What if we quantified knowledge?

Yann Girard’s juxtaposition of information and knowledge is a bit semantic (they can be used as loose synonyms after all), but analyzing the transcendence between the two states he describes — from inaction to action — is very interesting, specifically for the value that’s created seemingly ex nihilo…

First, Yann’s implication is that the information we’ve consumed is merely potential energy. Of course. As we all acknowledge already, education, expertise and know-how are just training for future application.

Second, Yann describes action as the exercise of your accumulated information, which transcendence from inaction turns information into knowledge. To paraphrase Yann’s post, information is worthless unless you do something with it. (In other words, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a noise? The answer is: it really doesn’t matter.)

By the transitive property, it seems appropriate that it’s very hard to evaluate a person’s quantum of accumulated “information” — at least quantitatively, objectively, and accurately. (GPAs, standardized tests and intelligence quotients accomplish none of this.)

In contrast, the real evaluation is done upon this “action” of which Yann speaks. There’s an observable, economic impact of action that quantitatively, objectively and accurately quantifies knowledge. (N.B. “economic impact” doesn’t necessarily mean financial.)

What I find interesting is that we can and do quantify potential energy in so many disciplines, but we can’t/don’t quantify the “information” an individual accumulates. Per the example of a tree falling in a forest (above), you might ask: ‘who cares?’ Well, the reason potential energy matters in physics is because it may predicate kinetic energy, future action, economic value. Just like a stretched elastic stores potential energy, a critical mass of “information” accumulated by an individual stores economic value.

This gets to the heart of the issue bemoaned by Yann Girard: the problem of “personal growth porn” that turns information accumulation into a competition, incentivizing us to scalp as many reads as we can for some braggadocio bookshelf. The person who binge reads rubbish blogs doesn’t accumulate the same potential energy as the person who close reads (and contemplates) books; yet the former has a bigger bookshelf. It’s the classic perception vs. reality gap.

Yann may worry that quantifying people’s potential energy would exacerbate this problem. However, this potential energy is supposed to be an accurate reflection of economic value. Accordingly, it has to be a function of quality*quantity. Further, it’s continuous, not discrete.

Imagine the efficiencies of unlocking economic value if we could identify, evaluate and encourage such potential energy in people — some form of the quantified self. This may be confirmation bias, but I find a proof-of-concept in history’s great academic/industrial joint ventures (e.g. Bell Labs or ARPA), which marry thinking with acting, information with knowledge, potential energy with economic value. Methinks technology has given us the tools to do this.

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