“What is called good is perfect and what is called bad is just as perfect.”
Walt Whitman

Daniel Schmachtenberger on Sensemaking


How do you make sense in a messy, noisy and misleading information ecology?

Watching this made me feel both:

  1. A sense of belonging that comes from experiencing a deep and thoughtful shared interest.
  2. A sense of lostness … this feels like (yet another) deep insight that doesn’t really matter … because … who is going to take this to heart and change something about their sensemaking and information ecology?

I also felt disappointment with the title. I do not feel that there is a war on sensemaking. I feel that framing is tainted and narrow. I think we may be getting a taste of deeper forms of sensemaking that we’ve never really had and that they are emerging because of the unprecedented challenges of sense-making that we are facing.

I appreciated Daniel’s attempt to provide a constructive “to do” at the end of the conversation. I also appreciated the idea of investing in synthesis … but that is where some of the lostness came in:

  1. I think there are very few people who have the awareness, skill, and conditions to be able to hold the kind of conversation Daniel is describing.
  2. I think that there are many (if not most situations) in which there isn’t a real possibility for synthesis. What kind of synthesis is there to create with a flat-earther (assuming there is a flat-earther with the ability and earnestness to have such a conversation in the first place)? There is a part of me that wants to embrace the idea that every person carries some valuable signal … but I have doubts about the truth or merit of that assumption. I feel there are fields in which synthesis can be a valuable strategy and fields where it is an incorrect and unsuitable strategy. I feel that there are ideas that are obsolete and irrelevant; that there are ideas that need to be rejected and cannot (and should not) be synthesized; that the people that hold them are not available to synthesis … and that a best-case scenario is that these ideas will die together with the people who give them life.

BECAUSE I resonated so deeply with the presentation I also wondered if it has a dominant masculine flavor? I am not sure that the underlying assumption that things need to make sense (which appeals to me personally!) is complete or workable in the real world.

Ironically, shortly after watching this I also watched these three videos which together form a kind of debate. The first video making a claim. The second video attacking that claim, then reframing it by going deeper. The third video attempting to build a bridge. These are all mathematicians who are supposedly exemplars of rigorous thought and a healthy information ecology … and if they find sensemaking to be so challenging … what does that mean for the rest of us?

If like me, Daniel’s presentation left you wanting more you may want to listen to this follow-up conversation in which Daniel participates. The conversation feels to me dominated by Jordan Hall who strikes me as a good example of excessive-intellectualizing that seems to dominate the “meta-modern” conversation space … but that made Daniel’s rare contributions even sweeter:

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One Comment

  1. Ryan Elwood
    Posted December 13, 2019 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    Hi! Was seeking out an article highlighting Daniel’s work on sense-making and found your website. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I have been listening to some of Daniel et all (see: Rebel Wisdom) related thinkers, and been diving a bit more into the meta-modern world for the last few months.

    Please excuse any disjointed remarks or half-baked responses, as I’m still honing my thoughts and haven’t yet put finger to keyboard about it:

    I do agree with Daniel’s take that there is in fact a war on sense-making. To me, you can either be someone who reads Facebook feeds/news stories all day, or you could be completely removed from the internet; either way, there have been enough people claiming that we are drowning in false narratives, fake news, experiencing the degradation of trust in one another, in governments, and again, a war on facts that it is trickling down into speech, and therefore, our thoughts. The moment that there is the meta problem of learned people questioning facts, and whether what we are hearing or seeing is true, we have a problem of baseline sense-making. To me, it isn’t as simple as a lack of understanding one another – it goes deeper than that. A lack of sense-making at a deep level creates a lack of psychological stability. So, you have a population with an unstable psychological baseline. The mathematicians you reference here might argue different sides, but on some level there is a mutually agreed upon understanding and/or language of what they are talking about. They have studied, and “know” shared “truths”. The quick, short, divisive nature of the way we communicate on the internet means conversations don’t always mirror conversations – they are disjointed, lacking depth or nuance.

    I would also argue that this has infected the way we communicate in the flesh as well; or, it at least erodes our sense of a shared reality when communicating with others. The more used to this kind of interaction we are, the more we don’t communicate, the more we cannot properly disseminate facts, and the less we trust in there being a viable medium for truth. I won’t touch any subject of absolute truth here, but I think this culturally-agreed upon understanding of a “truth” is the thing that is under fire. Misunderstanding and mistrusting others isn’t new – but has it been seen on this scale in human history? Has it dominated this many corners of our lives before? We have governments and companies using weapons-grade psychological attacks on the human mind at a global scale – how does this also contribute to our understanding of truth and trust?

    So what can we bother to take from it? Great question. To me, I suppose I take his stance as a bit of a mental exercise; a lens through which we can attempt creating shared language, and a shared “truth” to build more resilient communities (which can later give way to larger bodies of humans such as a whole populace). I see it as a way to engage with other individuals in conversation about how we process information, how we conduct research in our everyday lives, and how we can come to a shared language and hopefully, a sort of de-centralized intelligence. When I first started listening to his talks, I too was concerned it was over-intellectualized, and would be something that would largely fall on deaf ears. I have found, however, that the more you reduce any applied jargon and simply share these ideas and ask people questions, the more they get on the wagon, and the more interesting the level of conversation gets. I think you will be surprised at how juicy conversations about sense making can get. Personally, I do believe we can learn from every conversation we have, but that depends on how deeply intentional you get in said conversation. So much of what someone says can tell you a lot about their beliefs, where they come from, how YOU are reacting to what they said, what makes them tick; could these nuggets help you better empathize with them, or refine your position later?

    As a female-assigned person, I have to agree with your reflection that the conversations often come across as male dominated, laden with masculine-language, technical language and/or creation of new jargon to get across ideas and political situations that have been around for a long time. I often like to ask the question, “yes, and how will we apply this to real humans?” So much of the speak in this meta-modern world cohabitates with tech culture, and it can feel white man dominated, and, leaves out the complicated emotions of the meat vehicles driving so much of the issues we are talking about. Without focusing on this, I agree, the thoughts go down with the ship.

    Whew. Thanks for writing & reading.

    – Ryan

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