You’re about to walk someplace, maybe as a young child, maybe with a parent or sibling, feeling absolutely glum, maybe even dismal, because “… it’s so far away!… we’ll have to walk so long!… it’s going to take forever!” The whole way there, it takes ages, like one long walking wait.
But once you finally get there and do your thing, and leave again for home, the walk back feels nowhere near as long, or daunting. I remember one explanation was that we encounter all the same things on the way home in reverse order – a fence, a tree, a crack in the sidewalk. Obviously, we reach them sooner in reverse, but they seem to arrive more quickly because they’re fresher memories. Then, before you know it, there we are again, home at last.
… yeah, who knows. But I do know I’ve had that sensation plenty of times where the journey back felt way faster, and home nowhere near so forever-far away, than when we first set out.
Another explanation is that, when we first set out, a whole adventure lies ahead, and our imaginations have room to breathe and explore the unknown. This one rings true both directions, there and back, which is actually why I don’t buy it… if it’s such an adventure, then why all the dread and pre-walk fatigue and wishing we’re already finally finally there? Why do things one way feel like forever, but the other way seem so quick?
I got to wondering after another idea… how looking forward to the future can seem so far away, compared to looking back at the past, which can feel like just yesterday.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: the past really is just yesterday. But I mean the distant past, which can feel so recent, particularly as we get older. There we are one day, when suddenly – whoosh – it’s all behind us. All sorts of thoughts arise, looking back… ‘it just goes so quickly’… ‘if I could do it all over again’… ‘I wish I knew then what I know now’… all those thoughts, and emotions too, which we sometimes call ‘regret’ or sometimes we call ‘wisdom’, and which only arrive as we look back from where we came.
As we look forward, “…ages from now” or “…in a few thousand years,” the future just seems so forever-far away, though there’s also a reverse effect… say, when some local business tries to invent tradition by leaning on – wow – a whole “quarter century.” No question, time scales in the hundreds and thousands consume lifetimes. Yet I’ve also had days as an adult when even “… next month” felt like the distant future. Days like that, looking back at fleeting life, I might happily wish I really was back walking to some faraway place with a parent or sibling – then, at least, I’d be looking forward not to the weight of ages but only to the walk back home.
Someone is bound to criticise this post for proceeding from an assumption of time as a spatial trajectory, e.g. “you are here,” which comprises a second-person present tense conjugation (“are”) and an adverb (“here”) that measures its principal description from a “present location.”
As mentioned in the post below, the KDK model was a handy tool for high school English – something to smirk at, to quote this blog’s front page – and not some philosophical masterstroke or an imposition of supreme will. Even if it were, it wouldn’t matter – the truth is, for all the hits this blog gets, Google Analytics probably just tallies them on coffee break. At least, that’s what I would do, full disclosure.
For the record, I do consider an alternative perspective of time here and here.
One more go at critiquing the bid to “eliminate your bias.”
First, though, because context is everything, a brief lowdown on the KDK Matrix and its forerunner, the ‘Johari Window’…
I. The Original Johari Window
Like mine, maybe your first introduction to this simple yet dynamic 2×2 matrix was back in its heyday: the late-90s conference heuristic, offered by some clever presenter to facilitate self- and group-awareness.
The Johari Window is named for the two psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, who devised it in 1955. Luft and Ingham’s original objective was “to examine our behaviour in relation to others” (p. 10) as it derived from a presumed “commitment to a philosophy of interpersonal consultation” (p. 20). Their work built in part upon that of social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, whose preceding development of field theory detailed the study of individual behaviour in social contexts.
Of course, people have since derived other versions… a Nohari Window, to compare specifically negative traits, and a more abstract study of (principally parenting) relationships that falls under the banner of Meta-Emotion.
And I adapted the Johari Window, too, by revising and rearranging its four defining conditions for a heuristic to suit the coursework I taught in my classroom: the Know-Don’t Know Matrix.
II. The Know-Don’t Know Matrix
First of all… no, it’s not real life. It’s a diagram. So, no, it doesn’t exactly reflect the living and learning it attempts to describe – no analogy could, not exactly. Then, lucky for us, analogies are as instructive for what they can’t offer as what they can: of this one, as any, make what you will.
The descriptions below are hardly exhaustive, much less definitive. They’re simply the way students and I came to understand our adaptation while applying it together during coursework. But I have made one substantive update here to our earlier model, maybe because I’m a wee bit older now, myself: I’ve added reverse-arrows that point back from education, experience, and the present moment (“you are here”) to represent reflection, memory, and the concept at issue, bias.
The quadrants are numbered as we read… across from left to right, then down:
– QI: KK (Things that We Know We Know) – QII: KDK (Things that We Know We Don’t Know) – QIII: DKK (Things that We Don’t Know We Know) – QIV: DKDK (Things that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know)
Each description details that quadrant unto itself and only mentions the other three as necessary, so for a concerted understanding of the entire model, you’re better off reading all four and gradually piecing them together. I recall one student loosely imagining the dynamic movement of the 2D arrows as “living” and the whole model of lines and words as “life” – and really, what better example do you need of making what you will from an instructive analogy.
As with us back in the classroom, the aim here is to get people thinking. So if something stands out as particularly egregious or in need of considered revision, please let me know.
Quadrant I: Things that We Know We Know
Without getting philosophical, we might label QI as Awareness or Knowledge. Whatever we call it, let’s consider QI as representing everyday life and living, where we spend our waking hours.
As we travel life’s tangents, we might think of ourselves as encroaching ever further into Quadrants II and III, and thereby Quadrant IV. How intentionally we pursue education into QII or endure the arrival of QIII’s experience will vary. In fact, though, our general cultural ambition is, and has been, to encroach as much as possible before we die. Another way to put it is that we’re trying to make QI as large as possible throughout our lives.
Meanwhile, in proceeding from birth (“you are born”) to this present moment (“you are here”), throughout that totality of life lived so far, each of us can claim that we have come from somewhere in the past and, further, that we stand somewhere – someplace – at the present moment. Any ‘present moment’ we might call our setting, and whether that’s the English class version of setting as time and place or the Cuisinart version of setting as Lo-Med-Hi, either way, let’s consider it our bias, attributable to our past. Sometimes, this look back from the present moment is called an education or experience, but in keeping with an intended dynamism, I’m describing education and experience as our looking ahead, countered by the looking back of reflection and memory.
What propels us down each tangent differs: education – or so-called ‘book smarts’ – is an intentional effort that takes place over the passage of time, usually (though not entirely) as some kind of formal schooling. These days, the broader objective of education is sometimes utilitarian or, more popular recently, pragmatic. Whatever the basis, though, the aim of education is commonly (though not exclusively) some kind of applicable objective, such as in answer to the question, “What do you do?”
As for experience – so-called ‘street smarts’ – of course, we all make plans most days, things to do. But with the passing of time, experience just seems to arrive on the doorstep, sometimes regardless of intention or even in spite of our best efforts! Conspiring with that cheerful reality are the joys of ageing, and in this more passive way, maybe experience is better understood from a teleological perspective, as having not objectives but outcomes, which are not necessarily intentional. You can grasp this ambiguity from our cultural bumper stickers, like the optimistic “Wheel of Fortune,” the weary “Been There, Done That,” and the fatalist “It Is What It Is.”
We’re often encouraged, living day-to-day, to be content in the present, to live in the moment. For me, as long as we balance some grasp on looking back with a desire for looking ahead, this seems like pretty sound advice.
Quadrant II: Things that We Know We Don’t Know
We might label QII as Curiosity or Room to Grow or even Motivation. Anyway, let’s consider it representing the objectives we have while seeking to learn something as yet unlearned.
Labelling QII as Unawareness or Ignorance might seem straightforward. But these words are misleading for being passive, for suggesting that what’s unknown is off the radar screen, and this is not what QII represents. QII represents things that we’re well aware we know nothing about – I know nothing about rocket science or, for that matter, brain surgery. As such, QII advancement is the result of intention and effort, and QII outcomes are the consequence of education, whether formal schooling or something more casual. In fact, Unawareness or Ignorance might better suit QIII although neither QII nor QIII is a true opposite to QI.
One inescapable demand of QII is the passage of time. On the model, this is suggested by the dashed arrow that points back from “education” to indicate the ad nauseam reflection that students are asked to do, whether they want to or not. One obviously cannot reflect until the focus is in the past.
Quadrant III: Things that We Don’t Know We Know
A suitable label for QIII might be Latency or Potential, representing an open-minded attitude that’s willing to discover things. QIII can incite potent ambition, like that sixth sense when something just clicks and ideas just start to flow.
Yet not everyone’s so predisposed, particularly if we’ve been dragged into something kicking and screaming – meanwhile, what are things that we don’t know we know if not Unawareness or Ignorance, or maybe Indifference. However, besides these QIII can incite discomfort and anxiety. I suppose this is only natural since we’re not always so able or willing to face what we encounter, and fair enough that QIII can be as much a rude awakening as a pleasant surprise. If crystal balls ever went on sale, probably everybody would get one.
The bottom line for QIII, I suppose, is simply to grow from having logged an experience at all as compared to realising some worthwhile take-away. What this means for QIII, as with QII, is an acknowledgement of the passing of time. This is represented on the model by the dashed arrow, pointing back from “memory,” which doubles as the arrival of the rest of the world into our life, whether we wanted it there or not.
Quadrant IV: Things that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know
The best label for QIV is probably Oblivious, and let’s consider it representing, well, everything. Someone’s bound to raise objection: “… but how could we even know?” – right, well, need I say more? Let’s grant more positive recognition of QIV to those humble Socratics who willingly offer their admission that “the more I learn, the less I know.”
On the model, all the arrows and lines are drawn to separate what is known and finite in QI from the infinite void that comprises QIV. As someone might shine a light towards the darkness – or even right into it – even so, QIV (which actually includes QII and QIII) is not a place we can dwell until we get there, at which time we’re probably better off saying we’ve enlarged QI.
Toeing this edge of things that we don’t know we don’t know fuels the curiosity of QII and impels the anxiety of QIII. Yet as we only live next to QIV, here in QI, we risk drifting or dwelling beyond that liminal space before ever getting there. Elsewhere, I’ve called this the Fantasyland of Should, and I’ve found it’s a popular place among young people, probably because the forward-arrow is so long. But dwelling in QIV doesn’t have to be so judgmental; it can also be the Dreamland of Wish, where it makes no difference who you are.
Whatever to call it, though… beyond leaving us feeling motivated or potent, wistful or uneasy, QIV may simply leave us feeling flat-out disordered and lost, displacing anything we’d otherwise experience in that precise moment, the longer we stay there. In the same way, looking back instead of forward, QIV can entice us away from reflecting upon learning or recalling experiences so much that we end up dwelling in the past, which again distracts us from the present moment, the longer we linger there.
In fairness to many generations across many cultures… as distinct from fantasies and dreams, QIV is the Spirit-filled Land of Faith, perhaps even more certain as a setting than here-and-now QI. But whatever QIV means to anyone, one indisputable fact remains – without getting philosophical – about where we exist at the confluence of time-and-place, of self + education + experience. That spot on the model labelled ‘you are here’, where all four quadrants connect: that is this very moment, right now, every time and place it happens.
III. So What? …all that We Know
With the model’s components now at least a little clearer, let’s consider why any of this matters, such as how it might be of any use. Recall my aim is to critique the ill-conceived nonsense about “eliminating your bias.”
To keep things simple, I focus principally on QI and QIV, the latter of which subsumes QII and QIII.
As we live, we travel a tangent between life experience and formal education, such that we’re forever encroaching further and deeper into boundless QIV, Things that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know (DKDK). Because DKDK is infinite, the further we go, the more that infinity affirms itself to us – the aforementioned Socratic paradox: ‘The more I learn, the more I don’t know’. As noted, this can be an intimidating confrontation. Or it can be a confidence booster because, yes, we can definitely expand our own knowledge when there’s an unlimited amount of knowledge to tap. By the way, unless you agree with the previous sentence, the question I’m about to pose will make no sense, so here they are together:
We can definitely expand our own knowledge when there’s an unlimited amount of knowledge to tap, yet what expanse of knowledge even makes sense to conceive, much less aspire toward, if our finite capacity is measured against an infinite one?
At first, this may seem like no distinction, but bear with it. For starters, here I am calling our capacities finite, at least by connotation if not precisely by definition. I think we’re better off to presume our capacities finite than to assume with imprudence their limitlessness – it’s too late not to spill milk when the glass is overflowing.
So this frames the problem I have with the perspective that claims, ‘Our bias is our limitation’. From this perspective, we have infinite capacity if – somehow – we just overcome our limits, eliminate our bias. But for the ambitious sojourner, who traverses ever further, ever deeper along DKDK’s infinite tangent, where the only promise ahead is to imagine and make things up in that oblivion of darkness… how frequently their gaze must be looking backward upon itself as the reference point for anything tangible, back upon their pesky limiting bias, from which their travel is meant to detach. I just can’t help feeling this backs-turned approach risks going wayward for being misguided, if not also asking for trouble.
Along the way, sure, constant reminders keep our sojourner aware of what’s ‘behind’ them, i.e. of what’s literally ahead of them along the tangent into DKDK – if only they’d turn from their bias to see forward a little more, and see… what? apart from the void of the vast unknown. With this perspective, ‘Our bias is our limitation’, our sojourner aspires not to move their boundary stones but to eliminate them and, so doing, to satiate some never-to-be-filled-to-the-brim ‘potential’? of theirs – like I said, capacity no longer seems the right word, but surely no one believes themselves to be infinite. Only hubris could back this up. How about we give an ‘A’ for effort… but even then, I’m pretty sure an ‘A’ for effort was nothing Daedalus ever considered while watching Icarus drown.
Someone says, “This perspective is admirable for encouraging learning and growth and improvement!” And limitless potential says, “You can be anything you want to be!” and so forth blah blah etc, and then, just to underscore your inadequacy, self-righteousness says, “Don’t tell me you’re honestly into stomping children’s dreams – don’t be that guy.”
Yet looking backward for tangibility, even if this can be anything more than a self-regarding perspective, even so looking back always at least sustains a self-regarding perspective: how am I doing? what’s my bias now? where am I this moment? Granted, looking back can and will also look ahead, but not with the certainty that accompanies looking back. In that imbalance, favouring what’s behind in spite of aspiring to progress that leaves it all behind, in that contradiction I see avoidable and therefore foolish error.
Indeed, how could someone decide to eliminate or overcome their own bias, especially as it grows with ‘limitless potential’, unless by some continual effort at the very same time to be assessing it… in order to eliminate it? …every time they add to it. There’s freedom in this? Indeed, there is no negative freedom, i.e. ‘freedom from’ bias. There’s only more bias. It literally seems futile, and kind of stupid, to be undoing all the work at the same time you’re doing it. At that ’90s conference, the presenter might have said we’re landing the plane while flying it.
There is no negative ‘freedom from’ bias. There’s only more bias, and it seems kind of stupid to be undoing all the work at the same time you’re doing it.
I prefer another perspective, ‘Our limitation is our bias’, which is more than just witless gainsaying. From this perspective, our sojourner directs their gaze not back the way they came but forward along the same tangent they travel. While looking forward, up, down, to the left, to the right, and sure, sometimes backwards too… as they do all this, they’re aware (QI KK) of their widening capabilities, understood inversely as reduced personal limitations. Maybe let’s call this growth. And maybe you’re now spotting a nuanced aspect of relativity at play here.
With the passing of time, traversing ever further, ever deeper into DKDK, our sojourner’s capabilities do grow. Why I prefer the second perspective is the nuance that neither ‘growth’ nor its corollary, ‘shrinking’, have any meaning when their measure is infinite. What makes the second perspective worthy is not that it encourages learning and growth and improvement for their own sake, i.e. let’s become a bigger, better, somehow less-biased self: this ambition describes the first perspective, ‘Our bias is our limitation’. No, why I prefer the second perspective, ‘Our limitation is our bias’, is because it encourages a willingness to learn and grow and improve for the sake of all that can be learned, i.e. let’s go explore something bigger than and other than ‘self’. For looking forward, not backward, outward, not inward, the second perspective has a motive of curiosity: inquisitive, a little adventurous, a little sceptical – like Socratic humility, open to whatever comes along.
Such an attitude has neither to eliminate nor preclude the bias it has developed since starting out. Along the journey, such an attitude might fairly take up a decision to grasp something encountered as entirely and valuably new. In fact, such an attitude might even hang onto its original bias in order to understand and appreciate and measure anything new as real growth. And if this compares to the first perspective for bias being a tangible measure, it contrasts with the first perspective for bias being an intentional value. What the second perspective offers is a far more appealing alternative: a positive freedom, the ‘freedom to’ be and become ourselves. To let go, to get out from under shelter, to risk a little vulnerability, and in growing a little bigger than before, to still appreciate ‘self’ along the way. Not just self, but ‘self’, which is another nuance the first perspective can’t claim.
When our time and attention are spent looking back upon ourselves, we risk missing out on what we encounter. When we embrace our bias as our limitation, our time and attention are spent looking forward, and ‘self’ can be conceived and appreciated rather than aggrandized. When we embrace our bias, and actively include it on our tangents, we don’t merely allow ourselves a chance to broaden horizons, we enable ourselves to transect them.
For her part, what she’s suggesting connects our emotions, which help us respond to the world, with our memories, which arise as a flood of perceptions that she calls emotional habits. Essentially, in our day-to-day living, the purpose of our emotions is to help us make sense of it all by recalling previous times when we felt such-and-such a way; the purpose of our memories is to supply those emotions with substance – and not with just any old substance but with invested value. If Nussbaum is on to something, then this is why we’re moved to say about [ your life here ] that “we care.”
Nussbaum refers to neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux, who suggests that memories are not individual items but composite outcomes of our physiological network – in one sense, like how a check-up isn’t just your doctor and a stethoscope but all their years and training, and this upon centuries of practice, which now includes you, the patient; in another sense, like how a bridge isn’t just an edifice of concrete, cable, and steel but an intentional span engineered to overcome the gulf that precluded any link between two separated sides.
One idea suggested by memory is that, with something going on inside everybody, we can still only respond from our current perspective. That means some parts of our lives will remain unseen from others and maybe even subconsciously from ourselves – we can never really completely know what’s happening with anybody. Occasionally, I’ve seen people apparently lose sight of this and press ahead with someone else, despite what seemed to be signals to hold up – yet as this is merely something I remember seeing from my perspective, here’s me doing it, myself, right now! A lot of our shared living is guesswork, and if it seems like I’ve suddenly departed from the topic of memory, I wonder if it’s fair to say I’m still in the ballpark.
Memories remind us of when we were other places, doing things, which all contributes to describing who we are now although, of course, not completely since nobody remembers everything, much less remembers anything perfectly. Maybe let’s say what gets remembered is what we take to be most important, which could be rather selective and self-serving, as we might decide to ‘remember’ only what helps us out the most. That’s a pretty blanket statement, though, and I can’t blame your eye-roll just now. As to what we do remember, we can decide whether a memory is something from the past to which we’re attached, or something in the past from which to distance ourselves. But either way, the past is always there, all of it, and that’s affecting all of us.
As to memories being fallible, this takes me back to guesswork, of a kind, as we try to recall exactly this-or-that detail. But since we can only remember from our current perspective, there’s a great deal of our lives that goes never seen by others, and even grows fuzzy and inexact to us – like I said, we can never really completely know what’s happening with anybody. If each person’s memories can only acknowledge their own cross-sections of the past, and this but partially, then over time I imagine this would cause a bit of collective amnesia, eventually having a kind of atomizing effect as certain details were highlighted while others were finally lost forever.
Certainly our culture seems to embrace the individual, has done ever since the Enlightenment sort of introduced the world to itself, as it were. What crawled from those Platonic caves of religious obeisance and feudal sovereignty eventually separated into an oddly homogeneous heterogeneity of individualism, which today we venerate with slogans like “Liberty, Happiness, and that other one – slips my mind. If we’ve actually been killing off cultural memory and swapping in some individuated substitute… well, in that case, I’d say cultural memory is becoming a rather haphazard assemblage of whatever coincides between us. Which, hey, might work for a while, but… life-by-coincidence I just feel like can’t be good.
That brings something else to mind… for all our enlightenment, we seem awfully susceptible to uncertainty. Weren’t we a lot longer chained up to those cave walls… yet now it’s like we can’t even remember what certainty is. Maybe our uncertainty – what the kids these days call narratives – whether spun by someone or spun by us, whether in our favour or in our face, maybe our uncertainty lies in its doctor’s motives. And of course, the better the storytelling, and the sharper the hook, the more we’ll feel we can relate – which is something else I mentioned of Martha Nussbaum although, this time, I’d say let’s take heed as a cautionary word. Yes, the more precise the object, the sharper that vision, and the more certainty we’re likely to feel, but no trust will exceed the worthiness, the value, of its object. Stick to the healthy objects, I guess is what I’m saying, objects not just inherently potent but of the greatest worthiness… your most highly treasured value.
In that sense, memories – remember this was all about memories? – in that sense, memories implicate, or are they implicated by, our present circumstances and our future objectives. As we presently look back to our memories, our memories are prompting our attention forward, into the future. We don’t remember anything perfectly, but we also don’t forget everything utterly. I’m not necessarily saying we spin solely what we remember; rather, I’m saying let’s not spin solely to remember. Just like words matter because, once spoken, their consequences flow, our memories matter too, for the same dynamic reason. They need to be as genuine as we can recall them. “And then,” Nussbaum concludes, perhaps with a touch of whimsy, “it remains to be seen what the world will let us do about them” (p. 135). Whether their flow will be placid, mundane, inconsequential, or anything beyond is beside the point that their flow is indisputably certain. What is past is having a very real effect right now and will thus see its effect realised in what is yet to come, come what may.
“Okay,” you say, “but what happened to that imaginary bridge – what was it, spanning the gulf between here and memory, or something? I mean, here you are, now, going on about time and spin and worth? Has this post lost its way? Another batch of mixed metaphors?”
Fair. OK, well, besides piecemeal memories inciting ad hoc futures for atomized individual persons, what all this seems to implicate, for me, is the sincerity of relationships, of care. Our continued honest attempts to communicate with each other are like an antidote, and in their absence we risk sullying or undoing whatever may have been true of us beforehand. Of course, though – and here I go again! – that last sentence was written through an altruistic lens, not really allowing for someone with, say, more practical motives. Meanwhile, as to any less-than-honest attempts at communication, well, they’re obviously no antidote at all but really pollutants. As only real engineers build bridges, so only real physicians administer antidotes, and only real spin doctors spin.
One last thing… I think maybe what’s most potent about our memories – in their pointing us toward objects ahead – is the nature of their absence, like travelling into the city and saying, “Look where there used to be trees.” As we take hold of a memory and turn it over in our fingers… with the curiosity that brought it back, we acknowledge a kind of respectful past-that-was as we find it within us-as-is. There’s a bit of healthy mutuality in that, for without that memory, we could only make less of ourselves while, without us, the memory wouldn’t be recalled at all. I suppose that’s all a bit banal, but still… it seems important, a kind of respectfulness that authorizes both the memory and ourselves at once, however inexact our memories may actually be.
But we need to be careful. Any respectful authorization of memory and ourselves at once is us doing both, which is tantamount to saying “I am history,” as in “Whatever I declare now is now what happened then,” which of course would be delusional. And not in the sense of claiming to be God, who controlled it all back then as now but, rather, in the sense of looking inward to ourselves, like a doctor prescribing an antidote without remembering what it was for.
Someone very practical once told me there are plenty of good memories to be made and happy events to experience wherever one resides. Practical health in this object, practical wisdom, a beautiful radiance such as might alight you from the bridge deck with delight since now you want to see where it’s landed you, over here on the other side. As I recall, my reply was something along the lines to say, yes, that’s definitely true although it ain’t where you’re at so much as it’s who you’re with.
In the gulf beneath, a mighty flood rolls on, and you still hold your dearest treasures to heart. And from the shore you understand a wee bit better why somebody decided to build that bridge.