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Limits of Logic

Johan Jessen
September 11th, 2020 · 4 min read

Limits of logic

Technology is becoming more advanced, more intimate, and more real. But are we limiting ourselves by being trapped in the prism of logic? In this essay I’ll explore the limits of logic and why we should expand our imagination and embrace the messy real.

Technology rests on logic. Programming, engineering, and manufacturing all require precision. The math has to add up. The code has to compute. Logic is absolutely important and necessary for creating advanced technology. Yet, it’s not sufficient.

To solve the grand challenges and build a fantastic future, logic is not enough. We must expand our repertoire to include emotion, beauty, storytelling, and imagination. Imagination is a powerful force exactly because it helps us explore what could be and not just what is. Imagination is an expression of the possible and not just the probable. Truth is beauty unbound by logic. As philosopher G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.”

Logic is limiting our world view to known constructs and precise reductions. Life rarely throws you boolean decisions, yet computers require them. The limits of logic is our inability to see beyond logic and embrace the creative richness and contradictory wonder of the real. Our naïve dependence on logic is so pervasive that it’s blinding. Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said to a zealous colleague, “No, no, you’re not thinking – you’re just being logical.” Limiting our view of the world to precise logic robs us of its paradoxical wonders and our ability to think outside the box.

Escape the cage

In 2009, Marissa Mayer, employee number 20 at Google, gave an interview highlighting her commitment to design and data driven decisions. The product and design teams on Google Search couldn’t agree on which hue of blue to use for the tool bar so she asked them to test 41 gradations to see which ones consumers might prefer. Very rational and a clever hack to avoid discussion and just let the data “decide”. Yet, it’s also devoid of imagination and opinion. It’s side-stepping the, at times uncomfortable, process of committing to a risky and untried idea in the name of beauty. Google has come a long way since then but the seeds of this thinking is spread all over Silicon Valley. Logic alone is not enough if we want people committed to solve the hardest problems out there.

There’s a popular saying in the Valley, ”you are what you measure.” The problem is that you can only measure what you are able to isolate, quantify, and observe. And as venerable ad man Rory Sutherland says, “Once you attach a metric to an objective, hundreds of once-possible imaginative solutions to your problem become invisible.”

Life is messy. The most important things are often the hardest to measure. Think about all the complex human emotions like love, purpose, or envy. Can you really reduce love to a numerical value or a logical statement? By focusing on the narrow, we risk sacrificing our understanding of the whole. False precision can be a cruel mistress. We have all the metrics, yet seem more confused than ever. Philosopher Carveth Read reminds us that, “it’s better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.”

A poignant example of this cage is how most social media has been singularly optimized for “engagement”; how many clicks, likes, shares, and ad impressions. Engagement is a precise metric offering a one-dimensional perspective of the experience; is the user hooked or not? This is dangerous because it doesn’t actually capture why we’re engaged. Engagement metrics don’t measure the quality of the information nor its credibility. Or how it makes us feel, act, and think.

There’s a subtle but perverse interplay between the virtual and physical. In the last 50 years our digital worlds have blossomed while our physical world have stagnated. Our gaming worlds are nearing realism while the US infrastructure is crumbling. In our excitement for the synthetic, we’ve lost interest in the real. We’ve come to tolerate real world dysfunction because we can numb it with our digital delights. Endless commute times tranquilized by racing games. Numbing bureaucracy punctuated by instant messages. We don’t live in a mean world but a meme world.

Bret Victor's work was incredibly influential in my own work.

Start to imagine

The bold aspire to be different. When Claus Meyer and René Redzepi opened their restaurant Noma in Denmark in 2004, it was by no means obvious that it’d be a gastronomic success. Let alone change the national identity through food and elevate Denmark as a destination of fine dining. Against conventional wisdom the team picked local Nordic ingredients and elevated the traditional fermentation processes. They did something never done before. They stood out and made, not just the food, but the food culture significant. Boldness requires risk. It’s impossible to stand out, if you fit in.

Sam Farber, the founder of the kitchen utensil company OXO, initially aimed to make tools that were easier and less painful to use for his wife who suffered from mild arthritis. Ergonomically designed kitchen utensils proved to be popular with a lot more customers than just sufferers of arthritis. None of us are average.

Or take Pixar. During the construction of the Pixar campus, Steve Jobs made the illogical but wise choice of placing the bathrooms in the middle of the atrium, instead of off to the sides with easier access. This deliberate friction meant employees often had to walk further and wait to use the limited facilities. But it also meant they would bump into each other more often. Sparking random conversation led to creative inspiration. Pixar launched the computer animated film industry and is still the most award-winning animation studio today. It pays to break free of logic.

Imagination is the fluid dynamic to logic’s rigid structure. It’s the beginner’s mind unshackled from the burden of tradition. It’s how art influences science and science influences art. We shape the tools and the tools shape us. Design governs how we understand the world and each other. Design directly dictates how we develop advanced technology. Ultimately, design shapes how we think. And if we’re trapped in logic, we’re tragically limiting ourselves and our potential. Designing a better future requires us to break the chains of logic and imagine the possible.

Animated dots.
Art imitating science or science imitating art. Unknown artist.
Title photo by Janis Fasel.

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A New Mindset

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Design the Endless Frontier

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© 2020 Johan Jessen
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