Saturday, February 7, 2009

Knowledge or Information?

For quite some time, there has been quite a lot of talk about 'General Knowledge'. There are even subjects in the school curricula called GK (General Knowledge). Let us together go into what it actually is.

Oxford English Dictionary defines knowledge as: Intellectual perception of fact or truth; clear and certain understanding or awareness. What I understand from this definition and my own perception is that knowledge is a reusable and expandable form of information. As a trivial example, suppose I know that touching something hot is going to burn me and I know that a frying pan is hot, I can connect the dots and figure out that touching the frying pan is going to burn me. Now if I see something else that is hot, for example an electric iron, I can deduce that it will not be prudent to touch it either! The knowledge has been reused in a new circumstance. If I propose a theory in fluid dynamics today and advance the humankinds' knowledge in that area, the very fact that the theory can be applied to any scenario that comes within its purview makes it, well, a scientific theory or a fact.

Another facet that must be emphasized when talking about knowledge is that it must be expandable. The application of knowledge should enhance knowledge itself. Using the same example as above, if I touch something that I know nothing about and end up burning my finger, I can deduce that it is something that is normally hot, and hence I gather a fact that may be of use when characterizing the thing.

Now consider a sample of what constitutes the subject of GK as it is taught in schools and tested in examinations at all levels (The first result when I search for GK questions on Google):

  • Who was the first prime minister of < insert country here>?
  • What is the name of the longest river in the world?
  • What is the name of the longest highway in the world?
  • What is the length of the English Channel?
    And so forth……………………………..

Now how would you rate the questions above as reusable sources of knowledge? On the basis of expandability? I, for one, can't see the utility of knowing the name of a person who happens to be at a certain post at a certain place of the world. And even if I do know the name, what use is it? How is that going to help me know anything else? How am I going to expand my horizons based on that fact?

Now don't get me wrong! I certainly don't want to trivialize knowing all this stuff and don't intend to rile people that have vast stores of information. But to put things in perspective, let's first stop calling information as knowledge. Only then would we be able to realize that information is the first step to knowledge. A fact, when learnt and known constitutes information. The very fact, when used, and reused, and expanded upon, and assimilated, becomes knowledge. It ceases to be a showpiece, and becomes a tool. And tools can always be used to generate more showpieces.