Saturday, May 14, 2005

Data, information and so on

I have promised my wife that this will only take 10 minutes - not much time to capture the convergence of ideas and abstraction, but here we go!

I am often asked (well, actually, to be more precise, I would like to be asked one day) where the caption in the heading ("Data is not information etc") comes from. Somebody did a search on the phrase, and visited my site, so I suppose there's a possibility that somebody else might. I first came across "Data isn't information. Information isn't knowledge. Knowledge isn't wisdom." in a newspaper article that was talking about the internet several years ago, before it had the influence it has now (I'm not sure I even had email at the time). The "Wisdom is not truth" I added myself.

The thinking behind this is something like as follows. When I was studying computer science, one of the professors had a means of solving computer problems that was basically "adding a level of indirection" - that is, describing the data at the next higher level. This is in effect what this series of clauses does. Data is (are?) basically just numbers. To understand data, you need context, which is what information is - you move from just numbers to organised numbers. Knowledge adds yet another level of indirection - categorising information - and wisdom a further one - categorising knowledge, understanding its context.

In Bible terms, I think that's basically as far as humans can go - and the Bible values wisdom. Proper wisdom relates this knowledge to God, and it is the focus of the "wisdom" literature of the Old Testament. However, we haven't arrived at "truth" - which was the clause I added above. Truth, I would argue, is something that only God can reveal. Even with "wisdom" - using brains that are capable of remarkable levels of abstraction - we aren't able to arrive at something we know to be objective. However, if there is an external absolute who has chosen to reveal objective truth, then we can at least have a subjective appreciation of this objective truth. The relevance of extending this clause is that we will not discover truth from all humanity's ponderings on the internet - only if an external absolute has spoken.

The convergent thing about this was the fact that apparently, according to Timescommentary, Google has patented software that will allow its search engine to evaluate the veracity/reliability of the pages that it references. The article was leaning towards the opinion that this would make Google almost "God"-like. However, using this means of evaluation, it is possible to see that Google is operating on the "data/information/knowledge/wisdom" realm, not the "truth" realm. It is behaving in a human way in evaluation the information it assesses, but it still is only organising and meta-organising data. The truth isn't "out there" in the collective knowledge of humanity. If we want to know the truth - even though we can only know it subjectively - we need to start from an external objective. So Google isn't "God-like" - even with these enhancements, it is still only "human-like".

1 comment:

John said...

Dr Rod Thomspson, a lecturer at Australia's National Institue for Christian Education (NICE) has said something a bit similar. There is a heirarchy: Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Information.

Contemporary Western Cultures tend to dumb-down, moving from the Wisdom end towards the Data end. He maintains that a Christian approach to education should aim to always move in the opposite direction. Wisdom in a Christian world-view is not mere abstract knowing as in the Greek tradition, but includes responding rightly to the ethical demands that are inherent in all knowledge.