As the “Information Age” continues to unfold, gaining knowledge has become the central activity in many of our interactions.* Sure, we’re busy shuttling information around, constantly optimizing how we shape and transmit it, but no matter how thought-through, well-designed, and engaging it is, information must still be translated to something meaningful and useful for the situation we’re facing right now. Information informs our problems but it does not solve our problems. Knowledge — readily-applicable “intel” that helps us at the point of need — is what gets us somewhere.
But, as with anything valuable, there are often challenges to gaining the knowledge we need. There are gatekeepers to confront, mountains to climb, mazes to wind through, battles to be fought, and prices to paid before we can earn even the smallest insight. If it sounds a lot like a game, that’s because it is. To those of us who consider ourselves “seekers” of knowledge, it can be a real quest to locate the right source, dig around, and finally extract knowledge that will help us. And for some — the “knowers” — the focus is on achieving credibility or popularity, asserting authority, and/or controlling seekers’ access to their knowledge.
The dynamics between both kinds of players, the seekers and the knowers, are present everywhere, from online platforms to everyday interactions. Across these different contexts, knowledge can be treated three ways:
Knowledge as Commodity
Once upon a time, we relied on those static information repositories called libraries to find out whatever we needed. A library card granted easy access, but hard work of “search” lay ahead, from riffling through the card catalog to scanning the shelves to poring over piles of books. Hours later, after careful study, we had an answer. We gained some knowledge. Maybe. And yet, with the dawn of the Web and all our advances with search engines and algorithms, getting what we need still isn’t a perfect process. Simply searching Google for an answer offers no guarantee of finding one. If we don’t spot exactly what we’re looking for on the first page or a couple of pages of in (out of impossibly millions of results), we’re forced to navigate a maze of dubious, redundant/repackaged, or completely irrelevant content. Frustrating.
There’s so much out there that’s dutifully served up to us in giant batches by search engines like Google — with supposedly the “best intention” of putting the most helpful results first — but for the life of it, a search algorithm won’t really know what we need to know and how to deliver it (beyond weather, news, and stock prices). We may be able to sort, classify, and rank online information, but for the time being, we can’t cut to the chase and zero in on what matters to us.
Knowledge as Influence
When Google falls short and there’s no one in our immediate circle to ask, our next option is to find discussion forums and other question-and-answer platforms where real people can offer help. The online knowledge marketplace welcomes all kinds of queries from seekers (via Wikipedia, Yahoo! Answers, etc) and provides the knowers with platforms for sharing their knowledge (via Quora, Answers.com, Stack Overflow, etc.). In a way, these platforms help us cope with the whole problem of information overload by bypassing it completely: you just go to a knowledge platform, write your question, then wait for an “expert” to answer. Depending on the platform, you can decide which answer best addresses your question or let the crowd decide for you. The answer with the most votes ends up being the “best” one, but whether or not that’s the right answer is another question.
Many knowers may have the best intentions to contribute to greater understanding by sharing their knowledge, but a good deal seek out recognition for their knowledge and aspire to become “thought leaders” in their realm of expertise. The game for them becomes accumulation of likes, followers, tweets, retweets, upvotes, blog comments, or whatever other social sharing gestures build their reputation. For professionals trying to carve out a place for themselves in a crowded competitive marketplace, that recognition is more than just an ego booster — it builds credibility and potentially attracts more clients, more business, more money, new recruits, and so on. Influence through knowledge can certainly help open many doors to new opportunities (eg, projects, partnerships, book deals, speaking engagements, etc), but a sense of responsibility should come along with it as well. Is it more important to be known for knowing and to capitalize on that, or to help others do better with the hope that they’ll pay it forward when others need help?
Knowledge as Advantage
The value of knowledge can be so great that its ownership creates a power dynamic between knowers and seekers. In finance, law, health care, and other professions, seekers hire knowers with substantial expertise in those areas to help solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity. Of course, with more knowledge and experience comes a higher price tag for obtaining or using that knowledge to get a specific result. When there’s a value-for-value exchange, and the knowledge received/used and outcome agreed upon more or less matches the amount paid for it, all is well. But when knowledge is withheld for personal gain and others’ loss or provided at a higher cost than what is reasonable, problems arise. Information asymmetry, when someone possesses more or better information than another in a given situation, is often used to gain advantage over those with little to no information (or even awareness that information exists). Buying a home or a car, deciding on health care tests and treatments, making investments, and many other everyday situations put seekers at a disadvantage when they place trust in a professional who has the power to disclose or withhold critical knowledge about a transaction that could tip the scales one way or the other (there are varying degrees of severity to this, of course). Every day, people fall prey to “contrived ignorance” (for lack of a better term), until the fraud is exposed, the asymmetry is corrected, and the game of deception is over.
Changing the Game
There’s been plenty of attention focused on the sciences, arts, and crafts surrounding data and information, and for good reason; in the period of time that understanding-focused disciplines have emerged and begun formalizing to the present, much valuable knowledge has been created to guide the process of turning raw data and content into not just a comprehensible/usable form, but a dynamic, adaptable, and personally meaningful form. At the same time, progress in optimizing information for the eye and brain still needs to account for the ways people — both seekers and knowers — think, feel, and behave.
Cognitive neuroscience is shedding more and more light on perception, memory, and other mechanisms of understanding, but the psychological dimensions of communication and the role of information design in human behavior remain under-explored. We’ll always need insights from the sciences to inform the “why,” “what,” and “how” of information, and we’ll hopefully answer more questions about the “who,” but each of us defines our own role and rules of engagement with others in knowledge exchange situations: when faced with the pressure of finding a solution from an outside source or when presented with the choice of how much knowledge we’re willing to share and how to share it.
Despite the reality (that is, intractability and stubbornness) of human nature, life would be a lot easier in many respects if we did away with the game of knowledge. No winners or losers. No wasted time and energy. No status-seeking. No profit-seeking. Just cooperation and collective engagement in advancing understanding.
* The role of data is important to acknowledge, but it’s just a raw material, an input that takes effort and skill to collect, analyze, and make usable. Information, next in the DIKW continuum, still requires some work to bridge what is presented to what is needed. Knowledge, as it is used here, focuses on that which has immediate use, without filtering, processing, or any extra work needed on an individual’s part.