Unknown Knowns

In a thread on the various socials, my friend necopinus pointed out that my essay on AI, A Camera Not An Engine, effectively maps the generative potential we’ve discovered latent in AI models of humanity’s data exhaust to the “unknown known” quadrant in the famous Rumsfeld 2×2. Which is exactly right, and a perfect way to understand my thesis.

In a related conversation, another friend, Mick Costigan, pointed to this New Yorker review of a book about the development of modern Irish identity, Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland.

Relevant quote:

Irish society was premised on what O’Toole calls “the unknown known,” Ireland’s “genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time.” This gap, this useful fiction, could be maintained in the postwar decades as long as ordinary people, many with modest educations and modest aspirations, understood their lowly place in the hierarchy.

Setting aside the AI angle, this strikes me as a very powerful frame for understanding collective identities built atop repressed traumas to the collective psyche. Reading the review, I was initially reminded of Punjabi culture post-1947-partition (the recent hit song Arjan Vailly cuts through the cheery surface froth of Punjabi culture to the deep and sad darkness lurking beneath), but then, it struck me forcefully that the Irish story rhymes even more uncomfortably with what’s going on in India right now, in 2024. Specifically, the Modi administration’s attempt to use the Ayodhya temple opening to construct a new identity for India-Bharat, tightly tying India and Hinduism together in a way that elides not just the last 30 years of Indian Troubles since the Babri Masjid demolition, but the last 500 years of history, since Babur’s invasion. We are witnessing the start of a mighty attempt to begin to pretend that 500 years of Indian history — the entirety of the British Raj and the Mughal era — didn’t happen. That approximately 20% of the country and its modern history doesn’t quite exist, except in a radically sanitized form. If the narrative engineering starts to extend to older sites of Hindu-Muslim conflict, the 500-year window of wilful amnesia will stretch further to 1000 years to the Ghazni and Ghori invasions.

The Irish case is a sobering small-scale warning about the road that lies ahead for India as a consequence of this sort of ambitious narrative re-engineering. Another relevant quote from the review that hits a very disturbing nerve for me:

The country’ s apparent strengths—its population’s ethnic and religious homogeneity, its battle-scarred unity against the old colonial aggressor, the romantic brilliance of its self-mythologizing—were the very forces that were pushing it toward disruptive upheavals. O’Toole is almost Hegelian in his understanding of history as a critical process in which eras helplessly recruit the agents of their own undoing. Religion and nationalism, the cross and the clover, promised a timeless stability but were actually subversive forces. They were subversive because, despite the rhetoric of confidence, they were anxiously unstable, held together by a will to hypocrisy; when the deficits of this hypocrisy overwhelmed the benefits, the will began to wane.

This lovely paragraph could have been written about Modi’s India at this moment. There is a charisma to this Ayodhya/Bharat moment that easily eclipses Nehru’s 1947 tryst-with-destiny moment of narrative engineering of the now fast-fading idea of post-independence secular India. Not least because Modi is a vastly more charismatic leader and speaker than I think Nehru ever was; Nehru largely rode to power on the strength of Mahatma Gandhi’s support. The Modi narrative of mandirs and Moon missions, delivered in chaste Hindi rather than Nehru’s anemic Cambridge English, scripts a sort of metamodern theocratic turn rather than a simple reactionary turn. But it is anchored in the creation, by fiat, of a pile of unknown-knowns in the national psyche that is 500 years long in time, and a billion brains strong in cognitive depth. This new narrative is far more compelling to the Hindu majority than the tired zombie ghost of the Nehruvian secularism narrative, especially in the run-up to an election in which the hapless Congress-led opposition might as well not exist.

But for all its surface grandeur, this new narrative carries with it a huge unknown-known narrative capital deficit. You cannot elide this much recent history and expect to tell anything but a fragile story. You have to eventually come to terms with what you choose to unknow.

Something similar is happening in the US right now as well, as Trump’s near-locked ascent to the nomination promises to create another Irish-rhyming unknown-known deficit spike around the events of January 6th, and everything uncomfortable and dark it represents about the American psyche. Whether Trump wins or loses in his rematch with Biden, a big pile of unknown-known narrative debt will be created in either case. The only question is what precisely we’ll decide to start pretending didn’t happen, come November.

This phenomenon is global. Israel-Palestine, Russia-Ukraine, China-Taiwan… every narrative fault line in the world today looks like an ongoing negotiation over what to unknow-know, and what to consciously acknowledge to yourself. And these negotiations can get extraordinarily costly.

Add all this to the rise of AIs as massive engines of unknown-known injection into the world around us, and it feels like unknown-knowns are starting to rule everything around me. We’re going to be living in interesting times, ruled by the ghosts of our many willfully forgotten pasts.

Strap in. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. > collective identities built atop repressed traumas to the collective psyche

    That is basically my definition of ALL human society. The only way we can live together harmoniously is if we trust others to have the same conditioned social aversions…

  2. There is no attempt to construct new identity – India’s identity has always been Bharat when not viewed from the limited lens of western prism. And again, there is no ”mighty attempt to begin to pretend 500 years of history didn’t happen.” On the contrary, it is precisely the acknowledgement of this period of history and to use your chosen word an ‘attempt’ to bring justice and correct a long afflicted wrong.

  3. sounds like easiest solution is to simply belive the machine when it tells us what to unknow – that should smooth many bumps, no?

  4. I liked ‘escaped realities’ better than ‘unkown knowns’ TBH.

    This whole allusion to psychoanalysis and the suppression of traumatic experiences, which helped to explain neurotic behaviors ( the suppressed content is never really gone! ) kind of supposes a unitary subject, which ought to be the ‘nation’ or something, which in turn need to be deconstructed. Instead what really happens is a conflict in Geschichtspolitik ( literary ‘history politics’ ) among powerful societal factions and it is not really about suppressed knowledge – much of which is circulating freely, but only among experts – but about the dominant narrative. ‘Escaoed realities’ captures nicely the spin given to historical but also any other sort of facts. ‘Project 1619’ is a good example of Geschichtspolitik, narrative engineering and escaping realities – all but the overarching theme of slavery. If you want to spin the history of a country s.t. it is perceived through a single lens, tell everyone that they are psycho wrecks if they resist.

    O’Tooles attempt to deconstruct Ireland is also Geschichtspolitik. European nation states have to be reformatted, all (racist) national movements need to be escaped, s.t. they accept their new Lord which is the EU bureaucracy. Unfortunately the EU works like shit and there is a manifest danger for the Eurocrats that national movements resurface and take control over their countries. How all of this is mitigated, if at all, is an open issue.