Uncertainty in the Information Age

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously claimed during his first inaugural speech that, "the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself." While profound, and certainly transcendent beyond Franklin's era, I would argue that what most of us actually fear is not fear itself, but uncertainty. Fear of the unknown is at the root of many of our fears, even if it doesn't seem so on the surface. Not knowing keeps many of us awake at night.

It is human nature to seek answers, hypothesize, and confirm. This need-to-know is how we made it out of our caves and into modern civilization. Our insatiable thirst for certainty gave birth to the information age we're currently living in with near-instant gratification for, well, everything.. If we have a question, we "Google" it. If we need to drive somewhere new, we use GPS navigation in real time. If we need to contact a loved one, they can answer a call or text within seconds. If we need something, we turn to Amazon and their capability to deliver same-day. We can track our packages and our children. We can sync our phones with our computers and virtual assistants with our smart appliances. The world and all of its marvels are at our fingertips...and yet...instant gratification has a nasty flip-side. Think of our discomfort when gratification for any of these is delayed. What happens when you can't find the answer you need, or worse, when you can't get a hold of your husband? The feeling goes beyond frustration and enters the realm of anxiety.

People often say that it's our children who will be marred by technology, negatively affected by living with one foot in the virtual world. While I agree with that wholeheartedly, I think that we need to cast a larger net to include our generation in the narrative. The internet altered the very fabric of how we live our lives. It has lowered our collective tolerance for uncertainty to nearly nothing. We simply cannot tolerate not knowing. Unfortunately for all of us frantically searching for answers, the internet is full of false information masquerading as gospel. People joke about WebMD and the dire predictions it makes about  seemingly innocuous symptoms...but if you've ever been unfortunate enough to be sick and looking for answers, you know there is no humor to be found with Dr. Google. After going down that nightmare of a rabbit hole myself, I have placed a moratorium on turning to the internet for health concerns...ever. Searching for clarity on the web usually just leads to an unholy case of the "what if's?" 

Deciding not to Google everything has been difficult and yet liberating. I still want to know (and right now, damn it!) but I am not willing to sacrifice time, energy, or more of my peace by searching endlessly for answers that never really come. To illustrate my point, I have never Googled COVID-19. There's so much "information" swirling around about coronavirus that it eventually becomes contradictory and overwhelming. No one knows how or when this pandemic will end and that is why the whole thing is terrifying. No one knew what the virus was capable of in the beginning and that is why the world shut down. Fear of the unknown...see the pattern?

After seeing this pattern for myself, I have gotten into the habit of trying to boil down my worries into their simplest forms, breaking down the complex chaos into smaller bite-sized anxieties (not to be mistaken for fun-sized, like the Halloween candy I'm currently inhaling to cope.🤣) In the process of reducing my fears to their root causes, I can say that most of the time they all have same one, you guessed it, the unknown. This practice has helped me feel more certain about my uncertainty. In other words, once I recognize that I am dealing with the unknown (again,) I am able to understand why I am so bothered. I am not always able to stop being bothered, but I am at the very least able to give a concrete name to the real problem at hand. 

There's an old proverb "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't." I think it illustrates my point, perfectly, that humans, as a whole, hate being in the dark. We would love to have crystal balls to illuminate our paths forward through life but as psychic abilities are rare and considered unreliable by most of society, many of us try to muddle through by sharing information, surfing the web, praying, or just plain wishing. When grappling with this ambiguity, I find it helps to remind myself of one simple, concrete truth: I have survived every day of my life up until now, even through periods of great uncertainty. It's also a comfort to remember that, though it may feel like we're all just on a train to destination unknown, we do have some modicum of control over our destinies. When I decided to sit with the unknown, I reduced some of it's hold over me. I exerted a kernel of influence over the direction of my life. At the end of day, "men are not prisoners of fate, but prisoners of their own minds..." Another quote by FDR that I can't argue with at all.


  1. I once read that the only evil that didn't escape Pandora's Box was foreboding. If foreboding had gotten out and we knew our fates, especially the time of our demise, all hope would be lost. As many times as I would've liked to know how something was going to turn out, (and still do) I'm kind of glad that the uncertainty of not knowing some things allows for hope. And with hope, all is not lost. But you're absolutely right, Jen. Uncertainty breeds so much anxiety, and we've all become conditioned to expect instant answers so much. I wish I could be as articulate about things as you are, my wonderful daughter. One certainty you can count on is you are loved!


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