The Thursday keynote at VMworld USA is always about things unrelated to VMware’s products. It makes a welcome break from looking into the depths of IT. The keynotes are supposed to make us think about our place in the world, and that of the IT we support. One of the presentations this year was about the concept of “umwelt,” which is about how we perceive the world around us. I think that there is a parallel concept in how we perceive products and technology that colors our opinions. I’m fairly sure I’ll misuse “umwelt” here, but I don’t have a better term.
Fundamentally, we know only what we sense and have no idea of what we do not sense. A person who has been blind all their life does not live in a world of darkness, since perceiving darkness requires sight. Humans do not miss the ability to sense electrical fields, which sharks can sense. To bring it back to technology, we know the technology we understand. We know of some technologies about which our knowledge is minimal: the known unknowns. But technologies we have never heard of may as well not exist: they are unknown unknowns.
One of the places this shows up is in the technical solutions that we design. We can only choose to use technologies that we are aware of. There may be better solutions to a problem, but until we learn of those solutions, we cannot apply them. Fundamentally, this means that we should be forever learning, never resting on our knowledge and always seeking to understand more. The known unknown is the technology you have heard of but do not yet understand enough. If it is relevant, then the need to study it more is obvious. The challenge is to push past to the unknown unknown: the revolutionary change that will be transformative. Usually, this is less obvious and will require learning a whole new skill set. Generally, it is the bleeding edge that adopts the unknown unknown, taking the biggest risks and reaping the biggest rewards (or biggest failures).
Another time the umwelt concept is useful is when we are learning from others. You may be surprised to know that one of the subjects I studied in university was a course on women’s studies. A large part of the course was about how women are represented in the media, but there were quite a few other concepts that I found very useful. One of them was a part of feminist literary critique in which the article being read is studied in light of the author’s background. This recognizes that every piece of writing contains the experience, and therefore bias, of the author. By knowing about the author, we can know more abut the context of what is written. I usually apply the same principle to reading technical and blog content. When I’m reading a storage blogger’s content, I understand that they may not be so familiar with virtualization. When I read content from someone working for a hyperconverged vendor, I understand that they will have a bias against a storage array. I also understand that these biases are not a bad thing or necessarily commercially biased. The author’s opinions are simply influenced by their umwelt. They know well what they understand, and their perspective is a result of their experience.
It is natural that there are gaps in our awareness, just as there are in our ability to sense the world around us. When you are learning from another person, which should be every day, you should take a moment to assess their umwelt. While you are there, assess your own umwelt. Your opinion of another person or an article will also be a result of your own knowledge and experience. It is easy to dismiss those who disagree with us. Just as Einstein initially dismissed quantum physics due to his religious beliefs, we can dismiss revolutionary ideas and technologies too quickly.
The reality is that everyone has imperfect knowledge. By acknowledging and embracing this reality, we can get a more useful understanding of the world in general and of our professional world. As technical people in the rapidly changing world of enterprise IT, continuous learning is a given. This also implies continuous ignorance; there is always more that we do not yet understand.
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