John Seely Brown, Closing Plenary for NMC 2010

Another in a series of posts from the 2010 New Media Consortium annual conference. Most of this material was written during the session itself, hence the use of present tense. I’ve added some connections and commentary along the way in parentheses. Mishmash or melange? Caveat lector. Whatever it is, there’s a lot of it.

Holly Willis, one of our University of Southern California hosts and Director of the USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy, comes to the podium to  introduce John Seely Brown, aka “JSB,” as I will call him for the rest of this  post. Holly tells us JSB has chosen his own job title–“chief of confusion.” But then she contextualizes that wry piece of truth-telling: JSB is the chief of confusion who asks the right questions and gets thought going in a better direction. He’s a “smoking man,” as in the character from The X-Files, the person who introduces clarity and helps the Institute for Multimedia Literacy envision a bigger picture. He raises the bar, identifies uncanny connections, and makes everyone in the room feel smarter. (Yes, there’s the meta-bar; that’s the meta-standard. To be able to emulate it!) Today, JSB will speak to us of “A New Culture of Learning.” (You can see the video of his talk, download it and the slides from his presentation, find links to the other keynotes, and more, on the NMC website.)

Here’s the message JSB has for us. We’ve shifted from a predictable world of equilibrium to an exponential world of constant flux and disequilibrium. There’s no denying the enormous scale of this shift. There are profound ramifications for learning, for media, for a world of rapid sets of punctuated moves. The exponential laws in the worlds we inhabit show no signs of slowing down. Even as Moore’s Law slows, our architectures and uses still increase exponentially. We used to live in a world of S-Curves:  rapid evolution up the curve would be followed by periods of stability along the top. Now we live in a world with no top to the S. He takes cloud computing as one example. (A canny example, as for many people “cloud computing” seems like the ascent up the “s” toward a stable new paradigm, a world of thin clients, network appliances, and manageable training and expectations. If not the summit, it would be at least a basecamp where we could rest awhile and reorient ourselves.) Behold: instead of a new one-paradigm-to-rule-them-all that would usher in a new period of stable, predictable development, cloud computing is already complicated by the emergence of massively powerful and sophisticated graphical processing units (GPUs). Why? Complex, immersive, real-time visualizations need powerful GPUs at the local machine. The cloud simply can’t deliver that level of real-time computing power, so suddenly we have to rethink cloud computing. We had no “S-top” to think about stability in the realm of cloud computing. (In other words, it’s ecosystems, networks, and complex connections all the way up.  Perhaps at one time intellectual history–say, for example, Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts–could be thought analogous to tectonic motion. Same thing, but on a somewhat faster timetable. No more. Now we must live in a world of near constant intellectual “seismic” motion. I trust I make myself obscure.)

Civilization has never seen a game like the one we’re now entering.

This means the half-life of any given skill is shrinking. Most skills we teach have a half-life of about five years. (In my view, this means we MUST teach at the meta level, always, in every way. This is also, as it turns out, the platform for the most effective pedagogy.) We must learn how to participate at the edge of interesting flows. Now learning has more to do with creating the new, rather than learning the old. But the creation has a strong tacit component. (Thus I’d say that teaching must refocus from teaching the explicit to teaching strategies for recognizing and accessing tacit knowledge.) “If you’re not curious, you’re screwed, in a world of constant flux.” These new mobile devices are not so much mobile computers as curiosity amplifiers. (Looking stuff up on the net becomes a habit of mind, a practice of renewable learning. But also see Bruner on various disciplines of curiosity–on the need to focus curiosity.)

(And yet. The NMC conference reinforced my growing conviction that one of my central areas of interest is the question of interest itself, with curiosity as either a synonym for interest or a particular mode of it. Thus JSB’s words above were particularly resonant for me. If you’re not curious, you’re screwed…. Yet so much of education, in my experience, leads away from curiosity, its impulses and distractions, its rambling stubbornness and exasperating energies. Too much to “cover,” and with enough self-discipline, one can learn without any interest or curiosity whatsoever. Why not detach the pleasure from learning, or at least train oneself neither to need or expect such pleasures? Kids’ stuff. You think this is recess? One might even darkly speculate–I will darkly speculate–that for many schoolers, curiosity or interest is seen as a frill, perhaps an embarrassment, like the overwhelming pleasure that complicates the simple business of reproduction. If only we copulated the way trees do, Sir Thomas Browne lamented, without all that silly business that just runs away with you. Or as Augustine imagined, perhaps in the Garden of Eden there were no involuntary responses to sexual stimulation. Instead, one soberly decides that it’s time, and reasonably gets on with the activity, with no dangerous digressions or worrisome, unmanageable desires. A fanciful and far-fetched analogy, perhaps, but I often think we have made education scalable and manageable by organizing the mess, impulse, and sharp joys of learning into, well, something of that tree-state Browne imagined, students rooted to their desks, careful not to ask questions that manifest curiosity, questions that would interfere with the thoughtful, deliberate march of coverage on which their teacher leads them forward. Work is play for mortal stakes? An interesting thought, but we don’t have time to think about that now; we’re already two slides and eight bullet points behind.)

JSB continues. Perhaps we need to rethink how we learn the tacit–and how new media has changed this game in fundamental ways. A view of knowledge as substance and pedagogy as knowledge transfer, with sophisticated pedagogy as “impedance matching” that yields the most efficient transfer of knowledge-particles from source to receptacle,  metamorphoses into a social view of learning: “we participate, therefore we are.” “Understanding is socially constructed” (and all this is articulated very well by Bruner in “Toward a Theory of Instruction”–yet education has resisted these truths for decades). Nothing beats a study group–but how those groups form, and how this peer-to-peer teaching works, changes in a virtual-physical hybrid world. (I’d argue that in fact all education has always worked, when it’s worked well, in just the way JSB describes. These new technologies simply make it harder for us to lie to ourselves about what we aver is happening, must be happening, in our current architecture of schooling, the house of cards we tell ourselves is as solid and irreplaceable as the ground on which we walk. Harder, but not impossible, at least until the next articulation of the explosive increase in human expressive capacity.)

JSB: Yet some misunderstandings of this new situation are possible. Example: Ryerson University didn’t get the social life of learning. Chris Avenir created a chemistry study group on Facebook, which notoriously resulted in Chris’s expulsion over 146 counts of academic dishonesty. The case against him? Learning should be hard, there is no structure of regulation for online behavior and that makes it incompatible with academic work, and it is our job to protect academic integrity from any threat. The conclusion: unless learning is hard and directed by others, it fails to meet the standard for academic rigor. Thankfully, in March of 2008 Avenir was cleared of all charges. The engineering faculty appeals committee found no proof the Facebook group led to cheating. (An instance in which peer review and faculty governance worked–a hopeful story, perhaps.)

In contrast, JSB tells two stories about groups that got it:

The Grommets of Maui, an island that had never produced a world champion surfer. A little boy named Dusty Payne announced his ambition to be that surfer. He formed a cohort that would compete and collaborate to perfect their skills. At 20, Dusty achieved his ambition. And so did every single one of the kids in his cohort–including the fifth one that can’t communicate or socialize because he suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. The group pulled themselves up by their bootstraps until each one became a world champion. (We see a video of Dusty here–this is truly a champion–breathtaking stuff.)

How did they do it?

1. passion to achieve and willingness to fail, fail, fail along the way. Failing in surfing is very physically dangerous, by the way …

2. they accessed and analyzed surfing dvds, going frame by frame to discover the techniques these champions used

3. they used video tools to capture and analyze each of their own improvisations

4. “they pulled the best ideas from adjacencies: wind surfing, skateboarding, mountain biking, motorcross” (this is an especially beautiful idea–love this new noun I just learned, “adjacencies”–cf. Hofstadter’s fluid concepts and creative analogies–yes–also Polya’s “How To Solve It” and the notion of problem-solving strategies/heuristics. And of course poetry is among other things the art of the unexpected resemblance, a lovely, fraught exploration of the very idea of adjacencies.)

5. “accessing spikes of capabilities arouund the world–leveraging networks for practice in an ecosystem” (they placed themselves in a network of peak performers, apprenticing themselves to those performers)

6. “attracting others to help them around the world” (A gift economy of learning)

And always, a deep collaborative learning with each other.

What’s the mindset? A passionate pursuit of extreme performance with a deep questing disposition and a commitment to indwelling. Perhaps we should teach not skills, but dispositions. Immersion in, not about; marinating in the phenomena. Without digital media, this quest and this indwelling and this immersion would not be possible. Textual descriptions wouldn’t cut it, in this instance. (These are JSB’s words; the italics represent my own sense of urgency as I listened and recorded them.)

Now another example from JSB: a quest within World of Warcraft that generates exponential learning, not learning with diminishing returns. Joint collective agency, a community of practice: this is what’s formed here. To see this richness, we must pay attention not only to the core game, but to the “social life on the edge of the game. The edge is often referred to as a knowledge economy” (JSB’s emphasis). The WoW mantra is that “If I’m not learning then it ain’t fun.” In this environment, the ability constantly to perfect one’s skills is linked very strongly to one’s sense of identity. (In other words, I learn, therefore I am a consequential citizen of this world.)

So we see two kinds of learning spaces here: in-game learning, and out-of-game learning. Put another way, we see learning within, and learning about/above. In-game learning is collective indwelling: constant experimenting, constant tinkering, constantly playing around. High-end raids operate on gut feelings of how the system works. Complex analysis tools and dashboards are crucial aids to this indwelling. The dashboards are crafted by each player; they are “A Key to Masterful Play.” The dashboards are complicated (see Sometimes the game itself is played through the dashboards. (Owning the dashboard as a personal creation is a very beautiful idea, I feel. A personal dashboard is a key component of the personal cyberinfrastructure I envision and advocate. Perhaps the key component.) “After action reviews” evaluate everyone equally in a true meritocracy. The result: a new kind of collective virtual indwelling that blends the tacit and the explicitly cognized. We’ve focused on the cognitive all our lives. Now we must think more about the tacit (but a question emerges: if we think about the tacit, have we actually transformed it into the cognitive? Does the marinade go away once we begin to be out/above?). Out of game learning (aboutness) includes the following: forums, videos, databases, wikis, blogs, etc. This “talking about” is  another social level. (At this point I’m lost: is this out-of-game learning a part of what JSB calls “the cognitive,” which I read as “explicit knowledge presented in a linear fashion to the logico-executive mind, to be mastered more-or-less by being memorized”? Or is it a kind of social immersion that is also a version of what he calls “indwelling”? The point is important, as Bruner recognizes in his attempts to analyze and reconcile what he calls the “third way” of schooling, what JSB seems to think of as the cognitive way, with more enactive modes of situated learning.) WoW players manage knowledge via guilds, which provide a structure of filtering and feedback loops;  guild structures are learning structures.

Thus “about” and “in” are fused in this space (it now seems that JSB means by this “cognitive” and “tacit,” and perhaps the fusion represents a new kind of “indwelling”), and exponential learning is the result. an unusual learning we haven’t been able to measure before. Think also of speed chess and hard-core hacking. Speed chess: marinating practice in instincts forces integration at high speeds, and the result is that “not being able to think about it” actually transfers to success in non-speed chess as well. (A counterintuitive observation–and a revealing one. I’d like to hear more about the fusion he describes. Can it occur without some part of prior learning being cognitive? How do we acquire the cognitive and tacit knowledges that will be integrated, prior to their integration? Or can we somehow do it all at once? I have trouble imagining how. Hofstadter describes a back-and-forth, zoom-in/zoom-out kind of pattern to the way we seek patterns–and pattern-seeking/pattern-recognition are modes of integration–but the entire question bears further consideration.)

JSB raises a crucial question now: how do we combine man as knower (homo sapies) and man as maker (homo faber)? For homo sapiens, tools are instruments. For homo faber, tools are a form of productive inquiry. (An absolutely crucial observation; I couldn’t possibly agree more!) For homo faber, answers become questions. Tools are a way to think and talk about the backtalk of an environment. When the tool pushes back and doesn’t work quite right, that’s a rich source of learning. And now we have homo ludens as well: man as player. Homo ludens experiences the play of failure, the play of imagination in something like poetry, the play of epiphany, as in solving a riddle. Poems train us to be attuned to turns of phrase (semantic adjacencies)–JSB offers the example of hip-hop. (But one should go deeper with poetry, which trains us to be attuned to turns of thought, and adjacencies of imagination. A clever and revealing turn of phrase is one thing, and a good thing. But the larger symbol-play of poetry is a richer, more expressive activity still.) Play can stage epiphanies: and epiphanies are never forgotten. Play is the progenitor of culture–not the reverse. (He’s clearly drawing on Vygotsky and Huizinga here.)

These exercises teach us reframing, and the reframing is all. (Again, very clear connections to Hofstadter and Polya here.) JSB shows us a very simple riddle to illustrate his point.  (There’s an oddly disturbing moment for me here. When I raise my hand to answer the riddle, JSB walks over, looks at me, and says “Oh, I’m not calling on you.” I’m not sure why this happens, as I’ve not met him. Elementary-school flashbacks ensue, and I struggle to shake the distraction.)

Now JSB is speaking about blogging. Blogging is not just content creation–it’s context creation. He quotes Andrew Sullivan on blogging. (I hadn’t seen Sullivan’s “Why I Blog,” or if I had, I don’t remember it–though I don’t think I would have forgotten such an essay.)

[The blogger] is—more than any writer of the past— a node among other nodes, connected but unfinished without the links and the comments and the track-backs that make the blogosphere, at its best, a conversation, rather than a production…. Jazz and blogging are intimate, improvisational, and individual—but also inherently collective. And the audience talks over both.

(From “Why I Blog,” published in the November, 2008 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. Sullivan’s blog, “The Daily Dish,” appears on the The Atlantic Monthly’s website. Interestingly, Sullivan again praises the roles, natures, and values of blogging in today’s “Daily Dish,” posted on the day I complete this long-overdue blog post. Happy Fourth of July.)

JSB argues that if we take this blended epistemology of knowing and making seriously, we find deep tinkering, playing at making, testing trying riddling, the system as thing and context simultaneously. (Compare the preface to The New Media Reader, which makes a similar point. A couple of months ago, I used the NMR preface as a jumping-off point for some of my talk at the NMC Accreditation Convocation. In my research, I discovered that episteme (knowing) has a mythical personification, but techne (making) apparently does not. I conclude that this strange and dysfunctional disunion between knowing and making lies deep in the religio-philosophical heritage of the West, though there have been very helpful interventions against this disunion along the way–and to be fair, many cosmologies of creation emphasize the union of knowing and making. Certainly Milton’s monist materialism insisted that knowing itself was a material process–and by no means a “merely” material process. But I digress.)

To continue his point and drive to his conclusion, JSB points to danah boyd’s blog post “For the lolz” on the ways in which 4chan is hacking the attention economy through a process of playfulness and deep tinkering.

(Here begins a digression that’s way too long. You can route around it by clicking here.)

(At this point I confess I’m starting to feel a bit restive. First, I’m not at all sure that 4chan is really a place where, in JSB’s words, “recreation becomes an act of re-creation/remix & productive inquiry.” That’s not to say that only “productive inquiry” has value for learning. Also, in some respects, danah’s post seems to be arguing that unproductive, Lord-of-Misrule carnivals can be the incubator for attitudes and experiences that later lead to modes of productive inquiry. But that’s not the same as arguing that cow-tipping, metaphorically speaking, is an act of remix and productive inquiry. Maybe what I’m stumbling over here is the question of varieties of making and play. Are they all equal? Does playing at virulent, destructive hate speech qualify as good play?  If the idea is to preserve an anonymous space for the marginalized to find and share their voices, good. If the idea is to keep Internet inventiveness out of the maw of corporate commoditization, good. But if the idea is to take nothing seriously, or not to take anything “too” seriously, whatever that means, then I’m not convinced that 4chan offers us the learning culture JSB describes. One of danah’s commenters makes much the same point by arguing that 4chan’s attention hacks–which seem to be a kind of spectacle generation that sometimes produces memes–are only superficially like what the earlier generation of computer hackers were doing. Are these really attention hacks? Or are they attention snacks– and a kind of snacking that in some cases is, well, not far removed from coprophilia? EDIT: “coprophagia” is more precise. But either word will do.

Christopher Poole runs 4chan. There are no rules on 4chan. Or rather there are Christopher’s rules, which are ignored, and the community’s own Internet rules, which seem in Christopher’s TED Talk not to be rules so much as in-jokes or wry observations or “laws” like “Sturgeon’s Law.” Here’s the you-have-been-warned disclaimer that appears if you click on a 4chan link:

By entering this section of the website, in exchange for use of this website, you the user hereby agree to the following:

  1. The content of this website is for mature viewers only and may not be suitable for minors. If you are a minor or it is illegal for you to view nudity or mature images and language, do not proceed.
  2. This site is presented to you AS IS, with no warranty, express or implied. By clicking “I Agree” and then viewing our site, you agree not to hold the webmaster and staff of this site ( liable for any damages from your use of these boards.
  3. As a condition of using this site, you must fully understand, and comply with the rules of, which may be located by following the “Rules” link on the home page.

Is this an elaborate satire? Am I being winked at? Is the rule of law being invoked here, internally and externally, as a way for Christopher to immunize himself from prosecution? I have to say that Christopher’s TED Talk makes me squirm, not because of the content of 4chan (that’s way too intensely mixed a bag for “squirm” to describe my responses), but because he’s so eager to make the case JSB is making, that 4chan really has a heart of gold and enables good things to happen, like lolcats and attacks on Scientology and CSI-type work that uncovers a cat abuser who’d posted his video on YouTube. 4chan guards anonymity and claims it is an unalloyed good, but then its members band together to identify the YouTube villain. Don’t get me wrong:  I’m ecstatic that the cat abuser was arrested, but there are many instances of contradiction and special pleading in the way Poole makes his case as he advocates lawlessness for his board but turns to the rule of law for the YouTube case. And Poole’s own absolute distinction between speaking and doing doesn’t accord well with the fusion of knowing and making that JSB’s been praising. But this is a very old concern, and a particularly difficult one: is there a distinction between liberty and license? Mix these uncertainties with a concern I share–that we not overlook potential good because it arrives in a new or unsettling form–and the questions are vexed. But worth raising. What bothers me in this moment, then, is that a very complex matter comes into the talk very late and with a fairly superficial appraisal of both 4chan and danah’s blog post. danah herself admits that the subversive entertainment of “betting on the anarchist subculture”–if 4chan is truly anarchist–doesn’t make her “too thrilled for every mom and pop and average teen to know about 4chan (which is precisely why I haven’t blogged about it before).”

There’s a great article about Wikileaks in a recent New Yorker. Toward the end, author Raffi Khatchadourian makes this acute observation: “Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.” Mutatis mutandis, there is a caution here for 4chan, as well as our our analysis and celebration of 4chan.)


JSB concludes his talk with this observation:  the culture of learning is a culture that thrives on participatory lifelong learning and a quest to always become. (I anticipate the response that this conclusion would get from many of my colleagues.  I hear the legitimate complaints as well as the tiresome beside-the-point complaints, and I feel like Psyche with her seeds. Where are the helper ants? Can Eros send any aid for this mental strife? A brilliant talk in almost every respect, but the question of become what? become why? won’t be silenced. Even if these questions can’t be answered, they can’t be eliminated, and they should be asked. Perhaps the idea of emergence is implicit here. As so often, I feel at war with myself in this matter. Neither flux nor rigidity can be ends in themselves, though the argument seems always to resolve into these binaries. Conserve! Liberate! Be! Become! Where are the more complex imperatives?)

Enough of this post and my many hesitancies, questions, surmises, and yearnings. The conference was splendid, and it ended, and now we wait for next June to roll around. I hear it’s lovely this time of year in Wisconsin.

Let’s keep the conversation going. Next year, it’s the University of Wisconsin at Madison. June 15-18 in one of the nation’s best college towns.  See you all there.

For other responses to this keynote, see my fellow conference bloggers: Barbara Sawhill and Natalie Harp. Salute!

10 thoughts on “John Seely Brown, Closing Plenary for NMC 2010

  1. I like the post Dr. Campbell; intriguing! I have to go back and catch up on some of your earlier stuff 🙂
    Hope everything is well in Texas and you enjoyed celebrating the birth of our country!


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  6. brief follow-up…
    Gardner – sorry my not calling on your got misread. what was going on was that from your body language i knew that you knew the answer and i wanted the audience to ponder the riddle about longer.. so i bought time by walking on stage over to you and he closer i got the more sure i was that you had nailed it…. folks don’t get the power of riddles and the reframing that goes into resolving it til the ponder it a bit…

    wrt your more serious points – i agree. 4chan is not a great example… and mimi had so many better examples i should have just used one of hers..

  7. @Robyn Hanging in there–thanks for the hello and it’s great to know you’re out there and doing well. I saw some Chuck Klosterman at a bookstore in Austin a week ago and thought of you immediately. What should I read after “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs”?

    @jsb Thanks very much for checking in and letting me know what you were thinking in that complicated moment. I’m not always first off the mark on the reframing, so I was elated when the force of the realization hit me–another complication. Tough to come down from such a moment, but I know you meant no harm and I understand completely why things happened as they did. Regarding 4chan, I ended up having quite a spirited conversation with my 19-year-old son (and Internet citizen) Ian last week about the site. Quite the bonding moment, as we had both by then thought about it pretty deeply, and we found we were both fascinated by its complications and a-morality while also skeptical of the larger claims it’s starting to make for itself. Who knew that’s where this conversation would go? A strange and unanticipated dividend from the conference and your talk in particular. Thanks for that.

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  9. Some of my favorite quotes from this book:

    * The new culture of learning gives us the freedom to make the general personal and then share our personal experience in a way that, in turn, adds to the general flow of knowledge.

    * In the new culture of learning, people learn through their interaction and participation with one another in fluid relationships that are the result of shared interests and opportunity.

    * Play is the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules. When play happens while learning it creates a context in which information, ideas and passions grow.

    * The important thing about the Harry Potter phenomenon is not so much what the kids were learning, but how they were learning. Thought there was no teacher in this setting, readers engaged in deep, sustained learning from one another through their discussions and interactions.

    * In a world of near constant flux, play becomes a strategy for embracing change rather than a way of growing out of it.

    * The challenge is to find ways to marry structure and freedom to create altogether new things.

    * Study groups dramatically increase the success of college students in the classroom.

    * The connection between the personal and the collective is a key ingredient in lifelong learning.

    * When information is stable, the explicit dimension becomes very important. The speed of light, for example, is probably not going to change….The twenty-first centry, however, belongs to the tacit. In the digital world we learn by doing, watching, and experiencing… not by taking a class or reading a manual.

    * Students learn best when they are able to follow their passion and opeate within the constraints of a bounded environment. Without the boundary set by the assignment there would be no medium for growth.

    * Indwelling is a familiarity with ideas, practices and processes that are so ingrained that they become second nature. When engaging the learner, we must think about her sense of indwelling, because that is her greatest source of inspiration, but it is also the largest reservoir she has of tacit knowledge.

    * Dispositions indicate how a student will make connections on a tacit level… how she is likely to learn.

    * Learning from others is neither new nor revolutionary; it has just been ignored by most of our educational institutions…

    … and, I would add, by most of our organizations.

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