Why turn information into meaning?

Why meaning? Simple: Because we don’t create value or solve problems until we turn information into meaning. That used to happen “naturally” in the sense that we used to have the time and motivation to consume and validate the truth and⁄or value of the information we received. Only after we turned the words into precise ways to influence reality did we make effective decisions, design better products, and improve lives.

Communication isn’t about the words.

We don’t communicate about living and working because we want to build a lot of words around those activities. We communicate because we want to transmit to others what those words represent. Poetry may be about sounds, emotion, and allusion, but practical communication is about the real world and what we want to do with it. The sounds, spelling, and grammar of natural-language communication are, indeed, our standard set of tools for getting to underlying meaning. But they are just necessary evils.

When distance between interlocutors encouraged the spread of writing, literacy became conflated with representation and use of knowledge. That is a deep-rooted misapprehension. After we achieve understanding of recorded communications, we rarely go back to those communications — at least, not unless we are forced to do so by failures of memory or by the challenge of distance between interlocutors.

There are important exceptions, however, and they are telling. When exchanges of ideas in words are refined into formalisms — diagrams, checklists, and precise notations within formulae — they are treasured and kept handy … and often serve as the means of turning ideas into machines.

Such formalisms are the distilled essence of some communications, and they are increasingly necessary because of burgeoning amounts of information. Even simple tabular arrays of information superimpose semantics on that recorded information, helping move communications toward explicit representations of meaning.

Limiting the challenge

I’m not going to get mired in long discussions of exactly how the brain works or in details of how we interpret natural language. I leave that to others. I will avoid discussions of the true meaning of knowledge as if they were a deadly plague.

For the purposes of this blog, I subscribe to only a few basic principles:

  1. Meaning precedes language. Yes, the two become intertwined. Language is both necessary and seductive. But when it comes to getting things done and doing them better, we start and end with meaning, not words.
  2. We can’t represent human knowledge perfectly. But we don’t need perfect representation of knowledge in order to create descriptions of practical knowledge that are much more effective than those offered to us in reams of natural language.
  3. We don’t need to “boil the ocean” of information. We can find cues to the knowledge we will find useful — as individuals and as participants in organizations — in conversations and written communications that occur every day. We need to look for the questions, in particular.
  4. We are dealing with vastly more information, but we still have to go through the same basic processes of turning information into meaning: Framing problems and questions effectively, negotiating their meaning, seeking authoritative answers, and running those processes recursively until we arrive at answers that satisfy us as individuals or as groups working together.

information into meaning

What changed?

Several things, but they all have one foot in the daunting superabundance of information. Dramatically expanded access to information was supposed to help us live better lives and help us to be free, but it is now making our lives miserable and limiting our productivity at work. After all, we still have to turn information into meaning before we take action.

We cannot avoid that process, although many try. How can an entire economy get it wrong, even when this truth is staring us in the face — every day and in everything we do? It’s as if we had forgotten how to make things out of iron and steel and how to live with the things made of those substances, how to take full advantage of them in our work and lives.

The core problems are:

  • We took a reactive stance when faced with an inundation of information.
  • We chose to deal with the surface manifestations of communication: the trillions of words and images cascading over us everywhere we turn.
  • We chose not to deal with the meaning those communications were intended to convey.
  • And we stopped looking at what people do, working on the assumption that we had to focus all our attention on what people may know.

It’s easy to demonstrate with a few examples just how true this is. The very existence of Snopes.com and FactCheck.org is strong evidence of the need for new ways of providing reliable knowledge to people. But the challenge goes beyond recommending a shift in how we perform knowledge work or select the right information to consume. The greater challenge is that our focus on superabundance of information is distorting the free-market process itself and preventing us from taking the next logical steps in our new socio-economic reality.

How do we need to change in response?

We should have seen that this “information challenge” was as much distortion as enabler, precisely because it has been so massive, rapidly invasive, and systemic. In biology, we call such events infestations … or cancer. Too much unbalanced growth.

So we need to get over that and return to basic truths. Work as we once knew it didn’t go away simply because there’s lots more information now.

The new economy is about the exchange and application of meaning. Same as the old economy, in the most important ways. We are, in fact, deeply involved in the exchange and application of meaning, but we’re doing it in isolated, haphazard ways, disconnected from socio-economic goals … not just from good sense.

Some people understand this, but they’re not about to admit it. We call these people infoglut profiteers. They understand that if you have to spend much of your time processing information just to get to the necessities of life and work, there are profits to be made — not only from your resulting confusion, time crunch, and anxiety, but also from the information that you, in turn, generate in your reactions to the superabundance of information.

Complexity — like prostate cancer, breast cancer, and obesity — is a huge challenge for us, but it is a goldmine of misfortune for those clever and unethical enough to take advantage of us.

The good news is that evolving practices and technologies — some labeled “semantic” and some not — show promise in helping us retrace our steps after this wrong turn and in enabling us to deal with current and emerging economic realities. Our next challenge will be applying these practices and technologies in a coherent way, a way that responds consistently to business needs instead of to the techno-buzz of the moment.

The new economy is about the creation, management, exchange, and application of meaning. Well, maybe not is. Let’s say, it should be. Because we’re still treating the economy as if it were first and foremost a problem of information, and we are reaping the horrendous consequences of that mistake.

© Copyright 2017 Philip C. Murray


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