David Heinemeier Hansson

December 2, 2022

Nobody Knows Anything

I can't remember a time in my life when so many got so much wrong in their predictions about the future. Not in politics, not in culture, not in technology, not in economics, not in medicine, not anywhere. It's been a profoundly humbling phase of human history for both the experts that predict for a living and the masses trying to sort out who's right. The best approximate conclusion I've been able to draw is this: Nobody Knows Anything.

That's of course not literally true. There are specific people who know specific things about specific topics. But it's been like trying to pick an active fund manager to steward your investments, as soon as you venture into predictions about even the near-term future. The ones with the great recent track record often regress to the mean, and picking the upcoming stars is like a lottery.

What makes all this harder still is that so much of our establishment of journalists, thinkers, and intellectuals have never seemed less interested in actually figuring out what's truly what. So much of the inquiry is tuned not for getting closer to the truth, but for protecting narratives and ideologies.

No wonder approval ratings for the press, for example, have hit all-time lows in the US. Only 11% of Americans now trust in television news a great deal or quite a lot. That's down by a third from the already dismal numbers in 2021. Newspapers are scarcely doing any better, with just 16%.

What's fascinating about the ranking of institutions that Americans are willing trust is who comes in as #1: SMALL BUSINESSES. 68% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in small business. Ahead of even the military.  I'd venture an explanation as to why, but sticking with the spirit of this thesis, I'll save my theorizing.

The double whammy from this predicament is of course also that nobody knows what to do about the fact that Nobody Knows Anything. It's turtles all the way down.

But I'll tell you what I've done. I've accepted the fact that the best approximation of the truth usually emerges from the cauldron of opposing elements. Picking a permanent side in some grand ideological struggle – with its prepackaged set of principles and values, enemies and heroes – might bring psychological comfort in the short term, but it'll erode the capacity for intellectual honesty in the long term.

The second thing I've done is to try harder to give everything five minutes. What were the motives driving the perpetrator of this specific tragedy? Give it five minutes. What will come of the world if the advances in AI continue current leaps? Give it five minutes (or five years!).

Accepting that Nobody Knows Anything does not render all truth relative. We can still validate knowledge. But we need far greater humility in where we're going to find said truth, how long it takes to validate it, and our urge to protect ideological paradigms at all cost.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.