Wednesday, March 05, 2008

First, go to the appropriate place. Next, win.

I love trying and learning new things but often times it can be a big hassle to join a new community or system. This is especially true of ongoing activities, such as workplaces, where people are not necessarily interested in helping new entrants learn the name of the game.
There's a basic level of knowledge needed to operate that everyone has, except you of course. Often linked with the local culture of a group or region, these things come in the form of implicit (undocumented or unspoken) steps, and they drive me nuts! However, they are often very important to the activity at hand, so they are definitely worth pondering.
They also tell me one or more of the things below is true about, you, the person that I encounter in this new context, and how you treat me:

1. You are not consciously aware of their existence. Having participated in the culture for so long, you simply no longer notice the steps and rules unique to the situation. Depending on your degree of personal empathy, you will expect me to understand some or all of these things already, likely without even realizing this may be an unreasonable assumption.

2. You are aware of the existence of the implicit rules, but don't fully understand them and are embarrassed to reveal your lack of knowledge. This can lead to a lot of jargon and vague statements, spreading further confusion.

3. You understand the rules but have insufficient motivation to record and explain them. Perhaps your time is too valuable (or in relatively high demand). Maybe you just don't know who I am or why you should bother to help me. As Peter said in Office Space: "'s not that I'm lazy, it's that I just don't care"

4. You understand the rules but deliberately withhold knowledge in order to maintain a tactical advantage. This is true in many businesses, as well as politics on all levels. Thankfully, the many of these places have opened up dramatically, as the Internet has lowered the cost of recording and spreading such knowledge.
Such knowledge hoarding won't go away any time soon though; there will continue to be such secrets as long as the benefits of keeping them outweigh the benefits of sharing. I figure that for a particular person in a particular area of knowledge, the trend would look something like this:

accumulation of knowledge -->

Of course this trend is quite debatable and depends heavily on the knowledge at stake. Perhaps 'willingness to help without competitive compensation' would be more accurate. Also, the curves could vary in interesting ways depending on the subject matter.

No doubt there are many counter examples to the trend, mostly falling under the umbrella of altruism. I would postulate that most such cases are prompted by biological factors rather 'rational' behavior, in the economic sense of the word. Such cases of conflict between benefit to self and benefit to a larger group provide some of the most interesting cultural indicators.