data, information and knowledge

From: Scott Chase (
Date: Wed 25 May 2005 - 10:59:15 GMT

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    Trying to unravel the mysteries of information (ie- just what the heck is it?), I've been reading several books on the topic ( John R. Pierce's _An Introduction to Information Theory_, L. David Ritchie's
    _Information_, and Keith Devlin's _InfoSense_). Devlin's book is geared more towards a business or organizational understanding of information, which I've found really interesting because it's more applied than theoretical or mathematically formalized. He presents a triad (data, information, knowledge) that seems to overlap pretty smoothly with my favorite triad (artifact, socifact, and mentifact) for which IIRC Julian Huxley credits someone named Bidney.

    Anyway early on in the book Devlin differentiates between information theory as the highly formalized discipline of Claude Shannon and those people where they look at how stuff is encoded, transmitted and decoded via a channel such as a telegraph or telephone system and information science which is more like library science where the study is of organization and retrieval (what I like to call "ecphory" after Semon) systems. Can a theory be more formal than a science? Seems like these two disciplines are like apples and oranges.

    Devlin's book overlaps to some degree with Ritchie's in that they both seem to devalue the strictly formalized approach of traditional information theory at least in that it doesn't quite cover all the bases of human communication versus info flow through something like a telegraph system (with its measures of entropy, redundancy etc).

    Devlin also makes the distinction I mention above between data (such as what you find in charts, graphs or tables), information (what is acquired when looking at data) and knowledge ( the internalized aspect of information gleaned from data in the individual mind). He summarizes (p. 16-7, hardcopy) by saying that
    "(d)ata exists on paper" or "computer disks", information is "in the collective mind of a society" and knowledge is "in an individual person's mind". That's an interesting epistemology there...

    Thus I think following him, if he's correct, we could say that data is artefactual, information is socifactual and knowledge is mentifactual.

    Devlin is a situation theorist in that he looks at the importance of context in human communication. He puts DNA in context in his chapter "The Dinosaur's Egg" which I'll need to re-read, but suffice it to say he reminds me of what I learned from developmental biology and how cellular context is important for expression of genes. If we have a strand of DNA, what do we have without a context? We could cut it and splice it into bacteria to get some particular gene products. The bacterium gives us a limited context for a limited strand length of DNA. What would we have if given a dinosaur genome without the machinery of the egg to provide a context for its expression? What do we have with a full detailed view of the human genome without the cellular context?

    I think some of Devlin's situation theory approach deflates infocentrism. The dinosaur egg argument deflates genocentrism, just like an understanding of developmental biology should. Likewise, maybe we should avoid memocentrism and put human communication and culture in its context. Could reduction of human communication to the telegraph or telephone as communication channel distort reality? Are computer analogies for cognitive science much better?

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