The Known Unknown: The Power of Awareness of Ignorance

The Daily World, March 27, 2023

Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of Defence had famously said during a 2002 press briefing, “… there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” A large part of human progress has been as a result of the possessed men pursuing the unknown unknowns. Voyages across unknown seas resulted in the discovery of lands hitherto unknown and altered the course of human history. Astronomers peering through telescopes discovered galaxies they did not know existed. Ancient Indians meditated on the question “Koham?” Who am I? While the answer remained unknown, the journey of each seeker revealed a lot more other unknowns, making the quest infinite.

The West and Communist China represent the opposites in such quests. The scientists in the West and in their post-War allies like Japan and South Korea have soared into the unknown unknown every day and brought back news of what mankind did not know existed. Once aware of its existence, the discovery became a known unknown and led to new research to know more about it, understand and unravel it and harness its power in the service of humans. Everyday, the possibility of the existence of a new wheel is discovered and the method to create it is invented and patented. The huge cost incurred during this discovery and invention is recovered through the sale of the Intellectual Property Right (IPR), making the whole process sustainable.

The Chinese were keen to avenge the “Century of Humiliation” and the process of discovery and invention was excruciatingly slow. Their adopted shortcut was to get the invention without paying for the IPR and mass produce it. The moment they got to know that a Western lab was working on a known unknown, their agents joined the research and “facilitated the free transfer” of the state of the art technology. But it was not a straight and easy path. As Yi Wen describes, the Communist success was built on three failed attempts at industrialisation; the first during the Qing Dynasty, eight years earlier than Japan’s Meiji Restoration, the second during the Nationalist regime established after the 1911 Revolution when the slogan was, “Only science and democracy can save China,” and the third during the Mao era. By the time Deng emerged, China had a bagful of lessons about what not to do.

Deng’s policy of “hiding the strength and biding the time” played a huge role in the success of the fourth attempt at industrialisation of China, where the per capita income in 1978, a full twenty nine years after Mao came to power, was almost the same as was after the Second Opium War. As Adam Grant says in his book “Think Again,” the Chinese knew when to shift gear from fight to flight and survive to fight another day. After each retreat, the Chinese think again. Americans have been averse to discard the baggage of history, to rethink and unlearn. The past has been a constant source of strife in the US, a natural phenomenon in democracies. Statues of the past heroes are being toppled and the confederate flag, considered a symbol of the support for slavey, is being taken down. Even the victorious in the Civil War have not been spared this contention with the past. The likes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are facing increasing scrutiny with their actions and beliefs in the 18th and 19th centuries being judged with reference to the norms of the 21st century. In any democracy, with its myriad voices in the air, disagreements are inevitable about how much of the past belongs to the garbage bin. The Chinese leadership, the only public voice in a country of 1400 million, one day admitted that “Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong” and the nation moved ahead of the disasters of the Great Leap, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution.

Achieving apparent harmony is easy under an authoritarian regime. In China, for example, the thinking part is the monopoly of the Party and working on the farms, factories and on computers is that of the people. As the present writer had said in an allegorical way in his book, “The Last Pass,” the authoritarian leaders acting as referees design games called “Action Without Thought” and lay down the rules for the masses to play these games. Yet, nations suffering such regimes do not have unhindered progress because they suffer from what has been called the “first-instinct fallacy” of the supreme leader. Such leaders, whether it be a Mao or a Xi jinping, are but human. They err like the rest of us humans but the system does not provide a mechanism for the error to be pointed out. The nation has to wait for a successor to admit the mistake and move on. Meanwhile, not only the lack of encouragement to free thinking, but more importantly, the active curbs on the free thinkers, stunt creativity in the society. It is no coincidence that the Communist rulers in China adopted the shortcut of stealing knowledge and focussed on production. Even if they had not, the possibility of fundamental research in a society living under a repressive regime is dim.

Events in China since 2019 have shown that harnessing the power of known unknowns is not enough to ensure a smooth flow towards prosperity. The nation has to suffer the idiosyncrasies of a leader till nature takes him away. Leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao  committed ample atrocities on the people, whether on the students at Tiananmen Square or on the Falun Gong adherents. Yet, they also brought a large degree of economic liberalisation empowering the people to show at least the “creativity” of making money. Such leaders evolved the tradition of two-term limits for the supreme leader and voluntarily handed over power to a successor. Xi himself got power in such a voluntary handover by Hu Jintao. On the other hand, Mao ruled for life and Xi intends to do that.

A vital part of the power of the people in a democracy is their right to “use and throw” leaders and not tolerate any leader after he has outlived his utility or has become detrimental to the nation. This is democracies’ way of course-correction, a glaring absence in authoritarian regimes. While China is not likely to learn that lesson anytime soon, for the democracies, the contrary is proving a big disrupter. China discards the dead but clings to the living; the free world easily discards the living at the next hustings but clings to the dead. The dead leaders’ ideas are more likely to be anachronistic. Even if these have any relevance beyond their lives, these should be mere tools, without any sacredness attached to them. These should be open to unfettered discussion and criticism. An age when living  grandparents and parents are increasingly being neglected, grand memorials get built for dead leaders with public money. This Pharaonic thinking should have no place in democracies if they want to keep moving on their journey of continuously discovering the unknown unknowns and inventing the known unknowns.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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