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How Little We Really Know

Published 4/11/2020

What are some things you don't know about?

In today's episode of Developer Tea, we're talking about uncertainty, lack of knowledge, lack of clarity, and pushing past the feeling of guilt when we think about the things we don't know in order to stay mindful of our limitations and outline where we can improve.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
How often do you think about what you don't know? That's what we're talking about in today's episode. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal in the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. And uncertainty and a lack of knowledge, a lack of clarity. These are things that we experience in very small ways in our day-to-day lives. Often the things that we recognize that we don't know are the things that are within our grasp to know. In other words, if I asked you, what are some things that you don't really know about? What you're likely to respond with is a list of things that you know a little bit about. Enough to know, for example, the name, where you heard about it, or what might be different if you did know about it. Software engineers are keenly aware of things that we wish we knew more about. Things that we feel maybe even guilty that we don't know about. A lot of self-taught developers, for example, might feel guilty that they don't have a clear grasp on lower-level computer science concepts, or maybe even some of the deeper-level math that a CS graduate might know. And so there's this vast amount of knowledge that is within our grasp that we would consider things that we don't understand or things that we don't know, but that we are aware of. But there's an entire other category of the unknown. This is the category of things that we are unaware of, or things that are not close to mind, but if we thought about it, we could recognize that we don't know about them. Very simple examples of this are things that we don't really care to know about, or things that are not important for us to know about, at least. So we think the vast majority of reality in general, and the sounds very large in scope of discussion for this podcast, and we'll make it more practical here in a minute. But the vast majority of knowledge about the universe, or even about our own lives, we lose, or we never had, to begin with. And it's easy to prove this to ourselves. Very few people, if any, can remember what they did without some kind of assistance over the last 30 days. It's incredibly easy to mix up one day with another, or to even augment our memories with things that didn't even happen. There's studies that prove this, and you can find those with a quick Google search, and we've talked about it on this show before. It's not just a concept that you find in a movie, you can actually plant memories in another person's mind. But what's so interesting about this is that so much of this knowledge is things that we've experienced, that at one point were accessible, but because we're no longer kind of in that moment, and because our brains are not really optimized for long-term storage of insignificant detail, or things that are brains deemed to be insignificant for our survival, a lot of that information is just simply lost. It's let go of. So if we can't remember even our own day-to-day life, then the vast majority of the events that have happened in history are simply inaccessible to anyone, to any human at all. Now this may seem like a difficult reality to face, and in some ways it can be. Very often we believe that we know and we understand much more than we really do. This is a source of overconfident. We're going to take a quick sponsor break, and then we're going to come back and talk about kind of an overarching phenomenon of why we believe we know more, or perhaps the mechanisms that convince us of our own opinions and our own perspectives. Today's episode is sponsored by Linode. Linode is a company that was built by developers for developers. It's a very developer-friendly company to work with. With Linode you're going to have access to 11 data centers worldwide, native SSD storage, a 40 gigabit internal network, performance is absolutely critical on Linode. You can get started with this for as low as $5 a month. That'll get you on the Manode plan. You can even get on the other end of the spectrum a dedicated CPU plan, or even a GPU compute plan, suitable for AI machine learning, video processing. With that dedicated CPU plan you're going to get a physical core that is reserved just for you. Linode has block storage and object storage that can scale to your storage requirements. They also have a new revamped cloud manager built on an open source single page app. You can check that out at cloud.linode.com. Of course you can also find all of Linode's work on GitHub. GitHub.com slash Linode. As of the recording of this episode, that cloud manager was updated 29 minutes ago. This is indeed a group of Developer That are building tooling for you around the clock. I highly recommend you check it out. Head over to linode.com slash Developer Tea. And here's the thing, you're going to get $20 worth of credit. Just for being a listener of the show, use the code Developer Tea 20. That's Developer Tea 20 at checkout. linode.com slash Developer Tea. Thanks again to Linode for sponsoring today's episode. You may feel overwhelming that the vast majority of knowledge is inaccessible. And very often, the reason that this can feel overwhelming is because it feels threatening. That somehow we've lost the ground that we intended to gain. But there is some comfort that you can have in knowing that pretty much everyone in human history is at the same level as you. Even the smartest people, even the geniuses that we've been lucky enough to have on Earth with us are still incredibly limited and still don't have access to, once again, the vast majority of information that exists in the universe. And so it's important to, first of all, recognize that this is true for all humans, that there would be no mechanism by which you could go and gain all this information, but also to recognize that the drive to gain more information is core to our survival. That being able to gather information that is local to us, that is immediately relevant, well, that was actually important for survival. But there's a little bit of a dark side, and this is what causes us to have overconfidence. Our brains very often believe that we have a clear picture of the full reality. This phenomenon is coined in Daniel Connam's book, and what you see is all there is. We've discussed it on the show before. We've discussed this very topic on the show before, but it can be increasingly relevant to a developer's career, but also to the global climate that we're dealing with right now. The knowledge that is close by, the knowledge that is available, what we see, and by see, I also am including what we've heard recently, the things that are in our working memory, the things that are accessible to us. Very often pervade our understanding of all that there is. Let's take a simple example that is relevant to everyone right now. If you live in an area that hasn't necessarily seen as much of the effect of coronavirus, as what you see on the news, there is some kind of conflict, a cognitive dissonance between what you're seeing on the news and what you're seeing in front of you. It's likely that you're going to try to resolve this cognitive dissonance, and you might do that by creating new information for yourself. For example, that information might be that you have decided that the news media is not telling the truth or that they're misrepresenting the facts in order to gain better ratings or gain more viewership, or you might believe that it's only a matter of time that there's a time delay before the virus affects your area, or you might believe that your area is somehow immune to the virus, that the people in your area or your lifestyle has protected you in some way. There are a hundred other theories or beliefs that you might generate simply to resolve this cognitive dissonance. How you generate those theories or how you generate that information is entirely, almost entirely, dependent on what information is available to you and your experiences in your life. Now, to be clear about this subject, I highly encourage you to seek out authoritative sources that are backed by science, not backed by conspiracy theories or messages that you're getting from your friends, certainly trust the data that is being presented by higher level authorities on this subject. But it's important to recognize this pattern, this pattern of taking what's available. This is related to the availability heuristic, by the way, I encourage you to look this up, taking what's available and trying to push that as all that there is, once again, what you see is all there is. This availability heuristic or availability bias causes problems when you go to debug your code, for example. If all that you see in front of you is all that you believe is affecting this bug, or if the message that you're getting is saying one thing, but there's actually a different bug entirely, it might take a long time to find that bug. This is how very experienced engineers can spend quite a bit of time debugging something that's really a simple bug to begin with. The information that is available at our fingertips that is close to our most recent memories, the things that we've been exposed to, perhaps the types of bugs that we've solved before, especially the ones that we've solved recently, those are all going to have a major effect on how we react to something that's happening now. What can we do about this? It's not enough to just know about this reality. It's not enough to just know that you don't have all the information and that you're going to act in this biased way. To approach this thoughtfully, it's important to recognize that the answer isn't just in thinking differently. The answer is also in collaborating with other people who have different vantage points from you. Knowing that even the most advanced, most experienced programmers are still missing the vast majority of information. It also makes sense to regularly ask yourself the question and ask others the question, what have we not thought about? What are the possibilities that we haven't considered? What is something out of a totally out of left field that could be going on that we haven't really even brought to the table for discussion? This in a way is resetting what is available. This doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to conquer the bias, but instead you're going to proceduralize the discussions that otherwise may be prone to this bias. And that proceduralization could lead you to different outcomes. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I hope that even though it's a little bit frustrating that we don't all have access to all of the information all the time, that you find some comfort in knowing that it's not just you and it's not just me, it's all of us. All of humanity has a lack of information, a lack of awareness about the majority of reality. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Thank you again to Linode for sponsoring today's episode. However to Linode.com slash Developer Tea and use the code Developer Tea 2020. Check out to get $20 worth of credit as a new customer. Today's episode was produced by Sarah Jackson. It's available on spec.fm along with every other episode of the show. If you'd like to help us out, encourage you to leave a review in iTunes. This is the best way to help other developers find the show. Or if you think that there's a specific person that you know that would appreciate this episode, encourage you to share it with them. Finally, I want to do a rare thing here on the show and announce an upcoming episode. Next week I'm interviewing one of my favorite authors of all time. Even Heath Dan is responsible along with his brother for writing some of the most impactful research-oriented books that I've personally read in my career. In that episode, we're going to talk about a book of his called Upstream. I hope you will subscribe and whatever pie-casting app you're using right now so that you don't miss out on those episodes. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.