release date: 02 august 2022

Lately, I’ve been thinking about uncertainty and its variants and causes – indecision, vagueness, ambiguity, fuzziness, aporia, doubt, bewilderment, terror, indeterminability, incoherence, obfuscation, chaos, deep fakery, etcetera…

Uncertainty is fundamental to creative practices and a foundational principle of quantum sciences – Heisenberg’s proposition that it is impossible to know, to measure with precision, both the spatial position and the energetic momentum of a particle at a given time interval. And that’s presuming time can be meaningfully discretised.

All forms of measurement are in some way, however minute, uncertain. This is often quantified in the user manuals or specifications of professional metrological devices such as scales, oscilloscopes, force gages, rulers, thermometers and suchlike.

Ludwig Wittgenstein insisted that the most we can ever justifiably claim about anything is ‘I think I know’, rather than the emphatic ‘I know’.

The ‘surprisal’ is a unit of measure of uncertainty used in information sciences to quantify how surprised one would be by a single unusual symbol appearing in a stream of otherwise predictable or expected symbols.

Uncertainty underpins the popularity of murder mysteries and the compulsion to gamble and is carefully designed into gameplay, gaming engines and narrative plotting. It is the carbohydrate of skepticism and is mathematically contorted in the gymnasium of statistics to formulate risk potentials that inform calculating the cost of insurance for just about anything imaginable. Risk being the inherent state of uncertainty about the continuity or radical transformation of agreed value.

WB Yeats told us ‘the center cannot hold; things fall apart’. Keats proposed poetic creativity as  ‘negative capability’, a willingness to sit with uncertainties, mysteries or doubts ‘without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. Shakespeare ventriloquised the grieving Prince of Denmark to utter the epistemic bedrock expression of uncertainty ‘To be or not to be, that is the question?’

Our everyday conversations are subconsciously peppered with placeholder and filler words that signal contextual or continuity uncertainties. Like – like, you know, I mean, right? umpteen, widget, thingamajig, umm, err, whats-her-name, Jane Doe…

In the contentious US court case Roe V Wade, Roe, for Jane Roe a variation on Jane Doe used to denote a second party in a legal action, refers to the then unidentified plaintiff. Anonymity as an agentic form of uncertainty.

I’m not sure how many other avenues of uncertainty there might be to wander. To infinity and beyond presumably… To paraphrase physicist Neils Bohr, We live and breath paradox and contradiction but are as oblivious to their beauty as a fish is to the beauty of water.

So, to this episode ofthe Sonic Sketchbooks podacast. It’s a blurry peripatetic exploration of vocal expressions of uncertainty, an incomplete catalogue of utterances pegged against a restless drift of chance encounters between manipulated recordings of tiny fragments of aluminium dropped onto a marble tabletop, a tall stack of metal stools I slowly dragged around an empty classroom, and quasi-random signals emanating from of a couple of small synthesiser oscillators.