Illustration by David Somerville based on the original by Hugh McLeod
I read a pretty broad swath of stuff, from my son’s car magazines to high tech blogs to marketing web sites. My job is weird, and (apparently) my thirst for input is pretty promiscuous. Thus it was that I was reading a post by the aforementioned Mr. Somerville on the Brain on Digital site. And there, right up front, the very first sentence grabbed my attention:
They used to say knowledge is power, but now there’s Google — information is everywhere, and cheap.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea here; Somerville’s post is about how in the ocean of data that washes over us every day, the most important commodity is attention. How can you catch someone’s eye when you know that they’re flooded by information? How can you get someone (to stick to our water analogy) to pay attention to a particular drop of water when they’re swimming in the middle of a data equivalent of the Mississippi river? It’s well worth reading.
But it was that first sentence that got me thinking, because I’m sure that there is a big difference between information, and knowledge. That old chestnut states “Knowledge is power”; not data, or information, but knowledge. I’m not being pedantic here; in a world where we almost literally have an incredible amount of data (some of it highly dubious) at our fingertips, it’s how we collate, integrate, and apply that information that gives you knowledge. And, as Somerville shows, hopefully eventually wisdom.
When I was a kid, what I wanted more than anything was eidetic memory, i.e. “photographic memory”. I had an unusually good memory, but it was frustratingly imperfect and I wanted it perfect. I wanted to remember everything. I knew that a lot of folks with eidetic memory had some fairly severe neurological or psychological issues, but I was Doug; I wouldn’t have that problem, right? The perfect arrogance of a child.
In the years since, I’ve learned that there’s a reason eidetic memory is both rare, and often associated with disorders; how the heck do you catalog and store all that data? How can your brain keep up? Memory is associative; that is, when you create a new memory, it associates with other memories in your brain and forms new connections. It’s not a straight linear progression of adding raw data; your brain is always taking that data and doing shit with it. “That reminds me of . . .” The more memories, the more associations. So most people’s brains flush some stuff, just to make room. People with eidetic memories are awash in memories, flooded by data. No wonder they struggle! Do you really want to remember, say, what it smelled like that day you had the flu in 1987? Or how your skin felt when you burned yourself on the stove that time in December, 1992? What if you couldn’t forget that?
The Internet is our cultural eidetic memory; it stores everything. We apply associations by hand with links, but the Internet doesn’t self-associate. Adding new data and linking it to other data doesn’t create real associations like we do with our brains; they’re just static links. They’re something some random person at some point thought was related to the topic at hand. Useful, but not the same thing.
So now we all have access to eidetic memory, but does all that data make us all equally “powerful” in the “knowledge is power” sense? Clearly not. You have to tag, order, sort, and organize that information in some way. Then you have to create connection between pieces of data that maybe other folks don’t see. “Huh; you know, that makes me think of what this book by Dr. Blaupunkt said on a related topic . . .” And with those connections, you come up with ideas and thoughts that maybe didn’t exist before. And that is power.
People in fiction often use the “knowledge is power” formulation to demonstrate that when a state or other entity withholds information, withholds data, the people are ignorant and the folks holding that information have the power. And that’s true, of course, but why? Because without that data, people can’t collate the information, form those associations, and come up with their own ideas and thoughts. If you don’t know the multiplication tables, you can’t do fractions. But if you do know those multiplication tables, you can move on to division, and fractions, and algebra, and geometry, and on into Calculus and the next thing you know you’ve got Newton’s Laws of Motion and nuclear power and iPhones and whatnot. But it’s not just the raw data; it’s the insight to see connections between those data points that other people haven’t seen yet. And it builds on itself; new ideas create new data, which allows people to have new insights and create new data, and so on ad infinitum.
And it’s not just having access to the data and making connections, either; finding the information is more difficult than people imply when they say “Just Google it”. Google is all well and good, but if you’re using the wrong search terms, you’re not going to find what you’re looking for no matter how many times you click the Search button. You have to imply a certain amount of insight and use some guesswork (“I wonder what most people would call that?”) to get what you’re looking for. Google can’t do that thinking for you.
While not a great movie (and I personally don’t like Bradley Cooper), “Limitless” explored this in a very interesting way. Our Hero, Eddie, is a smart but unmotivated fiction writer. He takes a drug, and suddenly he’s brilliant. But not because he’s suddenly taking in a huge new ocean of data; no, it’s because he can make connections between data that was already there in his noggin, and create new ideas and new conclusions from it. Such is also the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Spock, Herocule Poirot, and many other “genius” fictional characters. It’s not the data, folks, it’s the connections and conclusions and deductions.
So fear not: Even though the Internet and the Web and Google and WikiPedia level the data playing field, that ability to create those connections, and from them original ideas, is still the thing that counts. Data isn’t power; knowledge is power, and knowledge comes from those insights and connections.
That’s what I think, anyway. But maybe I need some more data.