What I Am Reading: Too Big To Know

Feb 23 2012 Published by under Uncategorized, What I'm Reading

Click to enlarge (Original image at http://bit.ly/zKZNml)

In 1988, Russell Ackoff first drew the pyramidal progression from data to wisdom shown in the figure. Data points or facts were gathered into knowledge by experts who certified and spread this understanding of data via books and other credentialed documents. Ultimately, with further probing and understanding, knowledge would lead to wisdom.

In the age of Google, anyone with an internet connection can access data directly. Data formerly isolated to one silo or another now can be linked among multiple disciplines. In general, this should lead to increased knowledge and wisdom. However, as the price of an online soapbox has dropped, the number of people providing interpretations of data has increased.

Our "Knowledge" no longer comes vetted by experts; how do we know what we find is climbing toward wisdom and not utter crap masquerading as "Information?"

That is one of the problems appropached in the book  Too Big to Know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren't the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room, by David Weinberger. This thoroughly-referenced book examines our brave new world of knowledge and concludes that the answer may simply be...more data.

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For example, consider phylogeny, grouping and classifying related plants or animals or proteins or genes. In the "old days" experts in the field got together and came up with a classification system so that everyone would call stuff by the same name. If one person called a protein TGF-beta inducible gene H3 (BIG-H3) and another called it TGF-beta induced 68kda (TGFBI), they might not realize they were thinking about the same thing. Agreement was crucial. The modern solution has been metadata, data about the data. Both of these proteins can be referenced to the same entry in a table somewhere in a database. When you select TGFB-H3 for your literature search, the metadata knows that you also mean TGFBI.

Metadata may also assist in recognition of untruths or poor quality information. This process still relies on recognized experts to rate the quality of a given site or piece of data, as well as the wisdom of groups, the power of the hive-mind. There will still be people who will choose to ignore stuff that is rated "pants on fire" (see Politifact's Truth-o-Meter), but cranks have existed since the dawn of time. The internet cannot solve everything.

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Relationship of Data, Information, and Knowledge Today

Too Big to Know captures a modern theme and runs with it. We are drowning in data and information, but sometimes it feels like we know less. We must learn how to deal with the potential and problems of this new reality. Instead of a progressive pyramid, we now swim in a sea of data (tiny red dots in figure at right) with bits from all over the place synthesized into knowledge (larger orange dots). Knowledge (yellow asterisks) is harder to find, as is wisdom (green stars). These bits all exist together, like a stew, rather than stacked like a sandwich (a pyramidal sandwich, if you please).

The old model was orderly, while chaos reigns in the new one. The discussions in the book give me hope that we can learn to live with the new model and harness its power. I feel like I cannot do the book justice here; perhaps the topic is too big to blog!

One response so far

  • greg says:

    maybe it was orderly, but it also excluded a lot of stuff as the privilege of the experts was inserted as "fact". Most revealingly, I recently had a look at the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.... pure tripe compared with wikipedia. Bunch of white rich male assholes that have never been out of their castles without their entourage.

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