We interpret and act on the same information differently, depending on the context. This is the challenge we face when trying to record knowledge in written format for re-use – writing it down makes it static and knowledge is never static. Take the following simple and effective example, provided by Nick Stodin:

Take a bunch of vegetables, chop them up and throw them in a pile in the back yard. What do you have? Compost.

Take a bunch of vegetables, chop them up and drop them on your kitchen floor. What do you have? A mess. What do you do with it? Clean it up.

Take a bunch of vegetables, chop them up and put them into a wooden bowl. What do you have? A salad. What do you do with it? Eat it.

Data = ‘a bunch of vegetables’. Information is created when we make some judgements: vegetables on the floor should not be eaten and vegetables in a bowl can be eaten, vegetables that are not eaten can be used as compost (but first discard the packaging). Does that make it knowledge? No. Information-based decisions are consistent, knowledge-based decisions are variable – they change when presented with different contexts. For example, if you are starving you are probably less fussy about food that drops on the floor. If the vegetables are in a bowl with maggots crawling over them you might not want to eat them… then again, you might. For those who don’t want to eat maggots, each will have a personal threshold at which point hunger decides maggots don’t look so bad after all. The minute you try to record knowledge you make it static and impersonal. Hence it stops being knowledge and becomes information.

Last week I was reading an article in NewScientist magazine* that highlighted this point with a great example:

A trolley train comes hurtling down the line, out of control. It is heading towards five people who are stuck on the track. If you do nothing they face certain death. But you have a choice: with the flick of a switch, you can divert the trolley down another line – a line on which only one person is stuck. What do you do?

The choice (judgement) is to save five people but lose one. In this context, ugly as the decision is, most people would agree with the information presented – they would flick the switch. (We are assuming all people involved are complete strangers unknown to you, of similar age, no bias etc.) Now let’s change the context:

This time you are standing on a footbridge overlooking the track. The trolley is coming. The five people are still stuck, but there’s no switch, no alternative route. All you’ve got is a hefty guy standing in front of you. If you push him onto the line, his bulk will be enough to stop the runaway trolley. You could sacrifice his life to save the others – one for five, the same as before. What do you do now?

Blimey (was my reaction when I first read it). The information is the same – five people are saved, one dies. Surely this is a straightforward rational decision, just like before? But it isn’t, the context is more personal – there is a world of difference between flicking a switch and physically shoving a human being to their death. How would you react? I can imagine all sorts of reasons entering my head to justify not pushing – it’s not my fault the trolley is coming, it’s not my fault the people are stuck on the track, it WILL be my fault that this person dies if I push him… Some people may find it easy to shove the guy, others may decide they couldn’t push him no matter what, others may initially recoil at the idea but then rationalise the options, say a few prayers, and do the deed… The decision is no longer so easy to make. The reaction is personal. Let’s throw in another spanner – one of the five on the track is your child. For those whose first reaction was ‘never, I couldn’t push someone to their death’, maybe that decision would be revisited in this new context…

Computers would not struggle with this scenario – they process information and the information is identical in both examples. But we don’t always want the rational choice, we want an appropriate solution that fits the circumstances as we interpret them. That’s why we rely on knowledge more than information. And knowledge is personal: easy to share, difficult to record.

*Example taken from NewScientist magazine article: ‘A moral maze‘ (subscription required to view full article)

This entry is filed under: Intelligence

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