Geek As Citizen: What We Don’t Know

Wrong Way Sign

A few weeks ago there was a story bouncing around the internet about a Google employee who had started a petition to replace the US government, basically, with Google CEO Eric Schmidt.  This was apparently not done with any form of approval from Mr. Schmidt, and you can read more about the person behind this at Quartz.  If you heard about this, it’ll give you some idea of the person behind the petition, Justine Turney.

To put it politely, I find Ms. Turney’s idea to be ill-thought out and lacking a sense of the larger picture, as well as impolite about Mr. Schmidt’s lack of free time.  It felt like a Deep Geek idea, to reference my previous theories, disconnected from reality.

As I discussed it among the gang, something came to the surface  how many times we run into political theorizing that doesn’t seem to involve an understanding of how the world actually works?  It’s a problem whose distribution may vary among people, political groups, and such, but it’s a problem you find everywhere.

We don’t know what we don’t know.  Which may qualify you if your career is to be “random pundit who yells a lot,” but really doesn’t help solve problems.  It is, in fact quite good for creating them, as anyone who has ever worked on a project that was poorly defined without repercussions knows.  I’m guessing that’s all of us.

Now as much as I’d like to see a lot more people address this lack of knowledge about lack of knowledge, it’s something we geek citizens should also address in ourselves.

In fact, I’d say we need to be extra responsible.

The Paradox of Knowledge

In my college days, there was a comic in the school paper called “Pot Shots” by the talented Scott Zellman that was highly professional as well as funny in an all-to-real way.  I still recall one strip that parodied the lack of knowledge college students had in inverse proportion to their political confidence, with a statement that was basically “Bob Dole should be President and we need more missiles in Greenland.”

Well, that was funny at the time, though as Bob Dole seems to have been running for or considered as a candidate for President since . . . oh, gods, I’m old . . . anyway, it’s still kind of funny.

He was also right.  I can recall many a time I heard borderline insanity expressed with utter confidence in the political area by people that didn’t have the excuse of being politiians.  Meanwhile the people who actually thought about things were busy.

I think we geeks, as noted before, suffer from an odd paradox.  Sure we’re knowledge driven, and we can all-too-easily assume we know everything since in many cases the odds may be we know more than a lot of people.  But we’re also application driven, so we actually do things, and that may further lull us into false confidence.  When you’re knowledgeable that’s one thing – when you’re also good at getting things done, then you really risk overassuming your own competence.

We’re competence-based people.

Competence can be a trap because you risk thinking you know more than we do as both know and do.  Indeed, we can fall into the trap of believing our own omnicompetence, and that’s a small step away from wondering how many nukes we should arm Greenland with.

It’s important we know what we don’t know, or we make bad decisions.

Knowing What We Don’t Know

Really knowing where were not any good is part of being a good citizen.  We have to know where we’re ignorant and incompetent.

That’s frankly really difficult.  When your head is full of ideas, when you do so much, when you have these visions, you can miss your own ignorance.  If you’re a truly passionate person you know what it’s like to be on fire, and everything seems right . . . and then you end up getting burned when something wallops you out of left field and you realize how wrong you are.

That’s painful enough when it’s about your next book or a great piece of software or a really cool way to validate an immunochemistry result.  It’s utterly deadly when it’s about politics, the world, and people.  When you screw up politics, people die.

I think we actually have to cultivate knowledge of our own ignorance, of where we’re not competent, or where we can talk goals and acknowledge we’re not too sure on the methods.  In short, a responsible citizen reviews and acknowledges their own ignorance.

If we don’t do this, real life will smack that confidence out of us, but it may also mean it does it by all out bright ideas falling apart and harming others as well.  As geeks enter the political sphere, and we see more theorizing by our number, I’d like us to keep this in mind.  Before regretful things happen.

Well, regretful things that don’t involve things, like, say Clippy.  Clippy didn’t kill anyone, but things like trendy anti-science denial have real results.

Getting A Handle On Our Own Ignorance And Stupidity

So beyond a call to be more aware, of course I have some advice.  Hey, part of my thing is making sure my citizenship discussions involve actual things to do.

This is a bit personal, as over time as I aged (hey I’m old enough to laugh at Bob Dole jokes), I became aware of what I didn’t know more and more.  In times I could see bad decisions and poorly-informed choices I made and opinions that I held.  I could see many times how I didn’t know what was going on or prioritized things poorly.

In turn, I could see where awareness had helped me.  Just a few bits of knowledge could save the day or let me know where to stop and say “yeah, past this point I have no idea what the hell is going on.” I recall vividly when I looked a the banking meltdowns in 2008, and promptly realized “I’m out of here.”

I also recall vividly when I didn’t realize how bad the repercussions of the housing bubble were going to be, so may some poor career choices due to that.

Over time I’ve found there’s two types of strategies for coping with our own ignorance – positive ones that provide us a “gap filling framework” and negative ones that acknowledge “not sure what I’m doing here.”

Positive Strategies:

  • Get informed about things in general.  A good regular review of overall news, a love of odd documentaries, reading up carefully on things you don’t know about can help. I still recommend people watch Mike Rowe’s dirty jobs – even if you disagree with his politics, his show teaches you a lot about how the world works.
  • Be aware of your areas of beloved knowledge and hone them.  If here’s something you’re good at, enjoy it and run with it and improve it.  That focused awareness tells you what you’re good at – and in turn reminds you of your boundaries.  A personal example of mine is that I’m a Project and Program Manager, but I’m aware of my specialties (process design, presentation, human relations), and my flaws (my budgeting experience is all resource-based).
  • Learn to research.  Research teaches you things, research breaks your assumptions, and research gets you into the habit of asking as opposed to assuming.
  • Goals over plans.  When you’re involved in personal or political politics, when you’re involved in anything really, set goals first then work on a plan.  Too many times we’re taught that a half-baked plan that sells is better than a thoughtful one (insert media criticism here), and you can see how well that has gone.  Goals let you navigate.

Negative Strategies:

  • Learn your boundaries.  Actually practice admitting ignorance and catch yourself when you’re over-assuming your knowledge.  For fun, for one week, ask each day where you spoke on something you didn’t really know.
  • Admit what you’re not.  Many of us are a pile of different things – we’re programmers and artists, writers and amateur coos, and so on.  Learn (as noted above) to admit what you can’t do.
  • Ask for help. That doesn’t sound like a negative, but it’s an acknowledging of “I have such a big gap I need help.”  That gets you used to actually admitting you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • Read horror stories about your profession/area.  There are many books and news articles on projects, science, education, government, and technology that went wrong.  I treasure those as they warn me what not to do – especially if it seemed like a god idea to me.
  • Admit your mistakes. Learning to do that will help you get the humility to not assume omnicompetence.
  • Be aware of repercussions – and this is something I see missing in politics period, not just geek politics.  Actions have consequences, and no matter what your bright idea may (or does) achieve it may not be worth it due to the side effects.

These have helped me.  And I haven’t armed Greenland.

(This is the last Greenland joke.  Unless I forget.  No promises here).


That’s my advice extended to you, my fellow citizen geek.  Ways to keep aware of our own ignorance – it’s frankly good for anyone, I’m just talking to “my gang” in the larger culture here.

I’d like to see us more and more socially engaged and politically engaged.  In fact, I want us to be, and we might just be able to make real differences.  But I’d like it to be well thought out, planned, and humble.  Especially as we’re much more deeply and publically engaged in the culture and the economy.

I want more geek politics and political engagement.  We got knowledge, we get stuff done, we are involved.  I’d just like anything we do to be as smart, informed, and results-driven as we geeks are at our best.

There’s one place I know I’d like to see more of that and that’s . . . dealing with California’s water issues.

(See, No Greenland . . . wait . . .)

– Steven Savage