How do we cope with what we just can't know?

Stephen Baker

The guy at breakfast had the phone clipped to his ear, its green light blinking every three or four seconds across the table to his wife. I looked at him and wondered if he was waiting for important news or just in love with the gadget.

This got me to thinking about how we used to cope with the lack of information, the absence of news that characterized human life until oh, about a decade ago (everything being relative). There were things that we just didn't know and couldn't find out. Soldiers went to war and months would pass between letters. When spaceships passed around the dark side of the moon, radio communication went dead, and an entire country just waited and prayed for them to come around the other side. Kids would take the family car and be gone, and parents would just sit at home waiting. No one to call.

So what did we do when the information just wasn't available? We used our imaginations. We build imaginary structures in our minds that sketched out a life for the soldier at war, a safe path for the teen out in the car. Oh sure, sometimes our imaginations got caught up in our fears. But basically, in the absence of information we relied on a certain type of faith. It was a faith that life proceeds without us, and that things usually turn out OK. It was a recognition that there are plenty of situations where we just don't know, when we're powerless.

Now we have machines that give us the illusion that the truth is available with the push of a button, that we can control things. Often, of course, we can't. This dependency makes us vulnerable. If the kid's out in the car and the cell phone goes dead, we can feel panicked. Why? Because we've lost the knack of waiting patiently in our ignorance, and trusting. It's a crucial component of the human repertoire, and I fear we're losing it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.