Ready to Know

In the worlds of information design and data visualization, there’s plenty of attention paid to the Data and Information side of the DIKW continuum and how to transform one into the other. If the problem is defined and data are readily available or researchable, it’s just a matter of doing the work — engaging process, skills, expertise, and tools — to create usable information.

The data-to-information transformation process has reached an astounding level of optimization. Collecting, filtering, and processing data is becoming more automated. Visualization tools are becoming more available and easier to use, and real-time data displays are practically old news by now. There’s an infographic for just about anything these days (for better or worse). We take it for granted that the information we want or need is always out there somewhere, prepared and packaged for our consumption like any other product. The answer to almost any query is just a few taps, clicks, or voice commands away. 

However, there is more to the DIKW story than speed to insight. There are numerous factors that shape our experience of information and ultimately how we gain knowledge and achieve wisdom throughout life — the human factors — and often we have no control over them.

Stage Gates of Knowing

It’s easy to forget that becoming informed isn’t always up to an individual to decide, and that subsequently, knowledge and wisdom are in many ways influenced by the actions of others. What information we know, when we know it, and how those two factors alter our beliefs and actions quite often depends on who controls the information. There are moments in our lives — turning points, sudden changes, or rites of passage — when we only learn once we’re deemed ready to know by keepers of valuable intel: parents, relatives, teachers, friends, and others who are close to us. I would describe this as a “stage-gate” model, in which information is revealed or becomes accessible once a condition has been met. In video game parlance, this would be like unlocking achievements, where rewards are gained at key moments in the course of successful gameplay, like when a boss is defeated or enough points are accumulated. (Whether or not that new knowledge is a reward depends, of course, on the context.)

For instance, how many times do grown-ups tell children “you’ll understand when you get older” or delay answering a tough question when some adult topic comes up? There’s usually no sense in explaining it to the child because there is yet no surrounding context that comes with age, maturity, and lived experience in which to frame that knowledge. Revealing the knowledge too soon or in a way that has no meaning or direct relevance would only create confusion or misunderstanding until some distant future moment when the memory of that event intersects with the point of realization (“Oh, that’s what they meant!”). Hence the classic approach to “where do babies come from?” — using a fanciful placeholder explanation like the old “babies are delivered by storks” until right around the age of puberty, when all those strange physical transformations going on need some explaining. 

In more extreme situations involving health and well-being, disclosure could come at a high price. Consider the grievous situation of someone with a newly diagnosed terminal illness. Some doctors may choose not to deliver the bad news directly to the patient for fear that they are not ready to know: it will crush their will to live and plunge them into depression. Instead, they may share it with family, who must either keep the secret and let the patient live out their days oblivious to the reality or reveal the diagnosis and face the music. Deciding what’s best to do isn’t easy in this situation, as there can be dire consequences in revealing or hiding that information. Nevertheless, this kind of dilemma highlights the impact not just of information itself, but of when and it how it comes across, and who delivers it.

Informing with Care

By thinking of information broadly, not just as facts, figures, and instructions to be presented, but as flows of meaning through time and context between people, we can come to appreciate the effect it has in our lives and handle it with greater care. Information can have tremendous weight and emotional value. Knowing something that someone else doesn’t know about their world, the people they care about, their history, or their own bodies can carry with it an uneasy responsibility, and it takes considerable tact and sensitivity to know when and how to share. The act of sharing personal knowledge shouldn’t be treated as casually as an e-mail or post-it on the fridge — it’s a designed experience of its own. Setting a convenient time, finding a quiet place to sit without distractions, and even having simple comforts like hot tea or coffee available are essential to creating a comfortable space for conversation. Of course, the person who plays the role of messenger matters, as they can either reinforce or diminish credibility and trust in the information one receives.

We can’t always control the information we get, but we can be more aware of what we do with the information we have and how it might affect those we interact with. Helping people move towards greater knowledge and wisdom in life isn’t necessarily the conventional remit of data and information professionals. It’s Human 101.

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