Information versus Knowledge
| Peter Klein |
[T]here’s enough information coming at us from all sides to leave us feeling overwhelmed, just as people in earlier ages felt smothered by what Leibniz called “that horrible mass of books that keeps on growing.” In response, 17th-century writers compiled indexes, bibliographies, compendiums and encyclopedias to winnow out the chaff. Contemplating the problem of turning information into useful knowledge, Gleick sees a similar role for blogs and aggregators, syntheses like Wikipedia, and the “vast, collaborative filter” of our connectivity. Now, as at any moment of technological disruption, he writes, “the old ways of organizing knowledge no longer work.”
But knowledge isn’t simply information that has been vetted and made comprehensible. “Medical information,” for example, evokes the flood of hits that appear when you do a Google search for “back pain” or “vitamin D.” “Medical knowledge,” on the other hand, evokes the fabric of institutions and communities that are responsible for creating, curating and diffusing what is known. In fact, you could argue that the most important role of search engines is to locate the online outcroppings of “the old ways of organizing knowledge” that we still depend on, like the N.I.H., the S.E.C., the O.E.D., the BBC, the N.Y.P.L. and ESPN.
That’s Geoffrey Nunberg reviewing James Gleick’s new book, The Information (Random House, 2011). Gleick burst onto the scene with 1987’s Chaos: The Making of New Science, which introduced the butterfly effect, Mandelbrot sets, fractal geometry, and the like into popular culture. (Don’t blame Gleick for the silly Ian Malcolm character in Jurassic Park, or the even sillier Ashton Kutcher movie.) I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of The Information (gotta love the definite article, as in “the calculus”) but, as best as I can tell from the Google books version, Gleick doesn’t get into the Hayekian-Polanyian distinctions between parameterizable “information” and tacit knowledge that particularly interest O&M readers. (Another good quote from the review: “[T]here’s no road back from bits to meaning. For one thing, the units don’t correspond: the text of ‘War and Peace’ takes up less disk space than a Madonna music video.”) Still, the book should be worth a read.