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YOU SAY "POTATO," AND I SAY "TOMATO"

7/1/2001

They tell me that this is the information age, and I can believe it: I have piles of magazines I don't have enough time to read, Web sites I haven't gotten around to surfing, and mail lists I can't keep up with. Many just coming out of school and entering the field have grown up with this glut of data, and the brightest I've seen are in command of huge quantities of it. Want to know the latest incompatibilities resulting from a recent OS upgrade? How about obscure driver or extension conflicts only affecting certain audio hardware or software? Perhaps you want to know the current version of your favorite utility. That stuff flows right out of those folks.

In spite of the great power that can stem from this mastery, there is a downside, a confusion that crops up regularly. Today's humongous body of information can form a seductive cloud that makes it easy to miss the forest for the trees. I'm talking about the difference between information and knowledge.

What is the difference, and why is the distinction important? To start, let me state that this is a semantic distinction of my own creation; old Noah Webster doesn't differentiate the two ideas as strongly. Webster's first definition of information is “the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence,” though his second definition (part 3a of it, to be exact) is closer to mine: “facts, data.”

Of knowledge, Noah says, “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association,” which is pretty close to how I think of it.

To me, information consists of mere facts and data, essentially descriptive or documentary in nature and holding no intrinsic meaning. Knowledge, on the other hand, is the casting of that data into a meaningful context, which is far more useful. Knowledge is obtained by drawing on perspective and experience to enable inference, extrapolation, deduction, and intuition, among other interpretive processes. This knowledge is to be applied productively (hopefully), resulting in an understanding of the significance of the information presented.

For example, being able to spout off every fade shape available from your DAW software shows that you have information. Reaching for the right one to make an edit in a delicate Stravinsky oboe solo and making the crossfade the correct length, starting it at the right time, and using a different shape for the fade-out from the fade-in to make it truly seamless requires knowledge. Now, let me be clear: knowledge does not have to be strictly of fades; it could be ear training at work — knowledge of what sounds good.

Another illustration can be found in the annals of disparities between what should be and what is. As one of my favorite expressions says, “The difference between theory and practice is that, in theory, there is no difference.”

In their earliest days, CDs were touted as providing “perfect reproduction” with “no measurable distortion,” statements based on information provided by measurements. Yet many insisted that LPs and analog tape sounded better. Manufacturers of digital equipment showed graphs and analyses demonstrating the ruler-flat frequency response of CDs. After a while, however, it emerged that the A/D and D/A converters were using analog brickwall filters to prevent aliasing, and those filters created extreme phase shifts in the high frequencies, resulting in a disagreeable sound. Instead of relying on knowledge of what sounded good, established from years of comparative listening, those insisting that there was “perfect” reproduction based their claims on information, which turned out to be incomplete.

Often, semantics are of no consequence, and only the message matters. However, semantic distinctions can be useful when drawn to highlight a difference of ideas. But I doubt that's new information to you; it's knowledge you probably already had.

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