Something more beautiful than a ready-made world

In its insistence on the limits of knowing in a modern world, obliquity, a term coined by John Kay, reads like a modern day fable.

Obliquity is equally relevant to our businesses and our bodies, to the management of our lives and our national economies. We do not maximise shareholder value or the length of our lives, our happiness or the gross national product, for the simple but fundamental reason that we do not know how to and never will. No one will ever be buried with the epitaph 'He maximised shareholder value'. Not just because it is a less than inspiring objective, but because even with hindsight there is no way of recognising whether the objective has been achieved.

This is a fundamentally skeptical view about what we can know with certainty about complex systems, but I think the key word here is certainty. Whether we are dealing with societies, economies or the motes in quantum fields, the best we can do is to approximate or model the whole, to live in concert, to react and adjust.

I find this very satisfying. How many times, for example, have you taken a personal risk only to be rewarded with a pleasant and unexpected outcome, or looked back with satisfaction at the twist and turns your life has taken? You got the girl - or the job - or the happy prognosis. To become experts in our lives, we must take risks, and speaking only for myself, we could do with a little, no, make that a lot, less certainty from many quarters.

At the 2008 IdeaFestival, and in the midst of a one of the most gut wrenching market sell-offs in history, Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointedly skewered forecasters and market analysts for their failure to predict what was happening on Wall Street, memorably saying that for "every Turkey, Thanksgiving is a Black Swan." The turkeys in question weren't birds. That was about the nicest thing he said that day.

At IdeaFestival 2011 - it all goes down next week! - you can hear from Leonard Mlodinow on the role of probability and chance in our everyday lives, watch comic Steve Mazan live his dream in the Oscar nominated film "Dying to Do Letterman," wrap your mind around the preposterous idea, suggested by Suketu Bhavsar, that we may live in a multi-verse, and see - or not - Daniel Simons' gorillas. Our minds are wonderfully oblique and prone to unexpected connections, built to take in the the sum of experience and make mid-course corrections or to extend a helping hand, even when none may be merited. Isn't that good news? Yes, in the staggering variety of people and ideas that it brings to you, the IdeaFestival won't give you the answer, but something rather more beautiful than a ready-made world. I hope to see you next week.