Found in Translation
As uncomfortable as it may make us, lack of data can come in handy. Not getting every single sensation that our nerves attempt to communicate keeps us from fully experiencing extreme pain, and other unpleasant experiences. Drugs, distraction, and Facebook do a great job of numbing our discomfort, sometimes to the point of making the pain go away entirely. While unloading the truck, you bump into doorways in rooms that are new to you. But you don’t feel it much, because you’re so focused on just getting everything into the house. Distraction and diverted attention doesn’t change the source of the pain, and it won’t keep the bruises from showing up the next day, but it changes your experience of it. If you noticed the impact, they come as no surprise. But if you didn’t, you may wonder if you were in a bar brawl the night before.
In many cases, of course, missing information works against us. We draw the wrong conclusions when we’re talking to people. We fail to realize something is happening, when we’re going about our business. Setting up for a picnic, you don’t see rain threatening in the distance. Or your neighbors deduce the wrong information from a conversation, and think that you don’t like kids, when you and your partner could never successfully conceive, and your medical conditions and debts disqualify you for adoption.
In the absence of knowing objectively 100% what’s going on, what do we do? We fill in the blanks. Because we can. Our systems take in the information, they “mull it over”, and where pieces are missing from a message, they supply their own data. This can be good… or it can be bad. In the case where we’re repeatedly doing the same thing over and over again, it comes in handy. Who wants to have to re-learn how to cook a meal, every time the equipment or ingredients change? Based on prior experience warming up some milk in a small saucepan on a gas stove, we can easily figure out how to do the same with a larger pain on an electric stove. We don’t have to know the precise details each time to replicate a fairly simple sequence of steps. We can “fudge” it. That spares us from deciding what needs to happen next without actually knowing what will happen next. Not only do we save time, but we’re also more efficient. It just becomes second nature.
The thing is, we don’t have to have all the details, to live our lives and get a lot out of it. Take driving, for instance. When we’re motoring down the road, we cannot see every detail in the world around us. We don’t see every vein in every leaf in every tree, yet we (usually) still manage to get where we’re going without killing ourselves and everyone else on the road. When we read, as long as we pick up the first and last letters of the words, we can generally understand what’s being communicated. We fill in the blanks ourselves, and we still get a lot out of what we’re reading – typos or no. If we depended on every single detail of every single thing and activity in our lives to survive, we’d all be long since dead.
We routinely approximate, and fill in the details to bridge conceptual gaps. Think about it. If you had to ponder the intricacies of everything you do, breaking down each movement of your hands into discrete motions, considering each position your mouth holds to create each sound of every word you speak, and attuning yourself to the precise sensations that signal hunger, fatigue, or amusement, there’d be no time for anything else. We get the general sense that we’re hungry, and we eat. We feel tired, and we lie down to take a nap. We feel a wave of faint amusement, and we smile. If we feel a little more, we may laugh. But we don’t have to sink a lot of thought into analyzing the fine points of each state of mind and body. We can go about our lives, drawing from past responses to those states, which have worked for us before. We recognize patterns, and we structure our lives around repetitive themes. We eat at the same times each day. We go to bed at roughly the same times each night. We know which of our friends make us laugh (and which don’t) and choose to spend our time accordingly. There might be variations, but they’re generally in the ballpark of past experiences, which we’re pretty sure we know how to handle – and handle well. Again, we can do it often enough that we almost don’t have to think about what we’re doing, to do it fairly well.
When we’re presented with unfamiliar or partial information, we can often figure out what to do with it. Any prior experience we have with data, we can use to figure out our next steps. And our store of familiar information makes up our minds for us.
Take, for example, the sight of a sailing ship in the distance:
If you lived in the 17th century and were aboard a slow-moving merchant vessel, and through the fog you saw this following you in the distance, chances are, you’d prepare for the worst. You’d recognize a ship that was prized by pirates for its speed and maneuverability, and you’d either man the guns, trim the sails to pick up more wind, or just resign yourself to being boarded and losing your cargo – maybe even your life. If you spent much time at sea, you may have heard plenty of stories from other sailors about trying to outrun a ship like the one shown above – and failing. You might have even had the experience, yourself. The ship would probably be too far off in the distance, to tell if it had a full crew. You wouldn’t know if its guns were all working, you wouldn’t know if the crew was weakened by scurvy, and you wouldn’t even know for sure if they were following you with the intent to overtake and loot your vessel. Sure, you could wait for them to catch up, so you could see what you’d be up against. But prior experience and information would likely tell you there was no time to dally. If you let that ship get closer, the safety of your cargo and crew were at stake. You’d have to decide what to to right away – and promptly do it.
Now, if you were sailing along the North American Atlantic coast in the 21st century summertime, the sight of this ship in the distance probably wouldn’t trigger the same panic and defensive maneuvers. Chances are, the ship would be under sail for Boston, on its way to a Tall Ships gathering. Or it might be a charter hired to give people a fun sailing adventure during the warm summer months. It might be a student ship, crewed by marine biologists who were taking a summer course at sea. You might slow down to get a better look. You might try to hail them on the radio. They’d be friends, rather than foes, because you’d have no prior experience or information that would indicate otherwise. At worst, they might be aloof, unfriendly, and keep sailing by without returning your greetings. But you wouldn’t expect them to overtake and board you, kill you and your crew, and take everything they could get thieving their hands on.
We do the same, each and every day, in our modern world. We also rely heavily on experts and pundits to fill in the blanks of our understanding, when it comes to medicine, politics, economics, social issues, professional matters, and countless other situations. Whether it’s a life-and-death situation, where we rely on a doctor’s expertise to explain a medical condition and propose a treatment, or we check the long-term weather forecast before taking a trip, we’re constantly filling in the blanks left by our “Swiss cheese”perception, so we can figure out what’s next.