Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#3/4 Alfred Birnbaum 1 Jan 1994

Better Not Knowing

A Fable

In those days, so much was unaccounted for that they decided to base their economy on what they didn't know. It made sense: a life where everything is known is not worth very much, people said, so not knowing must be a precious thing! And even more logical, as soon as they saw the unknown as their greatest and most inexhaustible resource, they immediately became the richest people in the world.


Better Not Knowing -


Better Not Knowing -

At first, everything went very well and everyone was happy. People would clean out their closets or harvest their sleep for marvelous and mysterious things to take to market, where they would exchange them for yet other marvelous and mysterious things.

There arose a huge trade in the unexplained and inexplicable. Bartering for who-knows-what became a high art, full of tricks and trumps, subtle sidesteps and flamboyant backflips. To explain was to cheapen, so if you could get others to tell you about what they were selling – or sometimes even just why - then obviously you could have it for less. But you had to be careful: the more you knew about what you were bidding for, the less desirable it was to acquire. And after many changes of hands, known properties were cursed and almost impossible to dispose of.

- ''You can't pass that off on me! I know what it is...

- Yes, but you have no idea what it's really not worth!

- And what makes you think I can't tell?

- Because otherwise you'd know what a bargain I'm giving you!''

Walking through the marketplace, you soon realised there were two schools of traders: the trusting ones who accepted whatever they weren't told and the doubting ones who had to know how much they weren't being told. Who got the better deals, no one could say - and of course, no one wanted to know.

It got to the point that if you tried to sell someone something, they would either insist you keep it in the bag and not show them anything; or they would ask you to show them the bag with nothing in it, just to know how much of a mystery it was – but not what kind. Not surprisingly, the best traders were the ones who could make what wasn't in the bag seem worth more than any actual unknowns.

So it was that one of the most clever merchants – and one of the laziest – had a tantalising thought. If what isn't in the bag is the real buy, suppose I turn the bag inside-out? Or better yet, what if I put all I know in-the-bag and just sell everything else...?

Yes, that would no doubt save a lot of work, but how to do it? How to first gather up everything you knew, then find a bag big enough to hold it all? The merchant did a quick mental inventory. Let's see now, what do I know?... There's my house. I know all the rooms very well. And my family, I probably know them better than I care to think about. Father, with his stupid little jokes, and Mother, forever not-saying what she means. Then, of course, there are my friends, the other traders. No, they'd never agree to climb into my bag! How would they ever sell anything of their own again? Why, there are whole parts of town, the streets I know like the back of my...

Hmm, this was getting all rather difficult. Where could you ever hope to find a bag to hold all that? And would one thin layer of paper really be enough to keep in the knowns? Could cloth cover? And how could you know for sure you'd gotten everything in? Maybe the bag itself would have to know...

Maybe it would be wiser to begin by reducing the number of things you knew, to start by un-knowing things. By forgetting. Yes, let's get stupid. Easier said that done! To learn to know less than when you started, to remember to forget – if this wasn't backwards thinking, what was? Or maybe even inside-out and backwards.

The merchant's head was tied in knots, twisting imaginary arms, reaching into non-existent cavities, inverting unseemed linings. The old magic trick: nothing up it, but you still had to have a sleeve.

Now we've all out-smarted ourselves at one time or another, but try to out-dumb yourself. And then, just enough to know what'd you done! You had to remember you were selling something, after all. Tricky business. Might as well throw a bag over your own head so you didn't know what's who or when's why.

Just then, our merchant had the very least meaningful thought. Here's how.

Very early the next day, before the sun came up, a silhouetted figure was seen creeping – or rather not seen, because everyone was still asleep (but you can keep a secret, can't you?) Stealing into the marketplace, the shadow moved quick as a thief from stall to stall, picking the locks, pulling untold stores and sacks of unknown merchandise from the shelves and piling them out in the aisles. Yet instead of robbing all the traders of their would-be goods, this shady character began to shift things from one stack to another, carefully noting which items were now where.

Which was as good as no where to anybody else, because by the time the perpetrator had finished this questionable business, the whole place was turned upside-down. Nothing was in its container any more and everyone's stock was jumbled out in plain view. Piles and piles of what-not were scattered about like the wake of a whirlwind, the passages waist-deep in tides of ignoratum. If there was any method here, it was invisible to all but rats and madmen.

When at last, with the first rays of dawn, the merchants arose and made their way to market to receive the early shipments of don't-tell-me's for the day, they didn't know what to think. Someone had shuffled their deck – should they be pleased or upset? Was this truly the chaos it seemed? Or was some demon keeping silent score?

On the one hand, everything was out in the open. Customers and clients could easily examine the merchandise. And that would send prices crashing down.

This is clearly the work of an anarchist!

On the other hand, maybe this wasn't anything to get upset about. True, each merchant's wares had been scrambled every which way, but it had happened to the entire market. All at once, indiscriminately, across the board. So everyone was even and no one had any particular advantage (except perhaps the one who did it, if indeed there was some murky mastermind at work here). And since nobody knew what each other originally had, nobody could tell what had actually been theirs or somebody else's look-alikes. That meant if everyone simply divided up the mess into equal shares, none of the merchants should have any complaint.

This is clearly the work of a communist!

On the third hand – the one under the table - supposing you could sell the incomprehensibility of it all, instead of the sight-unseen-ness of the things themselves – the lack of apparent reason and not the insubstantiality? That would up the stakes, or no? Supposing the value weren't in the not-what of the things, but in the not-why of things? But what would that mean? Especially if you yourself weren't in on which system really wasn't the one that counted. Obscurity is yours to offer only if you have some angle on the light.

This is clearly the work of an occultist ! A mystic!

Whether to laugh or cry: it was a cruel trick, indeed, but no one had a clue which way to be offended. No one but our friend, of course, who was smiling from the shadows. Smiling and very, very tired. For someone who was looking for a way to make an easy fortune, the early morning hours' labours had been exhausting.

It's getting hard just to be lazy these days.

Doing nothing, doing it well, takes preparation. To rest while all the others work, you either have to work their off hours. Or else you have get them to do your work for you, without them even suspecting. Keep them busy, keep them in the dark. Create confusion, but let them maintain it for themselves. You don't want to stay on your feet just to cast shade.

Now, for once, the disorder was all theirs. An unfair advantage not to be wasted! Lists in hand, checking over each itemised account, it was going to be a bright beautiful day. Enough dastardly deeds, time to relax. And with that, our connoisseur of chaos and profiteer of perfect purposelessness, turned to go.

But sometimes, even a one-eyed king walks blind into a wall.

Years passed. Times changed and even multiplied. The realm was hardly recognisable as the same country. Something was missing, though none could say just what was different. People looked back on the old days as a golden age of unknowing – or so they supposed. Not that they knew any more than in the old days, but they had stopped knowing less. Things made nonsense now; it was an insensible era. And that was by no means the worst of it.

No, they did not abandon their unthinkable economy. Rather it had gravitated in an impossibly plausible direction. They could not have seen it coming -- who would have? -- but now they had leaders who appealed to their Quality of Ignorance. Thus began the Reign of the Whethermen, who could describe and explain and quantify a seemly shape to their aimless state - about half the time. Using curves and bars, numbers and equations, they greyed-in trends in unknowing. There were schools of forgetting. Now they knew what they did not know - on the average. This was said to be a 'Better Not Knowing.' The new, improved haphazard.

Everyone walked around squinting. Eyes half-open - or medium-closed – blinking constantly, people wandered hit-or-miss through exactly twilit interiors. All had bruises on their brightness, which were considered a sign of beauty.

Permutations perfumed, factors flourished. Doubt became caché (though privacy grew suspect). In the aesthetically pervasive gloom, announcements were put up everywhere to disregard, and sign-painters profitted from hyphenation as the not-names doubled (though you could no longer deny either-or). Predictably, guessing was discouraged. But like they say, no news is twice news: once when you didn't hear it and once when you didn't pass it on.

Still, people were effectively happy. Trade was brisk, even as bartering fell from favour. Supply on-the-whole met demand, marriages were more-or-less affordable. For the first time anyone could not remember, you could retire on what you didn't know. Many had pocket money and would even occasionally splurge on nothings-in-particular, though none could say whence came this affluence.

Few had any real recollection of a past, for who could recall what they never knew? Actual memories were very rare indeed, but since this was not an economy of scarcity, it was no great loss. So it was hardly surprising that when a beggar crawled out from beneath the dim vaults and began ruminating out loud about the way things used to be, no one had the slightest idea what was wrong with the poor creature.

- ''I was there, before the lot of you! Before things were better!

- Ignore the wretch. Teach the nuisance not to lick wounds out in view!

- Why waste good ignorance? Anyone so clever, it's their own fault!''

There was something almost indecent about the old charlatan's insistence on reminiscing, yet there was something oddly familiar about this crusty character, too.

A crowd gathered. Jeered and provoked, pacing the public square where the market used to stand – or so proclaimed one of several possible inscriptions – the rag-picker commenced to raise a commotion.

- ''Do you know me? Well, I know each and every one of you. I was there!

- Wouldn't brag how much you know! That's why you're so broke!

- Ha ha ha! Stick around here in our times and you might get rich!

- Rich? I'm the one did the big switch! I got you by your accounts!''

And at that, the lost soul threatened to reveal... how was that again? No one could believe their ears: a secret code? Who even remembered that fateful morning in the marketplace? And even if they could, what difference would that possibly make any more? There was more than enough forgetfulness to absorb a few stray memories; the vast unknown had nothing to fear from a handful of names.

Brandishing a scrap of paper, worn and worried virtually illegible, our once-and-never merchant proceeded to read off a litany of scribblings.

- Stall A-101: Five crates such-and-such, twelve cases this-and-that, two packs miscelaneous etcetera... Booth B-7 Forty-five extra-grade wotzits, nineteen bottles superfine prattledrip, three gross fancy diddleknobs... Wagon C-23: Ten large taps, fifteen reprocessed quirks, three-and-a-half-dozen vims...

And on and on and on. When all of a sudden, the strangest thing happened. The list grew faint in those aged hands. It was fading into thin air!. The lines and wrinkles started to vanish from that wizened countenance. And before anybody could notice, our nobody began to look less and less like somebody and more and more like everybody else - if you can picture that! Within moments the face had disappeared into the crowd, no puff of smoke, no fanfare, and was never seen again. The people soon forgot why they were standing around and presently went about their business.

No one knows if they all lived happily ever after or not.