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The Point of Knowledge – Thoughts about the web

The Point of Knowledge

We read. We watch. We learn. We gain knowledge. What’s the point?

The point of knowledge is to allow our imagination to make unexpected connections between more and more elements. In other words, we feed our serendipitous imagination. Then many things may come out of it – ideas, inventions, art. Anything, in fact. Einstein wouldn’t have come up with the theory of relativity if he didn’t know so much about physics. Shakespeare wouldn’t be that great if he didn’t know the rules and techniques of poetry. Great minds amass knowledge and then, out of nowhere, ideas appear. Why it works like that, I can’t tell. But it does.

If the amounts of knowledge is so important, then why computers can’t come up with new ideas? Google and wikipedia have all the knowledge in the world. They even make it harder for humans to remember information that is easily verified, because, hey, you can look it up (a.k.a. The Google Effect). The Semantic Web is an attempt to make sense of the interconnected information on the web. But even with all these technologies in place, a computer wouldn’t have been able to generate the string theory, the light bulb, Midsummer’s Night Dream or Beethoven’s 9th.

Knowledge is one prerequisite. But you can’t always have all the knowledge, therefore you may need someone else to steer you into the right direction, to complete the missing puzzle of both your knowledge and your pre-hatched ideas. That’s what Steven Johnson is telling us in his RSA talk about ideas. Chance favors the connected mind, he says. I’d say that chance also favors the knowledgeable mind. But that’s just another prerequisite. Then you need to go into a state of mind that accelerates the process. John Cleese calls it “the open mode” in his wonderful presentation about creativity. The process of generating ideas goes through obtaining knowledge, connecting with other people’s ideas, and then going into the open mode to fuse it all into a new theory, invention or masterpiece.

One tiny personal illustrative story here – I’m a computer programmer and I had some rudimentary knowledge in music. I have tried using mathematical functions to make computers compose music, and it failed. Then one day on a 8-hour train in the heat, having nothing meaningful to do, I got the idea a computer composer that would work. I made it, and that’s the result of having some knowledge in both fields, having the ability to connect with the ideas and knowledge of others (through the Internet) and being in the open mode.

But let’s not fool ourselves – the ideas are rarely great. Not every chemist out there is Mendeleev and not every composer is Mozart. Sometimes ideas are small or only of local importance. Sometimes they are not about science or art, but about social processes, economics or personal relationships. Sometimes they feel important, but turn out not to be useful. But regardless of the field or the importance of the idea, it’s there to fuel other ideas, to allow other inventions to be built ontop of a failed invention, to allow new poetic forms to be developed out of an unpleasant attempt for a poem. Even if your political ideas have failed so far, they may be tweaked after 10 years and work for a the well-being of more people. Even if my implementation of a computer composer fails, someone else will pick it up later and make it work. Just as Steven Johnson explains.

But in order to go that far, we need knowledge. Not encyclopedic, computerized knowledge, but one that makes us understand the concepts behind different aspects of reality. So go and read. Books, articles, whatever. Listen. Teachers, presentations. So far only we are capable of handling the whole process, machines can’t. Train your brain to perceive information from the world in order to allow your imagination to connect scattered pieces and generate new ideas. That’s the point of knowledge.

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