Self-Control Won’t Save You

Neoliberalism offers individuals an illusion of control over their lives. But what happens when uncertainty intrudes?

Believing that self-control is a virtue—and, indeed, that self-control is even possible—is nothing new. To be in command of one’s actions and responsible for their consequences has long been a requirement of full selfhood. But our modern, meritocratic, neoliberal era has taken this belief to new extremes. Self-control now entails being responsible for almost everything that might have an impact on our life and its trajectory. External events and exigencies—a sudden health crisis, changing global economic conditions, economic bubbles—need to be accounted for: by sound contingency plans, insurance, savings, and broad and adaptable skill sets. Today, self-control isn’t just honored, it’s demanded. And taking control of one’s self, according to this mindset, means somehow controlling the whole world.

Yet, this belief in total control is, of course, magical thinking. Our biographies are constrained by the historical and political context in which we live, unpredicted challenges lurk around every corner, and chance experiences constantly reshape our lives in both small and big ways. The uncertain, the random, the serendipitous, the lucky: these nonrational elements are central to our existence. But—in part because they flout core beliefs about meritocracy and in part because they seem to contradict the rational commitments of the scientific enterprise—such elements are often dismissed as unreal or unimportant. Still, these elements—as demonstrated in two recent books, The Cunning of Uncertainty by Helga Nowotny and Success and Luck by Robert H. Frank—are omnipresent, consequential, and deserving of more concerted attention.

Especially now, in a moment marked by new uncertainties, Nowotny’s and Frank’s books expose the poverty of neoliberal policies, which offload the management of uncertainty onto individuals. Most importantly, in highlighting the power of such elements, both books provide stark reminders that one’s access to nurturing social infrastructures is itself a significant source of luck.

Nowotny’s The Cunning of Uncertainty provides an expansive view of how uncertainty influences our lives and how we attempt, both individually and institutionally, to coexist with it. “Uncertainty is inextricably enmeshed with human existence,” the book begins; by this, Nowotny means that we never know what the future will bring. Moreover, we spend much of our energy anticipating, worrying about, and preparing for possible contingencies. Uncertainty, perhaps even more than self-control, goes hand in hand with being human.

We might assume that today’s tremendous advances in science and technology would reduce uncertainty significantly, or at least wall it off in a way that limits its power. However, as Nowotny reveals, uncertainty is always displaced rather than captured.

Think, for example, of a new antibiotic that is developed to combat specific bacteria; this antibiotic then contributes to antibiotic resistance and opens the door to unanticipated threats. Or think of how, today, scans can precisely identify medical problems, consequently creating new uncertainties about what actions to take next. Just when we think we have uncertainty cornered, it slips away, takes on a new form, and reasserts itself from another position. Against uncertainty, we are engaged in a continual game of whack-a-mole.

Consider the wide variety of ways we manage uncertainty and interact with it. These include insurance, preparation, prevention, quantitative measures, big data, IT-based risk-management devices, promises, and even worrying. Yet, these are all stopgap measures, Nowotny stresses, if not fool’s gold. “Coping with uncertainty is always messy … adjustment is paramount,” she writes. The book makes clear that our best efforts lead not to the control of uncertainty, but to the rearrangement of it—switching its locus or pushing it up or down levels of analysis.

In a world of growing computational power, big data, and predictive analytics, the cunning of uncertainty becomes especially salient.

This speaks to the “cunning” of uncertainty in the book’s title. For Nowotny, a key aspect of uncertainty’s cunning is this very ability to reappear in a different form just when we think we have captured it.

Uncertainty guides us in unexpected ways: by forcing us to question “blunt and simplistic” notions of the world, opening opportunities for innovations, and nudging us to see that “it could always be otherwise.” But uncertainty also inspires cunning in us, as we respond to the challenges it places before us.

We are forced to be clever as we manage some forms of uncertainty, adapt to others, and—optimistically—use uncertainty as a provocation to find solutions to the problems, especially the large problems, that vex us. A new disease, for instance, introduces extreme uncertainty that provokes many types of responses. The more cunning we are—in how we manage uncertainty in real time, how we adapt our current knowledge to it, and how we search for ultimate solutions—the better the outcome will be.

In a world of growing computational power, big data, predictive analytics, and complexity science, the cunning of uncertainty becomes especially salient. These developments provide the appearance, comforting to many, that we can become more certain about what is—and what is to come. They hold the promise of reducing our anxieties about the unexpected.

But Nowotny persuasively argues that this is an empty promise: that the “embarrassment of complexity” is that these advancements displace uncertainty rather than defeat it. New technologies shed light on some aspects of the near future, but they also lead to exponentially more complex systems that—in the complexity of their interactions and dynamics—harbor potential new forms of uncertainty.

These forms, as in the case of the 2008 financial crisis, may be extensive and ominous. Moreover, the rapid pace of technological change makes it increasingly difficult to see what the long- or even middle-term future might hold. Who knows what the world will look like 50, 20, even 10 years from now, given the speed of technological advancement? Again, every effort to conquer uncertainty—including the technological triumphs of recent decades—only generates new uncertainties to beguile us.


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Despite this, it is science itself, as Nowotny convincingly argues, that offers a model for teaching us how to live with the contradictions of uncertainty. “Science at its very best thrives on the cusp of uncertainty,” she writes. In a sense, the job of science is to transform uncertainties into certainties, but scientists understand that all progress is provisional, that they are in “a swirling dance with uncertainty,” in which every gain opens the way for new questions.

This dance, however, is becoming more precarious as science ties itself to public funding. This funding is based on bottom-line results. As such, it incentivizes researchers to pursue questions that have very manageable uncertainty or no uncertainty at all. The big questions and the big uncertainties are often passed over in favor of the sure thing.

It is important to emphasize that Nowotny consistently highlights the competing narratives of uncertainty. While it would be easy to paint a dystopian picture with these materials, she consistently reminds the reader that uncertainty can be a source of meaning and enjoyment as well as anxiety. This is what makes gambling and sporting events exciting for so many.

She concludes by encouraging us to embrace and even enjoy uncertainty, to appreciate how it encourages us to accept ambiguity and open new perspectives. This is a crucial way in which we can make use of our own cunning to match wits with uncertainty.

The Cunning of Uncertainty touches on a dizzying array of topics and literatures, ranging across psychology, history, computer science, poetry, anthropology, and the life sciences. It is sometimes like a city architecture tour that moves too briskly. Our attention is directed to Newton’s obsession with biblical prophecies, then over to Google’s efforts to scan all written material, then quickly back to reproductive technologies, and so on. Interesting and unexpected structures continuously pass by. There are times when you would like the tour guide to slow down to specify the connections among the buildings or tell you more about a particular one that catches your fancy—but the tour keeps moving.

This criticism, though, also highlights the book’s great strength: its broad coverage of the myriad ways in which uncertainty influences our lives—and the options we have for interacting with uncertainty. The Cunning of Uncertainty fine-tunes our awareness of those things we cannot control and leaves little doubt about their central role in social life.

Chance circumstances can act like train switches, moving us from one track to another at key junctures of our lives.

Success and Luck also draws our attention to those aspects of our lives we cannot control, but Frank’s focus is on luck. This short and engrossing book discusses two different types of influence that luck has on life trajectories and outcomes.

Chance events are one way that luck matters. Frank cites detailed personal experiences (such as the lucky factors that contributed to his successful career at Cornell University and made possible his recovery from a serious heart attack) and anecdotal accounts of turning points for celebrities like Bill Gates, Michael Lewis, and Bryan Cranston. He does so to make the case that lucky breaks, although easy to look past, are an important factor in most people’s success. Happening to live in a place with the right specialized equipment, being seated next to the right person at a dinner party, falling into a star-making role after others had turned it down: these all illustrate how chance circumstances can act like train switches, moving us from one track to another at key junctures of our lives.

While these switches are most obvious in dramatic stories of success, they are commonplace. We all repeatedly experience subtle (a new boss shares your interest in music for cello) and not-so-subtle (you are caught up in a serious traffic accident) shifts in fortune, which affect where we end up and how we get there.

Work ethic and talent, of course, are key determinants of success. Frank is quick to acknowledge this, but he stresses that these factors cannot fully explain variations in outcomes. There are far too many hard-working and talented people who do not become dazzlingly successful, or even get ahead. And because capitalist economies increasingly comprise winner-takes-all markets—markets characterized by intense competition, in which small differences in performance can lead to enormous differences in rewards between the winners and the rest—the influence of luck is growing. Even a little bit of luck, as the simulation studies created by Frank show, can act as the differentiator in competitions of the capable.


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The recognition of how lucky events matter in life trajectories sets the stage for Frank’s discussion of a second way luck influences our lives, and this is the guiding focus of the book. Frank argues for the importance of what I will call “contextual luck”: the historical time and place in which one lives, as well as the conditions that characterized this context. On a practical level, contextual luck is represented by the social infrastructures—like good public education, high-quality roads, clean air and water—that provide the opportunities to fruitfully apply one’s gifts and grit. Such opportunities then pave the way for the lucky events described previously to occur and really pay off.

These infrastructures, Frank emphasizes, are a key determinant of material well-being. At several points, Frank compares his own opportunities with those of an extremely intelligent and industrious Nepalese man who worked for him during his time in the Peace Corps. The payoff of this man’s hard work and of any lucky breaks that came his way was limited by his context; Frank imagines how different it might have been if the man, like Frank, had been able to apply his gifts in a place like the United States.

Given the importance of this contextual luck, Frank is greatly concerned about crumbling social infrastructure in the United States. While he never uses the word neoliberalism, he laments the disinvestment in infrastructures and community goods brought about by austerity measures. His concern is that future generations will not have the same access to contextual luck as those in the past. To create a better environment in which the competition of capitalism can take place—the “kind of environment people would be lucky to be born into”—Frank goes on to outline the merits of a progressive consumption tax.

For Frank, the implementation of a significant policy change such as this tax hinges on people recognizing that they are not solely responsible for their success—recognizing, in other words, that luck matters. He cites a number of studies showing that awareness of factors such as luck makes us more sympathetic to others and grateful for what we have.

Frank’s book, like Nowotny’s, succeeds in drawing attention to the contingent factors that influence—even dominate—our lives. Such factors are often ignored (both by the general public and in academic discourse) because they are seemingly impossible to measure, to analyze, and, ultimately, to control. And yet, these books demonstrate the value of turning a critical eye toward these elusive aspects of our social world rather than dismissing them as insignificant or inscrutable.

We may never lasso luck, uncertainty, chance, and other nonrationalized components of modern life. But, in the chase, we can develop a better understanding of those things that always remain just out of reach.


This article was commissioned by Michèle Lamonticon

Featured image: ... View of the Casino Floor (2018). Photograph by Chuma A / Unsplash