“Nobody Knows Anything”

Truer words were never spoken.

“Nobody knows anything” was screenwriting god William Goldman‘s terse, brutal, spot on assessment of how show business works. The people at the top of the food chain – the decision-makers – will insist that a combination of logic and personal insight rule their thinking. But, at the same time, they’ll insist that past results can’t predict future results. Don’t blame them if they get it wrong next time (with your money)! How were they to know circumstances would be so different? That’s another way of saying “nobody knows anything”.

Look, the world needs executives. It needs politicians in the same way. Call them necessary evils. Blame complexity.

Homo sapiens spent two million years as hunter gatherers before putting down roots in villages then towns and cities. Most hunter-gatherer groups numbered between two dozen to three dozen people (though some groups could number a hundred people), most if not all of them clan. The group’s needs were simple – food, shelter and safety. Most everyone in the group knew the same information about the same things. Everybody knew what everybody knew.

The trouble started when we ditched hunter-gathering. A group of three dozen can make a communal decision with relative ease compared to what a group of three hundred or three thousand. In fact, the more people we add to the group, the harder our decision-making gets. After a while, even families get too large to make decisions easily or quickly. The problems needing solving get more complex, too. And complexity demands specialization to fully comprehend and then to solve. After a while specialization takes over everything.

Whereas our hunter-gatherer ancestors each knew almost everything about everything that they could know, few modern humans know anything other than what they need to know. Oh, sure, one can kill hours, days, months and years happily ping-ponging from subject to subject online, just soaking in the information, but we don’t do that with more practical things. I don’t know how to build a house. Of course I could watch a bunch of videos on YouTube and then set out to build my own dream house, but I’m still not really going to know what I’m doing. That house is going to be a nightmare instead of a dream.

Bill Goldman was thinking of movie execs when he wrote “Nobody knows anything”. Goldman understood storytelling better than any executive he ever met. He understood character and environment and plotting in ways executives couldn’t. That never stopped a single executive from opining away at Goldman about his work. Or storytelling or moviemaking or any of the things where execs good at being execs (maybe) pretended that they were good at being something else, too.

Ironically, we know so much less these days as individuals (it seems) because our cultures know so much more. Most of us have an area or two of relative expertise. We dare anyone to challenge us on that turf. But, beyond that nubbin of knowledge?

Bill Goldman wrote, among other things: Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Magic, the screenplay for All The President’s Men, The Princess Bride (based on his own novel), Misery and a ton of others. Goldman knew storytelling and screenwriting. He knew that people in power get away with things because we let them.

We make up the rules that give them power and then we make up excuses for why we don’t stop them. Meanwhile, if we know anything, it’s that the world is going places it shouldn’t. “Why doesn’t someone do something?” we demand.

We’d do it ourselves, but we don’t know how. Or, if we ever did know how, we’ve long since forgotten.

Yeah, nobody knows anything.

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