Wednesday, June 3, 2015

rhizoANT: Following the Actors & Parasites in Hyperobjects

I want to start with a little movie that I made using a Google Chrome extension called Draftback. The movie is a playback of a group of Rhizo14 people writing The Untext last October, 2014. Unfortunately, Draftback does not capture formatting, images, or marginalia, but it does provide a point of view on the emergence of The Untext that I have not been able to generate any other way.

I left the video artifacts at the beginning of the movie because they kind of capture something I want to address: parasites in hyperobjects. How I created the movie is instructive, I think.

I've been using Firefox web browser lately, but I had to switch to Chrome to use Draftback, a Chrome extension. With Draftback open, I then fired up Screencastify, another Google extension, to record the playback. Draftback and Screencastify did not play well together, but I was able to get useful footage, which Screencastify saved to my desktop as a .webm file. I loaded Screencastify's .webm file into VLC to convert it to an .m4v file which then loaded almost nicely into iMovie, though as you can see in the movie, some video artifacts remain from the translation (an important term) from the initial Draftback stream through Screencastify's .webm, to VLC's .m4v, to iMovie's .mov. After editing, cropping, and adding a soundtrack in iMovie, I uploaded to Youtube, which mostly uses the .mp4 format, so another translation into another file format. Finally, I embedded the movie in this post for your convenience.

So from Draftback to you in way too many, not so easy steps. If I ever do this again, I will no doubt do it better. Still, the process helps me make a point: conversation is never a clear transmission or exchange of information between agents; rather, it is always a translation through other agents which impinge in unpredictable, unknowable ways upon the information (itself an agent) and the communicating agents. No communication is clean. As information flows across the synapses between actors, it is stained by each of those agents, as well as by me, the agent that edited and shepherded the information along to this post. (Of course, I am stained as well.) How and when this post and its video gets to you on your computer, tablet, or phone will further stain the information. And you.

Serres writes an entire book about the effects of parasites on human relations, including communications. In some ways, parasite is an unpleasant term, but I think it captures the spirit of the information flow, which is always accompanied by the noise and static—the stains—added by the attending agents, or parasites. Serres says that when we are two we are already three or four. He's including the parasites. When we talk, as you and I are talking now, we are always accompanied by other agents—the first of which is language. English is so well stained with past usage and future potential. Like a fine piece of carving wood, English always has something to say about whatever I say, about however I try to shape it. It drains meaning from my words, or it adds meaning. It says more than I intend, and less. I think good communicators have always suspected the language they use is not a passive medium that can be assumed and taken for granted. Language has its own agency. It is a live and potent snake, and we should be mindful of the pointed end.

And of course, in The Untext English was definitely not the only agent—we also had to work alongside Google Docs, which like English seems to have a mind of its own. A mind of its own may not be a trite cliché here. Both English and Google Docs functioned as positively as did the humans to create a swarm mind, a mind that enveloped all of us while writing The Untext. Most people would not attribute mind to a single neuron or even to two or three neurons, but swarm a few billion neurons, and all of a sudden, mind emerges. There is some magic here that I cannot explain, but I have no reason to believe that the magic is exclusive to human brains. I'm comfortable with the idea that wherever and whenever agents swarm, they create a mind, and that mind includes the human and non-human actors. (Yes, I'm using agent and actor interchangeably in this post.)

But that is speculation on my part, and I'm not offering any supporting proof or argument here. Rather, I want to argue that something different happened in The Untext and that I cannot explain what it is without including Google Docs, English, computers, and networks as actors alongside the human writers. All of these actors have a parasitic relationship to all the other actors, and we cannot "follow these actors" if we are not conscious of the parasites. The parasitic relationship implies that all actors feed from each other, and that feeding changes all actors, including their communications, which emerge as actors in their own rights. All actors, then, are parasites and hosts, often simultaneously: feeding on and being fed upon. I see the truth of this in the movie above, but I want to start my explanation with a simpler Draftback movie.

In his blog post How I Reverse Engineered Google Docs to Play Back any Document's Keystrokes, Draftback's creator James Somers says that he wrote Draftback so that he could explore "the 'archaeology' of writing: how something like John McPhee’s profile of Bill Bradley (A Sense of Where You Are), or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, comes to be." Somers has the hope that people could become better writers "if they had vivid evidence that a good writer actually spends most of his time fighting himself." To understand why he thinks good writers fight with themselves, watch Somers play back an article about The Art of Underlining. You need only watch a minute or two.

Note the many false starts and restarts that emerge after Somers copies in the long quote from Salinger. You can almost hear Somers arguing with himself about what to say, trying something out, reading it, erasing it, trying something else. This may be somewhat consistent with your own writing process, and if you think of writing as the unfolding behavior of a single actor working alone, then this is a reasonable understanding.

But this is not how ANT frames the issue. Somers's analysis includes the actor, but it leaves out the network. To my mind, this is a serious oversight. You cannot understand writing if you frame it solely as the behavior of a single actor. This is the romantic genius view of writing. It's a nice fiction if you imagine yourself Lord Byron or Jane Austen, but it doesn't work for the rest of us. A single person writing alone will not explain Somers' Art of Underlining which was authored by one person, and it certainly won't explain The Untext which was authored by many. We need a framework that includes many actors interacting in complex, multi-scale networks. ANT provides that frame. The rhizome, swarm, and noise provide that frame. In these expanded frames, a writer "fighting himself" doesn't explain much about writing.

View or re-view the first movie at the top which shows a group of Rhizo14ers writing The Untext. The movie begins with Maha Bali and me writing around each other, and it looks very similar to Somers' movie: lots of starts, stops, deletions, restarts. You may have to watch the movie a couple of times, but I think you will begin to see Maha and me not only interacting with our own thoughts but interacting with each other's thoughts as we change something we've written to resonate with something the other has written, or we write something completely new in response to the other.

Because at first there isn't much text, we write very close to each other, almost in a dance, and we had to be careful about not over-writing each other, bumping into each other.

And suddenly, we are in new territory.

As Lenandlar Singh suggests in his blog post Actor-Network Theory and Google Docs, a word processor was originally conceived as a stand-alone tool meant to be used by a single writer at a time. In other words, the creators of word processing originally framed writing as "a single person writing alone". Now, however, Google Docs allows for multiple people writing together even when in different times and spaces. The old fiction no longer works. Actually, I don't think the old fiction about a single writer writing alone ever really explained writing very well, but the appearance of multiple writers, swarm writing, makes the restrictions of the old frame painfully obvious. We know we can no longer explain things as the solitary actions of an extraordinary human—Steve Jobs notwithstanding. The American gunslinger is dead. Sorry, Clint, but it's about time.

To understand and start explaining The Untext, we must allow for multiple actors interacting at multiple scales. Of course, we must include Maha, Sarah, Kevin, Simon, and the other Untext writers, but we must also include Google Docs, the text, the Internet, English, Rhizo14, computers, tablets, Youtube, and the various graphics tools used to produce images. And we must include the shifting, iterative, complex relationships that emerge among these actors. Now it begins to make sense. (Now working with prepositions begins to make sense [sorry, inside joke].)

So we see the text emerging like bacteria in a petri dish. In the old frame, writing was thought of as a linear process and a linear product following from a single author, but the writing in this movie is linear like the growth of bacteria is linear: only if you are counting. Swarm writing, rhizo-writing, is more like spiders spinning out strands of silk to see what catches where to form the structure for a new web. There are some lines in the web, but the web is hardly explained as a linear process or linear product. There is too much else going on.

Note toward the end of the Untext video that 3 or 4 people are writing simultaneously. The text is gathering critical mass and expanding rapidly at many points. Unfortunately, the movie does not capture the emergence of images, videos, and marginalia at this same time, and it only shows a limited section of the quickly expanding, very active text document. The text is getting too big to see at once. Much more is going on, but the movie is like any other frame: it captures some stuff rather clearly, but it leaves out plenty of other stuff that is damned important if you want to understand what's happening. Frames help us focus on one thing at the expense of obscuring something else. This appears to be the nature of knowledge.

The document is exploding like a summer thundercloud, like the one that I watched last week boiling up from the cane fields west of my home:

So ANT may be a bigger frame that helps us to see more, and it is definitely much more useful when dealing with objects such as swarm writing and Rhizo14/15, but ANT frames, and that means it omits important stuff.

Next I want to talk about the kind of objects I think ANT is forced to deal with, hyperobjects, because hyperobjects make the inadequacy of our other frames way too obvious.

Monday, May 25, 2015

How Does rhizoANT Work?

In my previous post, I summarized Farzana Dudhwala's article What is Actor-Network Theory?, but I didn't really explore what it might mean for the rhizo14 collaborative autoethnography (CAE). I want to do that here.

I start with Dudhwala's first observation that for ANT, the social is a network of relations and "does not exist as an objective reality prior to the research having even begun" (3). This is a particularly tricky issue for rhizo14 participants because we are all educators engaging an online class. Thus, we can easily bring to the class all of the social and educational structures that we have learned and learned very well, given that most of us are successful students, teachers, and administrators. For instance, we can easily assume that Dave Cormier is the teacher and that we are the students, bringing to our research all of the power and social relationships implied by those roles, which can blind us to the structures that actually emerged in rhizo14. If we expect Dave to be a traditional teacher, then we will interpret his behavior, for better or for worse, based on that expectation. An ANT approach to rhizo14 tries to drop expectations of Dave as the teacher and rhizo14 as a MOOC.

This is one of the issues Simon explores so well in his Hybrid Pedagogy article "Insoumis" when he responds to Mackness and Bell's published analysis of rhizo14. If I'm reading Simon correctly, then he suggests that Mackness and Bell bring to their analysis certain assumptions about the roles and responsibilities, especially of the facilitator, that do not apply to rhizo14, given that what emerged was not a traditional on-line class but something else.

Let me say that I do not believe researchers can bring no expectations to a given situation. We are always informed by our theories and models, and the best we can do is recognize and work with our biases, models, and theories. This takes great discipline and rigor. It also helps to have a swarm of researchers who can look at a given social event such as rhizo14 from many more angles.

ANT certainly begins with its own models of reality, which Latour has complained about. ANT assumes that rhizo14, for instance, is best approached as actors interacting in a network of relations, and the structure of rhizo14 is not given beforehand (say by the facilitator, Dave Cormier), but emerges from all those interactions. The global follows the local, unlike traditional classes in which the local interactions among students, teachers, tests, and texts follow from the carefully laid out global course plan.

Keep in mind, however, that ANT is still a model of reality, and while it's the model that I prefer, we have to recognize that it is a model. Therefore, it is wrong in the sense that like all models it is limited, it leaves out too much. I think we use ANT because we find it useful, but we must remember that the old models were useful in their day and may still be useful in some contexts for some tasks. Someday, ANT will not be so useful. Like all models, it will always be wrong.

This model means that we approach rhizo14 "not as attributors of a hidden social force or context, but simply as tracing the associations between heterogeneous entities and following their lead" (3). We don't attribute to rhizo14 characteristics of connectivist or constructivist educational theories; rather, we identify as many actors as we can and follow them, scribbling notes madly, to see where they go, how they get there, and what else they connect to. The hope is that if we look closely enough, long enough, then a shape will begin to emerge. We will identify that emerging shape as rhizo14. Perhaps a MOOC, but perhaps not. We will wait to see what emerges. It may have some patterns that resonate with other patterns we know about (MOOCs, connectivism, etc.), but it likely will also have patterns that are peculiar to itself. ANT wants to capture both.

Several distinctive characteristics of ANT emerge here. First, what are actors? We think of people, of course—all of us who engaged in rhizo14—but ANT takes a global view of actors: people, organizations, ideas, things, processes. Thus, when we explore rhizo14, we have to consider Google Docs along with Maha, Sarah, Simon, AK, and others. For ANT, actors are heterogeneous entities. AK writes in his post "Swarm the Google Doc, or so says the ANT" and Len in his post "Actor-Network Theory and Google Docs" about the characteristics of Google Docs that both enabled and shaped the interactions among the humans writing about rhizo14. For ANT researchers, Google Docs is an actor in its own right, just as the humans are. ANT says that we cannot understand the interactions between Rebecca and Sandra if we don't include their interactions with Google Docs.

Of course, we can't stop with just Google Docs. Once we begin this line of thinking, we have to include our devices (PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, ISPs, electrical grids, the Internet, and all the rest). In short, there is no end to the amount of detail that we can collect, and this is a real problem for ANT researchers. The work-load is overwhelming, as the CAE cohort has already discovered. Every relevant detail is interconnected with 10 other relevant details, all clamoring for our attention. It can drive a researcher mad.

To my mind, this is where the novelists come to our rescue. Ever since Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy, novelists have recognized that telling any story connects writers to more details than anyone will publish or read. A novelist is successful as much for what she leaves out as for what she puts in. I suspect that ANT researchers are in the same situation. I will have to read more from them to see how they handle this situation. For a hundred years, we've tried to deal with too much data through statistical analysis: collecting fewer random data points and applying statistical algorithms to them to extrapolate to the whole system. One new approach, though, has to do with big data and computers, which allow researchers to collect more, sometimes almost all, data points from any given situation and process that data with computers in ways that reveal patterns previously obscured by the sheer amount of data (weather patterns are an obvious example). So far in our swarm, we have taken a mostly novelistic approach to studying rhizo14 with our collection of ethnographic stories, but we can apply computers even to those stories, as I started to do with my work on the prepositions in the CAE. I used a computer and text analysis software to identify all the prepositions in the CAE and then followed the connections made by one preposition, identifying the actors and the network of interactions revealed by the CAE. Of course, a more complete study would look not just at the CAE, but also at all the tweets, the Facebook discussion, the blog posts, and even the more remote and obscure hallway discussions as rhizo14 participants discussed rhizomatic learning with their local colleagues. There is no end to data, and we should explore how computers can help us collect and analyze more data in rhizo14.

Another characteristic of actors is their flat status. As Len notes in his post:
ANT does not support levels of importance or status for any set of actants. In other words everything in a system takes on a sort of equal level of importance. While this is difficult to accept at times, I believe the general premise that you do not assign or think about levels of importance (agency/ a flat ontology ?) of actants. In fact, ANT suggests, I believe, our understanding of a system of actants cannot be determined a priori – that things unfold (in situ?).
So we don't assume going into our study that Dave Cormier is the key figure in rhizo14. Indeed, if you look at rhizo14 across the past year, you will most likely identify several figures more prominent than Dave (I think he will happily agree with that assessment). Certainly, this current swarm of participants has been more prominent in my experience of rhizo14 than Dave has been. Jenny and Frances have been more prominent. This flat ontology (thanks for that term, Len) does not mean that ANT doesn't recognize macro, meso, and micro actors—it does—but it doesn't recognize them before it sees them. If we examine all the interactions of rhizo14, and Dave does not emerge as a key player in most of them, then we cannot grant him some special Big Honcho status with special obligations and responsibilities (back to Simon's observations). If some were not happy with rhizo14, then we are all implicated, and all includes all the human and non-human actors. Twitter gets just as much consideration, and possibly as much blame and credit, as Dave does or I do.

Finally for this post, I want to mention a last characteristic of actors: that they are all mediators of the messages they carry and the relationships they form. In other words, when I talk about actor-network theory as I am doing in this post, I stain the message. Google Blogger stains the message. The Internet stains the message. English stains the message. Because I am an American, the U.S. stains the message. I always leave my fingerprints on any message I channel in or out. When you get this message, this post, you will put your fingerprints all over it with your peculiar reading. There is no clear communication free of noise and static. (This, by the way, is probably the single biggest fault of traditional education: the assumption that communication of knowledge from teacher to student can be clear and thus reliably tested. It cannot.) ANT researchers, then, must look for and account for the stains. When we look at Google Docs in rhizo14, we must look for the ways that Google Docs shapes and translates the energy and information that flows through it. When we used Google Docs to write both the original CAE and The Untext, Google Docs was as much a shaping, translating, forming actor as we humans were. And we all shaped and translated and in-formed. ANT recognizes this network phenomenon and tries to account for it.

For me, then, ANT itself is not so difficult an idea; rather, its practice is difficult as it exposes the researcher/s to an overwhelming swelter of information. Try this thought experiment: consider 4 or 5 children playing in a sandbox for an hour. Start with as few preconceptions as possible about what they are doing and how they should do it. Observe as much as possible with the hopes of later explaining what emerges through their play. Now imagine all the technical apparatus you would need to capture all the relevant data (speech, action, toys, games, personalities) unfolding in even this small a space/time. You could write a book about this one hour. Laurence Stern did.

Monday, May 18, 2015

ANT via Dudhwala: #rhizo15

In her article What is Actor-Network Theory?, Farzana Dudhwala explores actor-network theory (ANT) in positive and negative ways: saying both what ANT does and, by contrast with traditional sociologists, what it does not do. She says that ANT practitioners differ from classical sociologists first in their concept of the social. For Durkheim and Comte, society was a thing with both positive and negative characteristics that could be relied on and pointed to as existing prior to the issue at hand. For ANT practitioners such as Callon, Latour, and Law, the social is a network of relations and "does not exist as an objective reality prior to the research having even begun. … Consequently, the sociologists of associations envisage their role not as attributors of a hidden social force or context, but simply as tracing the associations between heterogeneous entities and following their lead" (3). As a method of inquiry, then, ANT refuses the "imposition by the sociologist on the social of an a priori social context or framework" (3). Rather, the social must emerge from close observation that follows the actors and traces the rhizomatic connections they forge. It is the dynamic interweaving of these connections from which the social emerges. The social structure is not given; rather, it emerges. Thus, ANT is more inductive than deductive, explaining large social structures (the macro) through close observation of the small details (the micro).

Macro actors such as religion, economy, and politics are traditionally seen as the cause of the behavior of micro actors, and thus, they are of more importance. ANT insists that the macro and micro must be examined on equal (more flat) terms, and that the micro actors are often more complex than the macro. ANT further flattens the social by mixing non-human actors alongside human actors in the sociological soup. Dudhwala says:
Callon's study of scallops in St. Brieuc bay shows how humans and non-humans alike form networks and associations in order to translate their will and shape their world. This paper therefore, true to ANT's methods, treats researchers, fish farmers, scientists and scallops all in exactly the same way: as actors.
Latour distinguishes intermediaries from mediators. Intermediaries transport force or meaning without transformation, while mediators transform all that they transport among other actors. Mediators, then, introduce an element of surprise and unpredictability in connections among actors that must be allowed and accounted for.

Dudhwala summarizes her amazingly clear examination of ANT this way:
Actor-network theory evidently differs from the classical tradition of sociology at its very core. Its belief in a flat ontology puts all entities, human and non-human, on the same plane – a notion unspoken of in the Durkheimian tradition. Actors are awarded the same level of knowledge about their world as sociologists, and therefore the task of the sociologist is simply to follow these actors.
Finally, she seems to agree that ANT is more a methodology than a theory, though its treatment by sociologists seems to be forcing it into a theory-producing role, much to the dismay of ANTians such as Latour, who insist that the acronym ANT is more appropriate than the term actor-network theory, as the acronym perfectly describes "a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler" such as himself.

The lessons for me, then, from Dudhwala's observations: Study of Rhizo14 may best proceed along the lines of an ethnomethodology which treats Rhizo14 as a hyperobject, to use Timothy Morton's term, or as noise, to use Serres' term. These are objects that are not formed beforehand, but out of which a form emerges. To form an image of the larger object (Rhizo14), we track the connections that actors such as Ensor, Hamon, Honeychurch, Twitter, Facebook, laptops, and others make through the noise. This is something like forming an idea of wind currents in the sky by tracing the paths of murmurating starlings. This is hard work, but we hope that the actual shape of Rhizo14 will emerge from our tracings, or from our mappings as Deleuze and Guattari say it (for them, a tracing is going over a given, existing pathway—which is not what ANT implies by the term—while mapping is following an emerging pathway).

We do not privilege any particular actor in Rhizo14, though clearly some actors had a macro role and others a micro role. Lurkers should be regarded as well as Dave Cormier or Facebook. Finally, we do not privilege our own language as researchers over the language of the actors, especially given that we researchers are also actors in Rhizo14. Finally, I'm particularly interested in Latour's distinction between intermediary and mediator; however, I don't know of many intermediaries. I think most every actor transforms or translates the forces and meanings that it transports among the other actors within the emerging social structure. For instance, when I use Google Docs to communicate with others in Rhizo14, Google Docs translates my meaning. What I put in is not necessarily what others take out. Rather, as Serres notes, there is always a parasitism at work in the movement of information and energy through a system such as Rhizo14. The parasites (such as auto-correct in Google Docs, to pick an obviously parasitic feature) always translate the meaning and the force, changing it as it flows from here to there within Rhizo14 and out. This translation cannot be predicted, and it cannot be ignored.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Power in Rhizo-MOOCs

Maha Bali just published a post Power that Remains When We Leave the Classroom that talks about the results of pulling the teacher and, thus, the teacher's power from the classroom. She notes that this does not leave an absence of power and a group of equals. To my mind, this still leaves power that is now up for grabs whether or not the students have a "sense of community and trust". The group has power, even if it doesn't know what to do with it.

I have written about power in this blog before, but not within the context of ethics. So I want to do that today. I also want to provide a more nuanced response to Dave Cormier's #rhizo15 challenge question: is rhizomatic learning an invasive species? Dave characterizes community learning in terms of aggressive power:
Rhizomatic plants are chaotic, aggressive and resilient. It models some of the qualities that can make a good learner. The rhizome, however, can also be an invasive species. It can choke other plants out of your garden such that only the rhizomatic plant remains.
He is suggesting, of course, that rhizomatic learning is an aggressive process that drowns out other processes, crowding them out of open learning spaces with their incessant posting and tweeting. Sounds like an unwelcome exercise of power to me. Is this so? I don't think so (hence, my short response in my previous post), but now I want to explore why.

Several years ago I read John Henry Clippinger's book A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity (2007), and I recall an argument he makes that freedom is best understood as freedom to rather than freedom from. These prepositions and the directions they take are important.

For me, the argument goes something like this: We humans exist always within social and natural networks, these networks create power, and thus, we are always within networks of power. Freedom from power, then, is not possible. Freedom from a given power may not even be possible, though we can insulate ourselves somewhat. For example, I can insulate myself from this year's flu, but even if I don't catch the disease, I am still affected by the power of this disease by forced changes in habits and associations and the illness of friends and family. During the Cold War, I was insulated somewhat from the power of communist dictatorships, but I was still not totally immune—I can recall even now the suffocating fear of imminent nuclear holocaust. That is power.

Of course, the flu and nation states are very large power regimes, much bigger than MOOCs, and I use them to highlight my point. However, all actors at all scales are entangled in power, and I define power as the struggle of a system to develop and maintain its own identity and to exchange matter, energy, information, and organization within the context of other systems trying to do the same. I imagine the difference between the power effects of a nation state and those of my own immune system as the difference between dropping a huge boulder in the water and dropping a pebble. The boulder causes bigger ripples that extend further, but the pebble causes ripples as well. Power ripples through all our different ponds, lakes, and oceans. We emerge physically and socially through rippling power. We swim in it. (I do not know if the ripples cause power or power causes ripples. Perhaps ripples are only the obvious manifestations of power, but that's another post.)

Freedom from power, then, is not an option, and disengagement from a system and its power offers at best some insulation, some distance, perhaps to the degree that you can ignore the power. I insist, however, that you are never really free from any source of power given the entanglement of all within all. Ripples run all the way across the lake, but eventually, they don't rock our boats.

The only real option then is freedom to power, especially in social networks. In other words, we exercise our freedom when we engage the power of the group. We are free when we both can and do engage the power of the group. Freedom is not a negative—an absence of power—it is a positive—an exercise of power.

We can exercise our power, our freedom, in two ways: by engaging and by disengaging. We can stay and play or we can walk away. But keep in mind that walking away is not negative as we are always walking into some other power system. As Timothy Morton has explained quite nicely in his book HyperObjects (2014), there is no away, no space outside of a system and its systemic power. Moreover, we always walk away carrying the stain of whatever we are leaving. There is no away, only a fading influence that we eventually come to ignore if we work at it hard enough (though that very working can sometimes only remind us of what we are working to forget. Damn!).

RhizoMoocs are systems, and like all systems, a given rhizoMOOC generates power, or rather, power emerges as the system tries to form itself and as it exchanges matter, energy, information, and organization with its ecosystem. I have participated in few events that are more open, with more evenly distributed power than rhizoMOOCs. (In 1970, I did attend the Second Atlanta Pop Festival for 3 days of "peace, love, and music", and it may have been a bit more open, but not much.)

In open, self organizing systems with freedom to move—to engage or disengage—knots form. In our bodies, we call these knots organs: stomach, heart, lungs and so on. Such knots form in social systems as well, almost inevitably. We call them cliques, companies, and countries. We preserve freedom in social systems by allowing movement from system to system, knot to knot. RhizoMOOCs preserve this freedom.

For instance, in all the RhizoMOOCs I've participated in a knot has formed around Twitter, as participants congregate there and engage one another. Inevitably, a few people tweet more and more engagingly than do others, and as these prolific tweeters gain more connections, they gain more power. Actually, they don't gain power like a possession. A better way to say this is that because of the number of connections to the prolific tweeters, their words and actions are amplified (power) and perturb the system more than the words and actions of other, less well connected actors. In our current #rhizo15, for instance, both Maha Bali and I use Twitter, but Maha tweets far more than I do with far more connections. Thus, she manifests in #rhizo15 more Twitter power than I do. Maha starts movements along Twitter and perturbs the #rhizo15 system. The following short video shows how such knots can form in open spaces such as a rhizoMOOC or an outdoor music festival. Give a look:

Is this sort of self-organizing knot a problem? Does it threaten the music festival?

It can be a problem if, for instance, the concert organizers try to limit dancing or to limit the number of people who can dance, forcing everyone to sit still and listen to the music. This might seem far-fetched, but we do this in traditional classrooms all the time: limiting conversation to one channel and one content, both belonging to the teacher. Self-organizing knots can also be a problem if the dancing becomes so dominant that no one else can hear the concert. Such things have happened on the Net. DOS attacks are common examples.

But this kind of knot is not a problem first if its boundaries are open, if you are free to engage or not engage. Lots of people freely join the dancing guys, but more do not. This is freedom. You can join, but you don't have to. Note that, even though the dancing guy and his second and third mates attract lots of followers, most people in the crowd do not join. They lurk instead, watching from the sidelines, or they remain focused on the stage act. It is possible that some in the crowd were annoyed at the dancing mob and would have supported the police moving in and breaking up the mayhem, but they show a profound misunderstanding of open spaces, and they are too easily annoyed.

Then, self-organizing knots are not a problem if you can form your own knot. The best response if you don't like the Twitter dance is to join another dance or start your own dance. In #rhizo15, you can write a song with Kevin Hodgson, a story with Terry Elliot, a play with Tania Shelko, a poem sequence with Simon Ensor, maps and graphs with Daniel Lynds, or blog posts with Autumm Caines. Nothing in an open space precludes you changing the topic. You are free to engage the power. You are not free to expect an absence of power. It takes power to do all those things, and I am pleased that so many want to do so much. God bless the rhizome.

If Maha is brave enough to start dancing in Twitter, and if one or two others join her, then a knot can form in #rhizo15. As it grows and exerts power, this knot of activity can annoy and intimidate others, especially those who brought their lawn chairs and picnic baskets and have rather strict ideas about decorum at a rock concert, as is beginning to happen in the grey zones at Rolling Stones' concerts (it's a main reason for the very expensive seats: to separate those who no longer dance and drink only wine from those who dance too freely under the influence of other spirits). But Maha is not the problem here. She is behaving ethically and correctly in a rhizomatic learning space.

So what are the ethics? What is appropriate behavior in an open, rhizomatic learning space?
  • Expect power to emerge and cluster just as it did in galaxies.
  • Exercise your right to engage in that power and to emerge with it.
  • Shape the power, and be shaped by it.
  • If it isn't working for you, shift to some other galaxy.
  • Don't expect to ever leave the power totally behind. You've been stained.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

#rhizo15: An Invasive Species?

In this week's #rhizo15 question, Dave Cormier asks if rhizomatic learning is an invasive species.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Content in #rhizo15

It's Week 3 in #rhizo15, and Dave Cormier has asked us to consider content and its role in education. He says:
I’ve always been a little confused by the word ‘content.’ There is something lonely and unconnected about the word somehow, when i hear it used with reference to what happens in learning. I imagine a lone student, huddled away in a dorm room, reading sanitized facts in the hopes of passing a multiple choice quiz. The content somehow merging with the learning objective and the assessment to create a world where learning is about acquiring truth from the truth box. … So what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there? What does it mean for a course to ‘contain’ information? What choices are being made… what power is being used?
So what can we say about content? Consider this post that I am now writing and you are now reading (different nows, but that is relevant). Is there any content in this post? If there isn't, then what am I writing and what are you reading and why?

If we look at Google's dictionary, we see that the word content has two distinct clusters of meaning. The first cluster has to do with satisfaction and satisfying, being content with a situation or causing someone else to be contented. This is not the meaning Dave has in mind, but it may be relevant, so let's keep it handy.

The second cluster is more to the point: the stuff contained inside something. It could be an ingredient in a mixture (contents of a cake batter), an object in a container (contents of a barrel), or an idea in a communication (contents of a blog post). I suspect that Dave means mostly the last, contents of a communication, but the others are also relevant. A course could, of course (sorry), actually contain some objects: handouts, textbooks, performances, events, classrooms, chairs, desks, pens, papers, computers, tablets, phones, and so on. It can even contain virtual objects: blog posts, Twitter, Facebook, LMSes, chatrooms, etc. All of these objects are not irrelevant, but I don't think that's the content Dave was asking about. Those objects, that content, does not seem particularly well-aligned with learning objectives, though I suspect most of us would argue that they should be IF we are going to mess with learning objectives at all.

Still, I don't think Dave is asking about objects in a container, like stones in a crate; rather, he is asking about knowledge in our minds. I believe his concern is that we usually treat knowledge in our minds like stones in a crate: an object to transfer from the teacher's crate to the students' crates through the apparatus of a course of study. Knowledge is not transferred from teacher to student like a stone. There is no nugget of knowledge that I can give you, for instance, in this blog post. We speak as if there is, but it is only a convenient manner of speaking. Too often, it is a misleading manner of speaking. It leads us to ask of education: did you get the stone, the chunk of knowledge about fractions that I gave you? did you put it in the correct slot in your hierarchy of stones? and can you retrieve this stone upon demand on a test? I think this pretty much sums up traditional education. Dave doesn't seem to like it, and I don't either. It's stone age education. Actually, it isn't. Calling it stone age seriously denigrates the Stone Age. It's simple, mechanical education, and it works only in very limited situations for very limited objectives.

Knowledge is not an object like a stone. Actually, I don't believe a stone is an object like a stone, but that's another post. Knowledge is not composed of discrete, individual chunks. Knowledge is more like a weather system, and I cannot give you some weather. I can give you pause to consider the weather, but I can't bottle (container) some weather (contents) and transfer it to you. Knowledge is a thing like the weather, a different kind of thing.

Consider this blog post that I am currently writing and you are currently reading. This juxtaposition of two different nows points to the different kind of thing that I mean when I say knowledge. We want our things to cohere in one place and time, not to smudge across different spaces and times and scales. We don't want things to be in multiple places at multiple times on multiple scales, yet here I am writing now AND here you are reading now. Your reading is already in my writing, as my writing is already in your reading. The knowledge in this post—indulge me here—smudges across my here/now AND your here/now and in some way coheres. It is not as if the knowledge is here like a stone with me now/earlier, is transferred along the wires of the Internet, and is then with you now/later. The knowledge is here/now and enfolds both you and me, like the weather.

And like the weather, I can write of raining and you can read of raining, and we will behave as if some chunk of meaning about raining was transferred from me to you, but it wasn't. It's just raining all the way from me to you, but I see only my bit of rain and you see your bit of rain. And of course, we don't see the same bit of rain nor do we see all the rain. Actually, I don't want to say it's raining all the way from me to you. It's more that we are both enfolded in the raining. That's what I mean about knowledge, about content. It isn't a collection of stones to transfer, but a weather system that enfolds us.

So how do you design the weather and what are your learning objectives? And welcome to the rhizo-storm.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Imagination

I want to finish my series about rhizo-ethics before Dave Cormier posts another #rhizo15 challenge. We'll see.

Woermann and Cilliers' discussion of complex ethics in their article The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics (2012) insists that ethics in complex spaces requires a self-critical rationality and that this rationality is supported by four principles: provisionality, transgressivity, irony, and imagination, or creativity. Imagination engages us with the future, they say, whereas irony engages us with the present incongruity between what we expect and what is. They quote Peter Allen's Knowledge, Ignorance, and Learning article (caution: link downloads PDF): that creativity "is the motor of change, and the hidden dynamic that underlies the rise and fall of civilizations, peoples, and regions, and evolution both encourages and feeds on invention" (457). Imagination, then, points us toward a more sustainable future and provides the means to get there, and, they claim, "no one can contest the urgent need to move towards a more sustainable future" (457). It is this more sustainable future that seems to connect imagination to ethics for Woermann and Cilliers.

I have mostly enjoyed Woermann and Cilliers' argument, but I have problems with them just here. While I agree that it takes imagination and some creativity to move toward a better future, however one defines it, I do not agree that "no one can contest the urgent need to move towards a more sustainable future." While I would not contest our need to move beyond where we are now, I know many who believe that things are pretty good just as they are or that we should, in fact, move back to something in the past. Woermann and Cilliers' point touches precisely on the differences among those who want to preserve society as it is, return society to some better past, or move society forward to a better future. All these groups are well represented in the population. They are all well represented in education. I don't think the progressives are in the majority.

Still, despite these quibbles, I have learned from Woermann and Cilliers, and I do agree with them that imagination and creativity are important for ethically negotiating complex, open spaces.

First, imagination is the engine for creating options, choices, and new paths, an ability that so far has served humanity quite well. Indeed, it is the engine of evolution, of everything. The Universe is imaginative to the extreme. Some physicists hypothesize a Multi-verse, an infinity of universes in which every thing that can exist and can happen does. Maybe so, but even if there is only one Universe, this one, it is still rich enough in imagination and creativity for life, including The Beatles, to emerge. How wonderful is that!

This capacity for imagination—which is not limited to humans, by the way, but is available to flowers, rocks, and quarks as well—is a requirement for negotiating a space/time path through an open, complex universe. Or through a rhizo-MOOC. Imagination is required even if you are following a path pioneered by someone else. You have to imagine that you can get up and go there without falling off the edge of the Earth, so you draft in behind some trusted, lead bird, and once you are confident that the air won't fail beneath your wings, you can start charting your own path from this new position. This is learning. Even for the most daring and brilliant of us. We all start by drafting in someone's path. Without a John Clerk Maxwell charting a new path through electromagnetism, we would have had no Einstein. Maybe even no Beatles. Imagine!

This is a radical over-turning of our usual conception of ethics, which usually means conforming to the prescribed pattern of behavior. In complex spaces, proper behavior implies the imagination to change your paths and patterns—to believe and behave differently than before. And really, if you are not willing to chart new paths, or at least to consider new paths, then why go to school at all?

According to Woermann and Cilliers, Timothy Hargrave argues that imagination is not merely an individual capability, but a social one that, I say, is enhanced and amplified by the swarm. Hargrave says imagination and creativity emerges within "pluralistic processes in which multiple actors with opposing moral viewpoints interact, and [where] no single actor is in control" and within the "lived tensions between contradictory perspectives" (458). That sounds like a swarm to me. Again, this overturns our usual view of the purpose of ethics: to reduce conflict. Instead, complex ethics recognizes the inherent tensions within the multiplicity of a rhizo-swarm. Without this tension, no movement or change is possible. Ask the rocks along the San Andreas fault—without the tension among them, they could never move or change. In some ways, earthquakes are rocks learning to live together. Rock ethics. We can regret when their tensions spill over on us humans, but then, it should remind us of how much non-humans have suffered when our tensions spill over on them. Complex ethics are ecological—never limited to the contracting or conflicting entities.

How do we ethically cope with this tension in human behavior and beliefs? The conservative approach is to make everyone behave and believe the same way. The Way. Complex ethics takes a more imaginative approach based first on recognizing the existence of different ways of believing and behaving. It's amazing how stubborn we humans can be about conceding the existence of views other than our own. We are always surprised when we discover that another person drives to the store along a different highway than we take. Can't they see that this is the correct Way? Rhizo-ethics, then, can conceive of different beliefs and behaviors.

Then rhizo-ethics is tolerant, which as Woermann and Cilliers point out is not some wishy-washy, weak indulgence of strange belief and behavior. Rather, tolerance is an imaginative recognition of the possibilities of other beliefs and behaviors. Woermann and Cilliers rely on James Mensch's observation that "in Latin, tolerance has the sense of supporting or sustaining, rather than enduring or suffering" (459). They quote Edmund Husserl's definition that tolerance is when I affirm for the other "his ideals as his, as ideals which I must affirm in him, just as he must affirm my ideals – not, indeed, as his ideals of life but as the ideals of my being and life" (459). I want to add here that imagining other beliefs and behaviors is a call, even a challenge, to us to transgress or rethink our own beliefs and behaviors. Rhizo-ethics means the imagination to consider what different constellations in the sky might mean even if we keep to our own constellations. Mensch says that tolerance "can be understood as the attitude that actively sustains the maximum number of compatible possibilities of being human" (459).

Finally, I think an imaginative rhizo-ethics involves trust. We usually think of trust as interpersonal, but consider it first as ecological.  We must trust first that a minimum "requisite diversity" is "needed for a system to cope with its environment" (457) and that some excess diversity is "needed for long-term systems survival, since the ‘fat’ of excess knowledge and diversity is needed both for breaking out of our conceptual schema and for imagining, and thereby experimenting and innovating for the future" (458). We humans are here because of the excess diversity in some cyanobacteria that emerged a few billion years ago. That bacteria existed because of the excess diversity in some nucleotides that lead to RNA. Trust diversity. It has worked magnificently well ever since hot gases started clumping into stars and galaxies. Likewise, mistrust anyone who claims that they know what we all should believe and how we all should behave. They do not have our best interests at heart.

So rhizo-ethics says that the proper stance toward a complex, open space calls for imagination and creativity. We do not know The Way through, and at times, we must imagine a path where none exists. We must expect others to follow other paths, to already be on other trajectories with different subjectives in mind. We must expect different beliefs and behaviors and challenge ourselves to understand them, even if we do not accept them. We must expect that our own beliefs and behaviors are as strange to them and as difficult to understand. Ours is not the only way to model a useful, beautiful, and productive world. It may not even be a comparatively good way.

And Dave posted a new #rhizo15 challenge last night, so I didn't finish this in time (whatever that means), but it doesn't matter, as I think I have one more rhizo-ethics post to write anyway.