Tuesday, 7 February 2006

Information, language, knowledge and connectedness

Inspired by the debate:Connectivism and Connected Knowledge between Stephen Downes and George Siemens, I have been wanting to write this.

A problem we cannot solve
Suppose someone take out my brain, connect all my nerves to a sophisticated computer which will generate all the signals that I am currently receiving. Can I know that I have been connected in this way? No.

So, are we living in a simulator? Are all the perceptions that I have been experiencing produced by the simulator? I have no way to find out.

However, so far, it seems to me that all my previous experience has produced a coherent world. So I am not going to tackle the problem whether I am living within a simulator or not. I would just assume that we are living in a world which has some implicit rules and these rules have been producing a coherent experience for me. I also assume that you, the reader, also exist and you are not an illusion of my perceptions. You are also an entity with quite similar properties as me.

As I have written before here and here, I like to stress the boundary between me and "not me". Knowledge is part of me, accumlated over all my years of existence.

I will use the word "information" to represent everything external to me. Some people may want to call them knowledge as well. But I will reserve "knowledge" to just refer to the experiences that I have accumulated, as defined above.

Information may be the manifestation of other people's knowledge or data collected automatically through devices that we design. As externalised artifact, information has additional properties which knowledge does not have. I said that information is a manifestation of one's knowledge and hence it cannot be complete and accurate. The process of getting our perceptions into our brain and the process of extracting the knowledge into information are lossy and fuzzy. Our perceptions is selective and filtered, hence the input mechanism is lossy. We forget and our recall is not always the same. So the output is lossy too. Every time we describe the same experience to different people at different time, it is different. Hence the information we produce is fuzzy. In a way, information is a record of human history, *some* of the accumulated knowledge.

Once the information is externalised, it can be stored, duplicated and spread. Information can be transferred across time and space.

Language is our vechicle of communication between human. Language is accumulated, compromised and negoitiated. We agree, implicitly or explicitly, that certain sound when under certain condition convey a certain idea. The induction into a certain subject domain means picking up and understanding a set of jargons used by the community.

Different culture, through different circumstances, developed different language. Without a common agreement, people cannot communicate *across* language barrier. This does not mean that they have completely different world views or knowledge base. As I have assumed, the world we live in has been producing coherent stimulations to our sense. It is very likely that these stimulations have built similar, albeit different knowledge in our brains. Without a common language, we can share and compare our knowledge.

Human language is in constant flux and is changing very minute. OK, a core set of language remains fairly stable for a sufficient long time for us to have meaningful communication. But the communication is not prefect because we may have different shades of meaning attached to the same term we use.

Language can also express things that are not "real". Language can be used to construct new idea and new artifact. That's a power of language!

Information is encrypted in *language*, be it language as we normally use the term or pictorial "language".

Is Knowledge objective or subjective?
This is one of the great questions Stephen and George were whistling with. I don't intend to say I have any more clue. Here is my position.

First, we must agree on what is "objective" and what is "subjective". As I said, the manifestation, ie this post, is an approximation of the "world view" I have accumulated, what I refer to as "objective" may not be the same as yours. Since I have made the distinction between "me" and "not me", then I would define those that belongs to "me" as subjective and those that belong to "not me" as objective.

We also need an agreement on what is "knowledge". Again, based on the "me" and "not me" notion, I will look at "information" and "knowledge" as defined above.

Obviously, since information is external, ie belongs to "not me", it is objective.

My way of defining "knowledge" makes it subjective, by definition.

The issue is actually about can we and do we share a common part of "knowledge". Is there any part of your world view same to my world view? My answer would be YES. Since I have ASSUMED that the world we live in gives us a cohorent stimulations and ASSUMED that you are a similar entity to me, you must be recieving similar stimulations via your preceptions and hence it is highly likely that you and I have part of our world view similar enough that we will not disagree.

George raised an interesting example of "unicorn". Why Stephen and George have similar description of an idea which does not exist in the world? Well, that's the common understanding based on the common language both Stephen and George speak. A horse-like 4-legged animal with a horn is what the language defines as "unicorn". So, because Stephen and George share the same language, they can both provide a similar description of an unicorn.

It has become obvious that large amount of information now resides in databases which we can assess easily any time anywhere. When combined together, these information represent huge potential of creation of new ideas, concepts and products.

George quotes an air plane as a good example. (I am recalling from memory. Hence it is leaky, fuzzy and inaccurate AND I am too lazy to dig back to check, the following description may be totally wrong. So the credit is George and the bad parts are mine.) Today, no one engineer will have the complete knowledge of a modern air plane. But obviously Boeing (or other air plane manufacturer) is able to built them. Does this represent "knowledge" of the corporation?

As I have a very narrow definition of "knowledge", the last question does not make sense to me. I would rephrase as "Is it possible that human can process information without importing the information as part of the knowledge of the information worker?" The answer is an obvious yes. So, by processing different piece of information (knowledge in your term, may be), engineers are able to focus to different part of the air plane.

A pilot does not have the knowledge of every piece of equipment on the air plane. However, a pilot does have a functional model of how the whole air plane will work under different circumstances in order to fly the air plane safely. Hence the level of details of a subject matter in our knowledge may be supplemented by information (e.g. manual or database) when we carry out our job.

This capability has been there for a long time. Connectedness is not a pre-condition of our ability to operate on vast amount of information without internalising all that information.

Implication to education, learning, teaching and training
As I like to publish often and update frequently, I will leave the rest for another time.

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