So, to kick off with definitions
February 9, 2011 13 Comments
I was taught, back in the day, that when indulging in academic discussion, it was vital to ‘first define your terms’. So, I’ll bravely (or foolishly) start the discussion on definitions – or explanations – in order to achieve, in the end, mutually understood concepts. I suggest that the aim here is not so much to attempt to develop a single phrasing or understanding of a term, as much as to understand how each term (‘word’ or ‘phrase’) is used within particular disciplinary territories, or perhaps even for different purposes. In other words, how are these ‘terms’ conceptualised?
And I’m going to, perhaps even more bravely or foolishly, start with the terms that are so commonly used in our disciplines/professions. (You’ll note that I put these words together, to suggest their strongly interrelated nature, much like Foucault used ‘power/knowledge’ for the same purpose). These words are, I believe, data, information, knowledge, documents and records. After a great deal of exposure to the literature in librarianship, information science, recordkeeping and archival science, I remained frustrated by the overwhelming number of definitions of these terms, and even more by the total lack of agreement and consistency in these definitions. This gave me the impetus to study this topic in some detail for several years, and I arrived at the following conclusions.
The predominant image or metaphor currently expressed is that of a hierarchy, with ‘data’ at the bottom of a pyramid-shaped structure, supporting ‘information’ at the next level, and topped by ‘knowledge’. The explanation is given that ‘data’ are the primary construction element: when these are ‘processed’, they become ‘information’ which, likewise, when processed, becomes knowledge. Exactly what happens during the ‘processing’ phase is not explained. It is presumed that this can be by a computer, and so ‘data’ can be seen as synonymous with ‘bits’, which are processed and understood (by the computer) as ‘bytes’, these bytes can, in certain sequences, be translated into various symbols (such as letters of various alphabets, punctuation marks, etc.) and so, in various combinations, form ‘words’. These ‘words’ are not, of course, understood conceptually be the computer as referring to any other entity or phenomenon: they are simply sequences or patterns. Algorithmically (and computer scientists, I stand to be corrected here), such patterns can be programmed as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ – hence the development of spellcheckers, for example.
The data-information-knowledge model therefore may be useful to computer scientists, if ‘data’ as a term is seen to represented the concept ‘bits’ – the presence or absence of an electrical or electro-magnetic charge. However, it also suggests that computers are capable of producing ‘knowledge’, which is a conclusion with which I disagree. Quite strongly. If this model is used in a human context, it suggests that we accumulate ‘data’ somehow from our environment, and these include things like temperature (rather than the experience of heat or cold), and then process them into ‘information’ – presumably using only our cognitive abilities, which are sometimes regarded as little more than the add/subtract/compare processes of the computer. ‘Data’ are understood largely, in addition, to being ‘facts’ – many dictionaries provide this as an explanation of the term. The problem with ‘fact’ is twofold: firstly, it suggests that it is ‘true’ – and of course the notion of ‘truth’ and what it is remains largely unresolved – at least in philosophical circles; furthermore, ‘facts’ are socially constructed. We make ‘facts’ through the ways in which we frame time, space, measurement, power, and so forth. ‘Information’ is understood to be some kind of result of analysis of the data having been ‘processed’. But does this mean learned, understood, made meaning of? And information in turn is ‘processed’ (once again, it is not clear what activities are included) in order to become knowledge. Distinctions are not drawn between the kinds of knowledges that we have: knowledge of things, knowledge about things, knowledge how to do things, etc. I strongly resist the concepts of ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’ knowledge, however, which will become clearer later.
I am of the view that ‘knowledge’ is the place to begin an analysis of the other two concepts. ‘Knowledge’ is what we, as human beings, have: it is what we ‘know’ – whether we know we know it or not. Sometimes we have forgotten ‘stuff’, or do not realise that we know ‘stuff’. We acquire knowledge in a number of ways: firstly, we are born with the ability to acquire knowledge and language, after birth we experience the world through our five senses. Aristotle was particularly keen on this idea; Plato felt that our world was a mirage of the true or essential world. We also require knowledge vicariously, through other people, or rather, other people telling us of their direct experiences. If they record these experiences in some way, for example in writing, we may still learn from and experience their experiences across time and space.
So, I understand information to be that part of the persons knowledge that he or she chooses to share our with others, and which he or she will represent using a language of their choice, which may be spoken language, or dance or art or mathematics, for example. Our understanding of the message will depend upon our ability to decode their language: we must be able to interpret the symbolic representation of their ideas. Knowledge is, as previously stated the sum total of the accumulation of ideas and experiences that we individually possess. Data culturally or socially constructed symbols; they may be numbers or figures, or statements: in either case, there are embedded in a particular contextual understanding and represent nearly what is believed to be true at a particular moment and in particular space (which is why I am able to refer to the ideas of Aristotle and Plato).
Finally, I will say that to extend this understanding of data, information and knowledge, (DIK) I further believe that information is represented in language, and rerepresented in writing–symbols that represent spoken language– which can be recorded on a material which may or may not be more less durable, and that material constitutes a “document”. Thus, a document can be understood to be a container of information. Some documents provide evidence of a business transaction, and these documents known as “records”.
I look forward to your analysis, critique, and commentary on these ideas.
All the best, Sue