We live in the age of the missing elephant. American psychologist Don Michael was the first to point out the implications of a world of boundless complexity, rapid change and uncertainty for the familiar Sufi tale of the blind people and the elephant. In the original, it’s clear to the (sighted) storyteller that if the blind people (who could each feel only a part of the animal) could pool their knowledge they would recognise the elephant. Don tells us that this is no longer true.
In today’s world there is little chance that any of us will ever know more than one small piece of the elephant. And there are now so many different pieces, they change so rapidly and they are all so intimately related one to another, that even if we had the technology to put them all together we would still not be able to make sense of the whole.
Going a step further, Don Michael warns us that, today, the storyteller is blind and that the elephant doesn’t even exist. He describes six characteristics that seem to be to be the source of the storyteller's blindness. He calls them 'ignorance generators':
1. We have too much and too little information to reach knowledgeable consensus and interpretation within the available time for action. More information in the social realm generally leads to more uncertainty, not less.
2. There is no shared set of value priorities. We make much of the fact that we share values - it is a truism that humans want the same basic things. But here are some examples where value priorities differ depending on the group and circumstance: Short term expedience vs. long term prudence. Group vs. individual identity. Freedom vs. equality. Universal rights vs. local rights…
3. The dilemma of context. How much do you need to know in order to feel responsible for actions and interpretations? How many layers of understanding are necessary to have enough background to deal with the foreground?
4. Our spoken and written language cannot adequately map the complexity that I'm talking about. It is linear. One thought follows another. It cannot adequately engage multiple factors simultaneously. Perhaps poetry can, but we haven't yet figured out how to use poetry to make policy, or to resolve issues of context, or to value priorities. Nor can our language map in our minds the ongoing circularity of cause and effect.
5. There is an increasing absence of reliable boundaries. Without boundaries, we can't make sense of anything. William James wrote of a boundary-less world as one of ‘booming, buzzing confusion’. Boundaries are about how we discriminate, how we partition experience in order to create meaning. But boundaries and their reliability are increasingly eroded and disintegrated. They are becoming more and more ambiguous. All systems, including social systems, require boundaries in order to be coherent systems. The feedback determined by the boundaries of a system allows that system to be self-sustaining. If there are no boundaries, there is no feedback and no system. In other words, no ‘elephant’.
6. The self-amplifying, unpredictable acting out of the shadow residing in each human; our instincts, our extra-rational responses. To be sure, these allow for more creativity, but often in this complex world, they also serve up violence, oppression, selfishness, extreme positions of all stripes. They are the source of an upwelling of the non-rational, the non-reasonable that is so increasingly characteristic of the entire world, not just the United States.
Donald Michael: In Search of the Missing Elephant
This might sound like a recipe for giving up. In fact, it isn't that at all. It's a recipe for recognising your limitations, the limitations of your knowledge of your colleagues/fellow humans and the limitations of your method - whatever method you use.