I often refer to Italian “mysteries” when talking about cultural moments, so when I ran across an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the Jan 8 issue of the New Yorker (recently passed on to me by Shelley) that discussed the distinction between puzzles and mysteries, my ears pricked up.
A puzzle, national-security expert Gregory Treverton sustains, requires additional information in order to be resolved. A mystery instead, requires “judgements and the assessment of uncertainty” often in the face of too much information. The article uses this distinction to analyze the Enron case as a true mystery, the information was all there, in the small print of accounting footnotes and in the mountains of publicly disclosed documents, the skills to decipher and make sense of it were not.
So what does the Enron case have to do with our cultural moments? Not much, except for the mysteries they both carry with them. Cultural moments can be puzzles. Sometimes we are just missing an essential piece of information in order to make sense of a situation and eliminate confusion. Once we have that piece of information, the “moment” slips away because we suddenly, “get it”. We take a deep breath, shake our head and even have a good laugh. But more often our cultural moments are a function of our inability to observe carefully, process and interpret the information around us. Mysteries are “receiver dependent”; they depend on the skills of the listener.
That’s us. We are the listener on the receiving end of the new culture in which we live -- a grand mystery that is up to us to solve.
So, let’s work on our listening skills. The information is out there, an overwhelming amount of it. We need the tools to be better able to listen, process and understand.