Room for Chaos in Transformative Tech

Fingers touching tablet with charts

Room for Chaos in Transformative Tech

The role of novelty, randomness, and exploration in technology-assisted transformative experiences

From a near-death experience following a random car accident to the unexpected horizon-expanding trip abroad to becoming a first-time parent, much of life’s deeply spiritual and transforming events are messy, chaotic and unpredictable. Sometimes, it is the seemingly random and unplanned events that lead us to our greatest insights and moments of profound connection with the world around us. But how do we consider the role of novelty, randomness, and exploration when designing technology assisted transformative experiences? 

One of my favorite implementations of these principles was SyncTXT, a pioneering platform inspired by Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence. It was developed in 2009 by Psyleron, a group of Princeton Engineering and Anomalous Research Lab (PEAR) alumni, for the purpose of making consciousness-related research and technology more accessible to the public.

The technology was simple.  Your account was assigned to a random event generator (REG), a device that produces truly random bits such that any event (either a 1 or a 0) is entirely unpredictable and independent of any other.  When your REG deviated from randomness beyond a certain threshold, SyncTXT would send you a randomly selected message. Thus you would receive random texts at random times that, for users, often felt were imbued with profound meaning. 

On one occasion, I was mindlessly scrolling my Facebook feed, ignoring my cat who was weaving in and out of my legs begging for affection. At this moment a SyncTXT message came: “Someone who adores you greatly is hidden right before your eyes”.  This was merely one of many such experiences. Though it may seem like a silly example, it felt meaningful and relevant, as if the Universe was tapping me on the shoulder, hinting at a much deeper layer of reality. To acknowledge synchronicity is to accept that the “random” is not always random.

Yet, the current landscape of technology leans much more heavily on the side of prediction and exploitation over chance and exploration. Today’s tech is almost epitomized by models designed to analyze, interpret, monitor, and monetize nearly every aspect of our lives. This is not a universally negative approach to transformation, however, and when executed properly can be quite empowering. Indeed, the big data revolution and huge upsurge of AI and machine learning has afforded incredible new opportunities to reveal patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed. Consider, for example, the insights to be gleaned from the data repository of tens of millions of Fitbit users as compared with the typical laboratory psychophysiological experiment leveraging only a few dozen participants.

To be sure, algorithm-driven biofeedback can be quite transformational, helping us make positive behavioral changes, manage our sleep, physical activity and stress. But the key question is whether our tools strike the right balance between exploitation and exploration.  Think of the auto-curated playlists on Youtube and Netflix, the suggested travel destinations, products to buy, books to read or new connections to follow – these all deliver what we are predicted to desire. But as our tools become increasingly orchestrated by intelligent algorithms, are we leaving enough room in our lives to honor the random? 

Any data scientist or person working with statistical models will tell you of the dangers of overfitting. Overfitting occurs when the predictions of our model become too closely aligned with the data from which the model was created.  For example, take the classic “Turkey Problem”. The turkey, applying a very limited set of data, i.e., their feeding schedule, formulates a mental model of its reality; “The human comes with the food”.  But because of its inability to draw inferences or extrapolate meaning from beyond its limited experience, the turkey’s mental model of the world is overfitted. From this data, It cannot anticipate its inevitable demise – at some point, probably around Thanksgiving,  the human will come the ax. Similarly, In terms of personal transformation, there is a potential opportunity loss as the models that know us all too well offer us up only what they can predict we want.  

Unfortunately, big data alone does solve this problem.  No matter how large the trove of data, there will always be experiences, opportunities, and unprecedented events lying outside the model’s ability to predict them. It is for this reason that economist and philosopher Nassim Taleb warns us not to underestimate the role of randomness in our lives, nor try too hard to control it, for fear that it will blow up in our faces. As a cautionary tale, Taleb, who coined the term “black swan” as an unexpected and unprecedented event in human history, points to the over-controlled markets that yield prolonged periods of relative stability but are frequently punctuated by flash crashes and periods of hyper-volatility.      

Certainly, data-driven approaches can be instrumental for our personal transformation efforts, helping us to make linear and measured incremental steps towards goals, staying the course, and monitoring our progress along the way. Nevertheless, regardless of how much data we gather to help chart our way forward, transformative experiences seldom conform to our most sophisticated predictions.   

One way for applications to allow for more serendipity and randomness is to nudge people towards new experiences. For example, one forward-looking application that has been taking this approach is Randonautica, the self-described “first ever quantumly generated adventure game that takes you on a journey of true randomness.”  Similar to SyncTxt, Randonautica interfaces with a random source to select map coordinates. After setting an intention about the kind of experience they are seeking, users (AKA “Randonauts”) venture out to the randomly determined locations. The app has seen a steady rise in enthusiastic Randonauts sharing videos and anecdotes about these experiences on TikTok and social media etc. 

In exploration, we actively seek new perspectives that lie outside of our existing mental models and help shift our worldview. Think of the Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who experienced a life-changing expansion of consciousness, known as the “overview effect”, when he looked down upon the Earth from the vantage of space. Nevertheless, as with anything involving chance, randomness, novelty, and exploration come with their own set of risks. For example, many transformative experiences are jarring and accompanied by crisis following from what Joseph Campbell calls, “The dark night of the soul”, an unsettling period of struggle culminating in a mental, emotional, and spiritual breakthrough. Therefore, companies that nudge users towards new experiences also bear an ethical responsibility to consider the risks involved.

While I would not argue that transformative tech should be pushing people into crisis, in a technologically burgeoning world of applications all competing for our attention, all striving for the “best” models, all seeking to exploit our data, maybe we could use a few more curve balls.

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