Issue #14: Belonging and Knowledge

“Sharing knowledge occurs when people are genuinely interested in helping one another develop new capacities for action; it is about creating learning processes.” — Peter Senge

Another week of lockdown where things seem the same even as we are inundated with ever more sensational headlines. It’s an exhausting roller coaster ride of parsing statistics and cross checking plans to reopen the economy. As far back as February, academics began talking about the novel coronavirus epidemic as the first genuine infodemic:

On February 2, the World Health Organization dubbed the new coronavirus “a massive ‘infodemic,’” referring to ”an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” It’s a distinction that sets the coronavirus apart from previous viral outbreaks. While SARS, MERS, and Zika all caused global panic, fears around the coronavirus have been especially amplified by social media. It has allowed disinformation to spread and flourish at unprecedented speeds, creating an environment of heightened uncertainty that has fueled anxiety and racism in person and online.

That definitely sounds like a crisis embedded inside of a pandemic but it’s not all negative. The unprecedented sharing of data and information has unlocked crowdsourcing vital resources as well as the emotional and mental support for collective grieving.

One information management framework that has persisted through the rise of the Internet: the DIKW pyramid or hierarchy. Although the visuals vary, the basic ideas is that there are differing levels of understanding or sense making or meaning making that come from data, information, knowledge and wisdom.

This pandemic has us drowning in data ranging from testing and research results to the stories and anecdotes from people affected. Inferences based on data lead to information, making that data somewhat useful, albeit not necessarily actionable. When those inferences are applied, digested or otherwise processed, that information becomes knowledge; with time, testing and integration, knowledge evolves into wisdom.

Like many other frameworks, there are few hard lines between these concepts despite the suggestion of the hierarchical progression that a pyramid implies. Our bodies, devices, and networks are generating more data than ever before. By one estimate, the global datasphere was 18 zettabytes in 2018 and projected to grow to 175 zettabytes in 2025.

When examined through the lens of belonging, new forms of aggregation and analysis like crowdsourcing that harness socialization and cultural shifts that also expand the volume and quality of information and knowledge. Author David Epstein explores the “curse of knowledge” in his book Range in areas such as forecasting by showing how the best forecasting comes from generalists coming together to complex problems outside of their areas of expertise like with Philip Tetlock’s Good Judgment. Startups like Streamlytics aim to tip the data value equation toward the individuals generating the data to enable them to capitalize on monetizing this data on the basis of shared cultural identity.


Admittedly, I’m not in the right frame of mind to dig into this more, but one rabbit hole that I fell into before starting to write about this: hypocognition.

Hypocognition is a concept from cognitive linguistics that captures the state of lacking “the linguistic or cognitive representation of a concept to describe ideas or interpret experiences.” One question that’s on my mind: how does belonging shift as data reveals experiences that we don’t have the words to describe and how does the process of naming either foster or impede belonging for the people involved.

One glimpse of how hypocognition shapes the belonging of women in society comes from Caroline Criado-Perez:

“One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate. Quite the opposite. It is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is therefore a kind of not thinking. A double not thinking, even: men go without saying, and women don't get said at all. Because when we say human, on the whole, we mean man.”

Here are a few things that I have been reading:

Unknown Unknowns: The Problem of Hypocognition

Hypocognition is a censorship tool that mutes what we can feel

Hypocognition, Trained Incapacity, and the Cost of Not Knowing