For a single person, knowledge is usually binary: either you know something, or you don’t. If you know it, you can easily remember it, and then use it to make decisions. For example, if I know that Alice is a thief, I won’t invite her over to dinner. People can forget something, but they probably won’t if it’s really important, and what qualifies as “important” is pretty straightforward: your family, your house, your job, your health, your puppy. If I tell Bob that his house burned down, now that he knows that, I can easily predict his actions: call his family, drive there, take some time off work, file an insurance claim.
Knowledge in groups – companies, institutions, societies – is much more complex, because the ways people can share information (writing, speaking, body language) are really, really slow, compared to either thoughts or computers. For a group to “know” something the way a person does, there are five separate steps:
- First, someone within the group has to discover the knowledge; say, that Alice is a thief.
- Usually, this person won’t be the group’s leader; they can’t act by themselves. Therefore, they have to figure out who else in the group they should share it with.
- If the group is large enough, this might have to be repeated several times (up a chain of command, say).
- Once the information reaches, eg., event security, they have to decide what to do based on what they learned.
- Finally, they have to implement the plan, and not let Alice into the building.
To add extra complexity, it’s a lot harder to know which facts are important, and which aren’t. If a Wal-Mart greeter finds that Wal-Mart’s TV supplier has gone bankrupt, they might not care very much; they have the same job either way. Conversely, if the CEO of Wal-Mart desperately wants to know something, the greeter probably never hears about that. Maybe the CEO would even give the greeter a big bonus if they found out, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s no straightforward way to tell them.
Hence, “ghost knowledge” is one possible term for something a group “knows” – in the sense that someone in it knows – but where it might as well not, because the group can’t meaningfully act on that knowledge. One famous example is the Nigerian “underwear bomber”, who smuggled explosives onto a US-bound flight on Christmas 2009, but then failed to detonate them. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umar_Farouk_Abdulmutallab) His own father had, a month before, traveled to the US embassy and told the CIA about his son’s extremism, but this information never made it to airport security. For a contemporary intelligence agency, simple math demands that almost all knowledge is “ghost knowledge” – a computer can tap undersea cables and read off terabytes every second, but the ability to orient, decide, and act is still limited to the speed of a small number of human managers.