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Rural routes and embedded knowledge
Not all the knowledge you need will be found in a book. Sometimes it's literally in the middle of the road.
The next time you travel down a gravel road, take note of the number of tracks. Depending on the width of the road, the frequency of travel, and the level of maintenance being supplied by the county, you'll likely notice either two or three tracks -- two for the loneliest of roads, three for the real thoroughfares. The middle of the road gets used either way, which makes sense, considering that the hazards of ending up in a ditch are greater than those of scraping a curb on a paved city street.
■ Nonetheless, if you pay careful attention, you'll often find that the tracks diverge as you approach the crest of a hill. That's because of the natural tendency of the practiced driver to ease off the gas and drift to the right-hand side to avoid a head-on collision where visibility is lacking. The two-track road tends to become three; the three-track road tends to become four as you approach the local peak.
■ This pattern illustrates the under-appreciated phenomenon of embedded knowledge. Embedded knowledge is just about everywhere in our physical world, though by its nature we often don't even realize that it's there. Suppose, for instance, that you've been dropped off at a lonely old farmhouse on a cloudy night. If you were told you had to walk five miles west to get a ride home, you wouldn't want to set off in the wrong direction.
■ But a virtually foolproof compass can be found in the trees around the farmstead -- even if you can't see where the moss is growing. The preponderance of the time, you'll find evergreen trees to the north and west of the house, and deciduous trees to the south and east. Evergreens to block the cold winds and driving snows of winter (predominantly from the north and west, at least in the U.S. Midwest), and deciduous trees to offer shade in the summertime but letting light percolate through in the winter. Once you start to look for the pattern, you'll see it everywhere.
■ We have to train ourselves to recognize embedded knowledge. It doesn't leap out and grab us -- yet we often follow it automatically and unconsciously. The wise university groundskeeper doesn't fight the natural curves and zig-zags of the cowpaths that students end up leaving in the well-manicured grass. Instead, he or she learns to put the paved walkways where the students have revealed they are already going.
■ The more we learn to appreciate the embedded knowledge of life around us -- not just in the physical world, but in the abstract and non-material worlds around us, too -- the more we can realize what we know (and what sometimes we "know" that "just isn't so"). In the commercial world, embedded knowledge can become a source of competitive advantage. But it can also be pernicious -- or, at least, it can record and reveal pernicious human behaviors.
■ Government policies led to real-estate redlining that still has a sizable impact on integration and race relations today. And you can tell in 2021 which communities lacked wealth and political power when the urban Interstate highways were laid out in the 1950s.
■ Becoming aware of embedded knowledge and how it functions in the world around us is a vital step in learning to live smarter and better, both individually and at scale. It also serves to help us see our foibles and to become more conscious of the mistakes of the past that become hard-wired into our behavior. Humans are social beings and we sometimes share memory both unconsciously and in common. Learning to recognize that memory for what it is and how it affects us (especially without our active awareness) is a habit to cultivate.