I want to have a somewhat abstract discussion on the use of knowledge and how people regard knowledge in various settings, but in particular I will focus on my experiences in a fairly specific cross-section of the tech industry. I will suggest a framework and pose some questions.
The first question is how does knowledge pertain to success in Silicon Valley? If you want to “win” in tech, is it better to invest in knowing things rather than, say, knowing people? Or is tech a more purely social game? What is the relative value of intellectual capital vs pure social capital? I have thoughts on this that I’ll write about later.
The three approaches to knowledge
Supposing that knowledge has some non-zero value, I can think of 3 approaches to obtaining and utilizing it I’ve seen firsthand.
The most common pattern I saw was a belief that knowledge is important and that it was held by successful people. Folks like Peter Thiel or Marc Andreessen have very important knowledge and if you can somehow get it from them, you’ll be far better off. Let’s call this the model of privileged knowledge.
Another possibility that I’m not sure I know as many pracitioners of is that the milleu of knowledge is such that there are some fundamentals that everyone needs to know and there's a vanishing advantage to acquiring knowledge beyond this point. Furthermore, this knowledge is basically a commodity, so you can get it by business reading books and blog posts. Let’s call this the model of commodity knowledge.
Finally, there is the point of view represented by Peter Thiel’s notion of “secrets.” Specifically, that there is a means of deducing important knowledge through intuition or analysis, and that this is the most valuable kind of knowledge due to the need to avoid competition. Let’s call this the model of proprietary knowledge.
Anecdotally, I think the predominant view of most of my acquaintances is tech (mostly novice VCs and entrepreneurs) for example, is that you should believe and profess that knowledge is useful but actually act as though social capital is more important and optimize for that, accumulating whatever priveleged knowledge accrues along the way.
If there is a predominant pattern of belief is in privileged knowledge, as I suggest, venture capitalists or others who would sell mining equipment in a goldrush, would do well to position themselves as gatekeepers of an important knowledge base.
On the other hand, and to take myself as an example of what not to do: I was very attracted to the model of proprietary knowledge. However, I would caution anyone who would use this approach in SV. One of my proprietary findings is that, despite what it would like to believe about itself, tech is unable to value or do much with contrarian or proprietary knowledge bases.
Overall, I’m interested in what the ROI of knowledge is for the various games one might play in tech, which approach to knowledge acquisition is the most useful, which is the most useful to seem to use and in what areas, and which approaches to knowledge are believed in and by whom. I’d also be glad to hear of any other approaches to knowledge.
These concepts had been floating around in my head for a while and were catalyzed by a discussion with David Lee