Where is the Wisdom? A holiday thought…

25 November 2012 |

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?


Had T. S. Eliot included one further line into his poem, data would have been challenged in a more elegant form than that described by Clifford Stoll taking his cue from Russell Ackoff: “Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.”

Having keenly followed the US electoral process, it is appallingly apparent that wisdom is a scarce commodity! There was lots of data, some posing as “statistics”, but not much else.

While Eliot penned his lines in 1934, the idea is older. Recently I was introduced to a pioneer of transforming data to information and knowledge, Charles Minard. Perhaps you know of him already, but if not, a holiday treat is to take a moment to look at his Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813. This is a remarkable flow map on the subject of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812.

Minard published in 1869 on a single page his representation of the campaign, including (as described in Wikipedia):

  • the size of the army – providing a strong visual representation of human suffering, e.g. the sudden decrease of the army’s size at the crossing of the Berezina River on the retreat;
  • the geographical co-ordinates, latitude and longitude, of the army as it moved;
  • the direction that the army was traveling, both in advance and in retreat, showing where units split off and rejoined;
  • the location of the army with respect to certain dates; and
  • the ambient temperature along the path of the retreat, in another strong visualization of events (during the retreat “one of the worst winters in recent memory set in”).

What insight, to succinctly transform data into information and knowledge; perhaps even understanding! But probably it stimulates wisdom only for those who look and think further.

Perhaps a New Year’s resolution for politicians, the media and (even regulators!) could be to make bold first steps along the continuum from data to nirvana. A holiday thought… 

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