Sunday, March 21, 2010

Knowledge vs Data

I’ve just had an epiphany. I was rolling around a few ideas in my head about the nature of learning and thinking when a few puzzle pieces clicked together for me. A disclaimer up front, I’m not claiming these are totally original thoughts that have never been articulated before by other people (although, if that turns out to be the case, hello PhD thesis!) I have not read or heard this exact thing expressed elsewhere which compelled me to write these thoughts down and share them.

Being a science fiction buff I enjoy the speculative and predictive nature of SF stories although I’m very sceptical of many (if any) writers being directly accurate in their predictions. To be fair, the open secret about SF is the best writers aren’t writing thematically about the future, they are writing about now. They use the future and/or alien worlds to frame their ideas but what they are really concerned with is the technology, issues ideas and actions of today and what paths they might lead us down.

So the focus on prediction is far more a shortcoming of readers than writers but it’s something everyone is guilty of at some point.

One of the favourite wet dreams of SF nerds is the idea of downloaded knowledge a la The Matrix and dozens of other stories. I’ve always had a gut feel this one was bullshit simply because of how long so many people have been fixated on it. I’m not really a contrarian by nature, this is more an analysis of the track record of SF predictions than saying “everyone says it so it must be wrong.”

Big and specific predictions (like personal jet packs) tend to be wrong and I’ve been convinced for a while that downloadable or implantable knowledge is simply not going to happen. It comes down to the difference between data and knowledge. Computers can hold and process vast amounts of data but can’t actually come up with ideas of their own (“not yet” is the breathless whisper from the Singularity geeks who squirt a little in their pants as they get worked up yet again over their fantasy of the rapture of the nerds). I’ll go further, the fact that a person has access to Wikipedia (or any encyclopaedia) doesn’t make them smart. In fact, let’s go even further, anyone who copies and pastes slabs of text from Wikipedia because that “proves their point” is a fucking moron.

But someone who reads, researches, analyses, proposes new ideas and just thinks dammit! That is a person who can get away with calling themselves smart.

And that’s why I think implanted/downloaded knowledge can’t work. It’s mixing up data with knowledge. The most likely outcome would be the scenario in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” where kids have information forced into their brains but they can’t use it. When they hear a trigger word they can repeat the relevant data but it still doesn’t mean anything to them.

A kid is asked about the Nile River and automatically repeats “The Nile is the longest river in the world...” Then the kid is asked what is the longest river in the world and can’t answer. He’s prompted “What about the Nile?” He reflexively repeats “The Nile is the longest river in the world...” then he’s prompted, “So what’s the longest river in the world?” and he still can’t answer.

Now, a smart person can benefit from having fast access to data but even a genius doesn’t learn anything useful from it instantly. And quite honestly, a stupid person with data is still stupid. In fact, they’re probably worse now because they’re drowning in a tsunami of data but they have no idea what to do with it. They have no way of knowing what bits of the data are most valuable and they are incapable of applying it effectively. But that won’t stop them from being a pundit on Fox News.

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