Index of Relative Ignorance

Education versus Patent trend
Number of USA patent applications and average years of schooling

Was the Industrial Age of the 20th century a golden era of relative intelligence where understanding of the world outpaced its growing complexity?

Did the Digital Age of the 21st century usher in a new Dark Age of relative ignorance when the complexity of the world outpaced the broad-based ability to understand it?

The Twentieth Century did seem to be a special period in history where broad-based social intelligence and collective knowledge grew significantly faster than the complexity of the world with which we interacted. In essence, we were learning more about the world faster than ‘the world’ could make stuff for us to learn. Communications media matured from “print and soap boxes” to radio, television and the Internet and basic education was no longer the exclusive domain of the elite, but grew to universality. The secrets and mysteries of the how the world actually worked revealed themselves not just to a few mavens and wizards, but the population of humankind as a whole.

The Digital Revolution changed all that. Computers accelerated the growth of what there was to know about the world as those electronic processors fuelled a spike in discovery and innovation. Moreover, these revelations did not sit tucked away in laboratories and universities, but those same digital technologies also opened the flood gates which inundated the the population with that new found  “knowledge”. The fire hose flood of information from an anarchic, randomly curated media overwhelmed most peoples’ ability to cope with it. Toffler’s prophetic Future Shock has arrived.

I first posted about the “Dark Ages of Black Boxes” half a decade ago and since then have posted 53 pieces about the dynamic I have observed. The analysis of 2016 political tsunamis of the Brexit referendum and Trump election have echoed many themes about the pending “dark ages”.

This gap between “Knowledge” and “Knowing” is quite starkly illustrated by plotting the trajectories (see graph above) of (a) patents issued according to US Patent Activity (“knowledge”), and (b) average years of schooling in the population (“knowing”). In the 1920s, schooling started a decades long run of outpacing discovery until the end of the century when the Information Age turbo-charged an unprecedented inflection point of discovery.

KNOWLEDGE EXPLOSION I need to make clear that I am not talking about the often heralded “dumbing down” of the population. Instead, it is more of a “complicating up” of daily life. In fact, I would argue that people as a collective have never been smarter. Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” documents the steady maturation of the world’s outlook on its fellow human beings and planet itself:

  • “Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.”

Rise of Education – By any measure, the 20th century has been nothing short of an education revolution. Driven by the need for a more methodical workforce dealing with unnatural (ie. mechanical) objects, education has become the norm across the world, certainly the Western world. “Global Rise of Education” by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser is an excellent overview.

Average years of education

Rise of Mass Media – Education doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door. Mass media and the Internet have delivered boundless information, reference material and tutorials to our fingertips. Much of what is being decried today as ignorant political debate is actually quite well informed.

Unfortunately, as “Global Literacy Rates” chart (below) illustrates, mankind is starting to hit a saturation point for basic education and literacy. Once 100% have it, you can’t grow aggregate smarts by getting more people educated…only by getting people educated more. Hard education – not just “readin” but critical thinking, not just “rithmatic” but statistics and predicate logic.

Global Literacy rates

COMPLEXITY – The two century period between Newton and Einstein could be dubbed the “Age of How Stuff Works”. The two titans deciphered and articulated some of the most fundamental rules and building blocks of the universe from “for every action there is an opposite but equal reaction” to “E=mc2”. But then things got interesting. Multidimensional string theory, multiverses, incompleteness theorem, chaos theory, irrational economic actors were all just some of the counter-intuitive discoveries of advanced research. It turns out that the world was much more complicated than the mechanical explanations of billiard balls knocking against each other. Comprehending these new concepts, many of which were essential to the latest breakthroughs in technology, required not only much deeper education, but also a unnatural dexterity of thinking that the human brain wasn’t organically evolved to process.

Technology Revolution – Until personal computers arrived, automobiles were the most complex and expensive piece of technology owned by the masses. Built on mechanical engineering principles, a few lectures in a Driver’s Ed class taught most people enough to troubleshoot basic breakdowns (eg. if steam was coming out of a hose, then try to patch that hose). People didn’t hesitate to pop open the hood/bonnet to take a look at the engine to see what they could see. But today, if your iPhone or computer screen goes blank, you wouldn’t think of unscrewing the back to take a look inside.

As it happens, even our cars are becoming more like our computers every day. More and more opaque amalgams of technological complexity. Even my expert mechanic is now sending me to the car manufacturer to service half my car problems because he is not equipped to handle the on-board systems which affect so much of the car’s operation. Andrea Busnelli recently reported that a typical new car today has “100 million lines of code” and “this number is planned to grow to 200-300 millions in the near future” (see graph below).

Line of software code in automobiles

Big Data – What there is to know in the world today is pretty much unknowable. At one point, one could conceivably plow through and read the entire encyclopedia. But the 4 million articles in Wikipedia would fill 1,000 copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Data about the world around us continues to accumulate unabated at an inhuman pace (see graph below).

Global data growth

Finance – Money itself has become the domain of rocket scientists. “Quants” have driven the esoteric fields of derivatives and hedge funds into ever more complicated esoteric instruments. A few generations ago, you invested in an object or an entity and received some pre-defined share of returns that it produced. Now, financial products take all forms and often are abstracted many “degrees” away from anything tangible. The Enron calamity illustrated the degree of inscrutable complexity that could be engineered.

Politics – Good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. In days of yore, the allies and the enemies were clearly delineated. In today’s world of geopolitics, just figuring out friend or foe has become a complicated task. The world abounds with “frenemy” hybrids. No more so that in the current political crisis in Syria as so deftly illustrated by Vox’s YouTube piece “Syria’s war: Who is fighting and why.

RELATIVE IGNORANCE PARADOX – Again, I need to reiterate that I am not decrying the “ignorance” of the population. In fact, my proposition assumes that absolute intelligence in the world stays the same or even increases. It just doesn’t increase sufficiently to keep up with the demands on it (that said, there are a number of people who strongly argue that collective intellect is actually on the decline which would only amplify the effect I am describing). This distinction leads to the first corollary of the “Rule of Relative Ignorance”…the “Relative Ignorance Paradox”. It states…

  1. 90% of people alive today have a higher ABSOLUTE knowledge level than most of the people who have ever lived.
  2. 90% of people alive today have a lower RELATIVE knowledge level than most of the people who have ever lived (ie. relative to the knowledge base there is to know).

The more information available, the less people understand. Information and Understanding are in inverse proportion leading to an inescapable divergence of relative comprehension.

school learning

WHAT TO DO – For starters, there doesn’t appear to be any stopping this trend. The knowledge accumulation that has been accelerated by technology will continue to pile up while the human brain will remain more or less the same organ it was when it evolved millions of years ago. While some outlier individuals will devote more and more of their lives to comprehending the new frontiers of understanding,  for most people extra education will not provide substantial personal gains to them. The boundaries of insight will continue to drift inexorably away from the mainstream.

One response is a persistent theme of this blog – embracing failure. Embracing the failure of knowledge is most prominently advocated by the philosophy of “skepticism”. Humankind will need to adopt more humility about each person’s individual understanding. “Authorities” (who will be questionable for their integrity as well as their own ability to truly understand) will have to be supplanted by “Arbitrators” (people and processes that help to navigate the masses of data and insight for a best obtainable understanding). The engineering mind-set of the twentieth century dictated that answers be either right or wrong, black or white.  This absolutist perspective be need to be supplanted by more adaptable and flexible outlook where relative shades of grey are the norm.

Simple but wrong

The Debt of Dreams

Gapingvoid - silly dreams

Sometimes dreaming must die to make way for dreams to come true. Paraphrasing from Jessica Abel’s article, “Imagining Your Future Projects Is Holding You Back”, Hugh posted these comments to accompany his piece above…

  • Idea Debt is when you spend too much time picturing what a project is going to be like, too much time thinking about how awesome it will be to have this thing done and in the world, too much time imagining how cool you will look, how in demand you’ll be, how much money you’ll make. And way too little time actually making the darn thing.”

Leadership might have a vision of the upside, but without the counterbalance of managing execution, nothing will be achieved. Sometimes finding the balance is driving more execution, but sometimes it is dreaming less.


Death of the Dream of “No Limits”

Friday the 13th. The day of bad luck. This whole blog is centred on the notion of risk, colloquially referred to as “luck”. I found it intriguing to read Jeffrey St. Clair’s piece “Field Notes From a Mirage”…

  • “Over the course of the last 30 years, Vegas has been transformed from Sin City to a family theme park to an unapologetic advertisement for boundless gluttony. You can thank Steve Wynn for this grotesque metamorphosis…Wynn was going to name his hotel ‘Le Reve’, but instead put his own name on it and titled the resident Cirque de Soleil show by that name instead… But the dream is coming to an end. A reckoning is fast approaching. The water is running out. Today 90 percent of the city’s water is sucked from Lake Mead and Lake Mead is drying up. The latest forecasts predict the once vast reservoir may be completely tapped out by 2021. Count ‘em: That’s seven years. After that, all bets are off. No water tunnels or emergency pipelines can possibly compensate for the shortage. Vegas’s days are numbered. Deal with it, baby… His company performs a macabre service. They fish out the bodies of the jumpers: Vegas’s losers, the victims of the gaming tables, the aging strippers and hookers, the dead-enders, those who have maxed out, those who have reached their last threshold and take a leap off the new Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, sky diving into the Colorado River, 840 feet below. ‘We snag four or five bodies a month,’ he tells me, as he tosses back his third Jack and Coke of the afternoon. ‘Vegas is still a hard town. Eventually your luck is going to run dry. Know what I mean?

America’s own city of dreams, Las Vegas, also bears the harsh lesson about the death of dreams. Better the dreams die than the dreamer.

New Years Failures – The Worst of Times are the Best of Times

New Years Resolutions

The 2016 was the worst failure year ever. Maybe that’s what made it the best.

I’m only talking about my own personal life that I have a degree of control over. All of the politics (Brexit, Trump) and celebrity deaths were major failures too (as far as their impact on me), but these environmental things do happen (while I am being philosophical here, I did campaign actively to make my voice heard in the mix).

But most of the external political events appear to be mostly an inconvenience to us. Brexit did directly lead to our house sale falling through (the buyer had a European business affected by Brexit), but we love living in our house, which is why we have rejected other low ball offers. We have two passports and international careers which insulates us a bit from the growing parochialism that Trump/Brexit represent.

We also had the first immediate family loss in many year with Lori’s mother passing away. We miss “Mimi” dearly, but she was very unhappy as her very advanced years and stroke-induced disability severely limited her life.

My venture, Forclarity Enhanced Medical Imaging, is still not yet off the ground, but progress continues exercising those failure embracing qualities of patience and persistence. Over the year, my knowledge and network of the medical arena has deepened considerably and key pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. The failed initiatives taught me much and eliminated a few cul-de-sacs from draining future resources.

The freed up time also allowed me to invest in myself. The year was filled with possibly the most athletic achievement of anytime since University (though not deluded that I am anywhere near fit as that period in my life). In fact, one downside side effect of all of the activity is that I have suffered more regular aches, pains and minor injuries more days this year than any year of my life. But , the result was a year full new achievements (eg. rowing competitively for the first time in 30+ years, basketball team championship, growth of Marlow RC pararowing).

Other pursuits also flourished with the free time afforded. For example, 2016 was the biggest year for Maldives Complete, my other blog. Unfortunately, that success (perhaps poetically so) was not replicated in this blog.

I failed to post but a mere 48 times versus 82 in 2015 (and 121 in 2014, 211 in 2013, and 244 in 2012). The upside is that I am trying to focus on quality over quantity. When I was running Piero, it really didn’t consume a lot of intellectual energy. So at that time, the two areas of creative focus were Maldives Complete and this blog, but now I am devoting more of my prime “thinking” and writing time to Forclarity and Maldives Complete. Also, 10 years in, it’s harder to say something about failure that hasn’t already been said. When I started it, the concept of “Embracing Failure” was pretty novel, but now it has become so popular it is almost pedestrian. That makes it harder to come up with material that is interesting and novel.

In 2017, may all your failures bring rich silver linings.

Good Grief

For the Christmas season, I’ve fashioned a playlist of all of my yuletide favourites. I’ve taken our stack of Christmas CDs given and received over the years and plucked the most endearing or nostalgic. I really am quite selective (especially since the playlist plays over and over again in the house this time of year) and so there are only two albums where I have included every single song – (1) Lori’s “Merry Christmas Y’All”, and (2) the soundtrack of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special collection of Vince Guaraldi jazz pieces.

Nostalgia Critic (who also did the insightful defence of the “Lie of Santa”) provides a thoughtful examination of why this quirky little is one of the greatest Christmas classics…

  • It’s letting you appreciate how much you can get with so little. In the same way that Charlie Brown found a lot of worth in a seemingly simple tree, the same way we find a lot of worth in a seemingly simple special. It’s perfection is in its imperfection.”

Merry Christmas to all ad may all your failures be embraceable!



The Sound of One Hand Clapping

John Grady - the moth

International Day of Persons with Disabilities today. Disability is one of those adversities that so many people have turned to advantage. Former Blue Man Group member John Grady tells the delightful story

of a one-armed girl who was chosen from the audience at random to participate in their act. An act which, in many parts, required two hands. Or so it seemed.

  • “And we dig in and it’s all good. I’m feeding her. She’s feeding me. We’re all cross feeding each other. It’s a big flirt fest. And the piece just crescendos and explodes I this huge celebration and the audience bursts into this enormous applause. For her, really, because she was beautiful, she was amazing and she was the catalyst for this whole thing to happen. And she brought that element back that I had completely forgotten about. She brought this innocence, this child-like innocence. That ability to remain present and be honest and fearless and not try to manufacture anything.”

In Grady’s case, the lady’s disability not only provided a complete refreshing twist on their increasingly routine routine, but also shook him from his doldrums and inspired a new energy to his work. Today we applaud all of the energising perspective and adaptation that persons with disabilities spark in all our lives. (thanks Isley)

The Grand Detour


The Grand Tour is one of the most anticipated “television” events of the year…and it’s all based on failure. Not just Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear set fisticuffs (and litany of other HR infractions and PR gaffes). Top Gear itself seemed to percolate on a frisson of failure with every episode. What mad cap stunt will the trio pull this week?

In fact, an editorial glimpse behind the scenes of the old Top Gear by former Top Gear script editor Richard Porter, “There’s been an accident: we’ve struck TV gold”, recounted just how much failure was woven into Top Gear’s very existence…

  • “We were surprised that people were watching our poky little car show. We were surprised that three men bickering, blustering and falling over also had the sort of genuine and watchable chemistry you simply couldn’t synthesize. We were surprised when things worked out, when they didn’t and then surprised when actually our biggest failures were also our most beloved successes. We were often as you might have gathers, a shambles.”
  • “You could tell as much from the working conditions of under which the Top Gear was made…Our production office at the studio was even worse, being bleak and cold and of such rank odour that once, when an owl got into the building, flapped around a bit and died, we only noticed the corpse because it made the place smell nicer.”
  • “We were, after all, the show that began life by making a pilot episode so bad the BBC, showing a weary tolerance that would become the hallmark of its dealings with Top Gear. Which we did, only to turn in something that managed to be even more terrible.”

The Telegraph’s own report on the show wouldn’t be complete without the list of “Jeremy Clarkson Gaffes

Clarkson doesn’t just embrace failure in his show production, but also in the very works of engineering that he adores…

  • The Ferrari 458 Italia? The dashboard is unintelligible. The BMW M3? If you put the steering in Sport Plus mode you will crash…The Jaguar F-type’s ride is silly and the car’s too expensive…The Volkswagen Golf R is a bit boring. And so on and so on. All of the world’s great cars have something wrong with them…It’s part of what makes us love them.” – Jeremy Clarkson

That’s not gone welland on that bombshell.”