The Long Now Foundation

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Intellectual Dark Matter

Knowledge that we can show exists, but cannot directly access, rests at the foundations of society and technology.

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Messier 106

Missing mass, missing knowledge

Many galaxies would fly apart if they had as much mass as estimates based on their visible signature suggest. Although some have posited alternative theories of gravitation to explain this discrepancy, most physicists now hypothesize the existence of mass-bearing particles that are not detectable through emitted radiation such as visible light. We call these particles dark matter, and it is estimated to compose about 85% of all matter in the observable universe.

Lost knowledge

A body of understanding becomes lost knowledge when the tradition of knowledge maintaining it ceases to exist. At the dawn of the modern era, during the Renaissance, there was a clear understanding of the importance and scope of lost knowledge. This led to an ambitious intellectual effort in which scholars unearthed and attempted to understand ancient wisdom.

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Apollo 11 engine components recovered by Jeff Bezos, currently at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Proprietary knowledge

The next large chunk of intellectual dark matter is proprietary knowledge. The use and spread of such knowledge is restricted by an institution guarding its monopoly.

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Historical performance of the Medallion Fund, 2001–2013.

Tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is not transmitted in written form. For example, a blacksmith learns to craft well-balanced swords through direct practice and correction from a master — not by reading a textbook.

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A sketch of a Bessemer converter.

The quest for dark matter

We are standing on top of a vast system of institutions powered by intellectual dark matter. Some of this matter can be made visible — proprietary and tacit knowledge function in private but can be uncovered. Much of this matter is lost, never to be seen again.

Footnotes

[1] As a very concrete example of the final item on this list, consider the founding of Amazon.com in 1994. One could infer at the time from Bezos’ previous employment, an article in his high school newspaper, and reports from his ex-girlfriend that he planned for Amazon to take over all of e-commerce to net enough money to start a space tech company. For many years, however, Amazon was only branded as a bookseller, and Bezos made sure to obscure the company’s long-term plans in quarterly earnings calls. Knowledge of this intellectual dark matter would have informed your strategic outlook, either as an Amazon competitor or a prospective investor. This email chain from Paul Graham is another example of an object of this form for Airbnb.

Written by

There has never been an immortal society. Figuring out why. I write on history, epistemology and strategy.

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