Wisdom Cannot be Unzipped
Why telling people wise things doesn't fix them
The year was 2016 (or close enough), and a friend of mine’s younger brother - we’ll call this younger brother Luke - was about to start college.
Having completed college not that long ago, I thought it would be nice if I could make a list of some of the things that had helped me - the strategies and disciplines that I had made use of - to hand to this prospective scholar.
I made my list, including links to productivity resources and guides to How To Get Things Done, and prepared to hand it off to Luke with my best wishes.
I remember how it felt, handing him that list. I was envious of Luke, in a way; I wish that I had had someone hand me this list back when I started college. It would have made things so much easier! And here I was, just handing Luke the keys to success on a silver platter.
He didn’t even know how lucky he was. I could picture how much easier he’d find things than I did, with the steps on his path helpfully guided by my concise and helpful list.
A few months later, I check in with my friend as to how his younger brother is doing, sure that I am about to hear a tale of effortless success and, well…
Luke was failing his classes.
I later learned that Luke had dropped out after his first year.
Nowadays Luke’s doing his own thing, and I have, shall we say, different opinions about the utility of college in general. And I can look back at the list I gave him and admit that it was not a perfect distillation of how to Mange Time Effectively and Really Get Things Done.
At the time though, I was aghast, and spent a great deal of thought on how my Super Awesome List failed to teach Luke the secrets I had learned throughout college on How To Get Things Done.
What I realized, after a great deal of introspection, was that it was inherent to the nature of wisdom itself that it cannot be decompressed. What follows is an examination of that idea.
Part I: Gird Your Metaphors
Compression as a Technology
Compression is a key technology in digital systems. It’s what happens when you ‘zip’ a file - the file size is reduced, like packing a puffy winter jacket in a suitcase by sitting on the suitcase until you can get it closed.
We compress data in digital systems because data transmission and storage aren’t free, in money or in time. It takes longer to send a gigabyte than a megabyte, and you can (by definition) store a thousand of the latter for every one of the former.
It becomes valuable, then, to compress any data we send before we send it; it can then be decompressed (unzipped) upon being received.
With me so far?
Wisdom as Large Pieces of Data
People have been defining wisdom since there have been bearded old men claiming to have it. For our purposes, we’ll be defining ‘wisdom’ as a large piece of data, generally in the form of a life lesson synthesized into a series of recommended behaviors for various situations created from accumulated life experience.
(Don’t worry, we’ll get to concrete examples in a second.)
Talking as Transferring Data
Just as data is transferred from one computer to another along wires, ‘knowledge’ - or ‘wisdom’ - is transferred from one person to another via sound waves, or, you know, talking.
The problem here is that computers can transfer massive amounts of information between each other very very quickly. Humans cannot; no matter how fast we talk, talking remains a very slow method of communication. (Consider the information transfer of an eBook: the book could be transmitted from a source computer to your computer/kindle/device in seconds, but if you tried to read the book to another person, it would take hours.)
To solve this problem, we humans compress the data we transfer via talking. We don’t describe the book we’re reading by reciting the entire thing word for word - we summarize. We don’t specify a person by communicating all of their identifying information - birth date, height, weight, physical description, etc. - we just mention their name, and expect the person we’re communicating with to know who we’re referring to, and understand any relevant context.
What about when we try to communicate wisdom by talking?
Well, we use sayings.
Part II: Aphorisms and Abbreviated Wisdom
I’m going to throw a few sayings at you; odds are that you’ve heard at least one of them before.
A stitch in time saves nine
Look before you leap
A word to the wise is sufficient
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Actions speak louder than words
A penny saved is a penny earned
Measure twice cut once
These aphorisms, I argue, are in reality compressed bits of wisdom. They’re handed down from the old and wise to the young and stupid, generally in the hopes of making the young slightly less stupid.
And yet a compressed message, to be understood, must be uncompressed. When you email someone a zipped file, the file must be unzipped before it can be read.
The young and stupid - or more generally, anyone who doesn’t understand the underlying message - are incapable of successfully unzipping these aphorisms. They lack this ability not because they’re young or stupid, but because of the nature of compression itself.
Compression Necessitates Shared Knowledge
Imagine that a computer, Alice, wants to send another computer, Bob, a message. The message is in binary (naturally), and is as follows:
A common type of compression algorithm compresses information by recording patterns in the information, and communicating the pattern. For instance, this message contains four 1’s, then six 0’s, then 1010, then eight 1’s, then five 0’s, then 101.
So a compressed version of the message might look like:
4x1 6x0 1x1010 8x1 5x0 1x101
So Alice sends the compressed message to Bob. But how does Bob know how to decompress the message?
Well, Bob is (hopefully) aware that
and so on. So long as Bob knows that, Bob can decompress the message and read it.
This requires shared knowledge. Alice and Bob have to be on the same page here before any information is transferred; they both have to know that compression is happening and the particulars of how it takes place in order to communicate successfully.
In computers, the shared knowledge is the compression algorithm.
In people, it’s a little more complicated.
Idea Compression (or The Makings of Aphorisms)
What does someone mean, when they say “A stitch in time saves nine”?
What are they trying to communicate?
First we have the literal meaning of the phrase:
Take an article of cloth, perhaps a piece of clothing. Imagine a favorite pair of jeans, for instance.
Cloth tears when exposed to sufficient stress - jeans get ripped, torn, etc. Wear and washing can cause or exacerbate this.
These tears often start small - a tumble while wearing these jeans causes a bit of them to snag on a tree branch or something, and a small tear in the cloth is created.
Because these tears represent a weakness in the physical integrity of the item, further stress often causes existing tears to worsen. In other words, it’s easier for a small tear to get larger than a new tear to form.
Tears are often addressed by stitching - binding the two sides of the tear by layering new thread across it.
Two possible options present themselves for addressing the tear: stitch it shut when you first notice it, or wait awhile before stitching it shut.
If you stitch the tear when you first notice it, presumably the tear is small, and so requires few stitches.
If you wait, the tear has presumably gotten larger over time, and so requires more stitches to close it than if you had done so earlier.
Hence, stitching a tear upon noticing it requires fewer stitches than waiting to do so later, or “saves” stitches.
“Time” sort of rhymes with “nine.”
A stitch in time saves nine.
Next we have the extrapolated or generalized meaning of the phrase:
Smaller problems require less resources (time, money, thread, etc.) to deal with than large ones.
Problems often grow worse over time if left unaddressed.
Dealing with problems earlier is thus more efficient than dealing with them later on.
Deal with your problems now before they get worse.
And supporting this generalized meaning will be countless memories and associations. Originally this might have been literal articles of clothing that had to be disposed of because tears had been left unaddressed and had grown too large to be worth fixing, but more modern interpretations and examples abound.
A health problem that could have been fixed with a simple procedure metastasizing into a major problem.
A small credit card debt that, left unpaid, accrues interest until it becomes a sizable burden.
A blinking “check engine” light on a car ignored until the car breaks down.
All of these meanings and associations and memories, all the emotions and context and history surrounding them - all of it gets compressed into a pithy saying for concise communication:
A stitch in time saves nine.
Part III: Miscommunications and Conclusions
A Failed Communication
None of that meaning, no hint of the association or emotion or context, is transferred along with this “wisdom”. None of it is inherent to the six words: “a stitch in time saves nine”.
Rather, these six words function more as a mnemonic device - a compressed way of referring to the broader idea. For those who already understand the larger concept, a simple reminder that “a stitch in time saves nine” is often enough to communicate that they should deal with a given problem soon, before it gets worse. (One might even say that a word to the wise was sufficient.)
For those who don’t understand the larger concept, the reminder that “a stitch in time saves nine” doesn’t mean a whole lot. At best it’s a way of berating them to stop being lazy; at worst it’s a throwback to a time when people repaired clothes instead of throwing them out and buying new ones. Either way, little to none of the meaning of the aphorism is successfully transferred, because the contextual knowledge necessary to decompress the wisdom isn’t present at one end of the communication.
It’s as if Alice sent Bob:
instead. Bob has no idea how to interpret that - he is unaware that Alice was transmitting the information in hexadecimal instead of the compression format he was expecting.
Where Words Fail
Words are not a particularly high-bandwidth form of communication; it takes a great many of them to convey an idea without relying on shared context or experience.
When that context is present - when two people are “on the same wavelength” or can draw from a similar well of experiences - then a single word or phrase can contain a library full of meaning. This shared context is analogous to shared knowledge of a decompression algorithm between two computers: when present, it enables a great deal of information to be transferred via short messages.
But when it isn’t, when the wise invoke an aphorism to the not-wise, that shared knowledge is absent. The decompression fails.
And the truth is that compressed knowledge can’t really be transferred at all. Words can describe experiences, but they cannot truly convey them, not the way they were originally experienced. They can’t contain the qualia, the subjective interpretation of an experience that happened in reality. They can reference it - they can wax poetic about the emotions of the experiences, or outline the failures suffered and lessons learned - but that’s it.
Simple ideas can be conveyed with words - “house”, “blue”, “square”, etc.
But wisdom? With all its complex context and referent experiences and myriad meanings?
Imagine that you’re in a similar position to the one I was in, back when I was trying to show Luke the methods and strategies that worked for me in college.
Now imagine that you’ve failed, and are trying to communicate what that experience is like. Imagine that you’re attempting to describe, subjectively, what it feels like to try to impart wisdom to someone who doesn’t possess the shared context and experience it would take to grasp the ideas you’re attempting to convey.
What might you come up with?
I came to understand: Wisdom cannot be unzipped.
But then that requires explanation too, doesn’t it?
Affably Evil is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.