Johan Jessen Essay

Limits of logic

September, 2020

Technology is becoming more advanced, more intimate, and more real. Building advanced technology requires a firm grasp of logic. But it's not enough. To solve the grand challenges and build a fantastic future we must move beyond logic. We must expand our thinking and include beauty, storytelling, and imagination. Imagination is a powerful force exactly because it helps us explore what could be and not just what is.

Logic can be blinding. It can limit our ability to see and embrace the creative richness and contradictory wonder of the real world made up of real people. Our technical minds should extend beyond known constructs and precise reductions. Into the world of wonder and possibility. If we only concern ourselves of the rationale and probably, we extinguish our ability to imagine the the possible.

Escape the cage

Bret Victor highlights how we must strive for a more humane representation of thought. I urge you to take his call to action seriously. The tools we build shape our thinking and if we're not careful our thinking will be driven into smaller and smaller cages.

Bret Victor's "The Humane Representation of Thought".

This cage shows up on curious ways. 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 at 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 to just let the data "decide". Yet, it's also devoid of imagination and opinion. It's side-stepping the uncomfortable process of committing to an idea based on creative thought. We can call it taste. Google has come a long way since then but the legacy of this thinking has spread all over Silicon Valley. Logic alone is not enough if we aim 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. Growth needs metrics. But life is messy. The most important things are often the hardest to measure. Think about all the complex human emotions like love, envy, or purpose. 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 about our goals than ever. 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." The cage is real.

Consider how social media has been singularly optimized for "engagement"; how many clicks, likes, shares, and impressions. Engagement is based on precise metrics 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 (or enraged). Engagement metrics don't measure the quality of the information, it's emotional impact, or even its credibility. Media modulates your attention and shapes how you feel, act, and think. "Who controls the memes, controls the Universe" as Elon Musk quips.

Let ideas ferment

Instead, give your attention a rest and ignore logic. Just for a bit. Let your ideas ferment. That's what Claus Meyer and René Redzepi did when they opened their restaurant Noma in Denmark in 2004. It was not obvious that it'd be a gastronomic success. Against conventional wisdom the team picked local Nordic ingredients. Hardly known for their gastronomic delight. They explored and elevated the traditional fermentation process. They did something never done before. They changed the national culture through food. They made something radically new and won. They broke the cage of logic and it worked.

Noma in Copenhagen is one of the world's greatest dining places.
Noma in Copenhagen is one of the world's greatest dining places. Photo by Noma.

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 had to walk further and wait to use the limited facilities. Facility Management and HR were surely not amused. But it meant the employees 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 reason. It's how art influences technology and technology influences art. We shape the tools and the tools shape us. Ultimately design shapes how we think. And if we're trapped in the cage of logic, we're tragically limiting ourselves and our human potential. Designing a better future requires us to break the cage of logic and imagine the possible.