Saturday, 17 May 2008

Some ramblings on knowledge, information, thermodynamics and Taoism – Part 1

Conrad Taylor, Project Officer at the BCS KIDMM community and friend of ISKO UK has written a paper Towards making knowledge in communities, which is designed to lay the foundations for an exploration of the topic of ‘knowledge communities’ at a joint KIDMM-ISKOUK event in October 2008. The paper masterfully blends, links and questions the currently predominant memes concerning knowledge and its manifestations, the relationship between information and knowledge, and the role which communities play in the exchange and generation of knowledge.

Why should ISKO UK be interested in such a topic? Well, I have no doubt that knowledge is socially constructed. It might appear to be generated solely by individuals like the Einsteins and Edisons of this world, but it inevitably draws upon the work of others, and to become accepted as ‘justified true belief’, to be propagated and to be put to good use, it must be validated through peer review and put to the test in a social context. All of these processes, from initial conceptualization, through research, validation, testing and exploitation are mediated and facilitated by access to knowledge and information – access which is made possible because geeks like us bother to develop and apply the means of doing so.

At a recent meeting organized by NetIKX which Conrad mentions, he raised a number of points which challenged some of the slick memes propagated by KM consultants and gurus (for an amusing insight into this phenomenon, see Prof. Tom Wilson's infamous guerrilla attack on KM), and which stimulated my own thinking about the issues involved. For example, take the common compound noun ‘knowledge object’. Your understanding of this depends upon your acceptance of the notion that knowledge can be a ‘thing’, i.e. a tangible object. Our current conventional wisdom is thoroughly ambivalent on this, largely owing to popular acceptance of Nonaka and Takeuchi’s mid-1990s description of ‘tacit knowledge’ and ‘explicit knowledge’ and their SECI (Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization) model of how one is transmuted into the other.

It’s not that Nonaka & Takeuchi’s description was invalid; it represented a giant leap forward in our understanding of how knowledge is transferred, absorbed, aggregated and embedded in the social psyche. But their presentation of ‘knowledge’ in tacit and explicit forms hooked-in to our Western way of black-or-white thinking (you’re either with us or against us...) to fool us into assuming that they were separate and separable concepts. They are not.

I have had conversations many times before on this topic. The most recent and most interesting was with a colleague, Christopher Dean, who deals with knowledge and change issues at Airbus in Bristol. He makes reference to a rather interesting (although dense) paper by Crofts which theorizes about knowledge and information in thermodynamic terms and links them with Darwinism and the development of phenotypes and of civilization itself. I am sure my colleague won’t mind if I quote him briefly here, since he makes his points far better than I ever could.
“This paper by Crofts provides a theoretically sound basis to distinguish knowledge without substance from information embodied in the structure of a thermodynamic carrier. As you suggest, knowledge and information are both distinct yet inseparable. However, for me this drives a stake through the notions of explicit knowledge and collective knowledge. Explicit information certainly, but knowledge - no.”

“To illustrate: an author translates meaning into physical acts, such as writing or typing, to produce an explicit record. A (symbolic) representation of that meaning is externalised and stored & transmitted for future reference by the author and others. Reading that recorded representation demands translation and interpretation to reproduce the original meaning. What's important about this sequence is that the knowledge enacted by the author through writing, the storage & transmission medium, and the reader are parts of a thermodynamic system that propagates meaning from one mind to another's mind. Hence, knowledge only exists in the mind of each individual. The word "communicate" literally means "to make common", that is to reproduce the same sense of meaning in another person's mind.”
Why is this significant to Conrad’s theme? Well, because Conrad’s paper and the quotation above are both concerned with the same issues, like ‘explicit knowledge’ actually being ‘information’, and the role of ‘information objects’ as a transmission medium. And by extension, because to ‘make knowledge in communities’, knowledge has to be transferred as information (or information objects?) through some kind of medium. The medium can be one (or several) of many possible types, and may itself be carried by different kinds of channels. Channels have a finite capacity, which in digital technology is called ‘bandwidth’. Does a book have a bandwidth? And what is the relationship between an information object, its medium of transmission, the channel used to convey it and its form (or format)? There is a whole set of intertwined conundra here ripe for the unravelling.

Part 2 to follow...


Conrad said...

I shall probably leave a number of comments; there's too much in your post to reply to in one go!

Crofts' paper is very interesting, and I do recommend it to your readers. I don't think I would agree entirely with Christopher Dean's interpretation of it. For example, the translation processes that Crofts describes by which semantic content is extracted from a carrier (such as an information product) offers no guarantee of fidelity of reproduction. Meaning-making depends on culture and education and there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding in the translation processes — as all information designers recognise!

Conrad said...

Crofts' article is hard to summarise: it is long, complex, and covers a great deal – as one might expect of anything called Life, Information, Entropy and Time.

Crofts is interested in the information content of the entire biosphere (‘life’), and information transmission within biological systems. This interest spans the entire gamut from the information that is coded in DNA, up to human language and other abstractions of human consciousness. All life processes involve work, and work depends on there being an energy gradient, and is subject to the second law of thermodynamics, which predicts that these gradients tend to equalise over time, leading to an increase in that part of energy which is unavailable for work, and which we call entropy. It is the fate of the universe to evolve to a state where all energy gradients disappear, no further work is possible, and life comes to an end.

Crofts uses the term ‘semantic inheritance’ as a cover-all for all processes by which meaning, or information, is transferred (the terms seem interchangeable). Three postulates are (a) that all information transfer requires work, but that (b) the semantic content adds no thermodynamic cost (a meaningful message costs the same work as gibberish) and (c) in all semantic exchanges, meaning is accessible only as the result of translation/ interpretation, and it has a value only in a context.

Life is a four billion year story that represents the triumph of information. (My words, not Croft’s). It is a story of increasing complexity of life forms, which are able to reproduce themselves by encoding a template for their reproduction in DNA. In the reproductive processes, the information, the semantic content in the DNA is ‘translated’ to drive the processes by which the next-generation phenotype is constructed. (The phenotype is the entire organism, including its behaviours. You, dear reader, are a phenotype.)

Translational and copying machineries are imperfect, praise be, else biological evolution would be impossible, nor would human culture advance. Fallibility begets mutation; evolutionary selection sorts out the viable mutations from the duds. Crofts explains how more and more complex life forms are made possible by the combinatorial possibilities of proteins in three dimensions, and their ‘interaction specificity’.

An interesting concept that Crofts deploys is chronognosis, the awareness of time. Without getting into arguments about consciousness, Crofts says that all living things show behaviours that indicate an awareness of time, even cyanobacteria. The diurnal cycle, the drama of the seasons display this even at the plant level. Organisms vary in their chronognostic range, which for the higher life forms is considerable, and associated with the development of sophisticated senses and the ability to predict and plan actions.

Crofts explains that the evolution of humans and their ability to communicate through language brings the possibility of ‘supra-phenotypical’ levels of organisation and combinatorial amplification. ‘For human beings, communication through language and similar abstractions provides an additional supra-phenotypic vehicle for semanitic inheritance, which supports the cultural heritages around which civilizations revolve.’

This, then, is Crofts’ story of Life, Information, Entropy and Time, and I have not done it justice by summarising it. Perhaps the readers of this blog will most appreciate the closing sections in which Crofts explores the philosophical implications, while admitting that in this field he is a neophyte. It is an interesting attempt to construct an account that leans heavily on Karl Popper’s ‘Three Worlds’ model and a kind of Universal Darwinism that incorporates Dawkins’s idea of memes in a critical way.

I must confess that Croft’s paper appeals to me because his standpoint and his outlook is very close to that which I have reached: a conviction (and I guess you must call it ‘religious’ because I have no proof of my faith) that Popper’s World One really does exist: an external observable world governed by invariant laws which we are struggling to understand. That what we take to be truth may be mistaken is a possibility, and a strict correspondence theory of truth is not sensible tenable, but with Croft I shrink in horror from the concept of truth as completely relative, without any ‘firm pinning to external reality’.

For myself, I would like to explore a Three Worlds model of knowledge, information and data management, and Crofts’ paper, with its copious notes and references, is a welcome inn along the way.

John Lindsay said...

Hasn't this really passed beyong the capacity of the technology to manage this process?

Long text without reference hooks makes it hard to work out what point is being made or how to respond?

Given we have many concepts of information, and many of knowledge, and in some sense this technology is an intervention, perhaps we should try to work out how to make "information" work in this space?