In this day and age, the advances of technology are so quick that many people think there is no logical limit to what it will ultimately be able to do. It's easy to forget that not all information can actually be articulated, quantified or codified. Some information lives in the tacit dimension, and will not be so easily caged.
Simply put, there are two kinds of information: explicit information and tacit information.
Explicit information is all information that can be articulated, codified; written down or otherwise stored in objective forms. And because it can be stored, it is easy to transfer this type of knowledge through information carriers, digital or otherwise.
Examples of explicit information include:
- the number Pi
- a recipe for pancakes
- a computer program (software)
- historic facts
- light (photo and video)
- sound (audio/music)
- mathematical equations
You may think that this covers pretty much all kinds of information known to man. So what could this concept of tacit information possibly entail?
Tacit information is all knowledge that can not be articulated, codified, written down, downloaded or otherwise stored in objective forms. Because of this, it’s not possible to transfer tacit information from one person to another, or from person to machine. Tacit knowledge can only be acquired through practical experience in the relevant context.
This may sound elusive and intangible, but there are many examples:
- Physical skills
- Language, especially body language
- Emotional intelligence
It is impossible to communicate or fully articulate any of these directly.
For example: you can show somebody how to ride a bike, but you cannot transfer that knowledge, like you can transfer a password or bank account number. You can't even transfer your ability to write or draw from one hand to the other, let alone from person to person.
The same goes for a sense of beauty in art or music, a sense of humor, the concept of language, or the intuition built over a lifetime of practical experience that allows the expert to have that gut feeling that he can't explain, but that turns out to be correct more often than not.
Some of the most critical knowledge in this world is impossible to articulate, quantify or codify, because it's in the tacit dimension.
Despite his exquisite command of the hard sciences, especially chemistry, Polanyi eventually ended up concluding that not all knowledge can be expressed in data points and formulas.
He summarized his conclusion in these legendary words:
Tacit knowledge proves what I think most of us already knew intuitively: there is more to knowledge than codified information.
There is a widespread underappreciation of tacit knowledge, however. Most people exhibit a great disdain for such intangible concepts and a bias towards hard data.
And I think this is at least partly because of the school system. After all, pretty much the entire school system is focused on reproducing explicit information.
Since its inception during the industrial revolution, the school system essentially works as a mind factory where preselected inputs are supposed to create uniform end products that meet objective standards, as measured by standardized tests.
Because of this, schools are only interested in covering material that can be easily tested through various kinds of standardized examinations: explicit information.
How are schools going to test leadership skills, persuasiveness, emotional intelligence, creativity or charisma? Such tacit knowledge does not conform to the requirement of being objectively testable. It can't be graded and is therefore neglected.
Instead, it's all about the hard data. Everything has to fit neatly into a little box, where the answer can be either right or wrong. Questions such as:
- What is the capital of Idaho?
- How does the pythagorean theorem work?
- When was the declaration of independence signed and by whom?
Tidy and neat, explicit information. Organized, objective, and best of all: testable.
Except, nobody ever got hired because they checked the right boxes on a test. You get hired because you can solve a specific problem. And to solve specific problems, you first and foremost require soft skills, all of which are in the tacit dimension.
The best salesman is not a human database of product properties and reasons to buy it. The best salesman excels in the tacit skill of empathy and emotional intelligence, which allow him to figure out how to best appeal to the target audience.
The best mathematician is not a walking supercomputer. The best mathematician possesses the tacit soft skills of logical deduction and intuition, allowing him to reduce complex problems to solvable equations.
The best designer is not the one who best approaches the perfect mathematical dimensions and proportions in their designs. The best designer utilizes the elusive tacit skill of an aesthetic sense to craft that beauty we all crave.
Etcetera. etcetera. The list goes on and on.
Even software developers first and foremost require the tacit human skills of creativity and ingenuity to take a real world problem, think of a solution and codify (literally) that solution into a program that can make a computer solve that problem.
With the importance of data and information ever increasing, robots taking over manual labor in every industry and software eating the world, the era we live in is aptly named the information age.
In such an age, it's easy to fear that we will all eventually be replaced by machines. But that can actually never happen.
The reason for that is that not all information can be neatly codified. In fact, arguably the most important forms of information are in the tacit dimension.
So focus on acquiring knowledge and skills in this tacit dimension and you will never find yourself replaced by a machine.