Thursday, March 04, 2004

Nature of knowledge

While walking the dog last night I had some brief thoughts about the nature of information and knowledge. We take for granted that information and knowledge are different things. How we determine this difference, however, is a bit suspect. I once read that knowledge is value added information. The definition I prefer—despite its Information-as-Thing bias (Buckland, 1991)—is that information is inherently transportable while knowledge is socially situated with a given community (Kanfer et al., 2000).

Of course, to be transportable information has to be encoded as a document (another classic: Buckland, 1997). One of my former instructors—Bernie Frohmann—is adamant about this point. For a given community to develop some knowledge therefore requires both information and its precursor: the document.

Sometimes the documents don’t exist. A classic example is pre-literate or oral culture (see Ong, 1982). If a community lacks writing they obviously can’t create documents. How many of our other media, however, are more oral than they are literate? PowerPoint for example, seems more rooted in oral culture than it does in literate culture (see Tufte, 2003). Since the document is largely missing in PowerPoint (or is at least very poorly structured) can the higher levels of information exchange and knowledge creation actually occur? Are we just setting ourselves up for some massive failure?

On November 16 1532, Francisco Pizarro basically wiped out the Incan army at Cajamarca in the Andean highlands. He lured the Incan emperor—Atahuallpa—into an enclosed fort where Pizarro could use his horses and guns to completely overwhelm the Incan forces. According to Jared Diamond (1997), the reason for this incredible military victory was the Incan’s complete ignorance of writing and the strategic affordances it provides.

By adopting oral media over traditional documents, are we bound for a corporate Cajamarca?


Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 351-360.
Buckland, M. K. (1997). What is a "document"? Retrieved September 18, 2001, from
Diamond, J. M. (1997). Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Kanfer, A. G., Haythornthwaite, C., Bruce, B. C., Bowker, G. C., Burbules, N. C., Porac, J. F., et al. (2000). Modeling distributed knowledge processes in next generation multidisciplinary alliances. Information Systems Frontiers, 2(3-4), 317-331.
Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy : the technologizing of the word. London ; New York: Methuen.
Tufte, E. R. (2003). The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press LLC.


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