In the African Savannah, leopards are almost impossible to spot compared to most of the other wild cats. Even Rangers, who live and breathe the nature of the Game Reserves where many of these animals are found, can go weeks without clear sightings. They prefer their solitude. When the time comes to mate, they do so. But beyond that, they’re on their own.
Leopards are what we call generalist species — they can thrive in a relatively wide range of physical environments, making use of an equally wide range of resources for their nourishment. And this makes them formidable hunters. They stalk their prey. They watch. They wait. They hide. Timing can be of life or death importance to them. Compared to, say, lions who generally hunt in groups — relying on their shared communication and their brute strength — leopards need to be more careful. One wrong move can cost them a lot more than just a lost opportunity.
And yet, even accounting for their solidarity and their smaller size, many would argue that leopards are perhaps more terrifying to face for humans than lions in personal encounters. For the most part, of course, they tend to avoid us and will get out of the way if we are near. But if for whatever reason we end up in their way, it’s not hard to see how the skill, the unpredictability, and the swiftness of a leopard would potentially be a worse prospect than knowing that an aggressive lion is around the corner.
A lion’s power is the most obvious kind of power: strength. Strength is pure physics — you have more of something that is incredibly useful, and its use provides clear leverage in the world of space and time. The leopard, on the other hand, gains its advantage from something less obvious: mystery. Mystery is unpredictable and uncertain — you often don’t need more of anything because when you face mystery, you eventually end up defeating yourself because the object of mystery has a knowledge advantage.
Under the right circumstances, you can read a lion better than a lion can read you, which actually gives you a knowledge advantage that can hypothetically overcome the strength disadvantage. The leopard, being a lone hunter, relies on pure skill and information. Its lack of social interaction also means that it gives away fewer cues. It always knows more than you, and that capacity provides a strategical edge that essentially draws you in not by force but by the invisible laws of power that come into play in a game of relation.
The French philosopher Michael Foucault is arguably one of the most influential thinkers of the last 50 or so years, and he is as loved as he is hated. But looking beyond the ideological divide that his work has caused, one of the big insights he had was on power, which is the cause of the edge that a leopard possesses in nature. In his own words:
“Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”
Power can’t exist without interaction, without a relationship, and Foucault also argues that power is the same thing as knowledge. He who knows more about the interaction that is occurring between two or more agents can do more to influence it in subtle ways that provide a strategical advantage even if, say, a lion is physically more empowering. In the plane of physics, the lion wins. In the plane of information, a human can technically draw that brute strength away from the lion with its superior knowledge, just like a leopard does when it hunts in the wild.
When we think of the word mystery, most of us don’t associate it with this kind of power. But at its core, mystery is simply the knowledge asymmetry that exists between you and the object of inquiry — whether that’s a leopard and its intentions, or whether it’s the big questions of life and death that bring you uncertainty in your daily life. In the former, the object is a living thing — the leopard — but in the latter, the object is the missing knowledge itself. The question, “What happens after death?” becomes just as much of an object as a living thing, because this “thing” presumably has an answer containing information you need to know for your livelihood, which gives it a power advantage over you. Even when the leopard is the object, it’s only a placeholder, because the thing that gives it power is still just knowledge it has that you don’t and that you need.
Something like brute strength uses force and noise and more-ness to its advantage in the power game. Mystery, however, uses the influence of knowledge and information to draw power to itself.
The word power has many negative connotations, and its association with amorality tends to be pretty strong, but at its core, when we talk about power, all we are really talking about is the ability to get what we want as we navigate our way through life in the social realm. We all do this intuitively in one way or another, and it’s a necessary component of life. Any competition and cooperation has some element of power involved in it.
In today’s world, it’s more important than ever to understand what power is and how it works. The power of mystery, especially, is of concern.
Currently, we are living through what could be considered the fourth great revolution in the history of our species. After the initial revolution in our minds that gave us culture and complex languages, we settled down with the Agricultural Revolution. And much stayed stable until a few hundred years ago when the Industrial Revolution ushered in an era of unprecedented growth. The fourth revolution, the Information Revolution, is now getting started, slowly changing everything, and the name itself speaks volumes about what the currency of the future will be. But information is not the same as knowledge, and that’s where the power of mystery comes in.
The internet democratized information. There are no more gatekeepers to the things we know and think about. Libraries were uploaded. Degrees can be earned online. For better or worse, everyone now has a voice. On one end, this has unleashed a level of creativity and collaboration that wasn’t possible before. On the other hand, the vast majority of the information that is created by these voices adds little that is new and often causes harm. We have never had more knowledge available to us — and knowledge is good, the key to the power we speak of — but we have also never had more noise, more shouting, more ineffective information that is confused for knowledge.
Information is the building block of knowledge and the power it provides, but knowledge as a thing itself comes from the ability to think interesting and novel things — it’s the product of creativity that works and has real-world utility. In today’s world of noise, most people are in the habit of creating information without knowledge. They are busy shouting the first thing that comes to mind, the thing that gets attention because, on the surface, it’s the thing that everybody wants to hear, the thing people are comfortable hearing. And like brute strength in the animal kingdom, this works, and it high-jacks the senses and their impulsive response to shiny things. Except, in the human world, it only works temporarily, because there is no long-term mystery to that information. It can force itself on people, but it can’t draw them towards it. Shiny things are only mysterious until you take a closer look.
Knowledge, or the ability to think interesting and novel things, however, is an expression of individuality, and it doesn’t focus on short-term competition. It just knows things because it works to know things. And with these things, it takes action in the world, whether that be through art or technology or science or business. And over time, the asymmetry that this knowledge creates between the carrier of knowledge and others works as an attractor that draws people towards it, whether that be through a brand that resonates, a voice that booms, or a style that speaks.
Throughout history, the leopard has been featured in various mythologies and folklore as a symbol of power. It has continued to evoke both fear and awe. And that fear and awe come from the same core that unites science with art, religion with philosophy. It’s our dance with the unknown, the unpredictable — the unknown and the unpredictable that promises a union; a completeness that we have craved since we started to walk this Earth. To us, the leopard’s power may be unsafe, but to it, it’s the source of safety.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” Albert Einstein once wrote. “He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead — his eyes are closed.” And for as long as our eyes aren’t closed, whatever is mysterious, whatever carries this asymmetry of knowledge, this ability to think interesting and novel things, will stand out no matter how much noise is out there.
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