The Technium

The Expansion of Ignorance

[Translations: Traditional Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, Spanish]

The fastest growing entity today is information. Information is expanding ten times faster than the growth of any other manufactured or natural product on this planet. According to a calculation Hal Varian, an economist at Google, and I made, world-wide information has been increasing at the rate of 66% per year for many decades. Compare that explosion to the rate of increase in even the most prolific manufactured stuff – like concrete, or paper — which averages only 7% annually over decades.


We see the expansion of information everywhere. Less visible, harder to track, but exploding the same is the expanision of knowledge. The number of scientific articles published each year has been increasing in a steady rise for more than 50 years. Over the last 150 years the number of patent applications has increased. By this rough metric, knowledge is growing exponentially.


Science Journals

If knowlegde is growing exponentially we should be quickly running out of puzzles. Because of our accelerating rate of learning, a few writers declared we must be in the age of “the end of science.” This stance is hard to maintain for more than nano-second in view the current state-of-belief in physics: that 96% of all matter and energy in our universe is some unknown variety we call dark. It is clear that “dark” is a euphemism for ignorance.  We really have no idea what the bulk of the universe is made of.  We find a similar state of ignorance if we probe deeply into the cell, the brain, or even the earth.  We don’t know nothin’.

Yet it is also clear that we know vastly more about the universe than we did a century ago. This new knowledge has been put to practical use in such consumer goods as GPS and iPods, and a steady increase in our own lifespans. Our beneficial progress in knowledge comes from tools and technology. Telescopes, microscopes, fluoroscopes, oscilloscopes for instance, allow us to see in new ways, and when we looked with new tools, we suddenly win many new answers.

Yet the paradox of science is that every answer breeds at least two new questions. More answers, more questions. Telescopes and microscopes expanded not only what we knew, but what we didn’t know. They allowed us to spy into our ignorance. New and better tools permit us new and better questions. All our knowledge about subatomic particles derived from the new questions generated after we invented an atom smasher.

Picture 106

Thus even though our knowledge is expanding exponentially, our questions are expanding exponentially faster. And as mathematicians will tell you, the widening gap between two exponential curves is itself an exponential curve. That gap between questions and answers is our ignorance, and it is growing exponentialy.  In other words, science is a method that chiefly expands our ignorance rather than our knowledge.

We have no reason to expect this to reverse in the future. The more disruptive a technology and tool is, the more disruptive the questions it will breed. We can expect future technologies such as artificial intelligence, controlled fusion, and quantum computing (to name a few on the near horizon) to unleash a barrage of thousands of new huge questions – questions we could have never even thought to ask before. In fact, it’s a safe bet that we have not asked our biggest questions yet.

Or, to put it another way, we have not yet reached our maximum ignorance.

  • Bally

    If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Seems to me that the idea of ‘unknown unknowns’ falls into this category. If the tree makes no sound until you hear it, then the UU’s don’t exist (for us) until they become ‘known unknowns’, following that train of thought it seems inevitable that knowledge does increase ignorance (or awareness of unknowns, if you prefer).

  • nickb

    Further to ‘Barry, no relation’ earlier – I lay claim to neologizing the ‘igknown’, the area of knowledge we know exists but we can’t understand… like how the female mind works 8v)

    • I like the IGKNOWN — the known unknown.

  • gregorylent

    this is not some external reality coming out of an aggregation, it is a metaphor for our increasing ability to comprehend the nature of our own mind as consciousness .. it is what consciousness is and can already do, already a super-organism .. it seems to becoming externalized, but there turns out to be no difference between inner and outer. it is us as we are, becoming actualized

  • Mario

    The basic premise here is that as we learn more, we discover more unknowns, i.e. more questions about things we were not even aware before and hence that the gap between what we know and what we want to know is increasing. This is true.

    But, on the other hand, these new unknowns must be considered parts of our previous unknowns, even more so, since we weren’t even aware they existed. Hence absolute level of ignorance is not increasing, but decreasing with new discoveries.

  • Erick Gonzales Peterson

    Fascinating theory, Kevin. I’m an artist (filmmaker-writer-musician-puppeteer and ex-puppet) who found you on the web when I came across your blog on 1000 True Fans. Your mind is a gift to us all. This “Expansion of Ignorance” blog inspired me to dig into my “archives” and find a poem which I wrote a few months ago on this theme. My poem is called “99.9.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Here’s one from me:


    I had so many questions,
    For which I sought the answers,
    But every answer found
    presented twice as many questions.
    And then I dreamt of a machine
    uncovering answers lightning fast,
    With my two hands I built this thing,
    Infused it with my logic.
    This powerful nugget answered all
    the questions in the world,
    3 seconds it took this automaton,
    With 99.9 percent perfection.
    Answers in hand, I marched out to a world
    frozen with confusion,
    My bold smile crowned me King.
    I led my subjects to a yawning chasm,
    We all jumped in
    with ether wings designed from
    the fabric of good intent.
    0.1 percent of all God’s sprawling universe
    makes for quite the hole.

  • John Wheeler put it nicely: “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” (Scientific American (1992), Vol. 267)

    (I’ve always found this quote combines well with Mandelbrot’s 1967 paper “How Long is the Coast of Britain?”. Answer: depends how you measure, but essentially infinite!)

  • Excellent analogy. But few things that are running across my mind are:

    1. Aren’t we talking of captive audience within whom KNOWLEDGE is getting dissipated whereas others (majority) are still grappling to acquire that?

    2. The gap between Answers & Questions is Ignorance according to you. But can we really assume that rate of ignorance also increases exponentially?

    3. My point of contention is that more information = more knowledge = few informed people = CHANGE in the world. Isn’t that what are we looking with all these information leading to knowledge?


    • Uyizee

      ” That gap between questions and answers is our ignorance” this is not true. Our ignorance includes things that we have not yet asked questions about and things that we do not yet have answers to.

  • That’s not quite right. People who are unaware of their ignorance are no less ignorant, and similarly, progress simply makes us aware of problems we were previously ignorant of.

    We’re just discovering more ‘known unknowns’, but since they’re pulled from the pool of ‘unknown unknowns’, I wouldn’t be so sensationalistic as to talk about the “expansion of ignorance”. The ignorance is indeed being reduced, by the movement of ‘known unknowns’ into ‘known knowns’.

    • @ Barry Kelly (no relation): Yes, I think I do gloss over this distinction, lumping both types as “ignorance” when I should make a distinction between known unknowns and unknown unkowns. We are moving from less of the latter and more of the former, but we call them the same: ignorance. We need a new better word for “known unknowns.” Any suggestions?

  • Perfect point and I like to think about it this way. We seem to growing in ignorance as we learn more because we are growing conscious of our ignorance.

    The duality of that situation is very appealing actually! Almost like a Yin & Yang balance of what constitutes knowledge and ignorance.

    And of course, agree that we have not asked our biggest questions… :-) We have left those for the poor philosophers and religious folks..who might be the least qualified to handle that topic!

  • bill

    Ignorance can be identified by a LACK of questioning. A question signifies a desire for knowledge.

  • Thomas Winter

    I’d heard the John Wheeler quote slightly differently – “The larger the circle of the known, the greater the circumference of the unkown” – but I think I prefer the geographical metaphor.

  • which is why mystics emphasize the importance of “knowing that by which all else is known” and why, as interesting as it is, relative knowledge will always be incomplete.

    kevin kelly is a mystic. too. :-)

    enjoy, gregory lent

  • Pierre Rousseau

    Our stupidity is already infinite from the human perspective. What is accelerating is the failure to continue validating our stupidity.

  • OrgoneSight

    Questions/Answers are mutually interpendant Arisings that at least are pired. All questions have at least one answer.. some have more. Apparent distance of perception ‘between’ interactional ‘completion’ is illusory unless at least one Answer facilitates Achievement.. After this, the Question/Answer dance is a self-sustainable synergistic medium for Potential permutationals to be correlatively produced and interplayed… furthering Experiencial Extropy of Self.

  • It isn’t the answers. It’s the questions. Are we ignorant about the kinds of questions we are asking rather than the answers we get?

    There is also a cult of ignorance that seems to be growing, at least in the USA. Just look at the Republican party which seems to be running on the idea that the mediocre rule and what they call “elites” must always be bad.

  • Agreed. The thing that troubles me is the lack of moral humility in the face of one’s own ignorance, no matter how ‘expert’ one is in any particular field.

  • “…our knowledge is expanding exponentially, our questions are expanding exponentially faster. And as mathematicians will tell you, the widening gap between two exponential curves is itself an exponential curve. That gap between questions and answers is our ignorance, and it is growing exponentialy. In other words, science is a method that chiefly expands our ignorance rather than our knowledge.”

    I get what you’re saying but think you’re leaving a few important pieces out of the equation.

    First, while I agree that our questions (aka sense that’s there’s infinitely more out there that we don’t know) are expanding, weren’t we more ignorant before even acknowledging these? The term ignorance chasm you refer too is really more a solution chasm, technically. Our maximum ignorance is far behind us. Our maximum question set is far in the future (perhaps it will shrink as we try to “close” off our definition of our system.)

    Second, as we co-evolve with information and develop our technology and intelligence we constantly strive to shrink the gap. Yes, there are more questions, but we also mine answers at an increasing rate. There’s probably a fundamental systems power law here for # of questions:solutions.

    If you have a moment, take a peek at this crude diagram I pieced together about the relationship between humans tunneling to inner space and expanding outward. Implicit is the idea that as we mine information from our environment and simultaneously develop new capabilities we generate knowledge. It’s rough, but I think it applies here.

  • So knowledge is networked? The more pieces of information available, the more nodes and the more possible connectors?

  • Ken

    Try God.

  • How about problem sets vs. solution sets? Or perceived problems, perceived problem sets, collective problem perception, solution demand. Problematics and solvables…

  • @ Simon – I’d say knowledge is a network property or process, and that info is a related system property or process. They work in tandem and as info is input (selectively) into a large complex network (life system, or brain), knowledge results through a combo of hierarchical sorting processes. But learning has to occur gradually as the system intelligence and capacity increases, so more info is good, but too much is indigestible.

  • Robert de Forest

    I apologize if someone else covered this in an earlier comment, and also for being pedantic.

    “And as mathematicians will tell you, the widening gap between two exponential curves is itself an exponential curve.”

    It depends on the factors. The difference between y=x^2 and y=(x – 1)^2 is 2x – 1. That’s a widening gap, but it’s widening at a linear rate of 2 dy/dx.

  • Anon’y

    Curves such as x^2 are polynomial curves. Exponential curves are like e^x. The gap between functions like e^x and 2e^x is rising at a rate of

    This post was really neat. Someone put it on StumbleUpon.

  • Why do we assume “ignorance” is bad and “knowledge” good? There is an old saw, “Ignorance is Bliss” and I am sure we can all think of situations where ignorance is preferably to knowledge (go on, try!). We need to be careful about framing such binary and academic choices that obscure the real human issue here – the inequality of access to existing knowledge, often with life-threatening consequences.

  • Adam

    Kevin, great stuff, as always. thanks.

    Brendan @ #1
    Sorry, I tried hard and I can’t.
    Why would you ever not want knowledge?
    Ignorance is bliss, but only because it doesn’t know any better.
    Knowledge is often uncomfortable, to be sure, but it is power.

    I’ll take as much knowledge as I can get.

    “From the discomfort of truth there is only one refuge, and that is ignorance.
    I do not need to be comfortable, and I will not take refuge.
    I demand to know.”

  • I think we constantly traverse the ignorance/knowledge spiral.

    These are the stages of knowledge:
    1. unaware of our ignorance. (“ignorance is bliss”)
    2. aware that we do not know (Questions)
    3. Aware of our knowledge (Expertise)

    Once we reach stage 3, we unknowingly slip into the next level…and thus we traverse the never-ending knowledge spiral.

    -Vasu Srinivasan

  • Great post,

    Came to this through the Kurzweil post which was talked about on the Guardian today, and I saw this point follows on quite neatly from that one. People used to laugh at the ol’ Rumsfeldian “known/unknown knowns dichotomy”, but of course it was one only things he ever said that made any sense to me.

  • sjh

    Hello Kevin thanks for your great post.
    I have translated this article into Traditional Chinese, please inform me if there is anything offended by this translation, thanks.

    the link is as below:

  • MeTooThen

    A interesting post and conclusion.

    My understanding of Information (ala Shannon) leads me to a different conclusion:

    Information either is incorporated into structure (of a system) or it dissipates, like free energy.

    The production of information at higher (exponential) rates means that the complexity of things (i.e., our “world”) is increasing too, it’s just that we can’t easily measure that complexity or aren’t always aware of it.

    Examine your automobile, your visit to your doctor, or a trip to the market, or the computer you’re reading this on, all of this comes from the production of information as it is incorporated into these various structures/systems, all of which are increasingly complex both as large systems and all of their component sub-systems.

    I like the notion of thinking of these types of analyses in terms of sets.

    As for ignorance, Information is not knowledge, nor is it knowing. These are very different things.

    The same goes for ignorance, it is not the absence of Information.

    Just sayin’.

  • Cromagnum

    I think there are (at least) 2 flavors of ignorance
    Visible and Invisible
    The ignorance you show in the final graph is the visible variety. It merely consumes a small portion of the invisible ignorance.
    In other words, if you pick a topic that you say we are ignorant of now (based on the expanding qty), was there a time you assume that we were not ignarnat of it, or just not aware of it or looking for it? So we were always ignrant of it, its just now that we are looking for it that we cross the threshold that we at least know that we should be looking for it.

    Now all of this is different from being “Ignant”, which i define as “I don’t know and I don’t want to know”. It is ignorant with invincible stubborness added. And then slurred in street slang kinda way.

  • The Village Idiot

    If you understand, reality is as it is;
    If you do not understand; reality is as it is.

    What is the point of intellectual search for unknown unknown answers, when the application of known known answers and principles of honesty, honour, integrity, simplicity, sincerity et al remains denied, avoided, ignored, vilified, scorned, and betrayed?

    How much of the exponential ignorance lies in not confronting our selves, in avoiding knowing who we are, want to be..

    The addiction to the consumption of information, wihthout any application of the information; and an attachment to considering the information to be ‘knowledge’ appears a little silly, doesn’t it.

    If knowledge leads to accountability; lets take a look around at a world of political, academic, religious, corporate et al ‘leaders’ with ‘knowledge'; and ask ourselves whether they applied the information to their daily actions, to demonstrate a commitment to accountability (knowledge) or not?

    Information is useless, in the absence of political, emotional, psychological, and physical will to apply the information to your life.

    We have a world that pays lip service to honesty; integrity, honour, accountability; because we lack the political, emotional, psychological will to apply these very simple basic principles of conduct to our lives, and place them in our highest regard and reward them in each other, and in our choice of leaders; because emotioanlly, intellectually and psychologically we prefer people who tell us what we want to hear, who are politically correct and sycophantically crawl up our assess, making us promises of ‘change’ and ‘hope’ and ‘transparency'; without the slightest iota of meaning what we say, or commitment to following through on our promises.

    We need armies of lawyers to write documents in obscure legalese, cause we are too petrified of blunt honesty, and meaning what we say, and keeping our word.

    So, please tell me, when we have a planet of billions of two faced sycophant pharisees who don’t value simple shit like honesty and honour, and lack the will to apply these basics to their lives; what the fuck does it matter whether intellectually they can bullshit themselves that they actually give a flying fuck about some unknown unknown answers!

    Give me a fucking break! They ain’t mastered the basic 101 of known knowns.

    Anyway, there you got my moron imbecile ignorant rant; for whatever it’s worth, to your intellectually superior ego’s.

  • Luis Gutierrez

    Just a quick correction:

    Ignorance is not expanding, just our known ignorance.

  • m

    Kevin Kelly:

    Why do we need a new better word for “known unknowns”? Some laughed at the Rumsfeldian formulation, but isn’t it accessible? Isn’t “accessible” a desideratum?

    “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

  • Great post, Kevin.

    I have translated it to Spanish:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about our future.

  • pink panther

    How much of this expanded “knowledge” is actually important? The number of bytes may be expanding, but I find it hard to believe that all of this is actually new, important knowledge.

    We’re actually regressing: Heavy-handed copyright has essentially made all knowledge since the 1930s disappear from bookstores, as Barnes and Noble and others publish public-domain works from the 19th and early 20th century instead of high-priced copyrighted versions from the late 20th and 21st century. We’ll look back at the 20th century as the century of lost scholarship. How much “knowledge” is actually read by anyone? The late 20th century was a renaissance of the 19th century as copyrighted works were thrown off the shelves and out-of-copyright reprints took their place.

  • Chris Morton

    Some years ago I was on the periphery of a discussion about the speed of the expansion of scientific knowledge since the 1500ds. Today I am looking for an analysis which compares this speed of the expansion of scientific knowledge & the ability of trained scientists to assimilate developing and current information sale-able in modern society

  • Alex Thompson

    I for the most part agree with this. ” the stupidity of man is infinite, for as our intelligence or artificial intelligence grows so does our ignorance”
    Basically man is and probably will always be a stupid creature we are selfish, crude, self centered beings. We attain knowledge, information, and increase our intelligence, how ever as this happens just like basic physics as we push on our wall of ignorance trying to compress and eradicate it, it pushes back with equal force, no matter how much our intellect grows our ignorance grows proportionally to it. The infinite stupidity of man is that we do not realize this and so as we glorify our intelligence we in part praise our ignorance. And stupidity in its puriest form is the glorification of ignorance. At least that’s what it means to me…