Knowledge, the fifth dimension
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #69

It may be the wrong time and the wrong place, but it could still be the right idea. This might sound odd, as it is increasingly apparent that data become information, and information knowledge, only in the right context. However, in the knowledge economy the right context need no longer be the right place - just the right relationship with other ideas. This economy is often quite self-contained, underplaying time and space for the fifth dimension of knowledge.

Most ideas seem useful only when implemented in some way - to make cars energy-efficient, cure AIDS or stop the war in Bosnia. When interacting with industry - to make cheaper cars, for instance, or rationalize cash-flow to increase profits - the information economy demonstrates its position as a layer on top of industry. But this does not imply a complete dependence.

A brilliant idea isn't much good without that cheaper car being built, perhaps. Nor is the car of any use if you have no food to eat. But this doesn't prevent an industrial economy - layered over, but not terribly dependent upon, agriculture - from being more-or-less self- contained. Similarly, knowledge, which may sometimes appear valuable only when applied to industry, is evolving a more-or-less self-contained economy around itself.

This economy is one where information and ideas seem to be valuable simply by existing. Actually the value is not in ideas, but in the people who use them. These people, who once used ideas only by transporting them to industry, will now put them to use within the knowledge economy itself. They will trade them, and build upon them, and generate more knowledge. Most ideas will go into creating more ideas, and only some will have any direct impact on the rest of the world.

This is true even now, in the least obvious of ways. For example, you use operating system software - which is information, as it tells a computer what to do - so that you can use a word-processor, to write reports. Or a spreadsheet, to keep accounts and file your tax returns. All this information work does actually generate something apart from more information - but at a pretty distant stage.

Information is inherently complex, and most of the meaning in any data is contained in their association with other data. Naturally it matters where in this web the data appear. This is, in fact, the context that transforms data into useful information. What, if any, direct impact data have outside the knowledge economy is much less important.

This implies that content becomes relevant simply by being amidst more relevant content - or that relevant content breeds more of the same. A virtuous circle, then, if information really had a life of its own. Unfortunately it doesn't, as content breeds through the people who use it. So perhaps such people should become conscious of what they often end up doing anyway - and be a little less practical, a little less concerned with the right time and place, and more at home in the fifth dimension.

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