Words and concepts are thrown about interchangeably with little thought of their relationship or meaning when the subjects of cognition and learning arise-- knowledge, data, wisdom, information, understanding-- all directly involved in the The Capacity to Receive, Utilize, Store, Transform and Transmit Information. (See essay entitled CRUSTTI).

It will pay us to examine the essential nature and distinguishing characteristics of each, and relate them in order of quantity and quality, knowing that such distinction, while useful, can never extinguish the essential wholeness of that which they compose.  

We must begin with noise.  Noise, in its broadest sense, is any undifferentiated thing which assaults the senses.  It is pervasive and ubiquitous, whether auditory, visual, or textural.  The supply of noise is infinite.

Noise becomes data when it transcends the purely sensual and has cognitive pattern; when it can be discerned and differentiated by the mind.

Data, in turn, becomes information when it is assembled into a coherent whole which can be related to other information in a way that adds meaning.   (Bateson's definition of information as “a difference that makes a difference.”)  

Information becomes knowledge when it is integrated with other information in a form that is useful for deciding, acting, or composing new knowledge.  

Knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge in a manner that is useful in conceiving, anticipating, evaluating, and judging matters beyond the reach of information.  

Understanding becomes wisdom when informed by ethical, moral, and beneficent purpose and principle, along with memory of the past, and projection into the future.  

The fundamental characteristics of the opposite ends of this spectrum are very different.  Data, on one end of the spectrum, is separable, objective, linear, mechanistic, and abundant.  On the other end of the spectrum, wisdom is holistic, subjective, spiritual, conceptual, creative and scarce.

Science has traditionally operated in the provinces of data, information, and knowledge, where measurement, particularity, specialization, and rationality are particularly useful.  It has largely ignored the provinces of understanding and wisdom.  The same is true of mechanistic, command-and-control corporations, states, and nations.  Universities have steadily abandoned education in favor of training experts in ever more narrow specialties.  They no longer see their responsibility as educing from individuals the qualities that allow the development of understanding and wisdom.  We are increasingly a nation of people educated beyond our own understanding.   

Theology, philosophy, literature, and art have traditionally operated in the provinces of understanding and wisdom, where subjectivity, spirituality, and values are particularly valuable.  We are now at a point in time when the ability to receive, utilize, store, transform, and transmit information (the lower cognitive forms) has literally exploded beyond comprehension, thus inundating understanding and wisdom.  We are drowning in a raging flood of new data and information, and the raft of wisdom to which we desperately cling is breaking up beneath us. 

In time, with enough effort and attention, data may become information, information may become knowledge,  knowledge may become understanding and  understanding may become wisdom.  Unfortunately, time is a luxury we no longer have and effort and attention are sadly lacking. 

Native societies, which endured for centuries with little increase in the capacity to receive, store, utilize, transform, and transmit information, had time to develop a very high ratio of  of understanding and wisdom to data and information.  They may not have known a great deal by today's standards, but they understood a very great deal about what they knew.  They were enormously wise in relation to the extent to which they were informed, and their information was conditioned by an extremely high ratio of social, economic, and spiritual value.

In contrast, our society understands very little about what it knows.  It has ever less understanding and wisdom in relation to the data, information, and knowledge it commands.  The immensity of data and information which assaults our lives is not conditioned by a similar increase in social, economic and spiritual values--in a word, wisdom.   Our vast scientific, technological, and economic power is thus unleashed with inadequate understanding of its systemic propensity for destruction, or sufficient wisdom to guide its evolution and use.

Thus we remain confined within our archaic, seventeenth century concepts of organization and leadership, and our isolated specialties with their ever narrowing perspectives, while in millions of rational, insular acts we pour billions of tons of 70,000 man-made chemicals into the biosphere that it cannot recycle.  We allow them to accumulate with little perception of how they are systemically combining to affect all living things.  We punch holes in the ozone layer of the atmosphere, dissipate and alter genetic material, destroy species by the thousands, denude the land of tens of millions of acres of trees and plants essential to maintenance of the chemical balance of the atmosphere, destroy topsoil at thousands of times the rate at which it can be replaced, create and hopelessly try to contain countless tons of virulent poisons, some with a half-life of twenty-four thousand years, tolerate increasing genocide, and starve to death twenty thousand people every day. 

Who could have imagined that such a wealth of information, science, and technology could have resulted in collective madness, but so it has. It never needed to be so.  It does not need to be so now.  If there is not a similar explosion of understanding and wisdom in order to restore proper balance between the higher cognitive capacities and the lower, a livable future becomes ever more tenuous and remote.