Risk

In this way, other people and sometimes just living in the material world, are ever-presenting new opportunities. But no-one can extend beyond their current situation without taking some risks.

Once I had mastered some controlled instability into my week, I found that adopting riskier behaviours was the next way to let further Imprecision slip into my life. A more opportunistic spirit and robust risk management was required if I wanted to take advantage of the effects of this, as was maintaining a balanced response to the possibility of failure.

The Random Walk

My instinct for self-preservation causes me to shy away from most risks but in fact experience need not be destructive. I have found a safe way to test my capacity to adopt a more risky style: to leave on a random walk.

This works just as well in a physical as in a mental landscape, in the natural environment or in my mind’s eye. Such a walk introduces risk because it remains, by definition, without a destination. The practice of the Random Walk eliminates my obsession with arrival, that kind of pre-definition that only the precision of Comfort seems to require. The immediate effect of this is to help me lose immediately all preoccupation with outcomes. I succumb to fantasy and walk where neither my feet nor my head can lead. I add in some sensitivity to the terrain and follow its contours. I am deliberately contrary and resist any interference from my brain by disobeying its desires; in other words, I do the opposite thing.[1]

The theory called the Random Walk was developed in the environment of the capitalist financial markets, somewhat paradoxically on the French side. I say paradoxically because if one was to listen the average Anglo-Saxon in the city, the Latin and Catholic cultures like the French have never been considered able to make Real Money – as if the recent catastrophic recession had not been the result of unreal money. The theory, as I regret can sometimes be the case, states the blindingly obvious: that the ups and downs of the stock market are entirely aleatory and should not be used to reveal trends or as a guide to future prices. However many books and tricks have been written up to imply just the opposite?

But I did not discard it as yet. The interesting nugget for the Imprecise in this assertion is that the hypothesis revealed how impossible it is to outperform the market without assuming additional risk. If I apply that to my situation right now, by stealing the kernel of the idea (my first recommended shift in behaviour for the Imprecise novice remember), this means that I can only outperform my current situation by taking on some risk. And getting beyond my current state is one of my main objectives.

I take heart from Tolkein’s thoroughly Imprecise realisation that, contrary to popular wisdom, wandering does not necessarily signify that one is lost[2]. If I were to leave now for a Random Walk, by definition destination-blind, I would lose my anxiety about possible outcomes right away. For me, this anxiety is a perverse effect of the self-awareness that distinguishes us from all other species including our primate cousins. Consider for a moment why one branch of our ancestry, the gorilla, needs such a large brain. Gorillas have no complex speech to codify, they do not read or write and take school exams, they are peaceful vegetarians. Now why on earth would they need a large brain? Well, my friend, because eighty percent of their time is spent socializing. All apes are social animals and this is hugely costly in brain power.

Why do gorillas have a large brain?

I am hopeful that you have been able already to practise the first objective of Imprecise behaviour by extracting the truly Imprecise kernel from this idea, and that your brain has taken you ahead already of the content in my next paragraph.

Your thought process has gone like this. If apes have a large brain in order to socialise and we are apes, then maybe what we have been taught are the primary objectives of our brain – to acquire language, be successful at school in order to get a job and so on – may not be the real reason. Your Imprecise mind has sought to extract the kernel from these ideas: might it be that we, as with all primates, have a large brain in order to socialize? Further, might this mean that the correct use of our primate brain is to promote our survival via our social abilities, which success is greatly assisted by us having a large brain?

I am tempted to suggest here that our fear of the adolescent – of whom more again later – may be rooted in their ability to stand around on street corners endlessly talking about nothing in particular. Garrulous youths of thirteen and fourteen may in fact be the perfect demonstration of the true function of our primate brain. But no homework, no tidying, no work gets done. The exasperated parent, who has allowed his or her world view to slip, perhaps years ago, into the Comfortable Precision of “large brain means good job”, is here reminded of how unComfortable this position actually is, the manifestation of this discomfort being the root of that generations’ current obsession with “work-life balance”.

This disturbance of their world view, by the power and rank independence of their own child’s manifestation of the primate brain’s reality, destabilizes them, makes them insecure and motivates them immediately to seek to eliminate such risky Imprecise behaviour in their off-spring in order to make everything comfortably Precise again.

Many fail at this and indeed an increasing number.

You can understand their panic. If our brains are designed to cope with an eighty percent rate of social behaviour in any one period that means that humans are designed to spend Mondays to Thursdays socializing and only Fridays in purposeful acts of (other types of) survival. Where would western capitalism be then? For it is not all cultures that prevent this moment in the lives of their children so drastically, and many do find space to exploit their gorilla mind even as adults.

There has been of course a losing battle against the hegemony of what the French used to call “la semaine américaine” before many societies have finally succumbed to its implacable logic. The average red-blooded WASP will scoff at such time-wasting behaviour as the reason why certain countries have created little wealth for themselves, whilst blithely filling his or her bank account with proceeds stolen from those economies, all supported by a waspish racism which causes him or her to label characterize such lackadaisical behaviour, when it persists into adulthood, as “mañana mañana” or “the African clock”.

But I can experience freedom from outcomes even when I inhabit this kind of oppressive culture by going for a random walk. It takes some practice but it has improved my ability to become more Imprecise. It seems impossible now as an adult not to give in to whim and follow where my foot and not my head would lead, to remain acutely sensitive to the terrain and just follow its shape, or to be deliberately contrary and counter the interference of my head by disobeying it. And I have found that this random process releases my creativity. It certainly did for others in the past, who early in the last century studied the impact on their imaginings of stochastic processes and Brownian motion in particular.

Now, dealing with technical terms is one way to frame a critical spirit, and I make no apologies for introducing these two terms so early on (if you do not know them), for they describe what is happening on a Random Walk. Introduction to a few new concepts requires us to engage unused parts of our brain and so extend our inherent capacity for reflection. But these concepts are not here because they make things more Precise, only that their meanings are relevant to our case in the here and now. Welcome to the Clerisy.

Stochasm

Finally, I introduce this term, stochasm, because already the word “random” has become insufficient: the burden of instability at the heart of Imprecision has deeper roots. Research into risk introduces me to more taxing ideas because random quickly becomes an insufficient term to describe the kind of instability that is born of true Imprecision and so, in true Imprecise style, I discard it. Now.

First off let me recognise that these particular concepts of stochasm and Brownian motion have been borrowed, in my usually Imprecise way again, from the world of science. A stochastic process is one which admits that any kind of outcome may happen, yet one which will still have been determined by the forces involved in the process plus a good dose of random factors. This very same realisation has had surprisingly wide application in the scientific world. I have been somewhat bemused to learn that medicine itself is viewed as stochastic, for doctors have to allow, often from simple observation, that the known results of a particular treatment may vary from patient to patient due to random elements in their individual situation and metabolism. The fact that doctors cannot – and although not everyone notices it, seldom if ever do – offer explicit guarantees for the success of a particular treatment, is due to the impact of this randomness. I surmise that the interesting nugget in all this for the Imprecise is that explicit allowance has had to be made for uncertainty, even in a truly life and death situation from whence one might reasonably expect it to have been expunged.

Interestingly, that is not all. On the artistic side a string of creative works have arisen from the stochastic, perhaps most famously applied to music composition by composers such as Iannis Xenakis and John Cage and to the visual arts by creatives such as Yoshiyuki Abe. And it goes beyond that. The creative processes released by stochasm are currently being used in a wide variety of disciplines such as mathematical theory, artificial intelligence, linguistics, finance, colour reproduction and natural science.

Even managers are confronted with the need to manage the fuzzy logic of their own situation and the application of the laws of Brownian motion has spawned works in this area too.[3] Brownian motion is actually the simpler of the stochastic processes, originally describing the seemingly random movements of particles suspended in a liquid or gas, such as dust particles in a ray of sunlight.[4] These observations conclude that all possible transitions or movements are equally probable: deliciously Imprecise and a great liberation for us all. What really tickles me in all this, and offers me the greatest release into controlled instability, is the confirmation it offers to my Random Walk.

Getting from A to B

If I am on a journey from A to B, where on earth is B? Or to put it another way, how far away from a starting point might I expect to finish? My physical, stochastic wandering has opened up the possibility of a different definition of what “the end” might actually mean. If I need have no idea of destination then I can do away with the kind of pre-definition that the safeties of Comfort require, which in this context can be seen to be the wasting of time of which adolescents are so frequently accused. More heartening for my own apprenticeship to Imprecision, this lack of pre-determined destination signals that by not self-imposing a limit on my actions, on my creativity indeed, the actual limit may well come to lie far beyond even the proverbial sky. What hope, what energy is there; and do not my concerns over a modicum of instability recede as my imagination flies free?

But I can see the trouble deep in your eyes: how indeed to follow a path from A to B if you do not know where will be your B? I would answer: Why put a limit to how far you could reach from your starting point? My limit may be well beyond the horizon but a lack of pre-determined destination imposes no limit to my actions nor on the flow of my creativity. Thus I come to prefer stochasm, a concept that offers much greater release towards a controlled instability, where results are determined both by the focus I apply to the activity, and an indeterminate range of random external factors. When explicit concession is made to uncertainty, all transitions and all movements become probable.

To be continued…

NOTES

[1] La marche aléatoire, a financial hypothesis first theorised in 1900 by French mathematician Louis Bachelier (1870-1946) from study of the French commodity markets.

[2] See Tolkein: “Not all those who wander are lost.” The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Chapter 10, JRR Tolkien 1954

[3] Brownian motion: In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Brownian motion is used to create (or rather calculate) the Infinite Improbability Drive that powers the spaceship Heart of Gold. The Brownian motion generator is a really hot cup of tea. In Murray Leinster’s short story, A Logic Named Joe, the logic (computer) suggests building a perpetual motion machine using Brownian motion.

[4] Actually first recorded by Lucretius in 60BCE, but named after Robert Brown’s observations of the movements of pollen in water in the summer of 1827.