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The danger of knowing

Philosophers argue whether if you know something, you also know that you know it. If knowledge has something to do with having good reasons for believing something, then it seems to me that if you know something but don't know that you know it, then knowing it--as opposed to thinking it may be right--doesn't do anyone much good. So, for purposes of this column, let's assume that if you know something, you know that you know it.

In which case:

What's the difference between someone who knows a lot and someone with a narrow, stubborn view of the world? After all, both don't budge from their positions, and both see everything through a set of assumptions that simply "knows" that everyone else's view is wrong. In a word, you don't want to sit next to either one on a plane ride.

Imagine that you actually knew that opening a branch in Hong Kong would cost twice what the estimates are or that using the tag line "Better than eating worms" would double your market share. I mean, it's so obviously right to you that you can't understand why everyone doesn't see it. In fact, the only reason to talk about it is to convince others.

Oh, but you would never be that way! Oh, no. You remain humble and thoroughly delightful despite the fact that you know so much. Oh yeah? Ask your kids. You're so certain that going to see The Cell would be a bad thing for your 10-year-old, that goldfish will die if their water isn't changed more than once a year and that New York City is not the capital of New York that you brook no discussion. Yet if you took that attitude at work, your colleagues would hate you within 30 seconds (whereas it takes your children 15 years to figure it out).

The fact is that many social organizations, including businesses, are built around the notion that we can't know what to do, so we need techniques for making good guesses; we need debate, consensus building, risk analysis, a decision process and--because none of the preceding work perfectly--a willingness to take chances. In this mix, the only things it's useful to know is some set of information that serves as a baseline and can be taken for granted (and that eventually clouds everyone's vision). Beyond that, knowledge just gets in the way.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.

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