An Attempt at an "Origin Story": The Pursuit of Earnest Nuggets of Truthiness

By Alexa Clay

I don’t think Wisdom Hackers has any one good “aha” origin story. But there are a few threads that connected to provide initial inspiration for this little venture of ours.

The early seeds of Wisdom Hackers certainly owe to an old philosophy teacher of mine, Ken Knisely. Ken drove a cab and engaged his passengers in Socratic dialogue. He filmed a lot of these conversations and some of them made it on our local public television channel. He also taught philosophy to high school students at my alternative “hippie” school, HB Woodlawn.

Taking philosophy with Ken was one of the more transformative experiences of my life. Conversation became a magical power, a tool for understanding and deconstructing the world in ways that I had never known. Ken’s ability to utilize a cab ride as a vehicle for self-reflection and inquiry was such a simple approach, but effective. It wasn’t a grand revolution, but just a gentle kind of poking – something to keep people awake and engaged in the questions that mattered most.

Part of Ken’s influence was to be skeptical of conclusions. He saw more merit in wrestling with something than closing down debate and inquiry. As an adult when I try to explain my nausea with platforms like TED or a lot of what passes as thought leadership, I feel a certain revulsion because so much of the content boils down to pithy conclusions as opposed to inquiry-based expression. I have a deep belief that more good comes from raw and open narratives, of preserving uncertainty and unknowns than serving up arguments that merely offer closure.

Re-organizing our society around inquiry is a grand revolution, in which we are only one small part. Imagine a workplace where you are not known by a job title, but by a question you are asking. What if we owned ambiguity without pushing it away? We are always living in perpetual beta – our professions, relationships, and ideas of self ebb and flow. At core, human beings are a seeker species and yet a lot of our infrastructure for this kind of metaphysical probing has been dismantled by a secular rationalism. Many of us are caught in the hustle of modern life without time to pause and reflect, to honor our own inner grumblings.

With this kind of master critique swirling, a fluke accident began put things in motion. My friend Brock left his phone at my flat after a holiday party. The next day when he came to pick it up we started talking about how we could build a type of crowd-funding tool for people to invest in each other’s inquiries – where you could be an investor in a question, not a startup, not a product, but someone’s inquiry. This idea itself evolved out of a creative conversation with the Mycelium school about alternative currencies for learning.

But what Brock and I stumbled on that day, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, was this pretty core human need. We all have these deeper questions that we don’t quite give ourselves permission to explore. The idea of bringing a community of investors or backers who supported an individual’s inquiry was a way for us to incentivize and bring accountability to the journey. This is where we left the idea.

The next day I got on a plane to India, but we kept emailing each other until the stewardess asked me to turn off my phone. The project seemed to have an energy all its own. It hooked into us and demanded that we serve its noble ambition for creating a world of shared vulnerability, inquiry and immersion. A world where questions matter more than answers and where we can come to realize the shared human identity we all have as seekers.  

The first iteration of Wisdom Hackers we are approaching in a very analogue format. We certainly don’t rule out the eventual creation of some sort of digital tool or nuanced system for backing inquiries, but our hope for our initial experiments is to bring things back to basics – to communicate with letter pressed notes, to get folks talking to strangers and elders, and to build in time during the day for quiet reflection.  We also hope to hack a bit of the digital universe to see how we can create space for genuine nuggets of truthiness on the web.