David Weinberger
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Knowledge we value requires forgiveness

01 April 2007

Life was easier when knowledge was just content. We know how to handle content. In fact, we had a single methodology for handling it across its multiple domains: It’s basically the same stuff whether it’s lodged in our head, transmitted by a teacher or written in a book. We know how to build it, store it and move it.

Ah, the good old days!

That sort of knowledge still does exist, of course. It’s the sort of content you find in a product specifications box. And we know it’s the real stuff because if the box says you can wash your pajamas in hot water but they shrink to the size of your teddy bear, you can sue. Going wrong with knowledge is actionable.

But that sort of knowledge is precisely the stuff that’s settled, useful and uninteresting. There’s nothing further to be said about it. We need it, for sure, but each piece of it becomes less valuable as it is made certain and accessible. That’s what happens when knowledge is commoditized.

Then there’s the knowledge we actually care about. It’s at issue, either by its nature or because we just can’t tell yet how it’s going to turn out. Customer acceptance of a new product, the effect of a reorg on the stock price, the ability of the new VP of development to deliver on her promises ... this is the knowledge we spend time on, worry about and feel we have to earn through hard work—because—it’s not settled and commoditized.

But while going wrong with commoditized knowledge is actionable, we can only make progress with the knowledge we care about by being willing to—forgive—the knowledge transgressions of ourselves and others.

Forgiveness flies in the face of the accountability that has recently besotted American business. We forgive because humans are error-prone by their nature. It’s just the way we are. Of course, not all errors and crimes should be written off with a kind nod, but neither can we survive if we insist on a strict accounting. By such an accounting, we’re all doomed.

This holds for the sphere of knowledge as well as for the realm of action and ethics. If we don’t acknowledge that we each may be wrong even in our sincerest and most vociferously held beliefs, we will not know anything except what’s in our almanacs. For a paltry human to claim to know the big world—a world we did not create and do not control—is an act of arrogance, which itself requires forgiveness. (A sense of humor helps also.) We need to argue points as if we knew, but that means we also have to be ready to accept contradiction with grace and to offer it with humility.

Knowing is not something apart from forgiveness. Forgiveness is not merely something we do, external to knowledge. The knowing that matters requires forgiveness as its condition, just as it requires language and other people. This most obvious of facts sounds odd because we have so thoroughly demeaned knowledge by considering it to be mere content. But if it were only content, how could we distinguish the content that is knowledge and the content that is, say, propaganda or a joke? Knowledge is knowledge because it is embedded in a social system. Social systems are composed of humans. Humans are fallible, even when we happen to be right.

Therefore, there is no knowledge without forgiveness.