The Value of Unpredictability

With the advancement of the “internet of things,” the interconnected network of wi-fi enabled devices, homes, coffee shops, toasters, and so on, there are many benefits and detriments to address. The benefits are clear, convenience being one of the biggest—a modern example is how your iPhone automatically loads directions to work when you get in the car in the morning. Or how you can program your Phillips Hue light bulbs to turn on exactly when your alarm is set to go off, you can configure your smart-coffee-brewer to start up a pot 10 minutes prior, and you can start your car from your phone after drinking your coffee.

We’re on a clear path to full integration of smart devices in the world; it’s not far-fetched to think that eventually, your local Starbucks will start making your order simply when your phone pings your location as nearby. Your phone (or smart glasses?) will inform you when your friends or enemies are nearby. Hell, your self-driving car will know to take you to your friend’s house simply by reading your texts with them.

The obvious downsides to this future are high costs, learning curves, loss of privacy, and all of the typical “new technology jitters.” A less discussed aspect of life that we would be losing is unpredictability. We, as humans, like to believe that our lives are a product of order and planning; the reality is that many of the things we cherish were a product of the disorganized mania that is a non-smart world.

Imagine all of the things that come from spontaneous run-ins out in the world; someone runs into their ex on the street, they talk, decide to get coffee this weekend, they get back together. In a fully integrated world, your phone will warn you that your ex is approaching from the North at 5.5 mi/hr—this could be awkward—turn left for an alternate route to the sandwich shop that will take 1 more minute, and your phone will tell the shop to heat the sandwich a minute later. Everything is so seamless, but is this a positive?

In a smart world, will you ever be forced to try new things? If your phone loads up the directions to work immediately, are you less likely to stop somewhere interesting on the way? Will you ever take the scenic route when driving, and accidentally pass by a house with a “FOR SALE” sign that you’ll eventually buy? Will it be harder to make friends, to find partners, even to learn new things about yourself? Computers and smart devices can only work based off of what they already know about us—things that are predictable. How valuable do you find unpredictability in life? Are spontaneity and novel ways of doing things replaceable by technology and convenience? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Does it matter?


  1. Jim Waldo

    October 6, 2017 @ 2:34 pm


    I like this train of thought.

    This is one of the reasons that I’m pretty aggressive about interrupting my students when I see them walking across the yard with their eyes glued to their phones. Interacting with the real world is a good thing, in part because it is unpredictable. Chance encounters are good for you; who knows, you might learn something.

  2. profsmith

    October 8, 2017 @ 4:34 pm


    Wonderful post! I hope lots of people read it and think about it.

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