To further explore the difference between knowledge and information, let’s consider travel guidebooks.
Type A: The Rough and Lonely Planet Guide to Everything
When you first make the decision to travel somewhere, you’ll probably buy one of these.
These general guides emerged in mid-19th century, with the goal of providing travelers with a comprehensive source of information for their journeys.
Today, they cover everything: Train routes, ferry fares, where to get food and later sleep. If you’re so inclined, they may even have some decent advice on the local nightlife.
When it comes to sightseeing, they also usually furnish short, but interesting, accounts of the main things you’ve come to see.
You’ll get some key facts. Maybe even the outline of a narrative behind them. And after the trip is over, when you go over your photographs, you may even be able to put together some connected account of what they were and why you went to see them.
Type B: Ephesus, Then and Now
I recently visited a number of ancient and medieval sites on a trip to Turkey. Everywhere I went, it seemed like there was someone selling one of these:
On pages that alternated with photographs of these ancient and medieval buildings and monuments as they appear today, the guidebook included illustrations on transparent sheets of plastic. You could lay these sheets down over the photographs to supposedly see these places ‘would have looked like’ in their heyday.
Now, to be fair, I didn’t have a chance to examine their bibliographies too closely.
Based on what I saw, though, the illustrator’s imagination played no small role in ‘reconstructing’ these scenes.
Ultimately, though, they offered something similar to the general, type A guidebooks: A story. Something interesting, something that you have a vague memory about when looking back at the pictures years later.
The memories colored by such guidebooks may include scenes somehow more colorful, more painterly, than they were.
Perhaps the present-day sites may even lose somehow in comparison to them. After all, they only represent the past after weather and rain have taken so much away from it.
Finding Some Guidance
Either way, you may find the information in the guidebooks superficial. You may be traveling somewhere to really learn something about the place, its culture, or its history.
You may be going to a place because you are seeking knowledge, something that goes beyond photos, or the sense that you checked something off a list of things you need to see.
Now, I’m not advocating that you spend your vacations studying. Quite the opposite – at some point you may need to find a beach where you can do nothing but look at the sun fall.
If, however, you believe sightseeing can be more than simply seeing, that remembering can be organized by a different principle than photo management, than a few dates and events in outline, then start with a simple why.
Pick a simple theme. It should offer some unity to the things you visit, but it doesn’t need to tie everything together.
On my recent trip to Turkey, my version of this involved the Greco-Roman cities along the coast. Though I went to see many other things, I wanted to place my focus on these cities — particularly during their earlier Classical periods — and observe how one compared to the other. How they were the same. How they were different.
Guidebook Type C
Having this theme allowed me to go much deeper than I otherwise would have gone, and it also allowed me to make a more informed decision when choosing guidebooks.
In the end, I went with Henry Matthews’ Greco-Roman Cities of Aegean Turkey.
The book, though well-written and well-organized, provided a meaningful challenge to extend my base of knowledge.
I have a background in Classical civilization and culture, but relatively little knowledge about the part that physically remains: the architecture and the archaeology.
After the trip, however, reading and re-reading introductory sections, as well as the sections on the sites I visited, I came away, not only with new information, but a fundamental change in the way I viewed life in the ancient world.
Again, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t go to see other sites. We visited Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topikapi Palace.
We went to the beach. We ate out at restaurants, visited natural wonders, and saw an ancient Christian monument or two along the way. For these, we used the Type A general guidebook.
A lot of things I encountered at these places contributed little to the central theme of the trip.
But what did, now helped me develop a new and integrated understanding of the way the ancient Aegean coast worked, the contribution of Greek society to regions outside of Europe, and the challenges facing anyone who wants to make generalizations about a people and a culture that lived a long time ago.
All of this not only changed the way I thought about these things, but will like inform all thinking I have on the subject in the future.
That, to me, defines the transformation whereby information becomes knowledge.
A Brief Account of Knowledge
I don’t mean here to provide a comprehensive or by any means definitive account of “knowledge,” but for the purposes of this blog post, a working understanding would be:
- Knowledge has to be true. If someone is knowledgeable about something fictional, like a TV show, then we can say his or her knowledge must be accurate.
- Knowledge should somehow change the way we think. Knowledge leads to the acquisition of new knowledge. It should contribute to to the configuration of other forms of information and knowledge that it comes into contact with.
Point 1 above — that knowledge must be true and/or accurate — applies particularly to Type B guidebooks, where illustrations are placed over photographs of existing monuments.
Of course, these illustrations may be true and accurate in their own fashion, but the burden of proof here, I believe, falls upon those who produced the book — as does the need to find ways to make distinctions between where things are known - and where the painter is simply filling in blanks.
The second point, about knowledge changing thinking, changing knowledge, places limits on how well Type A general guidebooks can help us develop knowledge.
The descriptions in these guidebooks lacks depth, the accounts too general. They’re written to place on our faculties a minimal burden, to highlight style over substance, to make the learning portion of a trip as painless as possible.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but a guidebook that focusses on a particular theme, like Greco-Roman Cities of Aegean Turkey dives deep in a way that sometimes, especially when first approaching the subject, will be more challenging than fun.
It will introduce new vocabulary, and force you to look at monuments in a close way that is not obvious, especially at first.
The payoff comes later, though. Knowledge is perhaps a compounding investment and the extra efforts you’ve made to go deeper into sightseeing will have an impact on everything you see later.
This is true even for things that may seem unrelated. Understanding why Roman architects built a particular arch can help you understand why arches appear in other buildings you see.
Viewing the natural phenomena around you will give you the opportunity to reflect on how landscape shapes culture — and how cultures respond to landscapes.
Much of this thinking can come unprompted, without serious effort or thinking or study. This is one of the fruits of real learning.
How to Build Knowledge with a Thematic Guidebook
Following a sightseeing theme during your next vacation requires some persistence, but it isn’t particularly complicated.
Once you’ve identified the theme, try to find a guidebook that goes fairly deep into that one topic.
In Aegean Turkey, for example, you’d find readily available guidebooks on sites that appear in the Bible, the civilization of the Hittites, Ottoman history, and so on, in addition to guides on Greco-Roman cities.
If possible, stick with just one guidebook. Multiple guidebooks simply add to your baggage and make juggling them more difficult. Still, in some situations it may be the best way.
Spend a bit of time studying this as you travel around. You don’t need to plan too much around this. Simply studying as you go from place to place on bus, boat, or plane should be enough.
Make sure to read all the introductory sections, as well as the guides to the specific places you plan to visit. After you visit, re-read those sections.
You may need to carry around the guidebook as you go around the site, but the more time you spend with it beforehand, the less you’ll be looking down, the more you’ll be looking up at what’s around you.
At your leisure, though less seriously, you should also read about the sites that you won’t be visiting. Because the theme of your sightseeing is narrow, though, you should be able to relate them somewhat to what you’re reading about. Think of them as distant sections of the place you visited, but which you never go to see.
Afterwards, if you can, keep the guidebook and refer to it in the future.
Unlike the Lonely Planet guide you have, it will probably bring as much to mind from your recent vacation as your photos and other mementos.