Is Google Knowledge? Is a Library?

Is Google Knowledge? | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios:

I love PBS Idea Channel, but sometimes the provoking ideas proposed stretch my comfort zone. They are supposed to, of course, and I bet they are delighted when they provoke deeper thought and conversation. Last night my son and I were debating the logic and reasoning of this video. We didn’t agree. And I wasn’t agreeing with the video. Today the conversation extended to the staff breakroom, with the conversation ranging across the value of libraries, human intellect’s contribution to knowledge, and Google as a prosthetic device to extend the mind. Time to bring it here, in case anyone else has missed it.

When I was in grad school, this conversation tended to focus on the differences between information and knowledge, and how these impacted on intellectual property issues as well as collection policy decisions and organization of library holdings. But it took other forms as well. One evening, my friend Kenn Harper was over for dinner with his fiancé Lucy, and we were trying to decide what music to play. He started talking about some book (he couldn’t remember the author or title) that had really excited him and which had this amazing music with it, and … I said, “Wait a sec.” Then I dashed off to my bookshelves, grabbed a copy of Ursula LeGuin’s then new book, Always Coming Home, and said, “Is this it?” He pressed his lips together, then said, “That’s exactly what I mean. How do you DO that?! How do you just know what I’m thinking of when I don’t know?” I smiled and shrugged, and we put the cassette tape on to play.

The video starts with an example very much like this. Friends hanging around, trying to remember something, but instead of reaching for a person, they reach for Google, and yes, they find what they couldn’t recall. A few years back, roughly 20 years after Kenn and I were having dinner, my now grown-up daughter had just discovered Amazon, and logged on to buy a specific book. Amazon has always suggested titles based on your past purchases, and as soon as she logged on they suggested that she buy the book she had logged in to purchase. Her eyes got all big and round, and she said, “How do they DO that?!”

What is the difference between a person like a librarian who has a rich and complex knowledge of a field in which you want to know more, who can, through the intricate complexities of that awareness and knowledge and their experience and knowledge of you, reach for just the right thing you need, and tools like Google and Amazon and Netflix that suggest what you might want based on your past behavior? Books and libraries used to be referred to as “warehouses of knowledge.

Books, The Warehouse of Knowledge (1944)

What is the difference between a library of printed books, of film and music, of comics and videogames and the hardware to support them; what is the difference between these, and the quick Google at your fingertips? Is Google a warehouse of knowledge? Mike Rugnetta says, “Duh!” Is Google a library? Is a bookstore a library? Is Amazon? Is Netflix? Is it a library if you have to pay money? Some libraries DO charge money for access, or for permission to borrow the books.

I came back to my grad school days where we talked about critical differences between information and knowledge, and then the differences between data and information, and the differences between knowledge and wisdom. You’ve probably already seen or heard of the DIKW pyramid or hierarchy. Here’s an illustration of it by AJ Cann.


Some expand it by including “understanding” between “knowledge” and “wisdom” (which I rather like), and I particularly like this richly detailed version by Nick Webb.

From Data to Wisdom

Several folk have, like Nick, added concepts to lead from each step to the next, to help us understand how we get from one to the next.

David Gurteen:
Data (+ Context) > Information (+ Meaning) > Knowledge (+ Insight) > Wisdom

David McCandless:
Data (Visualization) > Information (Design) > Knowledge (Mapping) > Wisdom (???)

e-guestbook: David McCandless

I’d like to insert the concept of people. Things can gather data, but cannot make meaning of it. Numbers and letters are, of themselves, without meaning, and it takes both context and purpose to assemble them. Still, a child can speak in sentences. Some might argue that the existence of spam poetry (aka Spoetry) contradicts this, but the argument has been made that while the machine might have generated the spam, it doesn’t become a poem until a human mind recognizes the existence of meaning within that particular random arrangement of words. N. Ingebritson at Infoengineering points out that data is always correct, but information can be in error, and that, “You can’t currently store knowledge in anything other than a brain, because a brain connects it all together.”

I find it somewhat ironic that over the past few centuries, the conversation around “knowledge” (what we know and how we know) has remained relatively constant, while that around “wisdom” peaked in the early 1800s, and has declined as discussion of data and information have soared. I hope this is an example of a pendulum swinging, and that as we collectively understand data and information better, we will again grow interested in understanding and wisdom.

Ngram viewer: DIKW / DIKUW

So, if things can generate data, and children can generate information, how do we get to wisdom? Somewhere along the line, I propose we must insert experience, and acknowledge librarians and teachers/mentors as intermediaries of experience.

What's the phrase? "People ask me things they can Google"

The difference between Google as a warehouse of knowledge and the library as a warehouse of knowledge is the LIBRARIAN. I argue that Google cannot be a library until it has its own librarians who serve the Google-used public as librarians serve as an interface to the contents of their libraries. And in that sense, no, Mike Rugnetta, Google is not a library. Not yet.


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