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Start On Bricks, Houses, Information and Knowledge
18 November 2013

On Bricks, Houses, Information and Knowledge

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Information is not knowledge, merely one of the raw materials needed to obtain it. Just as a pile of bricks is not a house -even though bricks are the raw materials necessary to build it- a pile of data is not a doctoral thesis, not even a newspaper article, although information is also the raw material you need to write them.

Nobody in their right mind would mistake a house for a pile of bricks. However, this rather clumsy equivalence between something necessary –but not sufficient– to obtain an end in itself is often found in the public discourse on knowledge and information. This causes serious damage when understanding and managing the processes for acquiring knowledge and assessing the capacity for action and communication between people, all of which are essential issues for human coexistence, the economy, and one of the cornerstones of society.

Before a pile of bricks can become a house we need a few more elements, but above all we need something fundamental, something that’s missing from the pile of bricks: order. The bricks in the pile are disordered, unlike the bricks in a house which are arranged in groups and joined together following a very complex order in order to achieve a specific end, namely to build a house.

Exactly the same thing happens with knowledge: information, data, and other items of information arranged haphazardly or in elementary groups (for example in a database) are like a pile of bricks and –although some people insist on claiming otherwise– are far from being knowledge in themselves. For that reason they cannot be used directly to understand the world and everything that goes on in it or to take the right decisions based on that knowledge; in the same way that a pile of bricks would be no use if we wanted to live in it.

Just as the transformation of a pile of bricks into a house requires an order -an architectural and construction design that joins them together and organizes them to form a structure destined to fulfill an end (its use as a house)- the transformation of a set of information into knowledge requires a mental representation, a conceptual structure, a model that links and organizes the data in such a way that they form a machine that enables them to be used for thinking and understanding.

Of course, both building a house out of bricks and shaping knowledge from information involve much more complex processes than this, but this is the essence. Therefore, it is just as stupid to assume that if we have information we have knowledge as it is to think that we have a house when we only have a pile of bricks. Or worse still, to believe that if you know how to get hold of or buy bricks you can have a magnificent house whenever you want… It is therefore a monumental error to claim that the information society is the same thing as the knowledge society; and it is also a mistake to assume that the arrival of the first implies or automatically leads to achieving the second.

No such confusion exists in academic circles. In fact, even Wikipedia makes a clear distinction between the information society and the knowledge society. So, the problem is not the ignorance of academics and specialists, but the repetition ad infinitum in the public arena of a misleading -if not simply false- discourse that considers both concepts to be equivalent and adds to the general confusion, including that of a fair number of political and business leaders.

There is an obsessive insistence on demographics and technical aspects: number of users, quality of the networks…, no doubt important basic considerations, but which overlook the fact that this narrow view is leading them straight into a trap or -even worse- down the path of self-delusion. Because –for example– there is no point in having a high percentage of Internet connections if people go online only to play games, look at naked women, or do their shopping… This doesn’t mean that it is not important to have a high number of technologically well-connected users; quite the reverse: it allows a number of important things: e-mail, browsing web pages, important relationships over the social networks; it stimulates commerce, offers significant opportunities for learning, increases efficiency in official transactions, avoids travel… in addition to a long list of other advantages that of course include and imply easy access to information -to vast quantities of information. But none of the above is the same as having attained the knowledge society.

In a developed country like our own an important part of the population is already living in the information society, as it is relatively easy for them to obtain this information –the data– or to know where to get it (quite aside from the matter of the quality of that information; but for the sake of simplicity, let us forget this aspect -which is nonetheless far from trivial). Now, just as very few people know how to transform piles of bricks into houses, there are also very few people who know how to transform information into useful knowledge.

So what do we need to be able to arrive at the knowledge society without becoming stranded along the way, trying to live in a pile of bricks? Well basically, a rather rare commodity which –to judge by the evidence– very few of our leaders consider to be essential: a significant number of people who are capable of making good houses out of piles of bricks. Because in order to ensure that the available information is really useful and well utilized, we need people –and not just a few– who know how to transform it into useful mental representations for engaging with the world; that is to say, into knowledge. And here the problem ceases to be one of networks, bandwidths, speeds and equipment, and becomes something much more intangible, complicated and difficult to achieve: people’s training and culture.

The capacity for the efficient application of information and its transformation into useful knowledge is a growing function of users’ training and culture. Because even though the ingredients may be first-class, if the cook is bad, the meal will be bad too. And in this matter we should also differentiate two related but dissimilar elements: on the one hand, the technical capacity to operate in a particular sphere (for example professional), which tends to be known as training; and on the other, culture, which is the capacity to understand what the world is like and how it works, to think about it logically and methodically and to be able to contextualize the new information and combine it with the information already in our possession in order to arrive at representations and models of reality that allow us to interact and operate effectively with it.

The first is achieved with professional teaching and techniques (including direct practical application of specific knowledge) in its broadest sense, in everything from plumbing, pastry making and tree pruning, to medicine, engineering or law. The second with culture with a capital C: the study and practice of sciences -particularly mathematics- and humanities -especially philosophy. These are the tools that make it possible to think methodically and to manage and create models for understanding things. And what is the situation in Spain in this regard? Well, reasonably good in the first but absolutely terrible in the second. And the worst of it all is that our political and business leaders, many of whom are semi-literate about their responsibilities –and quite a few sensu stricto–, have fed into a technologistic -not technological! -culture with a lamentable lack of foresight, thereby inculcating in a large part of society the most absolute contempt for thought, theoretical knowledge, and any intellectual effort beyond mere course, clumsy and immediate practical exercise. And if most of the population subscribes to this view, however much information -all the bricks in the world- they have at their disposal, they are very unlikely to be able to build any satisfactory houses with them.

It is therefore highly probable that we will reach the much vaunted information society, but that we will be incapable of ever arriving at the knowledge society, and it is the latter that will allow us to change our productive model and cease to be a country dedicated above all to building houses with which to speculate, and to waiting on tourists.

 

Santiago Graiño Knobel

Co-director of the Master’s Degree in Journalism and Communication of Science, Technology and Environment at Carlos III University in Madrid (Spain)

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