In times gone by, people went to the cinema to stay warm. The movie theatre offers a place of shelter from the elements and also an escape from reality for a couple of hours. Last week, when storms huffed and puffed and infrastructure bent and buckled, Great Western Railway suspended all services from London to Bristol. I was stranded in the capital amid a maelstrom of conflicting information about when services would resume. So rather than stare at the blank departure screen, I headed for the silver screen instead.
I felt liberated. Give me a ticket for the next film, I said. The next feature was Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film ‘Parallel Mothers’. For the next two hours and three minutes I was transported away from the rain and the wind to sunny Madrid and the tale of two who give birth on the same day.
By the time I emerged the information storm had settled down. There would be no trains today, and probably none tomorrow morning. Decision made for me: I would need to stay another night in London.
Incompatible and incomplete information
In a situation like this, when a system that usually runs in a steady state is knocked off course, then the information about that system is likely to be incompatible or incomplete. For instance, National Rail Enquiries showed some trains leaving Paddington, GWR said none leaving Paddington for now, others had simply crashed.
These are information systems designed to provide data about steadily operating systems. They are not designed to provide real-time information about a situation that is rapidly changing (incidentally, it does make me smile when staff from one train company use the app of another train company to check their own services).
Moreover, these information systems can provide us with a false sense of certainty. I just click refresh and I get the latest travel information. But when those systems freeze or conflict with one another, I get frustrated because they aren’t providing me with the certainty that I’ve become used to.
Being Happy Not Knowing
For me this experience is in part an example of Analogue Skill 008: Be Happy Not Knowing. Our phones train us to seek out and rely on the latest updates for any situation that we wish. If we want to break our dependence on our digital devices, then we need to develop our comfort with not knowing the latest situation.
And even if we have no intention of using our phones less, developing a tolerance for uncertainty is likely to be important in an increasingly uncertain world.
Resilience and information certainty
I read recently in Donella Meadows’s ‘Thinking in Systems’ that we can think of resilience as a sort of plateau on which systems operate, which has elasticated sides that stop the systems from toppling over the edge. When we lower a system’s resilience, we are narrowing the width of the plateau and lowering and stiffening the crash barriers until we have a situation in which the system is operating on a knife-edge with nothing to stop if toppling over the edge.
Being happy not knowing depends requires a certain amount of resilience. If in any situation you are operating on a knife-edge, then you need real-time information to stop you falling into the precipice; but if you are operating on a wide plateau, then you can afford slower feedback loops.
Actual and perceived resilience
Four things give me very real resilience in a situation of travel uncertainty such as last week’s. Money: I know that I can reclaim any expenses incurred for a delayed journey and that the train companies would accept tickets on different days. Time: I had no constraints on my time. In this instance my partner was able to collect our daughter from school. Social connections: I have friends I can stay with. Relationship: my partner understood the situation was out of my control. (I mention this last factor specifically because of an appalling conversation I heard between a woman on the train and her partner at home who was complaining that his day was ruined because he didn’t know what time she would be home.)
There is no doubt that these four things make travel more comfortable for me, and that may be outside an individual’s control. But I think there is another factor at play, which I think is in an individual’s control, and that is their state of perceived resilience: when people think they are operating on a knife’s edge when they in fact aren’t.
This is a trained response to different adverse situations, a response that we have learnt from having a constant source of information, sometimes reliable, sometimes not, in our hands. If for example we use a satnav to plan journeys that we already know well, then we are training ourselves to be unnecessarily dependent on a stream of information in order just to leave the house.
Even the first four factors that aid the comfort of my travel have a degree of perception to them. If you have a credit card, then you can probably find a way to get out of the most dire situation and find a way to pay for the cost later. And people like to help other people. This is an abundance mindset, which says that I will find a way, but it is one that has to be trained.
Train yourself in not knowing (some of the time)
Uncertainty is certain. We tend to seek out certainty in changing times when what we ought to focus on is resilience – including what I have called here perceived resilience. How can we both develop and learn to see the things that stop us from crashing over the edge.
Training yourself in operating without all the available information is good training for uncertainty. It’s not about never knowing, but about being more at ease with not knowing for certain periods, and then deciding what you really need to know.
Singing in the rain
A final factor to remember is that social media algorithms tend to prioritise bad news stories. So if uncertainty is coming your way you can be sure your social media feed will be sending you posts about it and priming you to feel bad about it.
And maybe that was why going to the cinema felt so great that stormy afternoon. Because for two hours and three minutes I could suspend the bad news story feed and find some escape and joy.
What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again.