Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Knowledge Gap: What You Don't Know That I Know (Could Help or Hurt You)

Some time ago, I was aboard a BART train, en route to my office for another exciting day of work.  I had gotten on the train at the Rockridge station, as is my custom; the train was now pulling into the Macarthur station.  The doors parted, and the new passengers boarded the train.  Among them was a young woman.  She took her place leaning against a post, facing toward the back of the train.  I was already positioned facing toward the front of the train, and so I had an unobstructed view of the woman.  She could have been no older than 25, and was, by all fair accounts, a knock-out.

Beyond that initial observation, I paid the woman no heed; she disembarked the train shortly thereafter.  As I got off at my own stop, however, I heard the following conversation take place between two others getting off the train.  One had been seated at the front the train, behind the woman.  The other had been seated near me, in front of her.  Both spoke as though they knew each other; perhaps they were coworkers who had perchance run into each other on their morning commute.

Guy #1:  ...I've seen her before actually.

Guy #2: Me too, but only from the back.  Is she as hot from the front as she is from the back?

Guy #1 (wryly):  I don't know.

Guy #2 (pleading):  Come on, man, don't hold out on me.

 Guy #1:  I don't know, man, you're going to have to find out for yourself.

I smirked and went on about my day; however, I couldn't help but mentally revisit the encounter some time later.  Here was one person who, by dint of being in the right place at the right time, had acquired some knowledge: specifically, what this woman looked like.  On the other hand,  here was his buddy.  By dint of where he had been seated on the train, he had not been able to acquire that knowledge.  However, he coveted the knowledge that his friend had acquired: he wanted to know what the woman looked like.  The friend, for his part, had three choices.  First, he could tell his buddy the truth about his observations.  Although this wouldn't be the same as if he'd seen the woman himself, at least he'd then have some idea what the woman looked like.  Second, he could tell his buddy nothing, in which case his friend would gain or lose nothing.  Third, he could provide his friend a false description; as a result, the friend would have false information, believing it to be true.  In this particular instance, it appears that the friend had opted for the second option.

The concept of the knowledge gap, the idea that I know something that you don't (or vice versa) is an interesting one.  It is not something that we are born understanding.  If you hide a toy in a room in front of a toddler, for example, and then a second adult enters the room, the toddler will assume that the second adult knows the location of the toy.  The toddler does not yet understand that all knowledge is not universal knowledge; the mere fact that one person knows something does not mean that everyone, or even anyone, does as well.  This realization sets in sometime later in childhood.

It is sometime after this realization sets in that we begin to recognize that, where a knowledge gap exists, and we possess the knowledge sought, we have an opportunity to affect that situation.  Your mother may ask you, for example, who ate the cookies from the cookie jar; further, you may know that it was you.  However, because you are privy to that information, and she is not, you have an opportunity.  You can tell her the truth, and risk punishment (or possible leniency for having been truthful).  You may lie and say that it was your brother (although this could backfire if he has an alibi).  You might simply shrug.  However, the mere fact that she says "Who ate the cookies from the cookie jar?" and not "You ate the cookies from the cookie jar" means that you, the person with the pertinent knowledge, have a choice to make about whether or not to share that knowledge.

What is the upshot of all this?  Simply put, we are all privy to knowledge which no one else has.  Some knowledge pertains to matters of grave import (for instance, who is truly responsible for the death of JFK?  Someone, somewhere, knows).  Some knowledge is trivial, e.g. what color socks someone wears on a given day.  Whatever knowledge we may possess, whatever the possibilities for that knowledge, the choice is ours what we will do with it.  The same knowledge may be used to hurt or to help, depending on the situation.  A martial arts expert may use her knowledge to assist a person who is being attacked.  The same person may also use her knowledge to attack another person without reason.  She may teach martial arts to others, so that they may acquire her knowledge, and be able to defend themselves.  She may instead hire her services out as a bodyguard, and keep her knowledge to herself for profit.  She is the guardian of her knowledge, and, up until the moment she shares it, its sole custodian.

The knowledge that we possess determines what we are capable of in this world; because you know how to tie your shoes, for example, you are able to tie your shoes.  Given that what we are able to accomplish while we are in this world is directly related to what knowledge we have acquired, it becomes clear that the sharing of knowledge is essential to our survival.  Accordingly, I want to take this moment to encourage my readers to be more aware of knowledge gaps in their lives.  Notice when someone doesn't know something that you happen to know.  Ask yourself the question of whether you will share your knowledge with that person, and if so, how much.  Ask yourself what will happen, on the other hand, if the knowledge is withheld.  I assert that it is best to use one's knowledge in ways that benefit other people, or in ways that enrich their lives.  Conversely, I would assert that one should not use a knowledge gap to take advantage of another person, nor withhold knowledge from that person if they will be harmed because they are uninformed. 

Either way, we must all use our knowledge in ways that we can live with.  Whether you choose to share your knowledge in a given situation, you and you alone must live with the knowledge of your decision.

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