A crucial conceptual leap

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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!)  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).

13 thoughts on “A crucial conceptual leap

  1. Thank you for this post.

    (Spontaneous thought: I’d really like to read a longer print-essay on this subject by you. But from the media perspective: Is that possible? Does it make sense? Difficult question.)

  2. I don’t know if this resonates at all, but as I was reading this I had the thought that what is needed to experience network effects (and to write in the shadow/on the shoulders of the eons) is “courage,” as in the courage to just start doing it, and that the push, or the pull, or gentle encouragement, or… the myriad ways in which those who teach help those who are just starting to, well, start, is in part to help them find their own “courage.” That kind of sounds partly like teaching to me. And like so many things, at least in my experience, once that first step is taken we often find it wasn’t that scary, heck was even fun, and wow, look at that network go. Am I making any sense? It is late. Anyways, thanks as always for more to chew on.

  3. Thanks for this – what you write here resonates with some recent posts on content vs. interaction, the nature of sharing and associated barriers… and the way you conceptualize some of the broader issues around them works so well for me.

    The bit that got me to hit the “comment” button even though I didn’t have much original to add is the sets of associations toward the end that culminates in “education is the platform for the human network” which is just a hella fine piece of writing.

  4. A prior question I’d ask is whether the students (and us too) feel that they’re holding back – on what bugs them, on what they really care about, about their doubts, a whole bunch of stuff. My sense is that many people hold back and that their socialized into doing that. So I agree with Scott Leslie, that courage is a big deal. But we also need to distinguish those who care but are not yet giving voice to their concerns from those who are blase. I’m not sure there is much you can do for the latter. But I’m also not clear how you can identify the one from the other ahead of time.

  5. Some thought provoking articulations in this posting! 🙂

    In addition to what was mentioned by others, I was struck by:
    “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.”

    The notion of “discourse communities” and, in fact, the whole so-called “Web2.0” construct seems related here. Tangentially, also much of what is aspired to in the Open Educational Resources and Open Content movements connects here.

    Keep the good thoughts coming! 🙂

  6. I think media network effects are the contemporary version of the uncanny. Over time culturally I believe we have gotten used to seeing ourselves on video or in a photo or hearing our recorded voices. But network effects are similarly uncanny in that they present our networked selves, a sense of self we typically submerge (along with the sense of self as mechanical which Freud articulated as uncanny).

    I agree that in part we will grow accustomed to this (posthuman) condition. I also think though that much of the subjective pain arises from speculation, from attempts to map out the extent of a putative self. Perhaps one tactic in response is to focus on the present. Even network effects must ultimately be embodied before they can impart affect. With the network maybe it is better sometimes to ask “what is here, now, for you?” than to succumb to speculative vertigo.

  7. Wikipedia

    When the hammer is the only tool it is likely to upset someone because it did not produce results as expected. Wikipedia is not the only wiki, it is not even the only large collaborative open and free to edit wiki.

    Wikiversity is a wiki which is focused on higher education, encourages thrashing out of new concepts and has no ban on original research. Some educators are actually running higher education programs from within wikiversity (check out user jtneill for example)

    I am not a university lecturer or researcher but do have interests in questions which may fall under the ‘original research’ banner so I tried using wikiversity myself: http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Society_as_ecology

    I think the questions around value without fences are very interesting, ways that we can rediscover custodianship of commons. Our planet cannot afford for us to believe that ‘the tragedy of the commons’ is the only possible outcome, Perhaps it might be easier to learn to share value sustainably in our information and education spaces first, and then understand what it means as ecology. Hopefully something we can turn around while ecological systems are functioning in a way which makes damage recoverable?

    The fingertip knowledge possible in networked communities provides a shift in mode which could help us understand our local contribution to the global commons, but the ideas which structure capitalist and consumerist economics need to be re-anchored in an ethic or substrate which requires that the commons is valuable and valued in ways which do not generally appear on an individualist profit/loss statement. We need to understand the value of the whole system, and to make allowances for the requirements of ‘other’.

    =)

  8. You said, “Too many of our current educational paradigms focus on individual affordances … education is most deeply personal when it’s inter- and trans-personal”

    Amen, Gardo, amen. I have been thinking about this a lot lately in the context of school and with faith too. It is a very American notion to be a “lone-wolf” and make it on your own, we venerate those kind of accomplishments. Community has made college worth all the money I have spent. Not the studying or even a well written paper are worth thousands of dollars, but the community, that is priceless.

  9. The phrase “…drunk on the wine of a marvelous conversation” speaks to the best of college experience, and the best of my college years. The prevalent disconnect in higher ed between the life of the student and the studies of the student (the “Student Affairs” vs. “Academic Affairs” model) has always puzzled me. The bifurcation in our culture between what amuses and what builds individual success is a symptom of this kind of thinking. The learning IS the peak experience. In that spirit, technologies like Twine, Twitter, and delicious seem to blur the distinction between socially satisfying connections to the world and the sharing of knowledge, perhaps offering a heretofore missing opportunity to see that artificial bifurcation between amusement and learning fade away.

  10. A wonderful set of comments. Thanks to all.

    @Martin Thank you. I’m actually working on a book right now that will likely build this post out (among others). So, be careful what you wish for! And thanks for the kind words.

    @Scott What do they have that I ain’t got? Courage. 🙂 Yes, you’re exactly right. Aslan’s repeated “Take heart, dear one” resonates strongly for me. I just heard Maya Angelou pay tribute to my beloved English professor, Elizabeth Phillips, and she praised courage as that quality that permits consistency in virtue. The truth that we all know is that persistence in insight and commitment takes enormous stamina and enormous courage. Persistence in innovation, likewise. A great teacher is a great encourager, not with happy talk, but with honest and supportive assessment, including the warning that the student should always seek a second (third, tenth) opinion!

    @Brian Thank you. Coming from such a fine writer as you, that compliment means the world to me.

    @Lanny What a great observation (rhyming very nicely with Brian and Scott). That’s a kind of sorting I think we must do, with some pointed comments to the blase along the way. And yes, I do feel we are socialized into holding back. Those who make a difference, in my experience, are those who can’t help themselves from surging forward. That comes at personal cost, of course, since holding back serves many interests in society. “Demur, you’re straightway dangerous, and handled with a chain….” I remember many late-night bull sessions in the college dorm over these questions. I still seek those sessions out in the written record, in the distributed conversation here, in the f2f conversations at conferences and other meetings. Can’t help it, as James Brown once observed. Jerome Bruner has choice words in this regard that I’ll try to find and quote later.

    @Kelvin Exactly! The meaning and value of “openness” reside in our yearning for connection, not in the simple value of having all the information out in the open. At least in my view! Yet note that the yearning for connection is not universal, or even consistent in any one person. Connection also brings fear. The pack does not always reward each of its members equally, nor are we always ready for what Martin Buber calls “meeting.”

    @Alex Deeply insightful stuff here. What’s especially interesting about considering network effects as “uncanny” is the way it revises Freud’s definition. For Freud, the uncanny was the unpleasant and unhealthy residuum of religious belief, of a kind of supernaturalist “omnipotence of thought” that should have died out when belief in an animistic universe died out. But now we see that the uncanny arising from network effects is not simply about coincidence but a recursive, engaging demonstration of what we share, cognitively and emotionally, and what that sharing prompts. Finding ourselves in the strange loop of network effects is genuinely meaningful, not simply neurotic. You’re right that there’s vertigo involved (I’m assuming you evoke the Hitchcock movie with that word–if so, nicely played!). I’m not sure we can shelter ourselves from it by being here now, though certainly that’s a start.

    @Janet Ah, understanding the entire system–of value, of exchange, of communication–is the highest goal of education, I’d say, one that impinges on the religious, a fact that can cause no end of concern (I say “no end” deliberately, to evoke a teleological argument). But without such an understanding, the zenith of the scaling I’m talking about, it’s hard to know what to make out of any point in the microcosm. A difficult dilemma, but one that an experienced teacher can help the student map, or navigate, or both.

    @Shannon I spend most of my time mulling over the connection between the individual and the community. The two must support each other, reciprocally and energetically. But the exchange usually collapses around one pole or the other. In the US, it tends to collapse around the individual. I think it’s equally disastrous for the exchange to collapse around the collective. Perhaps the word “community” should be re-energized so that’s it obviously and insistently includes the both-and of individual and group. Gotta think on this! Gotta mull!

    @Cathy Residential learning seeks to link companionship (in which we break bread together) and individual striving, but academics tend to ignore the living-together and student affairs folks tend to reduce the learning to superficial entertainments only. I agree wholeheartedly that Web 2.0 affordances can dramatize how we find “work is play for mortal stakes,” as Frost put it. That kind of drama emerging from Web 2.0 and social networking is in many respects another kind of residential learning in which we live together, virtually. Of course, as many writers correctly point out, we may get less of an imperative to help our fellow human beings when their need is not physically present to us–or it may be, as Barack Obama showed, that people can be more effectively inspired to support each other when network effects quickly build small contributions into large outcomes. The Web has certainly demonstrated that the answer to “but what can *I* do?” is “plenty,” when the network effects visibly and recursively kick in.

  11. Gardner – one of the prevailing characteristics of the ‘network effect’ or more accurately our observation that it is about presence in a larger community (the network) that matters is how much being in the moment and engaged matters. More simply put, you can’t make waves or be affected by them if you’re not ‘there’.

    Much of what I’m starting to see in your thinking here, and Jon’s, and Dan Pink’s, and others is how important it is to be awake and part of your environment. Being receptive as well as poking back. I think much of the collegiate experience is marked by moments of feeling fully engaged – whether socially, emotionally, or intellectually.

    You referenced this in one of Alan’s amazing presentations (this one to Mary Washington – you’ve heard of that place, eh? 😉 where he played on the Chance Gardner’s role in the aptly named “Being Their” book by Jerzy Kosinski, and later in the film starring Peter Sellers (the role I think that made his career), Shirley MacLaine, and others.

    A physicist colleague of mind is adamant that learning physics for all but the mos gifted of learners requires first and foremost showing up for class. Ahmen.

  12. @Phil

    This is exactly right. In “Lessons from the Master,” George Steiner talks about *staying awake* as the single most important factor in learning. Staying awake. Showing up. Being *ready*. “Readiness is all,” concludes Hamlet. Alan’s “Being There” is just perfect as a way of thinking about all of this.

    Lately I’ve been mulling over Martin Buber’s idea of “meeting,” which I ran across in a Wonder Book (my term for books that seem like magic books to me) called “Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: From Confucius to Dewey” (Routledge 2001). The entry on Buber is quite inspiring and speaks exactly to what you’re saying here.

    You’re also getting at one of the fundamentally scary parts of this online world. You really DO have to be there. You have to commit. I feel a blog post coming on: why have we structured education around encounters that do not explicitly demand commitment as a condition of entry to the meeting? Some might call this “drinking the Kool Aid.” Sure, that’s possible. Commitment means a form of surrender–no way around that. But not every surrender is to Jonestown….

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