What is “Information”? (Part Two)

In part one of this series, I defined information as data plus context. This is key for anyone interested in personal information management. After all, we want to know exactly what we’re managing when we create a commonplace book.

But when it comes to understanding things, what lies beyond information? The Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) Pyramid offers two answers.

The layer immediately above information in the DIKW Pyramid is knowledge.

And on top of knowledge lies wisdom.

Knowledge

Knowledge emerges when we see information in multiple contexts.

Consider a JPEG file that displays a red edible thing that grows on vines. This data becomes information when we say, “I recognize that—it’s a tomato.” That’s one level of context.

When we label the tomato as a fruit, we add another level.

We could add many more contexts, increasing our knowledge with each one.

It is knowledge that allows us to teach. The best teachers operate from a crucial context: they remember what it’s like not to know something. They can take concepts and processes and explain them to a novice—someone who has none of that knowledge.

Ironically, we can only manage knowledge through information. We share knowledge through text, images, audio and video. All of those are tangible things that we can format, store, search, copy, and distribute.

This is why I avoid the term “personal knowledge management” and talk about “personal information management” instead.

Wisdom

Wisdom is the pinnacle of the DIKW Pyramid. Wisdom arises when we have so many contexts that we can apply our knowledge in new ways and novel situations.

We have concepts for explaining concepts.

We have processes for using processes.

We also have values — understanding not just how to do things but why they are worth doing in the first place.

What we understand at the level of wisdom is intimate and private. It recedes into a world beyond words and images that’s been described as “enlightenment.”

So, how do we share wisdom? Consider the example of the Buddha. When he taught the Four Noble Truths, he didn’t even try to define “nirvana” (the end of suffering). Instead, he described the path to nirvana. He gave a set of instructions for ethical behavior and meditation. People who follow these instructions can experience nirvana first-hand.

The paradox is that instructions are information. While wisdom and knowledge are abstract and private, information is concrete and public.

That’s the big context for personal information management.