Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns and the Engineering Method

A known unknown, in engineering jargon, is something you know you don't know. For example, I know that I need to improve my social skills. I know that I can't tell if someone is mad at me or just happened to slam the door shut because they're in a rush. (I usually assume they're mad at me.) I know that I don't know where the boundary between honesty and tattling lies (it moves around a lot). I know that I don't know when to speak and when to shut up.

This is bad enough, but what about the unknown unknowns? These are, quite simply, the things that you don't know you don't know. Either you think you know them (but don't), or you've never thought about them (and therefore never realized you don't know about them). In engineering, these are the unexpected factors you never even considered, like a meteorite falling on your computer, or ants nesting inside. (Now that I've thought of these, however; they are no longer unknown unknowns, but known unknowns.) The goal is to identify the unknown unknowns, turning them into known unknowns, and eventually known knowns.

These unknowns, and the engineering method, are my latest attempt at quantifying, analyzing, and, eventually, solving some of the social tangle. "Proper" social interaction, is a slippery, fluid, subjective thing, a set of rules constantly rewriting themselves, an intricate web through which others dance and I stumble. And no wonder: I like concrete things; right or wrong, black or white. A computer program won't suddenly decide to do something else when you run it. A calculator doesn't give you different answers every Tuesday. A person says one thing and means another, wishes they had said a third, and is thought to have said a fourth!

The engineering design method is simple, concrete, and logical. You begin by identifying the problem. Today's problem: apparently I don't look people in the eyes enough, and may offend them.
The second step is to brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. Maybe I could wear sunglasses! I could get my mom to alert me when I don't look at people so I remember to do it. I could alert myself, or wear a rubber band as a reminder. I could try to explain why I don't look at people so they won't be offended. Maybe nobody will notice, and it's not a problem after all!
Next, weed out the impractical ideas. Almost all of these are impractical except reminding myself to do it, though sunglasses would probably work outside.
Then think of some ways to implement the idea. I could wear a rubber band, like I said, or write a note on my hand. I could somehow train myself to remember every time I see someone. (Too bad there isn't an app for this.) An app! I should get a proximity sensor and have it beep when someone stands close by for a certain amount of time, like they would if talking with me.
Most of these solutions are impractical, including, unfortunately, the sensor. The best solution is for me to remember on my own, but that is also the hardest to implement, so I'll work on written reminders.
We have now arrived at a solution! All that remains is implementation, testing, and revision. How many other social problems can be solved this way?