality may be the limit of constraints. But constraints in general are broader than that. They are not one to one, if the circumstance are present then this will happen. And only this will happen. Constraints are more than that. I think of them as probability distributions they are… they allow for more options. They effect and cause effects in a different way from a push and in a different way from this billiard ball causality that Newton had.


Because I do think that language structures the way we think. And let me give you a horrible example. In Spanish the word “compromise” only has negative connotations. And I think that tells you a lot about Spanish society. In Spanish compromise is used like in English “you compromised your principles” but that doesn’t mean that the positive concept of compromise that comes with the English version of the word doesn’t exist in the Spanish community. I mean there’s no translation of “Schadenfreude” [The joy felt at the misfortune of others] in the English language but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel it.


So I think it probably biases our world, but can we step back and reflect upon it and then overcome those limitations? That’s an interesting problem that I don’t think anyone knows.

I’m interested in the language of progress. The language of development is centred around this idea of positive forward momentum and progress. There tends to be negative connotations around ideas of “de” development, or scaling “down” or “back” but you talked about the real positives of concepts such as “sloppy” and “slack”. Is language an obstacle to trying to introduce these ideas?

I used sloppy fitness because that’s the term that Brooks and Augustus used and maybe “slack” is a little bit easier. I don’t mind the word sloppy. My mother used to say that on my tombstone it would say “fast but sloppy”. But then I discovered that evolution selects fast but sloppy because slow and meticulous gets eaten. So I don’t have a problem with sloppy. Designing the messiness doesn’t seem as… beautiful perhaps. We seem to value order and symmetry as beautiful.

I suppose we value symmetry at a gut level – humans look for symmetry in faces – so it seems natural to include it in design because that’s what we like and we feel safe looking at it. We love feeling safe, and uncertainty compromises that.

Complexity is all about uncertainty, because any complex dynamical system is by its nature uncertain. Its future trajectory is uncertain. But I wonder – do we have a biological limit about how much uncertainty we can take? That’s scary. Because I wonder whether a lot of the fundamentalism in religion comes from people who just cannot handle this uncertainty and so anyone who promises “This is the way things are” is popular. And that’s very scary because if one doesn’t have a high tolerance for that, well the potential for uncertainty… it’s scary…


I remember my parents telling me that after Franco died they were visiting Madrid and that they would overhear people talking about how you had democracy but also strikes… that the bin-men were striking. People wished Franco was back…because they knew it wouldn’t have happened. They had certainty that it wouldn’t happen. And we want that order and symmetry. How much can we tolerate?

Thanks Alicia


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