New Yorker blackboard equation


Making stupidity productive might become a necessity as ‘knowledge’ continues its inexorable decay.

Since Adam first bit into the apple, human knowledge has been largely a relentless surge forward.  With some roadblocks incurred by deliberate suppression of knowledge (eg.  Middle Ages), each generation mostly ‘understood’ more about its world than this predecessor did.

When the steam engine fired up the Industrial Age, the basic concepts were still fathomable by anyone who understood fire and leverage (fire makes steam, steam has pressure, engine forces pressure against a piston which drives a machine).  As the steam engine evolved into the internal combustion engine, probably the most complex and sophisticated piece of technology most people owned in the 20th century, you could still get your head around it.  When I took Drivers Ed in high school, one of the modules was explaining how the engine basically worked.  One might not be able to disassemble and reassemble one’s Ford’s Focus, but when cars have difficulties, many people so acquainted can open a bonnet and start to deduce possibilities.  When a mechanic explains a faulty part or problem, someone with a basic knowledge on the car and roughly follow the logic and explanation.

The beginning of the end was electronics.  Specifically, the transistor.  The transistor’s function of parsing waves into electronic signals is probably the first piece of every day modern paraphernalia where people’s understanding of exactly what is going on under the hood is sketchy at best.

The trend is not limited to technology. The classic treatise on turn of the century economics, ‘The Smartest Guys in the Room’ by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, describe the increasingly complex business structures in the world. It used to be that you would buy ingredients, make something, and sell that thing for a price greater than the sum of i’s costs. Today, a business’s P&L can be inscrutable…

  • “Another analyst, Robert Winters, then at Bear Stearns, wrote in a report dated January 26, 2001, that ‘the ability to develop a somewhat predictable model of this business for the future is modestly an exercise in futility.’  Yet another analyst when asked about Enron’s accounting said: ‘You don’t have a clue, I don’t have a clue, and I’m not sure they have a clue.  Enron,’ he added, ‘is a big black box.”

The decline of understanding is everywhere as I discussed in my pieces on ‘’The New Dark Ages of Black Boxes’. Embracing this failure of comprehensive starts with an appreciation for its pervasiveness and inevitability. Only then can society determine the new ways of educating and operating in a landscape filled with inscrutable black boxes.