In An Era Of Big Data And Big Business, Do We Gain Knowledge Through Experience Or Theory?

In An Era Of Big Data And Big Business, Do We Gain Knowledge Through Experience Or Theory?
I recently attended a series of sessions on how knowledge is acquired and realised – better late than never – that subconsciously, I have always valued theory of knowledge through books and academia. In fact the value of experience can be equally if not more valuable.

That goes a long way in explaining ancient wisdom and the aspect of how knowledge is passed down orally, or through generational wisdom ( think about the useful ways to cure a common cold through ginger, honey and lemon) or even by instinct. Soothsayers or fortune tellers have always played a role in ancient societies though their knowledge is based on what lies within, a strong sense of instinct, a hunch or being able to tune into a frequency which is not taught or is visible to others. Being literate does not mean one knows how to live better.

That is not to say all theory is bad. We need to study in order to understand the world – it’s just that we can learn in different ways. That clearly has practical implications for how we learn – and education systems at large.

The sessions focused on three adults explaining how they see knowledge and were asked to pick three objects to show case how they saw the interplay between theory and practice. An elderly gentleman spoke about a photograph of his Chinese grandfather with Harry Truman and how that changed the way he saw the second world war, though the anecdotal war stories of someone who had witnessed it firsthand.

Another woman spoke of a yoga mat and how it had taught her wisdom about listening to her body, i.e. to slow down and to actually listen to what your body tries to tell you through its silent voice. The last speaker, a teacher, spoke powerfully about how knowledge of his illness – contracting cancer at age 32 – made him explore the world of cancer and how to overcome it and how books were critical in his journey: whether he was keeping a journal about it, or understanding medical guidance.

No one prepares you for illness. Once you have it, only then you can really feel it. Ask anyone who has gone through childbirth or pneumonia or even parenting. It doesn’t matter how many videos one watches or books one reads, until we live the experience.

Khalil Gibran, the poet philosopher spoke about self-knowledge in his treatise The Prophet – that knowledge of the self is probably the mother of all knowledge:

For self is a sea boundless and measureless.

Say not, “I have found the truth,”
but rather, “I have found a truth.”

Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.”
Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my

My day job is with policy makers and development economists and business men and women who spend a large proportion of their lives trying to devise strategies – for companies and corporations and countries and networks – essentially for the world at large.

This is a complex multi-dimensional exercise, fueled by data and predictive algorithms and research. What it does not take into account is the larger political economy dimension of how the world works. Who would ever have predicted that the UK PM would not last six weeks, or that we in Pakistan would have a rupee hovering at 230 to US$ 1 or that that Africa would have a food shortage as much of their imports for cereal were from Ukraine. These outlandish scenarios have now become part of the norm, so even the experts in the room can no longer afford to think only of one’s own selfish gain at the expense of others – for then the outcome is in economic terms sub-optimal.

How does this work in real life? And what do we tell our children in turn as we think of increasingly complex issues such as climate change or gender inequality or human rights? These require coordination among stakeholders to reach a consensus, an effort across people to create something larger and a sense of understanding on how to build community. In a world where humility and consensus are not valued, perhaps we then will never move to these solutions.

Going back to history – whether oral family history or through books or even understanding the past is critical to be able to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. There are various ways to learn – whether through spending time with our parents and grandparents, understanding the wisdom and mistakes of our ancestors and those who came before us.  This is not a new thought – epistemology or the theory of knowledge have been taught since the time of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks held that knowledge and reason are tied together.

In those times, craft knowledge “techne” and practical wisdom “phronesis” were in direct contrast to  scientific knowledge “espisteme” which was theoretical. Knowledge in its purest form can involve theory – you can learn it and share it and even teach it. The way one perceives and experiences are part of this journey.

The modern interpretation in a corporate environment is that those who have knowledge have power. Companies with vast amounts of data can use that to predict patterns of spending and behaviour for as humans, we are creatures of habit and routine so may like buying the same cereal for example once a month. This allows the cereal company to understand customer behaviour and preferences. At a societal level, governments and large companies know more – including access to sensitive national security data or through our cell phones – than we do about ourselves. So perhaps that form of knowledge is power: it makes them more powerful than us as individuals, but does not lead to a better world necessarily.

On a daily basis, this has important implications for how we conduct our lives. We have to know when to use each type of knowledge in our situations – and use empathy and feelings when required or science and knowledge when it is appropriate. So go ahead, pick the three things in your life  that showcase the difference between knowledge and experience, and you may just surprise yourself. As they say, knowledge is power!