People and companies are openly admitting that they don't know everything. Not only is it okay to not know things, it's important, as my MediaPost colleague Kendall Allen pointed out in her column last week. And Kendall wasn't alone. Earlier this month, Andy Brownell said, "even a popular brand cannot remain competitive without constant self-examination and the desire to reinvent itself and invigorate the consumer." Google itself was forced to admit its own ignorance a few days ago.
We seem to be realizing en masse that, just as companies are either growing or dying, our store of knowledge is either growing -- or growing out of date. And, of course, there's a condition that has to be met in order for us to acquire more knowledge: There has to be some knowledge missing for us to acquire.
I recently read or heard someone say, in response to the latest search query volume figures, "Where did all those queries go before Google?" Here's a confession of my own ignorance: I don't know where I read it or from whom I heard it, so I'd be grateful to anyone who could assist me to give credit where credit is due. But that comment is what led me to the reflections in today's column.
At one time or another, all of us have suffered the pain or the fear of "looking stupid." We are simultaneously exploratory and social creatures, which can lead to an internal conflict. While our exploratory part is saying, "Really? I didn't know that! Tell me more!," our social part is saying, "You don't want to be the only one who didn't know that... better pretend like you did know."
Enter search. All of a sudden, we've got an outlet that can satisfy our exploratory sides without triggering our social, don't-look-stupid reflex. Search is like an anonymous "ignorance confessional," with an all-knowing and non-judging priest on the other side. And instead of having to do penance, you walk away with a bit more knowledge. What a beautiful thing.
All that anonymity -- and our now-incredible capability of acquiring knowledge nearly instantly -- might have caused people to become even less reluctant to admit ignorance. Instead, it seems to have given us permission to go public with the gaps in our information. Our billions of queries have shown us that ignorance is normal, having the opposite effect on our social sides: if you're not trying to find out something new these days, you're out of the loop.
As I said, gratifying. Last week, Gord Hotchkiss shared a heartwarming story of YouTube replacing Grandma for his daughter. According to Gord, brains that evolve to handle something that didn't exist for the previous generation (like the Internet) literally function differently. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that part of the change in our brain function is an increase in our ability to learn continuously throughout our lives -- again, something that requires an acceptance of ignorance in order to occur.
Let's hear it for those nine-letter words.
Search is the great equalizing tool. Assistants have the same access to information as the CEO. Small agencies are better able to compete with larger agencies. Yes, search, or the internet really, bumps the game up a few notches for everyone by leveling the playfield.
There may be billions of searches going on only, like porn; it's done anonymously and in the privacy of your home or office. With so much available, I find people are even less likely to admit 'I don't know'.
Part of the reason we feel so ignorant is that we are on overwhelm mode from so much constantly generated and readily available new information. Sure, the ability to search allows us to access what we want to know more easily, but there seems to be more and more awareness, too, of the vast amount of information we can't keep up with. No wonder the popularity of Twitter: we don't have the time to acquire in-depth knowledge...so we seek to know a little bit about a broad swath of information.
There's a big difference between having access to facts and being able to join the dots. Being "Googlesmart" is a bad thing, not a good one. The problem is that it leads to the appearance of being knowledgeable, which masks a deeper ignorance. Kids don't even need to use Cliff Notes to avoid actually reading because search-cut-copy-paste is so easy.
Recent books such as Mark Bauerlein's "The Dumbest Generation" and Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason" paint a more pessimistic picture of the current state of American intellectual life, and I suggest Googlesmartness contributes to this. Professing ignorance has become a badge of honor amongst younger people and has lead to a streak of anti-intellectualism in society, such that people who admit to reading books are seen as geeks; hey, why read a book when you can Google it!
Leaders know what they do not know and seek facts, losers continue to guess and assume and they watch shareholder value decline. I wrote about this in my blog posts:Do you know what you don’t know? http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordpress.com/2009/02/05/do-you-know-what-you-dont-know/ and You’re “gut” and “intuition” are not enough…today http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordpress.com/2009/02/13/youre-gut-and-intuition-are-not-enoughtoday/
Mark Allen Roberts