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.’