Known and unknown unknowns

Images generated by Midjourney. Prompt: (philosopher pondering about the meaning of known and unknown unknowns, great hall museum, space and stars in the background, 20th century, oil painting)

There are two kinds things we don’t know: known and unknown unknowns.

Learning about the first kind is easy: just pick up a book, sign up for a course, or ask someone who knows to teach the answer to you. If you want to play chess but don’t know how to, you can just look up the rules. That’s how we tend to think about learning new skills. But to even get to a point where such learning is possible, you first have to be aware that the game chess exists. If you never heard about it, you’d never even think about learning it! So in a way, learning is a two-step process.

This might sound trivial to you, but I think the distinction is quite significant. The internet is full of amazing and free learning material: from online courses to Wikipedia, educational videos to blogs and websites explaining all kinds of concepts. It’s no wonder many people expected the internet to revolutionise education with all of this free content at your fingertips . But in order to use any of the resources, you must first know what you want to learn in the first place and figure out where to find them. If you never knew about chess, you wouldn’t be able to Google it.

Learning unknown unknowns

While the internet is an amazing tool for learning about known unknowns, the traditional education system deserves credit for teaching about unknown unknowns. Schools and universities are built around a structured curriculum, ensuring every student learns about the topics society deems as most important. While giving students opportunities to customize their curriculum around their own interest helps the most advanced and independent learners, a structured curriculum is an invaluable tool for younger kids, as well as those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Outside of school, we should focus on exposing people of all ages to novelty and to encourage their curiosity. This is one reason why simply being around smart people can help you learn more about the world.

As for the internet, I theorise TikTok is one of the best tools for learning unknown unknowns. Surprised? TikToks are just long enough to show that a hobby or product exists, and the comment section or description usually gives a clue on where to learn more about it if you’re interested. TikTok, YouTube, and other short video platforms are also great for sharing “life hacks” from everyday life you might normally learn from a grandma or neighbour: it’s no wonder such videos go viral easily.

Could a discovery mechanism like TikTok be leveraged for education? I think so. While the short video format has many disadvantages, such as the (anecdotal) negative effect it has on concentration skills, the goal of videos like this is not to teach difficult subjects but to introduce something new, make the viewer aware it exists, and encourage them to learn more about it. Keyboard shortcuts are a good example of this — in fact VSCode has a popular TikTok account! In principle, finding out about a keyboard shortcut in TikTok is not much different from learning it from a coworker. I’m not sure whether TikTok’s algorithms are working with you, or against you, in this battle — an algorithm that prioritises novelty helps with learning unknown unknowns, while one that prioritises topics you already engaged with does not.

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Ville Kuosmanen

I care about digital products that improve our lives. Software Engineer at a crypto startup.