When Knowledge Explodes
We like to believe that more information allows us to make more informed decisions, to be more knowledgeable. That’s wrong: knowledge does not grow with information access.
Current discussions of educational systems and reforms, and the question of whether the internet increased our access to knowledge or set us on a path towards “digital dementia,” are still predicated on a fifty-year old paradigm: for decades, we have lived with the assumption that our knowledge is growing exponentially, that it doubles every ten or fifteen years, and that the time it takes for our knowledge to double will further decrease in the future. Terms like “knowledge explosion,” “information overload,” or “information avalanche” have become part of our vocabulary. But we gradually have reason to believe that we don’t always know more, and that our knowledge is growing slower than expected. The reason for this lies not in the failure of education or in the alleged dumbing-down of the masses through permanent media and internet consumption, but in the process of knowledge production itself. This realization has far-reaching consequences that touch on debates about systems of knowledge transmission, education, and teaching.
It’s a telling sign that current terminology - words like “explosion,” “avalanche,” or “flood” are often invoked during discussions of knowledge increases - uses the terms “information” and “knowledge” as interchangeable synonyms. We silently accept that an increase in information is paralleled by an increase in knowledge. It’s clear from our everyday experiences how far this assumption strays from the truth: the more information I’ve got from a restaurant menu, the harder it it is to “know” what to choose. The more I data I’ve got from the biography of a historic figure, the more nuanced we have to be when situating that person within larger historical narratives and so it become difficult to “know” what role the person had played in the history.
We aren’t always paralyzed or challenged by the availability of information, but in the majority of cases, the impression we form of a thing or of a person grows more complex and convoluted as more information becomes available.