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A Knowledge-Base is Not Knowledge

  • Production of information is growing at an astronomical pace, but the ability of ordinary people to "learn" cannot change overnight.
  • There are both biological and organizational limits to how much more we can learn in a day.
  • Hence there is virtually no limit to the productivity that the information producer can achieve, but there is a very low limit to the productivity that the information consumer can achieve.
  • By the same token, we may be confusing knowledge and "knowledge base". We boast that society is producing billions of bytes of digital knowledge every day, but the ability of an individual to browse that knowledge base (in terms of both time availability and learning skills) has presumably remained the same (if not declined).
  • The knowledge base is increasing exponentially, but the knowledge that an individual has can only increase so much. Society can upload one million Wikipedia pages, or post one billion "tweets" on Twitter, but an individual cannot read one million pages or tweets.
  • The limit is not only in the quantity of information that one can acquire: it is also about the process of learning. Learning is not just about memorizing (or being able to access) a bit of information. It is about... learning it. It becomes knowledge when it is truly internalized, categorized, personalized. It becomes knowledge when it is ready to be used in a vast network of other knowledge. Simply dumping masses of digital data onto the Internet-plugged individual does not do it.
  • For example, paper books are unlikely to be replaced any time soon because most people still feel that they learn better and faster when they can flip through, take notes on, rip a page from and just caress a paper book. The difference between a digital book and a paper book is not in content; and the digital book might actually be easier to handle than the paper book. The difference is in how easier it is to "learn" the knowledge embedded in that book.
  • Another example has to do with schools. There is a trend towards automating more and more of the teaching process, so that someday one would simply log into a website and be given a lecture on a topic. That is certainly feasible, but the human teacher will not be replaced any time soon by a "cloud" of invisible machines. Most people learn much faster and much better when a teacher (or even just a friend or even just a stranger) explains the concept to them. Textbooks did not replace the human teacher: they provided the human teacher with an additional tool to teach (and it's even debatable if books make you learn more or less). For the same reason computers are unlikely to replace teachers.
  • Samuel Johnson said that humans need more often to be reminded than to be informed. What this means is that a dump of information does not automatically become knowledge. What becomes knowledge is information that is processed appropriately until it fits in a vast network of learned concepts.
  • There is more to human knowledge than just "knowledge". If we built a computer that has all the knowledge in the world, that machine would not behave like a human being: it would behave like a machine. Humans have at least two faculties that dramatically alter the way they use knowledge: common sense and morality.
  • Common sense interferes with knowledge. A social system relies as much on considerate disobedience of the rules as on absolutely obedience to the rules.
  • Morality drives the use of knowledge. We don't just kill and steal based on our knowledge of what is there and how to get it.
  • As society creates more and more obedient citizens, it is turning them into machines. Such human machines behave in a nonsensical and amoral manner just like machines do.
Proof-edited by Alexander Altaras