Who Knows What Everybody Knows?

A few months ago I was hanging out with a group of folks from National Public Radio’s “Next Generation Radio” Project. Participants were sitting around a room editing stories on their laptops. At some point one, who didn’t strike me as a techie, showed one of the real tech whizzes that you could change the case of text in MSWord with a single command. He thought this was the coolest thing he had seen in a while.

I sat their trying to figure out how this guy who seemed like he knew way more about computers than I did could possibly not already know this. It reminded me of a bit from the Devil’s Dictionary: “self evident — evident to the self and no one else.”

Relevance for the sociology of information? Any bit of information we possess potentially has a “meta-informational wrapper” that tells us who else knows it. We experience this wrapper along a continuum from, say, “I’ve got a secret” to “duh, everybody knows THAT.” What’s interesting, though, is how hard it is to achieve anything like 100% accuracy on this meta-informational front.

I was motivated to think about this while reading David Pogue’s blog/column in the NYT the other day (“Tech Tips for the Basic Computer User”). In it he listed a few tips that are useful for those of us using computers — things like “you can select a word by double clicking it.” He doesn’t come out and put it like this, but I think a take-away from the piece is that these are things that if we know them we don’t think of them as “tips” — they are just things one knows about the machines one uses. It’s actually another cognitive step to recognize these taken-for-granted bits of know-how as things that lots of other people might not know. Nobody, after all, wants to pass along a tip that’s not really a tip (“duh” hurts!).

Interestingly, the blog turns out to be a great vehicle for eliciting tips from folks without the disincentives of (1) worrying that the person you give the tip to will not think it is a tip, or (2) having to make the observation that the recipient does not know something so as to be “safe” in giving the tip. If you read the 1000 plus tips people have sent in, you will no doubt find some of them to be “obvious” and “well known” but others will provide an “aha” moment.

He suggests at one point that of all the stuff you know that “everybody probably knows” probably only 40% of everybody actually knows. I don’t know about the numbers, but the point is a good one. Most of us are probably not very good estimators of how much of what we know is idiosyncratic, local, general, or universal knowledge.

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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