There is [increasingly] no spoon

Keanu Reeves in the science fiction-action movie The Matrix (1999).
The small boy is played by
Uri Geller. Or not.

Admittedly, I like broad sweeps and this is going to be one of the broader that I take. But please bear with me. We’ll eventually be back to the bar of single origin Ecuadorian dark chocolate. Promise.

First we will need to go back a little bit in time to a scene in the 1999 movie, The Matrix, where a little boy flexes a spoon, bending it at will. He then looks up and says, “There is no spoon”.

Now, that is a point of view I will try to demonstrate that is increasingly worth being considered.

“De río arriba Guayas” (upstream of the Guayas River) is where these Arríba chocolate bars originate. Ecuador’s lowlands produce some of the richest cacao on the globe, an heirloom of sorts for the country. Grown only in Ecuador, these chocolate bars are a seamless confluence of floral notes and fruits, jasmine and orange, just barely laced with a smoked earthen timber.
Text and Photo © JE Nilsson, CM Cordeiro 2013

While in quantum physics, a field that not long ago was of interest only to physicists, mathematicians, and anyone needing an atom bomb, it has since long been considered an indisputable fact that nothing is fixed and that anything is possible, anywhere and anytime. This field is now entering the everyday life of all of us whether we like it or not.

Already in 2001, it was estimated that 30 percent of the U.S. GNP was based on inventions made possible by quantum mechanics, from semiconductors in computer chips to lasers in compact-disc players, magnetic resonance imaging in hospitals and more (Tegmark and Wheeler 2001). Today more than a decade later this figure is likely to be even higher.

To put it bluntly, without quantum physics you would not be reading this since there would be no computers and certainly no iPhones. I was just about to write that without quantum physics, maybe you would have daylight but you would not know why, when I realized that I might be stretching the analogies a little bit.

However, my point is that it is long overdue that the observations made in all fields of the natural sciences, often referred to as laws of nature, should also be made relevant to other academic fields of research and study.

Since what is described is only the physical reality we are all living in, any relevant laws or structures as they could be understood, should not be confined only to the realm of the natural sciences, but be applied to all other areas of human scholarship.

What I would like to expand on here is the idea of “there is no fixed point” that was initially implied already by Archimedes around 287 BC, applied to the field of politics and the workings of for example, world trade.

After some 2,300 years perhaps we can all agree it is about time too.

Ambiguity in the academic world of research

The idea to this short paper came to me a while back, when reading the concluding section of a World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement (DS) study by Horn, Johannesson and Mavroidis (2011:1137) containing approximately 67,000 observations from data covering all 426 WTO disputes from 1995 to 2010, that read:

Above, we have presented a number of observations concerning various aspects of the DS system, as it has left an imprint in our data set. We have merely displayed these data, without any attempt at statistically explaining why the data look the way they do. Neither have we presented any benchmark against which to compare whether countries are over- or under-represented in the system or whether it is working satisfactory in other respects. It is therefore impossible to draw any firm conclusions from the above – it is only meant to serve as food for further thought.”

Admittedly my first thought was – wow, this is how you do it if you are running your own journal. To heck with conclusion! Imagine getting that one past a peer review board!

But eventually it occurred to me that maybe the authors had just come to the conclusion that the only possible conclusion was perhaps to not have any, but to leave it up to the readers to use the available information to whatever they personally found most rewarding or interesting, i.e. a distinct corpus driven approach to problem solving where the data speaks for itself.

It was mind blowing to realize this was a sneak preview of a truly and totally globalized information society where the collective sum total of all human knowledge is accessible from your pocket smart phone for anyone to access, combine, structure and analyze, and from this draw your own conclusions on the fly. A future where data is endlessly available and the only thing that matters is the idea about what to do with all this data.

In most of the cases the academic (publishing) world and indeed the physical world around us continue to operate in the comfort zone of the Aristotelian syllogistic structure of logic. One that has greatly influenced western academic thought and learning through the centuries, where a thesis is set out in order to be studied, tested, explained, defended and concluded upon. But the realities of today, with advancements in technology and science have now obviously led scholars to question the structures of syllogism in itself as a line of inquiry and study of phenomena per se.

It is not the world as we know it that has changed, but that advancements in fields such as biology and quantum physics can currently offer explanations to much more of the structures and workings of the world than in previous centuries.

Ambiguity as a role model

Ambiguity and indeed its close relative pragmatism is not a new invention. From the misty realms of the Nordic sagas, I would like to point towards the 14th century Icelandic story by Grettir Ásmundarson. In this saga, the character of Glámr is exceptionally well developed in both psychological and mythological terms and the reference here is used to refer in the broadest sense to polysemous concepts.

In the story of Glámr the saga’s narrative is described containing a whole series of ambiguous features including twilight, dusk, the dim light before dawn and its doubled-edged characteristics – the safety of day and the danger of night – in combination with fear. In this story it is specifically the ambiguous aspects of Glámr, the shifting properties of the character’s strength and liabilities in accordance to context of situation, that contribute to his mythic appeal. From Poole 2004:14:

He possesses human status, yet is partly nonhuman in lineage and associations.

He possesses ample energy and initiative, yet is hampered by a besetting dependence.

He possesses great courage and indomitability, yet is afflicted with a characteristically childhood phobia.

He possesses great physical strength, yet evidently has not reached his full maturation.

He possesses sexual capacities and attractiveness, yet has no enduring relationships, hetero- or homosexual, and is not the founder of a family.

He possesses high rank and skill in combat, yet is not affiliated with, or the leader of, a cohesive social or regional group or faction.

He possesses marked adroitness in language, yet is not cooperative in the modern sociolinguistic sense.

He possesses definite inclinations towards helpfulness, yet is capable of everything from casual mischief to pathological cruelty, even sadism.

The opacity of Glámr’s attributes and their qualities as rooted in Icelandic and Nordic folklore, will serve here as an early example of the multidimensiona aspects of state governance and other socio-political organizations.

Anyone more familiar with Asian mythology can find similarities with the Chinese Guanyin, where not even its (Sv: hen’s) gender is firmly established.

Deliberate blurring of political positions

In a context of political competition where parties have varying strategic takes in different political issues, it has been shown that the most profitable strategy is not to have firm positions in all issues, since competition is not simply a matter of taking positions, but rather to keep as many options open as possible.

Recent academic literature (Rovny 2012) show how parties for example can seek to compete on neglected, secondary issues while simultaneously blurring their position on established issues in order to attract broader support. For these parties, deliberate position blurring, traditionally considered costly, in practice has been proved an effective strategy. Parties can also invest in different issue dimensions and thus prefer competing on some issues over others, and will emphasize their stance on some issues whilst strategically evading positioning on others in order to mask the distances between themselves and their voters.

On the whole, this concept is in its broadest sense well known throughout history and is nothing new in itself except that it is today driven towards becoming a science.

Organizational ambiguity in global negotiations

In a world that is increasingly interdependent in all kinds of questions, and also increasingly becoming aware that less and less questions are truly local, negotiations have become very complex. In larger organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) among its mandates is to negotiate solutions encompassing as large regions as possible.

The limited progress in negotiations at multilateral level within the WTO since the 1990s with regards to Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) has forced some countries to seek speedier ways to arrive at some kind of results.

Within the WTO for example a “spaghetti bowl” phenomena of various intertwined trade deals poses a major challenge to itself, whose very reason of existence is built upon the idea of multilateralism and the core principles of non-discrimination, reciprocity and transparency. The working practice of the WTO is characterized by joint rounds of negotiations and consensus building among its 153 members. Ideally, all should be in on everything.

FTAs constitute an exception to the WTO rules in view that they are carried out by a smaller number of countries, under certain conditions, in some cases diverting attention from the WTO and its Doha Development Agenda (DDA) and despite its apparent progress, this at the same time undermines the working principle of the organization. The underlying reasoning is that neighbouring countries may find it more advantageous to carry out negotiations within a more limited group, presuming that conflicting interests among neighbours are easier overcome than those at regional level while then making it more complicated to arrive at solutions that might fit more parties.

As such, the FTAs that are accomplished could be said to result from the very ineffectiveness of the multilateral trade negotiation system.

I share here, the perspective of Lindberg and Alvstam (2012, who give an extended argument on the WTO’s ailing multilateral trade negotiation system) on how a gap in the WTO’s efficiency has opened up room for the supranational organization to take on a new pragmatic role in the vacuum between a debilitating multilateral trade negotiation system and the upcoming disparate pattern of different regional agreements.

Taking East Asian FTAs an an example with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at its core, a strategy of gradual harmonization of these agreements in a step-by-step approach at regional level could in the long run, benefit the multilateral negotiations. Put differently and again making use of the language of cuisine, while there is only so much that the WTO can do since a large part of the responsibility falls on the countries signing the FTAs themselves, a “sticky rice” process to multilateralize regionalism, in an effort towards the final goal of achieving a homogeneous “rice dumpling” within the WTO could be mapped.

Lindberg and Alvstam (2012) have several concrete proposals for the WTO. One approach suggested was that the WTO, if it were to maintain its position as champion of international trade policy, redefine and make change to its functioning and priorities in their organization’s work.

In what seems a counter-intuitive move for it to remain relevant, it perhaps needs to make internal revisions and take upon a more guiding / facilitative role regarding FTAs, incorporating them. By making multilateral negotiations more effective via a coordinated effort in incorporated FTAs, the WTO could in the long term, strengthen its own structures that in turn, make multilateral negotiations more effective, thereby meeting the challenges of the increasing complexities of external trade relations.

In this sense seemingly blurring the formal operation requisitions of the WTO to facilitate a more pragmatic view again seems to be the only workable solution.

The conclusion of non-conclusion

Since the point of me presenting these thoughts have been to demonstrate how nothing is firm and that (most) anything is possible, it would seem that pure logic asks for me to not come to any particular conclusion at all. However it would seem just and fair to at least present a bouquet of what could be deducted from the reasoning.

Chocolate, as promised

Point 1. In larger socio-political institutions, whilst often deemed dodgy or simply unethical, ambiguity and non-conclusion seem the most efficient strategies in managing complexities in multidimensional contexts.

Point 2. Some questions are so multifaceted that the only possible conclusion could be that it is not possible to draw any.

Point 3. While any point could be defined by its position relative to the other, any one of them is meaningless by itself.

Point 4. To a certain extent, it is the lack of order that best benefits organized progress, strengthen internal organizational structures and coherence, giving way to increased organizational efficiency.

Point 5. Based on the observations of Archimedes implied around 287 BC that there is in fact no fixed point in the universe, demonstrated in social context by the Icelandic saga of Grettir Ásmundarson written in the 13th and early 14th centuries, further elaborated by current political research, and demonstrated by the WTO by their apparent inability to produce results, since nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon, I would like to in line with this idea of ambiguous positioning and non-conclusion suggest that we instead of any such thing, sit down, have a Swedish fika (coffee break), and at our own convenience contemplate this quantum flux together over a cup of coffee, and a bar of single origin chocolate from Ecuador.

Just because.