Is a WIDKI necessary?

Most companies use a WIKI of some sort. If it’s not software-based then it’s the lady who’s been in the office for over thirty years. They are useful when they serve as an organizational memory. One problem is that organizational memory tends to take a particular shape based on the biases of the system maintainers. That’s why one person alone should not maintain a WIKI for an entire group. I may have a way to tilt the system.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what we don’t know. I’ve read that Richard Feynman kept a journal of things he did not know. He wrote in it everyday.

I’m usually hesitant to mention ignorance studies, and when I do, I quickly remember why I should be hesitant. It seems that exploring the unknown is an exercise in futility. After all, the quick reasoning goes, if it’s unknown then we how can we know it. We’ve become a society of little Platos.

The value of exploring the unknown is simple: that’s where the interesting things will come from. Be they competitors, causes of project failure, death, insights into a particularly intractable problem, etc. And it is explorable because there are different kinds of unknown. Granting that we cannot known the absolutely unknowable, there is plenty that we can explore.

For example, as an quasi-experiment, I was recently invited to a meeting, as an outside observer, between a development firm and its client. These people knew each other, and while there was some degree of posturing about who should do what, it was like so many meetings in today’s business climate–consensus-seeking–leaving several important issues in the dark. Near the end, I suggested the client address the question of what they did not know about the project’s execution. There were some stunned expressions, and a general agreement on the client’s team that it was unnecessary to know the details. The disturbance was thus attenuated. As a programmer, I know the appeal of abstraction, of letting the details fade into the background to ease the burden on the mind. But I also know that often the details do matter. The trick is to be able to consciously decide on the level of abstraction depending on one’s objectives in a given situation.

In any case, following Feynman’s example, would a WIDKI (What I Don’t Know Is) be useful? I suspect it would be, but would probably also be destabilizing if the group using it cannot handle the truth of what they’ve left in the dark.

The important rule to use when writing an ignorance journal is that it’s not a license of Alice-In-Wonderland fantasy. I don’t where unicorns come from! Entries should be divided into two types:

  1. Entries anchored to specific issues, problems, projects, ideas, etc.
  2. Entries about larger, non-specific trends or issues.

Clearly, a WIDKI is not going to offer concrete solutions. It’s meant to keep one’s mind open to possibilities by shaking us out of our consensus-seeking hypnosis.

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