It’s a very simple idea. But it’s one that has some really interesting implications. When we think about knowledge, what we know, we are used to thinking about it as something we can describe by adding up a whole lot of things to get the sum. We even use the word “sum” — the open access movement, for example, talks about the importance of making the “whole sum of human knowledge” freely available.
And I’m totally on board with that.
But that way of thinking reinforces the idea that knowledge is made up of separate things that have no real link with each other save for the fact we know them all. It’s “this thing here” plus “that thing there.”
But what if the thing that made knowledge so powerful was not like that at all, not about adding up unconnected things but was precisely in the connections between them? And gaining more knowledge — using our memory, learning — then becomes not about being able to recall one more thing but about having more raw materials to use for our creativity.
Think of it as a city. In a city you will find millions of people and places — and they are the equivalent of the pieces of information we usually think of as “knowledge”. But just as a city is not its people and places but the interactions between them, so knowledge is the connections between those pieces of information. And rather like a really sophisticated world-creating computer game, it is waiting for you to build it.
It’s an imperfect metaphor but it’s a little like the difference between a computer’s Read-Only-Memory (ROM) and its Random-Access-Memory (RAM). One of them is “learning in order to recall” and the other is “learning in order to use” — and it’s the latter that really cranks up the engine power.
Another way to consider the difference is to think of the simple mathematics — and then to imagine what that means for learning. Suppose you are really new to this learning thing, but you have a memory palace, and in that memory palace you have placed ten things. If you think about knowledge as the sum of everything you know, your knowledge “score” to put it crudely, is 10. If you learn a new thing you will have increased your score to 11, an increase of 10%.
But now suppose that knowledge is not the sum but the product of what you know. That is, suppose that instead of being everything you know added up because each thing is separate, it’s all about the connections.
Now, if you add one more thing to the 10 you already have, you will have increased the number of possible connections between them not by 10 percent, but by one hundred and 10 percent. And whereas if knowledge is the sum of what you know, every new thing you learn decreases the proportion by which you add to your knowledge, if it is the product then every new thing will increase that proportion.
In short, if knowledge is the product of what you know, the possible connections between everything in your memory palace, this increasing rate of growth provides a wonderful self-reinforcing incentive for you to keep learning more and more — as opposed to a model where knowledge is the sum of the things you know in which you very quickly end up in a situation where there’s not really a point to trying to learn anything more.
You can read more about creativity, memory, and knowledge in my book Our Dreams Make Different Shapes, and you can contact me about running a creativity workshop at firstname.lastname@example.org.