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Jon Udell and I talk about conceptual leaps from time to time. For me, Jon is both a consistent source of conceptual leaps, and a consistent inspiration for discovering my own. When we talk, though, we sometimes disagree, not so much about what the conceptual leaps are, but about which ones are reasonable to expect of people. When we’re talking, Jon tends to advocate a more incremental approach that emphasizes easy-to-use tools. I’m less patient with the incremental approach, and I worry that the ease-of-use argument, which undeniably valid in many instances, can actually throttle real innovation and underestimate human potential–at least, when that potential is properly pushed.
What constitutes a “proper push” is a question at the very heart of teaching and learning. Jerome Bruner has some very interesting things to say about such pushing–I keep discovering absolute wonders in his essays–but more on that anon, and back to Jon.
Two of Jon’s recent “Interviews with Innovators” (his podcast series on IT Conversations) make me think, again, that Jon and I are closer than either of us might believe we are. One was Jon’s interview with Nova Spivack about Twine (podcast here, blog reflection here), a service that aims to be a next-generation cross between social bookmarking and the semantic web. The interesting moment for me was this bit in the middle of the podcast (the excerpt is about four minutes long):
The exchange offers a very satisfying exposition of one of the biggest challenges we face in this area: how can we inspire, cajole, or otherwise persuade people to understand the value of sharing and the network effects sharing enables? This question, much more so than the question of complexity or difficulty of use, is at the heart of what’s most challenging as we try to urge adoption of these tools in higher education and elsewhere. A narrowly personal paradigm of computing means that for many people, perhaps most adults, computing is about individual affordances, and new Web 2.0 services simply add to the blades on an already comically jumbo Swiss Army Knife–for the individual. The idea of network effects is, as Jon points out, nearly impossible to describe, though relatively easy to grasp once one has experienced network effects for oneself. (This latter idea is one Alan Levine has explored many times in his talks about “being there.”)
But then my thoughts turned around on themselves again. Is it really so easy to experience network effects by being there? I suppose it depends on what one means by “being.” I think we’re really talking about a commitment here, a mode of being that is much more than a visit, or an anthropological study. The network effects have a strong effect on one’s very being, after all. Once I learned to speak (I was apparently a late talker, something most of you will find impossible to believe), and especially once I learned to read, I wasn’t simply the same person with another affordance. The very way I thought of “self,” and especially my own self and its horizon of possibilities, changed utterly. Forever.
I think RSS isn’t all that hard to learn or understand. I think network effects are indeed harder to grasp, perhaps impossible without direct experience. But most of all, I think it’s very hard to accept or embrace the transformative power of network effects because of the way those effects complicate our settled experience of identity. Not ideas of identity, but the experience of identity.
I think this is what people really fear most when they talk about information overload. They fear they will disappear, or that at the very least their experience of identity will be profoundly unsettled. Forever.
Sure, it’s scary to think about all the stuff people say, do, and know out there, and how much of it is available, hypnotically and perhaps damagingly, to anyone willing to spend their days hooked to a screen on a desk, or in a pocket, or wherever. But what’s really frightening is the experience of scale. It’s the fear of losing one’s voice permanently amid the din of all the competing voices.
I may not have this all right, just now. (I keep forgetting my blog is about the mistakes, not just the realizations–I should know much, much better. Witness the intractability of the problem!)Â But I think I’m at least partially right. Because the more I thought about what Jon and Nova were saying in this little exchange, the more I realized that Jon was outlining the very process of education itself, especially higher education. What’s different about college? The experience of scale. Not just difficulty, though there’s that too, but extent. Think about a first-year writer going into a library and thinking about her or his own voice, competing with centuries of other voices, most of them more sophisticated and knowledgeable to boot.
Yet once that learner begins to understand network effects–let’s call them the ongoing intertwined records of human discourse–and that the scale actually makes his or her voice more rich, supple, and powerful, in fact acts as a kind of amplifier for that voice, the learner then turns what I’d argue is the most important corner in any educational experience, the one that shows that learner both the need and the possibility for making his or her own mark on that great tablet of civilization. What we see when timid freshmen at the end of four years transform themselves into uncertain but intent and brave seniors is not only the mastery of content (though some of that happens too, and should). It’s the dawning conviction that network effects are their allies, not their enemies. That it’s their civilization, too.
For this reason, Jerome Bruner’s observation continues to resonate with me: school is, to some crucial extent, always “consciousness-raising about the possibilities of communal mental activity.” The word “collaboration” is far too weak for what I’m trying to describe here. It’s more the moment one realizes a calling, within community, to be oneself most deeply by joining in the conversation.
That idea is obviously counterintuitive on one level, since college is a daunting experience for almost everyone at one time or another. Yet the idea is also utterly intuitive for anyone who’s ever stayed up late, drunk on the wine of a marvelous conversation.
Too many of our current educational paradigms focus on individual affordances. I’ll get a better job. I’ll get a degree. I’ll get tenure. I’ll get promoted. I’m not saying these aren’t important goals. Of course they are. But education is most deeply personal when it’s inter- and trans-personal, just as high-speed computing becomes truly transformative only when those machines are networked and the network’s platform (where would we be without the World Wide Web?) supports robust development.
So tonight I’m thinking that education is the platform for the human network, and the World Wide Web gives us a very powerful way to demonstrate and understand that fact.
One of Jon’s subsequent interviews takes the analogy to an even higher level, as Jon demonstrates wonderfully. But that’s material for another post (especially because I’m not sure what to do with the Wikipedia argument there).