The image frame – the ideal metaphor for unknowingness

“And here I stand with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before!”
J.W. Goethe

We are torn between the worrying fact that most knowledge is hidden from us and the amazement that we do not know what we know. Intellectual capital and its links are in people’s heads, on storage media (e.g., on the cave walls, in stone and clay, manuscripts, books, microfilm, and PC files), in artifacts (e.g., objects, art, and architecture), and concepts of all kinds. Although authors describe circumstances to the best of their knowledge and belief, a lot is hidden between the lines. We are under the illusion that we can convey our knowledge. Withal the meta-model of language shows that we express our messages incompletely and interpret them distortedly. By means of a photo, this situation can be shown.

An image is invariably a flat representation of reality. However, the view through the viewfinder of a camera is so narrow that almost everything cannot be seen. At the same time, the meaning of the visible area is in the eye of the beholder. Those who understand the impossibility of comprehensive knowledge can better deal with the vagueness of “facts”.

  • Inside of the frame
    The frame results from the demarcating look through the viewfinder, regardless of the lens – even if the difference between a wide-angle and a telephoto lens influences the image expression. Surprisingly, we do not see everything visible, as unconscious filters distract the attentiveness – depending on our interests, feelings, mental models, and living conditions. Hairdressers look at the braid, sewers at the dress, and parents at the teddy bear.
    The same happens in other contexts. The larger a company, the more “image contents” are available. In 1995, CEO Heinrich von Pierer summed it up with the words, “If Siemens knew, what Siemens knows”. The stored contents are noisy due to redundant, mostly inconsistent data. And as if that were not enough – everything is in constant motion. To paraphrase an old saying: Knowledge is like rowing against the stream. When you stop absorbing new things and cannot forget, you fall behind.
    You have to learn to continuously update and keep available the existing knowledge that resides in storages and the people’s minds.
  • Outside of the frame
    The viewfinder acts like blinders. Everything beyond the frame is entirely invisible – even if we can extend our natural field of view with the help of an extreme wide-angle or a fisheye lens. In contrast to our eyes, which see most sharply in the visual pit (Fovea centralis) and perceive the rest blurred, albeit movements are noticed in this area, the optics provide no clues about what is happening outside the visual field. This makes it hard to see where the little girl is (see image above). Where is the child walking? In a forest? In a city? Between ruins?
    Similarly, we cannot see beyond our field of vision. Goethe’s Faust puts this in a nutshell (see above). Especially for people, who derive their right to exist from their acquired knowledge, it is unbearable that there should be something they do not know. And that even though we have known since the nineties of the last century the half-life of knowledge (i.e., the time it takes for acquired knowledge to be worth only half as much – school knowledge after 20 years, university knowledge after 11 years, professional knowledge after seven years, technology knowledge after five years, and IT knowledge after two and a half years). For instance, the knowledge of IT professionals is almost utterly worthless after ten years if they do not regularly renew it – what remains is many years of experience.
    You cannot avoid discovering and gathering new knowledge outside of your existing knowledge because that is the only way, you can compete.
  • With context clues
    Conscious examination of an image provides clues to the situation in which it was taken – for example, contemporary vehicles, buildings, clothing, or the film material used. However, in this age of post-processed photographs, we can rely neither on these clues nor on what we seem to see in the image. For this reason, it is always worth taking a look at the photo credits, if available, which describe the shooting situation – e.g., the time, place, or protagonists of the shot. For example, the little girl is at some point in time walking over roots through the ruins of a city in the Middle East.
    Similarly, we strive, for example, to enrich a report with sufficient contextual information. This is done with meaningful prefaces, footnotes, and appendices that provide context – though not enough for everyone.
    Providing a framework filled with content has the explicit intention of allowing the target audience to become informed. This can be achieved by enriching it with the preparation context. Reporting people to entrench themselves for reasons that are easy to understand (e.g., lethargy, convenience, l***ness) behind excuses such as saying, “It’s clear to everyone what it’s about.”, “No one needs that.”, “There wasn’t time.”.
    Always include a brief description of the context, as it makes it easier for those receiving the message to integrate it into their worldview.
  • Without context clues
    The viewers give a picture all the more meaning, the more room there is for interpretation. This is especially true for missing context indications. It stimulates the imagination as long as we do not know when and where a photo was taken without any hints of what is actually supposed to be shown. We can imagine an artistic picture of Little Red Riding Hood on her way to her grandmother – but where is the red cap, the food basket, and what for is the teddy bear. But we notice that the allusion to the fairy tale already creates a new context, pointing in this case in the wrong direction. The story behind a picture is less important than, for example, the aesthetic effect. However, even here, details about the genesis increase the enjoyment.
    Most people lack a description of the actual context of messages. This starts with the scope of treatment – the organizational and procedural classification, the description of the current situation and period, and indications of excluded issues. Since most reports are contaminated with outdated data collected at different times and meant differently, these weaknesses should be pointed out. Other clues would be who benefits or who makes money from it. It is hard to understand that we never (can) know everything. However, it is better to provide insufficient contextual information than none.
    Providing clues about the environment of the creation is essential to be able to convey a message more understandable.

Bottom line: Socrates already recognized it two and a half millennia ago: “οἶδα οὐκ εἰδώς” (loosely translated “I know that I know nothing”). It would be interesting to find out what he referred to – the facts inside or outside the “frame”. Let us assume, for simplicity’s sake, to both. Even though some people are uncomfortable because they consider it a personal weakness to say they do not know something, they must accept that there is an infinite amount they will never know – even within the frame they see. Eventually it is IMPOSSIBLE for us to say what could be found outside the picture. The context is mentioned in this post separately because it is a matter of meta-clues, which belong to the frame, inside AND outside. All those who can already comprehend this view have an advantage because they can conduct an undogmatic discourse. The others will sooner or later follow their everyday life attentively and eventually also let their rigid way of thinking go – better late than never. By means of an image frame, the actual picture, we can clarify this cluelessness. That is why the image frame, which separates an image from the context, is the ideal metaphor for unknowingness.