The Ephemeral Nature of Knowledge

Okay, it’s a pretentious title, but you’re just to going to have to deal with it.

This post is at least partly to defend my (annoying?1) tendency to never state anything in definitive terms. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that I find absolute, unilateral, or dictatorial statements inherently distasteful. I was going to say inhuman, but that’s perhaps a bit strong. The reason that the overdeveloped thesaural region in my brain returned that word is that a defining characteristic of humans is our ability to work together, to establish a consensus, to collectively achieve more than the sum of our parts.

A unilateral statement – the product of a single human – is inherently exclusive and therefore destructive to the power of the collective2.

The second is that the very nature of knowledge is fleeting, dynamic, you might even say ephemeral. In fact, someone already did. I remember very clearing taking Physics at school and being told in later years to forget what I had previously been taught. Not because what I had been taught was incorrect, but because it was too high-level, too abstract.

The same is true of all areas of expertise, physics perhaps more than most. There are levels of understanding that are perfectly sufficient for most, but which gloss over the finer, more detailed points that are vital for the development of that subject.

Another factor is that the depths of human knowledge are constantly being explored, only to find that it’s actually a lot deeper than previously thought. Unless you’re keeping abreast of all recent discoveries throughout the entire sphere of human knowledge, you’re going to be at least slightly inaccurate every time you open your mouth.

It is therefore extremely difficult to make any definitive statement about anything, other than that which you know inside and out, without it being based on a incomplete understanding of that subject, and therefore not entirely accurate. Now, most people don’t worry about this, and most of the time it really doesn’t affect much at all.

To the extreme pedants among us, and to those who value community consensus over dictatorial pronouncements, it’s an important distinction, and one that should be accepted.

1 I assume it must be at least slightly annoying, but that’s just a guess.
2 I cannot use that word without the Borg or Communism coming to mind.

The Dilbert Stages of Professional Cynicism

Over the years, I have come to believe that there are three stages to one’s professional career, and that those stages may be defined relative to ones opinion of the work of Scott Adams, specifically ‘Dilbert’.

This theory is borne of my own experiences, but like most of the ideas on here, is unlikely to be terribly original, well thought through, or even succinctly put. In an effort reduce the word count a bit, I’ll apply Ockham’s Razor, shave some words off, and define the stages as follows; 

  • You don’t think Dilbert is funny
  • You think Dilbert is hilarious
  • You think Dilbert is based on your professional life.

Or, to put it another way;

  • You don’t get Dilbert
  • You get Dilbert
  • Dilbert gets you.

These three stages reflect the effect of corporate reality as it slowly eats away at the fresh-faced young employee, heretofore swaddled in the protective nirvana of educational utopia. They are the measure of how much of the child has been replaced by corporate robot, of how much idealism has been replaced by cynicism.
 
Someone I know is very keen that people aren’t cynical and go into things with an open mind, with the attitude that things can be done.As I’ve said before, I consider myself to be both a realist and an idealist. I try to nurture the hope that all things are possible, but I’m not going to stay up all night waiting.

People are cynics for a reason. Cynics are not born; we are made, or rather corrupted. While we may be cast in our mother’s womb, we are forged in the fires of industry, in the furnaces of commerce. It is in this inhospitable environment that the naif in all of us has, at some point, had our eyes forcibly opened a la Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

Lord Acton was only halfway there; Power may corrupt, but its lack is just as harmful, albeit in different ways. Absolute power may make you believe that you can do what you like, but the lack thereof makes you believe that nothing is possible and that, whatever you do, forces beyond your control serve to constrain you.

Eventually, you stop trying. Only the blindest optimist or greatest fool would continue in the face of a life’s experience. Indeed, Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

To return to The Three Stages, the first two stages are merely precusors to the transition to Stage 3, a transition that represents a paradigm shift in the professional outlook of the person in question. A person who has made the transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3 has been “broken”, a term that intentionally mirrors the process by which horses become rideable.

While horses are more useful once broken, broken employees are often less useful. While they are still useful and important members of the team, they are less likely to go the extra mile.

The point at which employees break is often quite tangible. Someone previously level-headed and conscientious will suddenly become outspoken in meetings, or their grin get slightly manic, or “Thursday Afternoon Effect”1 behavior happens on other days of the week.

We all know the signs, and we all silently mourn the passing of their youth, and think “You’re one of us now”.

1 The Thursday Afternoon Effect is the point on Day 11 of a 12-day week full of 10 hour days when everything, even quite sad things, become hilariously funny, and the slightest thing can send you off into wild paroxysms of maniacal laughter.


I am working on an update to the theory that posits a fourth stage, which may be exemplified by the phrase “You know what, fuck that, it doesn’t have to be this way”. Whether this is merely an acute remission in otherwise chronic decline, or the turning of the tide, is the subject of further study.