Information Is Not Knowledge

Technology is drowning us in information but this information is often of little use to us. It might be worthwhile to ponder the fundamental nature of information. Although I work in Information Technology as a knowledge worker, I have given little thought to the theory behind information, or information science, if there is such a thing. I just checked on Amazon and Information Science is a field of study, with textbooks.

Edit: Information Science is actually associated with libraries. I am more interested in the philosophy of information so I bought this book:

Let’s take New York City for example. As a major metropolis, New York City is a huge resource and presents a wealth of information to the curious traveler. You can buy dozens of travel guides on New York City or visit dozens of web sites devoted to helping you to explore the city. But unfortunately you are overwhelmed with information and it is difficult to search for the information that meets your particular needs. Let’s say you buy a travel guide and stick it in your back pocket so you will have all that information readily at hand when you are in the city. Chances are that you will find yourself in Times Square, wondering where to go next, because you have not actually read your travel guide. This brings up an important point. Information is not knowledge. In order to really know New York City you need to read that entire travel guide, from cover to cover. In order to form some ideas on where you might like to go while you are in New York City, you will need to read that entire travel guide, from front to back. In other words, all that information has to be reviewed and evaluated. It is worthless to you in that book.

I waste a whole lot of time working on a custom travel guide for New York City which I compile into a help file. I can copy this help file to my smart phone and have access to a wealth of information on the city even if I don’t have a WiFi connection. It has occurred to me that this is a colossal waste of my time. But on the other hand it has proven essential to conducting extremely productive and effective trips to the city. I usually take a bus to New York City for just one day and only have ten hours in the city. Therefore I cannot waste a lot of my time just wandering around hoping to see something interesting. Although I’m tempted to stop wasting so much damn time on this travel guide, I do enjoy working on it. The fact is I learn a lot about New York City and this knowledge translates into definite advantages. I have discovered a lot of great resources in the city. I have found stores that sell international magazines so I can learn a new language for my international trips. And I have found online classes and opportunities in the theater community which may advance my playwriting ambitions. The point is that knowledge is power. Information itself is not power because you have not digested it. You have not evaluated the information. You will not be able to put the pieces of information together to come up with new insights or a plan of action.

A wealth of information is actually a poverty of knowledge if no effort has been made to ingest this information. Converting information into knowledge requires effort in the form of actions; reading, searching, exploring, etc. When you fail to perform these actions you fail to acquire any knowledge. This is probably a fundamental law of cognition and may explain why consciousness will never arise from the information itself as an emergent property. Knowledge requires agency and self-knowledge must also arise from agency.

But is it really necessary for you, personally, to review and evaluate all the information available on New York City. Why not trust the judgement of local experts? Why not use the services of a curator, a content specialist, who has selected the best establishments in the city? I would argue that you actually do need to do the process yourself. You cannot depend upon someone else to go through this process because they will not know your special interests. Even if you give them a lot of information on your preferences, they still won’t be able to evaluate your potential interest in something that would be entirely new to you. In other words, you lose a lot of potential to pursue new avenues of inquiry when you rely on an external agent to guide you through a wealth of information. You run the risk of not finding the precious jewels in that wealth of information. In other words, information must be processed and the greatest value lies in doing the processing yourself.

In developing web applications I am often guilty of not making the application very informative to the end user. As a developer, I have access to a lot of data and information about the computer system, but this information is often hidden from the end user. Lately it has been occurring to me that I should make my applications more informative. This is often very easy. For example, I can add a record count so the end user knows how many objects are currently being stored in the system. These objects can be clients or products. You definitely want to know how many clients have been entered into the system or how many products are in your online store.

There is a wealth of information available on the Internet and a great deal of potential in converting this information into informative knowledge. One of my most successful web applications is just a page that exports some YouTube data to a spreadsheet. It is really nothing more than a data export but it has sufficient value to bring many visitors to my web site. Imagine how many visitors I could get by building a web application that actually provided some insight on that data!

There is actually a science to converting information to knowledge and informative applications. There are fundamental theoretical considerations like how information should be categorized. I’ve come across some references to advanced theories on how data becomes information and information becomes knowledge. I think it could be well worth my while to study these advanced theories and then apply that knowledge to my existing skills. I should be able to craft some really powerful solutions that will make me a lot of money. And this would be the result of adding a little theory to my work, bringing my intellectual genius into play in my field. Something long overdue.

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