Knowledge and Information

One of my basic convictions is that symbol manipulation ability is what distinguishes intelligent entities from non-intelligent ones. For manipulating increasingly larger chunks of symbols, we create higher level symbols which encode a number of lower level symbols. Vocabulary is then that set of symbols. I would define an extensive vocabulary as one with a large number of symbols, that is, the width of the vocabulary. Vocabulary can also be more or less intensive, depending upon the complexity – or depth – of the symbols. Higher intelligences have the need and the capacity to handle more extensive and intensive vocabularies.

Vocabulary matters. It allows us to reason about the real world more effectively. It allows us to avoid illogical constructs arrived at through ill-defined and vague ideas poorly understood and consequently improperly communicated.

One of my pet peeves (which stimulated this comment) is the conflating of ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. They are cats of two distinct breeds and are not interchangeable. The first does not require a brain whereas the latter cannot exist outside a brain. A telephone directory does not have knowledge of my phone number; it merely represents that data as information. When you look up and internalize that information, you have knowledge of my phone number.

Information is what economists call a public good (non-rival, mainly) while knowledge is a private good because it is associated with a brain. The same amount of information can lead to a lesser or greater amount of knowledge depending upon how many brains internalize that information.

The revolutions in ICT has lead to a decrease in the cost of replicating and disseminating information. It has not reduced the effort required for information to be incorporate in a brain into knowledge. It is an information revolution; it is arguably not a knowledge revolution. There is an explosion in information (some would argue that it is merely a data explosion) maybe but certainly not a knowledge explosion. Indeed, too much information – information overload – can lead to a decrease in knowledge acquired because humans have limited CPU power and if too much is used up in input of information, less CPU capacity is available for processing the information into useful knowledge.

From the introduction that Rajesh Jain quotes in one of his tech talks, it is not clear to me that Mokyr distinguishes between knowledge and information. With the distinction in mind, it is interesting to re-read the quoted text and find evidence of much muddled thinking.

In my own field of development economics, I have noted a similar muddling of two very distinct concepts: growth and development. Not being able to distinguish between the two often leads policy makers to mistake growth for development: the former is neither necessary nor sufficient for the latter. So also, more information is neither necessary nor sufficient for greater knowledge.

Finally, let’s keep in mind the following: Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom, and finally wisdom is not enlightenment.