/* Written May 26, 1994 by bthomson@web.apc.org in igc:p.news */
/* ---------- "The Information "Revolution"" ---------- */
From: Bob Thomson <bthomson@web.apc.org>
Subject: The Information "Revolution

I was moved by the posting of Neil Postman's speech ("Informing ourselves to death") to the German Informatics Society, October 1990, and by an article on anarchy on the Internet in the May 11, 1994 New York Times, to write the following comments on the process of information, knowledge and learning.

I hope you find it interesting and useful.

The Information Revolution

With all the hype in the press these days about the "information superhighway" and the use of computers to provide us with "information", it is important that we understand a few basic concepts about human knowledge and learning in order to avoid unrealistic expectations and to put the information revolution into a context that we can deal with in our daily lives.

The graph below shows the process whereby we sort the raw data which comes into our lives through our eyes, ears and other senses over time or with experience, and how each of us progressively turns this data into information, knowledge and eventually wisdom.  This is the learning process and we all use it every day.  The left axis of the graph shows "noise" or a measure of unintelligibility at the high end and "signal" or clarity of understandable patterns at the low end.  The greater the signal, the more useful the information.

           |   *
           |   * Raw Data - unfiltered/unsorted
Noise  |    *
           |     *
           |      *
     ^   |       *  Information - sorted and filtered data - patterns
      |    |        *
      |    |          *
      |    |            *
      |    |              *   Knowledge - replication/predictability
     v    |                *
           |                    *
           |                        *             Wisdom - clarity/values
Signal |                              *
           |                                    *
           |                                           *      *     *
                              Time/Experience    <<--------------------->>

   (With thanks to Mike Cooley, Slough UK, from a presentation to the International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT)
   in Kilkenny Ireland, April 1991.) Mike Cooley: Architect or Bee? p.12

Most of the hype about the information revolution and the information superhighway focusses only on the increased availability of data, and not on the means by which we sort and use all this data or information.

The graph above shows how we use our own individual and highly personal filters to discern patterns in the mass of unsorted data. These patterns allow us to turn data into information. Further sorting of information into broader patterns turns information into knowledge and over time into "wisdom". This sorting process is crucial to learning, because it is through the use of "filters" that we see patterns in the mass of unsorted data.  These "filters" are many and varied; eg. religious and political beliefs, language, gender and race, scientific methodology and previous sets of patterns that we have stored for future reference. The transition from data to information to knowledge and wisdom is a continuous, highly individual process. Information can be "data" for the application of broader filters and patterns, turning it into knowledge and similarly from knowledge to wisdom.

The time/experience axis above is deliberately shown as bi-directional. At any point in the process of learning, we might, and often will, or should, discover a flaw or necessary refinement in the filters and patterns we used to move from one step to another, at which point we need to go back and, using our new filters, re-sort the original "data", along with any new "data", to arrive at new "information" and eventually new "knowledge" and "wisdom".

One frightening aspect of the information revolution is that there is so much data available now that we give up trying to sort it.  In doing so, we can succumb to chaos and powerlessness, giving up personal empowerment and knowledge to "gurus" who claim to have it sorted already and to serve it up to us in intelligible packages, with no effort required on our part to do any of the sorting ourselves.  With global access to information through television and the press, the incredible complexity of the world and humanity becomes very evident, while at the same time, giving power to anyone with control of television, the press and Internet content to spoon feed us with pre-sorted, simplistic "information" based on their own religious, political or economic patterns and interests, i.e. their cultural narratives, not ours.

While it is useful, and even necessary, that someone help us to sort the masses of data now available through global communications, we give up personal power if we do not retain some control over the sorting process and remain sceptical and questioning in our daily lives.  Simplistic, pre-sorted and attractively packaged information, as we all know, can be deceptive and manipulative, or even false news.

Bill Rees has noted: "All cultural narratives, world views, religious doctrines, political ideologies, and academic paradigms are 'social constructs' - products of the human mind massaged or polished by social discourse and elevated to the status of received wisdom by agreement among members of the social group who are creating the construct... By the time most people have reached mature adulthood they will have accepted their culture's overall 'narrative' and will subscribe, consciously or not, to any number of subsidiary religious, political, social and disciplinary paradigms."

At the very least, we should be aware enough of the overall process of learning and individual acquisition of data or information so that we recognize our own personal filters and cultural narratives, and those of the people or powers that feed information to us every day.  Unfortunately, most people are too busy scrambling to earn a living to step back from daily struggles to see what is happening to themselves and their "knowledge" process, much less to challege it and spend some time learning about learning.

The education system, in teaching us and our children how to operate computers, does not put enough emphasis on the basics of learning and the recognition and development of data/information "filters" in the learning process.  We only learn how to acquire or get access to data, or how to manipulate its presentation via printed or audio/visual formats using word processors, spreadsheets, accounting software and multi-media or graphics.  We don't learn enough about the philosophical, cultural, economic, political, religious, racial, gender, etc. filters that also sort information in ways that are more subtle than print or audio/visual formats.

We can deplore the status quo and conclude that manipulation of information by corporate power requires the destruction, not the development of the information superhighway.  Or we can use computers as tools for the democratization of information.  We must insist that our governments and educational institutions prepare us for this new kind of technical democracy and integrate it with the centuries old mechanisms of political, economic and community democracy and freedom of speech, which, although they don't always work perfectly, certainly work better than corporate autocracy and the global "free" market.