Information vs. Knowledge

Previous to the internet, information tended to be something you looked up: a phone number, conversion from meters to inches, logarithmic functions, specs for catenary spans, how to replace the float arm in your toilet tank, the date Lincoln was shot, Iceland’s population, phases of the moon.

Jackie Chan takes a lesson

Jackie Chan takes a lesson

But if you wanted to learn something, to get knowledge, you went to school, or found a teacher, or became an apprentice or an intern. Knowledge is more like information + experience. You couldn’t become a plumber, engineer, historian, cook or teacher, just from information alone. It was necessary to combine hands-on, hand-touching experience with at least one other human being.

Has the internet changed all of that? Easy access to information (at least, a certain level of information) allows people to draw equivalence between information and knowledge. The sheer amount of information available at the tap of a finger leads us to believe that ‘all that is there’ is ‘all that we need.’

But even with an increase of information, the stripping away of experience does not relieve our human desire—or need—for it. Now, it seems, people still want experience, but separate from information. They think of information as obtainable at their fingertips. Maybe even something you can go back and add later.

The martial arts move in the opposite direction. Many people like to repeat the old saw that it teaches patience. Actually, it teaches us something far more to the point: it encourages us to see each and every repetition as something new, and then to link all these repetitions together into what we call experience. This creates a powerful effect. Moving from the informational technique with all its fine details to the experience of the fine points mastered, all that burden of information transforms out of wiki-reality. It condenses into a feeling, a memory, an experience that embraces all the details and is pregnant with many more.

Two fighters square off together in that great Kurosawa film, “Seven Samurai.” A swordsman watches them from across an open field. The young man looking to hire real samurai walks up. The onlooker and the youth start chatting as the combatants continue to reposition themselves for the coming duel. The older man turns his back on the scene to talk to the younger one, and cocks a thumb over his shoulder. “That one will win,” he  says. The battle begins and ends with one mutual stroke. Both warriors stand there for a hanging moment then one falls dead, as predicted by the onlooker. Experience.

The guiding hands of Wan Lai Sheng

The guiding hands of Wan Lai Sheng

As time passes, experience becomes a plural. As information transforms to knowledge so can knowledge change into wisdom. There comes a time when you recognize that, as valuable as your own personal experiences are for your immediate concerns, they also allow an empathy and understanding that eventually encompasses the experience of others. That is how the veteran soldiers from the Civil War could feel a brotherhood with those from the opposite side. Our  viewpoint widens to encompass even the experience of enemies.

At the highest level, experience no longer waits for an explanation. You know not to enter that room, or that you must strike before you are struck, or when the unexpected is the only way. Even better, your experience allows a natural distancing, even from yourself. You are not so restricted by the cyclone fence of your own perceptions.

The Chinese doctor of old was trained in a very different mode than we use in current medicine. Payments to him stopped when the patient got sick. Three levels of skill were as clear as the idea of apprentice, journeyman and master. On the first level was the doctor the world admired, the one who brought out miraculous cures for his patients. On the middle level was the doctor who would sometimes resort to drastic treatments but, in the main, kept most of his patients healthy. On the highest level was the doctor who never became famous because, due to his diagnosis and preventative approach, very few of his patients ever got sick in the first place.

It’s a slow road and no one with any common sense would claim to have reached its end. But, given the current state of the world, it might be enough just for us to remind ourselves which direction we are taking and what the goal might be.

By Debbie Shayne and Ted Mancuso

3 Responses to “Information vs. Knowledge”

  1. I am constantly bombarded with the same ol same ol information on the internet via CMA. When It comes to past masters, there is so much controversy over Who Invented Xin Yi,what masters are credible. who is right and what is real. I don’t know what to believe anymore. I just listen to my Shirfu and leave it at that. It relieves my migraines.

  2. Jeff says:

    I love that scene in Seven Samurai. I believe he also says something about the fight already being over before it starts. Such a great movie.

  3. Another great article out of Mancuso-shifu’s wonderful insight into martial arts and the reality behind them. My mind tends to go on ‘trips’ along these sorts of routes, and I’d wondered if anyone actually goes so deep as to think about what they’re doing when they’re doing something as esoteric as Chinese martial arts. I’m only too happy to find out that not only is someone thinking of these things, but are writing articles for all to ‘chew and digest’, so to speak. Great article, and I’m reading so much praise about ‘8 animals’ that I may have to drop my Taiji altogether and grab your Bagua resources! Thanks

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