One Thousand Words

essay epistemology


This is an idea I have been working with for a long time. I have struggled with exactly how to present it and this is my first published attempt at doing so. I do not feel like I have it right yet and it does not capture all that I intend, but as a first attempt what follows is exactly one thousand words long…

Complete and Accurate

How would you describe yesterday? If asked to share an account of your life yesterday what would you say? And how long would it take to describe the day? You might answer “Nothing much,” but is that a complete and accurate answer? Did you go to work or did you stay home? It had to be something more than “nothing”. Pushed in this way, you might modify your answer to something like “Okay, I went to work as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary happened at work and then I came home. Had dinner. Watched the ballgame and went to bed.” We now have a better picture of yesterday, but is the picture complete? What time did you get up? What clothes did you wear? How did you get to work? What route did you take? How many stop-lights did you have to stop for? At this point you might complain “If you want me to be that detailed it would take all day just to describe yesterday!”

How does one provide a complete and accurate account of any event or any subject? Is either answer given above wrong? Both are incomplete, but is it possible to give a complete answer to any question? Even if we captured on video every second of your life yesterday, it would not be complete. We would not have your internal thoughts or emotions nor would we have your view of the world from inside your head. Even if we were able to approach some complete account of your day it would take more than the entire day to review. And then what about the next day?

Crafting a History

The first point is that to be complete and accurate about just what happened yesterday is impossible. No account we could give would approach 100% completeness and 100% accuracy. Which also means that any account would be selective and a summary of yesterday. So if no account is complete, what is a good account? How complete should one be if asked to account for yesterday? And how can we judge whether a particular account is a fair accounting of yesterday’s significant happenings in our life?

Regardless of one’s intentions, any account will leave something out. What we leave in and what we leave out is a ultimately a judgment. It would be very difficult to create a fully objective standard of what to include. Some objectivity is possible. Where did you start the day? Where did you end? How many miles did you traverse during the day? Objective facts do give us something to hang our account on, but in and of themselves they are not a complete story.

If there is any truth, it is this limitation on being able to tell the complete story. This is true whether we are talking about yesterday or what happened in a particular year or century in the past or about a particular topic or subject. No account is complete.

Reading History

The second point is that even if a complete written account could be prepared, there would never be enough time to read all the accounts. Just as the writer of an account has to make judgments about what to include and what not to include, the consumer of those accounts has to make decisions about what to invest their time in. In a year it would be impossible to read all the history books published in one month let alone all the other history books published during the year. The challenge only compounds as we consider all the books published on all possible topics.

It is in this quandary that we find ourselves today. To a certain extent, this question has always been an issue, but in today’s modern world, technology has greatly exacerbated the issue. The number of books being published every year greatly exceeds what could be read in one lifetime,

Dealing With Overload

There is no perfect solution to this situation, but there can be strategies to address the issue. For content creators it is important to think about levels and views of your work. You may know everything there is to currently know about a particular topic and it is important that that knowledge be valued and saved. The more we know about the world around us, the better prepared we will be to navigate the future. But even if you fully and completely document your accumulated knowledge, few of us will have time to ever read any of it. Nor will we necessarily know whether we should invest any time in it. To communicate the knowledge that you have accumulated it needs to be provided at multiple different levels. Can you describe what your knowledge represents in 100 words? Can you provide a more complete synopsis in 1,000 words? Can you write a extended essay about the topic in 10,000 words? How bout an in-depth account in 100,000 words and a specialist reference work in 1,000,000 words?

For any area of knowledge there is the need for multiple views of the subject. 100 words help a person decide where to further invest time. It is difficult to communicate much in less than 100 words, but 100 words can intrigue the reader and invite one towards longer works on the topic. 1,000 words provide an opportunity to present the core ideas of a topic that further intrigues the reader to explore further while at the same time providing the essential outline of the topic.

Moving Forward

For those expanding the realm of human knowledge, provide the knowledge you have at multiple levels. It would be great if we all had time to read everything, but could you leverage the knowledge you have on a topic into a 1,000 word essay? It’s not enough to tell the whole story, but it maybe enough for the rest of us to know whether to pursue it any further.