Information vs. Knowledge

I’ve had a few conversations recently that seem to be revolving around a similar theme. We seem to be drowning in information these days, but lacking knowledge. I’d love to sit down and form some brilliant analysis of this thought, but I’m not that smart. And, ironically, I don’t really have the time. So I thought I’d really quickly pull together a few different things I’ve read recently, along with a few things I read ages ago, in the hope that it at least gets a few people thinking.

In the past couple of years, I’ve collected a large list of blogs that I subscribe to (in Google Reader, if you must know). Every now and then I go through and cull about a third of these blogs. I last did this about a month ago. As I was going through the blogs I realised that a huge majority of the advertising and marketing related blogs were simply throwing up post after post of information. Just, information.

Information is wonderful, data is exceptionally important, but the bulk of information being put forth is wholly lacking in any sort of thought or analysis. In other words, very few people seem to be building knowledge in our industry.

At best, we’re seeing facile post-analysis of social media campaigns, with a couple interesting insights if you’re lucky. At worst, we’re seeing post after post after slide after slide of context-less, unreferenced, ‘statistics’ trying to scare the industry into sacking their TV department and hiring a bunch of ‘Community Managers’.

Thankfully, I suppose, this isn’t a symptom of our industry, but perhaps a symptom of technology. Mark Pesce, talking about the Australian Federal Government’s plan for every student to have a laptop, makes this observation:

“I haven’t seen any educator anywhere present anything that looks at all like an integrated vision of what these laptops mean to students, teachers or the classroom. They’re bling: pretty, but an entirely useless accessory. I’m not saying that this is a bad initiative – indeed, I believe the Government should be lauded for its efforts. But everything, thus far, feels only like a beginning, the first meter around a very long course.”

So it seems that even at the highest level of government, communication has reached an overwhelming level, whereby people only process and act on information, without forming it into knowledge.

Nicholas Carr also talked about this problem in his insightful book, The Big Switch:

“We may find that the culture of abundance being produced by the World Wide Computer is really just a culture of mediocrity – many miles wide but only a fraction of an inch deep.”

And at the risk of being a tosser who quotes Walter Benjamin in his blog, he had this to say on the topic:

“No event any longer comes to us without being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.”

While Benjamin’s argument is of another era, it does elude to one thing that technology has now enabled. We have all this information and data so freely available, it’s now easier than ever to create great thinking. I’m not saying we need less information, just that we need more thinking. As George Dyson brilliantly put it, “a network, whether of neurons, computers, words, or ideas, contains solutions, waiting to be discovered, to problems that need not be explicitly defined.”

While not wanting to start commentating on the commentary of the advertising industry, it does seem that on ‘the blogs’, a lot of information is getting pumped out, without a lot of thought or knowledge being developed. To use Dyson’s framework, we’re not finding solutions within the network.

Our industry has progressed at breakneck pace in the last 10 years, after what was essentially four or five decades years of (relatively) slow development. In those years Bernbach, Wunderman, Burnett and co. all had plenty of time to analyse and develop informed thinking about the industry. While we don’t have that luxury of time any more, it would be nice to see at least a little bit more knowledge emerging.

To finish on a positive note, and at the risk of turning this into a proper blog with a ‘top 10′ list, I thought I’d put together a list of advertising/marketing related blogs that I really think do add to the pool of knowledge for the industry. If you’ve got any more, please suggest them.

Ok that’s sad. I could only come up with 5 (and only one of them is Australian!). Surely there’s some more out there?

- October 2009