Information and Knowledge – From Greeks to Geeks – A Philosophical Perspective
In western societies we make much of a belief in democracy. Sometimes we speak of “liberal democracy” or following Popper, of the “open society.” Historically as nations built civil societies – democratic or benevolently despotic – it was recognised that political life necessitated education. Maria Theresa famously saw education as at the heart of her reforms; a century later in the United Kingdom, when male suffrage was extended by the Reform Act of 1867, it was felt necessary to enforce universal primary education in the Education Act of 1870. In the last century as democratic franchise was extended to all adults – male and female – so it was necessary to develop the principles of universal education open to all. For a citizen of the state to exercise his or her vote meaningfully then education is necessary, otherwise his votes could merely be bought by the offer of cakes and ale.
Information is not knowledge.
The development of the digital revolution has meant that it has never been easier for the electorate to acquire information. But information is not knowledge. Information may be held in computers, libraries and even a railway station timetable; knowledge on the other hand may only reside in the human mind.
An Information Scientist points out that the more apt term here is “brain”. This illustrates one of the ways in which philosophers and scientists may differ in approach. It may be that in principle all human thought can be reduced to the physical activity of the brain. I personally doubt if that principle can ever be realised in practice, but even if in some future world it can, the fact is that it cannot be done now, and therefore at least for the foreseeable future we need different terms for “mind” and “brain”.
What counts as Knowledge is a subject for philosophers. What the Greeks discussed in great detail and in fine distinctions has become the core discipline of Epistemology or Theory of Knowledge: over 2000 years of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. We will return to this discussion on occasions and we may seek help of the philosophers to refine it. But at this stage a working definition drawn from Plato might be of knowledge as “belief or opinion + an account of it.” In turn that might be taken forward in our context as “information + understanding.”
How we understand information, how we evaluate its credibility and how we distinguish it from disinformation and fake news; these are the components of what we see as information literacy. We think they are important because, as the great nineteenth century liberal reformers taught us, you cannot have a liberal society without a liberal education. In today’s world, without information literacy education is not education but indoctrination. For those who want to trace the classical roots of this discussion there is no better starting point than Plato’s dialogue the Gorgias.
Direct democracy and mob rule
In our contemporary democratic societies much is made of the voice of the people, which may be articulated not only through elections but perhaps through referendums, opinion polls, market research and now of course the mass participation in social media. How is this digital voice to be distinguished from the howling mobs of revolutionary times? Indeed what is the difference between “direct democracy” and “mob rule?”
Of course this seems like a wild question and there is plenty of measured and reasoned political discourse in the digital media but those who have fallen victim to “trolls” or to social media abuse will find similarities. When reports of a trial and sentencing are followed by a storm of social media demands for harsher punishments or even questioning an acquittal verdict, then we are reminded of the mobs gathering for public executions in the past.
When the British Prime Minister decided to call a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, how does this approach by a Conservative Prime Minister differ from the notion of “proletarian dictatorship” which used to be advanced by marxists?
In recent months much has been made of the manipulation of the masses by “fake news” and disinformation. How can the liberal and open society survive exposure to the power of the mob – a power once expressed through the timbrel and the guillotine?
We do not want to fall into the trap of offering our own oversimplifications to counter others; we do not believe in any finite and managed solution. But we can affirm a methodology – and one which is more likely rooted in Aristotelian empiricism than Platonic eternal verities. There is no societal ideal and no political absolute; we shall not find the perfect society in any of the workings of human institutions. Civilisation is not a distant target ultimately to be reached but rather something which every generation must learn and relearn;
“There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.”
(T.S. Eliot. East Coker in Four Quartets. 1940)
In our time the fight to save our civil and political life seems as “unpropitious” as it did to Eliot writing in the dark days of 1940. And yet the same instrument which carries fake news, or disinformation can at the same time be a vehicle for enlightenment. Historically speaking the digital revolution is in its infancy. It is up to us as users to help set the direction of travel.
Many have seen the clouds of disinformation and – perhaps somewhat melodramatically – likened our age politically to the nineteen thirties. Perhaps then we might end here with reference to Popper’s famous lines at the close of the first volume of “The Open Society and its Enemies”:
“We can return to the beasts. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and the insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom.”
(Karl Popper: the Open Society and its Enemies London; Routledge fifth edition 1966 vol 1, p. 201)
“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business”.
(T.S. Eliot. East Coker in Four Quartets. 1940)