Certainty is a False Idol

Somehow, our modern culture has embraced and deified the concept of absolute certainty. It’s a notion that you should be able to expect a guarantee on any particular outcome, with no room for error. If the item or service someone pays for is not 100% as they anticipated it to be, no matter how realistic these expectations are, they run for lawyers and boycott campaigns.

This idolization of the concept of certainty is really evident in the business world. I’ll speak specifically about the software industry, since that’s what I have experience with, but I suspect it’s the same in every big business. Millions and millions of dollars, and thousands of man hours are poured into the relentless pursuit of improving the process and product until it achieves heavenly perfection. Entire systems of quantification and certification are invented in this chase for perfect, ITIL and ISO and score of other complicated acronyms, and the high priests of this religion are the quality assurance staff. In fact, their jobs have really shifted away from actually finding serious bugs in the product, to creating their own arcane manifesto on how to achieve perfection.

The punchline is that perfection is entirely outside of the realm of humanity’s capabilities, and what’s more important, the idea of perfection stifles actual progress. Human ingenuity is fueled by trial and error. Trying to avoid all error is avoiding adaptive reasoning and creativity. And by expecting everything you buy to work forever and do everything, consumers force manufacturers to focus on preventing liability.

I am not in any way advocating an abolition of all standards and practices, because I like things that don’t explode or are not coated in melamine. But, it’s time to be realistic in our goals and set ‘good enough’ targets for success, with an understanding that the creator and the consumer will work together to find solutions to any unforeseen issues.

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