Knowledge is a skill

by Collin Lysford

When I was in college and through my early twenties, I had a little catchphrase I’d say pretty frequently: I’d rather have skills than knowledge”. As a classically bookish autist, I seemed pretty strongly bound for academia, but around my junior year I realized I wanted to be doing things and not just learning them, and I ended up ditching school for industry after getting my bachelors in math. Nowadays, I agree with the decision, but not that frame — I think the idea that skills” and knowledge” are strongly separable is a mistake.

Games are probably a big culprit of why I used to feel this way. A well-designed game is a great way to improve your capacity for agency and problem-solving by letting you mainline the experience of climbing a heuristic tree with clear and objective feedback. But a big reason why games let you do this is that they’re very clear about setting the bounds you’re working in. Your affordances are totally given to you. You might find a new strategy after hundreds of hours of play, but only a particularly gormless person is going to find a new system they hadn’t interacted with yet.

And when this is the ruler you’re measuring yourself with, what good is knowledge”, anyhow? Anything you need to know can be found on a wiki or a tooltip; memorizing that stuff is for suckers. Let the system itself be your extended memory and enter a flow state of competence. This is a genuinely useful thing to get good at, and games are a cheap, accessible, and fun way to do it — but this idea of skill” depends on what’s knowable being a well-defined, easy to access list.

In real life, that usually isn’t the case. You can invent new ways of seeing, bring in an insight from a seemingly-unrelated domain, change the bounds of the problem itself. The kinds of practical successes you’d expect from skilled” people, but totally reliant on the knowledge that you’re able to act that way. Knowledge is only trivial on a well-maintained garden path; in the wilderness, the skill to call up a bit of knowledge and the knowledge to call on a certain skill reveal themselves to be helplessly intertwined, pulling each other forward like an electromagnetic wave.