Is Too Much Knowledge a Bad Thing?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Have you ever wondered how it is that humans are uniquely able to turn a stimulus in the brain into knowledge?

The Wikipedia article for the term knowledge states the following description.

"Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something, which can include facts, information, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education." via Wikipedia.

It is a familiarity of a person, place, or thing that is knowledge. When acquiring knowledge we become familiar with a pattern. The more we are exposed to a pattern the more familiarity we have with it.

Carla J. Shatz is famously credited for saying, "Neurons that fire together, wire together." Too easy an explanation to accept for most of us when it comes to understanding how knowledge is made.

The chemical processes in our head goes something like this:

Neurons in the brain fire in such a way that order and synchrony are attached to a specific stimulus as a patterned and familiar object of recognition, turning an unfamiliar thing into knowledge.

Attaching an external representation or token to the neurons that are firing together when in the presence of a stimulus enables discourse to flow forth into the world. This allows us a means of linking references back to neural patterns that describe worldly things. The addresses used to reference the patterns are compositional units, which are the words we've become familiar with. The more we become familiar with the reference, the more it is known.

But how is it that we recognize something as being familiar?

The less redundant something is within our stimulus, the more redundant the things are that surround it, and vice versa. It is a system of variable relativistic parts that cause our attribution of familiarity to a fluid world.

There is something to the idea that redundancy of information correlates to the absence or abundance of its meaning. Some things have a higher frequency of occurrence than other things, setting the basis for all sorts of comparisons and measurements that provide valuable knowledge.

But still, how is it that we are able to describe things that are unfamiliar to us? More so, how is it that we are able to describe the unfamiliar in terms of things that are familiar?

Abstraction allows us to take a familiar thing and bind it to an unfamiliar thing by adjoining the properties that are familiar between both things.

Abstraction is how we learn or acquire some sort of knowledge. That knowledge should share properties describable in terms of what we are familiar with or else it becomes tacit. 

If information powers the world then it is the knowledge of it that determines its value. Too much familiarity and the value of information goes down. Too little familiarity and the value of information goes up.


The better we are at binding unfamiliar things to the familiar, the better equipped we are to make predictions of how unfamiliar things will ultimately behave. This lends to the aphorism commonly attributed to Francis Bacon, that "Knowledge is power."

The more things in the world we become familiar with the more we are prone to believe that we know about things we don't.

This is one of humanity's great limitations and perhaps its ultimate weakness. Most, if not all, of our great failings in human history are rooted in our bias to see truly unfamiliar things as familiar. It's this "Trojan horse" that dupes us into making a decision that was so obviously wrong in hindsight.

This over-familiarity has caused internet society to begin its descent into a sort of virtual madness latent with bad moves. One need only to skim through the comment reels on YouTube videos for examples. Modern society sought a means to exchange information online without the idea that too much familiarity breeds severe biases. None of us are immune from it. None of our decisions are exempt from it. Not even our own choice of words.

Written languages are ultimately dying.

Slowly but surely all of our words will become less meaningful as we communicate online and in real-time without debate and consensus on what things truly mean (Wikipedia editors need not apply).

Content becomes purposed to evolve towards fattening up society on the whims of the user's desires. Dashboards and tickers indicate what people are craving and the media serves it up with a side of "Holy heart failure, Batman!". Maybe fear and greed runs more than just the global markets.

For example, our personal privacy becomes all of a sudden very important to us and then it suddenly doesn't, and then it does again, but action gets lost in the exhausting frustration of a free-for-all debate. Big Brother comes in and out of the global news feeds almost like a stock price rises and falls, and I'm not talking about the hit TV show.

The mass media starts behaving like privacy is important as they blatantly violate the privacy of celebrities and politicians the world over. And we buy it. We point our fingers to the violated and say "Shame on you". It makes little sense.

The scandal going on in Anthony Wiener's personal life headlines right next to a story on how the NSA is violating people's privacy. Still, people debate the differences even when there are none. The two stories contradict one another when it comes to violating privacy. Anthony Wiener is chastised publicly because of a preexisting and widespread public familiarity with his personal life. Privacy violations by the media somehow become ignored when the content focuses on something the public generally regards as disgusting behavior.

I found a Tweet the other day that sums up the current threat to intellectualism in less than 140 characters.

The breakfast food. Not Francis Bacon. In case anyone needed disambiguation.