Unknown unknowns and why to embrace them


As George Bush Junior’s right-hand man former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once commented – ironically something that might as well have come from the mouth of the US president of the time: 

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.”

Er…right. Misspeak not dissimilar to his boss’s relentless faux pas, what the former oilman was actually saying was deemed unfathomable at the time - albeit the perfect ‘Rumsfeldism’ which the press joyfully scorned in its leader articles.

On reflection it seems that Rumsfeld, who even paraphrased this insight for the title of his 2011 memoir ,“Known and Unknown", was simply rephrasing that old maxim: “We only know what we know.”

And it’s true. We only know what we know. We may know there are unknowns we don’t know and even ones we don’t know we don’t know. But we don’t know what they are. Geddit?

It’s the same for any ideological revolution, be it the feminist movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Chartists fighting for the working class vote in Victorian England – previously it was believed that the status quo was well, the right way. Until disgruntled minority groups took umbrage and fought back en masse, demonstrating that previous 'truisms' were simply assumptions.

Plus ca change.

And it’s the same with technological revolutions. There are ways, methods of communicating, working together, structuring our lives that we don’t know about. And we don’t know we don’t know. And maybe we don’t want to know what we don’t know because…it seems too much hassle. Because the old way works. Because… because well, we’re just quite happy with how things are thanks very much.

For example, if you’d have told anyone in the early noughties that by the end of the decade a mass friendship network online would become a simple, mundane part of everyday life, as fluid, as interactive as social lives offline, no one would have believed it. If anyone had told you in 1992 – the age of the ‘brick’ yuppie mobile - that everyone from pre-teens to pensioners would communicate  using mobile phones in ten years time, it would have seemed astonishing.

Many still remain overwhelmed at the extent to which disruptive ways of working and living are taking over our everyday lives. It’s easy for people to feel ill-at-ease, unsure about these new changes.

That’s understandable. But back to the unknowns. If we’d have known that penicillin could cure the wounds of soldiers two hundred years ago, would we have dismissed it because we felt concerned about new advances in medicine? No, of course not.  If we'd had access to cheap air travel in the 17th century, you can be damn sure that it would have been embraced into everyday life, along with wigs and breeches.

So why not embrace technological disruption with open arms? Open arms as we realise and understand that there are enormous benefits to being more connected. Enormous benefits to creating strong online communities, to helping each other out. It’s key that we learn new etiquette along the way, it’s key that we can make sure safety is paramount. But it’s all about adapting to the new rules.

Those ‘unknown unknowns.’





Keep it local, keep it real!



As society becomes increasingly cynical about the benefits of economic globalisation, seeing it as a get-rich scheme for a tiny amount at the top of the tree at the expense of the masses, many are turning towards traditional ideas of community and localism. There’s particularly been a shift in mentality amongst the younger generation, as I have touched on before.

Well, as it becomes more and more apparent that this recession is not simply a minor blip that will simply solve itself if we all get out there and start spending some of our hard earned cash on various superfluous items, some UK cities are focusing on keeping it local rather than putting their cash into the pockets of faceless, tax-avoiding international companies (hello! We all know who you are!)

So Bristol, which for all those who don’t know is a large city in the south-west of England, decided to take things a step further and introduce their own currency: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-19627592

This currency cannot be used outside of the city, hence keeping trade local, creating jobs, services and loyal customers. We’ve yet to see the real results of this experiment, but it’s an important step to localising economies and creating a strong, binding sense of community.

In fact, let’s take it a step further and imagine that ‘money’ as a currency is replaced by something tangible, a skill, a favour for example (a la pre-industrial societies.) For example, I exchange my language skills for my neighbour’s hairdressing skills – no coins exchanging hands, a simple swapping of talents to help each other out.

That’s just one way of doing things – of course money for now doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere (for a while, at least!) The idea is that the power, the sustainability of communities is put back into our hands. Self-actualisation, on a mass scale. I’ve heard figures that suggest that when we buy local for example, up to two thirds of all money spent stays within the community, helping neighbourhoods grow.

And we’re all probably halfway there already. Think about it – your local restaurant – you may recommend your friends to go there. Or perhaps you helped out a neighbour by distributing her leaflets for her own small business amongst your friends and family? Maybe you shared a car with a neighbour to get your children to school? Perhaps someone in your community found you a place to stay when you were new to the area? Have a think – there are probably many examples.

The point is that the little things we do, mindlessly every day, have a bigger power, a bigger potential. It’s simply a case of realising this and building the ties that bind us to each other to create tight-knit communities which support each other in the tough times, so storms such as this current global hurricane can be weathered more easily.