In tech we have a tendency to assume the other guys know what we know. We actually play a game where we prod the other guy with slightly more complicated stories and questions as he does the same back until we level set and understand that we understand. This has led to a certain level of “tribal knowledge” where you know something because everybody knows it and why would you write it down?
But what happens when the tribe disbands? If Bob and Mary were the last people who knew you had to throw the red switch after you pulled on the whatsit, and they both left the team, that knowledge is lost forever.
Which brings me to my new phrase: “tribal amnesia” is the result of tribal knowledge over time.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being part of a tribe – I remember the first time I went to SXSW Interactive and just about everyone was a geek. It was freeing; I didn’t have to edit, or explain, I could just talk raw tech and complete strangers would know what I was talking about.
Of course, a lot of what we were talking about in 2008 probably would be gobbledygook to today’s geeks. We’ve created new things, renamed a few old things to make them seem new, and put a few things together differently that behave in completely new ways. Our assumptions have changed, and we don’t need to write down all our assumptions.
So the tribe forgets things. In a lot of cases it doesn’t matter, but then, one day, someone throws the red switch without even knowing the whatsit exists and disaster ensues. After the fire is put out, there’s a big meeting and the question is, “Why didn’t we know there was a whatsit?”
Well, “we” as in the current “we” never knew. But the tribe used to know about the whatsit until that part of the tribe went away and that part of the tribal knowledge went with them. The opposite of tribal knowledge… tribal amnesia.
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