As we all try to make sense of the world day by day, we are increasingly reminded that we can learn something about almost every topic faster than ever before. But a few clicks on a keyboard generates more than we can consume fully.
It might be useful, however, to make some distinctions among “data,” “information,” “knowledge,” and something perhaps labeled “wisdom.” Data consist of documentation of individual attributes of people, households, businesses, organizations, events, images, texts, and transactions. Increasingly these come from streams of digital bits from internet-connected devices. Sometimes the data are quantitative; sometimes, words; sometimes, images or sounds; sometimes, even smells. The popular phrase, “data exhaust,” invokes the correct image because it implies a material residue of something that was real and often complex.
To people outside the processes, these data themselves often have no real meaning. Their first purpose is simple — to permit interactions to proceed in a manner that fulfills the designs of those in charge of the process. Each of us derives benefits from many of these processes; in the internet world, we pay for them generally by providing data on our behaviors that have value to those running such processes.
But the haphazard collection of our Alexa speech, tweets, credit card transactions, search terms, mobile phone GPS transmissions, facial images, and other exhaust can also, given a specific purpose, produce information. By “information” might mean an assembly of data with a purpose. Hence, different types of information can be assembled from the same collection of data. Our exhaust, when assembled into information, can answer many specific questions.
So, the distinction between data and information in this sense is the added value of connections among data. In some sense, subsetting and combining data invents information in the hands of one seeking an answer to a question.
Most academic fields are vast collections of information. There are millions of answers to individual questions that are themselves collections of data. The work of academic fields is both discovering new information, but also to reassemble pieces of information into novel coherent wholes. The development of new theory in individual fields seems often to depend on discovering some new information (sometimes merely a new assembly of old data) that reinterprets whole bodies of information. With such assemblies, the use of the term, “knowledge” becomes attractive. Knowledge might be viewed an interrelated network of different pieces of information.
(An interesting assembly of information that is of growing interest in the academy is the story or narrative. These are assemblies of information that often gain their memorability by evoking emotions through the careful selection of pieces of information. Any story manipulates related pieces of knowledge to emphasize purposeful themes.)
So, how does the notion of wisdom come into this cumulative collection of data? A cognitive psychologist friend thinks of wisdom as the result of networks of networks of knowledge. When we label a remark as a wise observation, we often express surprise by a new assembly of knowledge. In my friend’s view, this is evidence of an unusual connection between different knowledge nodes built from experience. A testament to that is the “I never thought of it that way” comment that we make to ourselves.
Many cultures associate wisdom with age. The wise elder may attain that status by networks of knowledge that only years of experience can provide. Seemingly unrelated knowledge domains are found to be related because of millions of life episodes experienced over time.
All of us are overwhelmed with data each day. The individual pieces, scattered about in our minds, are far distant from a state of wisdom. Using our life experiences to constantly probe new mixes of seemingly unrelated knowledge is our route to building networks of networks of knowledge that might be called wisdom. This is always intellectually courageous, but often fun.