Current discussions of educational systems and reforms, and the question of whether the internet increased our access to knowledge or set us on a path towards “digital dementia,” are still predicated on a fifty-year old paradigm: for decades, we have lived with the assumption that our knowledge is growing exponentially, that it doubles every ten or fifteen years, and that the time it takes for our knowledge to double will further decrease in the future. Terms like “knowledge explosion,” “information overload,” or “information avalanche” have become part of our vocabulary. But we gradually have reason to believe that we don’t always know more, and that our knowledge is growing slower than expected. The reason for this lies not in the failure of education or in the alleged dumbing-down of the masses through permanent media and internet consumption, but in the process of knowledge production itself. This realization has far-reaching consequences that touch on debates about systems of knowledge transmission, education, and teaching.
It’s a telling sign that current terminology – words like “explosion,” “avalanche,” or “flood” are often invoked during discussions of knowledge increases – uses the terms “information” and “knowledge” as interchangeable synonyms. We silently accept that an increase in information is paralleled by an increase in knowledge. It’s clear from our everyday experiences how far this assumption strays from the truth: the more information I’ve got from a restaurant menu, the harder it it is to “know” what to choose. The more I data I’ve got from the biography of a historic figure, the more nuanced we have to be when situating that person within larger historical narratives and so it become difficult to “know” what role the person had played in the history.
We aren’t always paralyzed or challenged by the availability of information, but in the majority of cases, the impression we form of a thing or of a person grows more complex and convoluted as more information becomes available. We lose a sense of clarity and unambiguousness. We have a lot of details but surrender a sense of certainty of knowledge.
Information and knowledge aren’t synonyms: Knowledge is always an interpretation of information. I can easily collect and recount factual information about someone: where and when they were born, where they lived and studied, what subjects they studied, what profession they hold, et cetera. But what does that really tell me about the person?
Findings from the natural sciences pose a similar challenge: they produce information rather than knowledge (it’s thus a bit misleading to speak of “science,” a word with the Latin root “scire,” “to know.” It would be more fitting to derive a word for science from “indicium,” the Latin word for information and data). The mountain of scientific information has been growing for centuries – not just for decades – in a dramatic and exponential fashion. But the range of interpretations of scientific data that surpasses the knowledge threshold has long ceased to grow at equal rates. One of the most recent examples is the sequestration of the human genome: the analysis of mountains of genetic information does not create new knowledge. First and foremost, it destroys old certainties that used to be regarded as sound knowledge and are now exposed as fallacies.
Scientists like to describe such processes as the search for more precise and detailed knowledge. They say: we now understand more clearly how this or that process unfolds in nature. But if we look closely, those new interpretations are often radically different from the interpretations that preceded them. Increasingly, comprehensive interpretations aren’t even possible in genetics, cosmology, particle physics, or neuroscience.
Indeed, a more apt description of the “knowledge explosion” goes like this: Our knowledge is like a big balloon, filled with an ever-increasing amount of data and information. It continues to expand, growing thinner with each addition of volume, until it finally bursts and sends bits and pieces of knowledge flying across the room.
This is no cause for pessimism: everything that has been described as knowledge thus far represents only a part of the totality of human knowledge. Maybe the mistake lies in the view that equates the interpretation of information that can generally be regarded as true with knowledge as such. There is no single form of knowledge! In addition to theoretical knowledge (that’s the kind we usually mean when we say that someone understands a collection of data) we can speak of “practical knowledge”: The skill to be good at something. Sometimes practical knowledge is based on theoretical knowledge, but often – especially in times of theoretical uncertainty – the practical person is well served to keep theories at a safe distance. Practical knowledge does not simply increase with information. It’s likely that we forget as much as we gain. But we constantly add new practical knowledge to our repertoire to account for changes in the world.
Two deductions can be made from these observations for the education of a young generation: one, it is better to study the history of theoretical knowledge rather than memorize individual interpretations (which, after all, might only count as true knowledge for a limited period of time). We have to abandon the idea of knowledge progress. Knowledge explosions must not unsettle us: if our schools teach the age-old conviction that everything can be interpreted differently, we can approach future scientific revolutions with a more relaxed attitude.
Two, we must put practical knowledge and the teaching of techniques that allow us to be good at something back at the center of our education system – in high schools, vocational schools, and universities. Education must not strive for the teaching of theoretical interpretations of information without practical relevancy but on the transmission of skills and capabilities.
Of course this would require an educational revolution. But maybe it would allow young people to better find pragmatic solutions for problems that are still nebulous to us. We live in uncertain times, and the only thing we can surely predict is that these nebulous problems will eventually become manifest.
Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Idle Knowledge