Friday, August 27, 2010

The Death of Individualism?

I promised to talk about how Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome and Siemens' connectivism connect (pun intentional). I'll start with a quote from Matt Ridley's TED talk that was in my last post. Near the end of his talk (14:55), he sums his argument about the central role of trade and cooperation in advancing human culture when he says:
  • That's one of the reasons why I'm not interested in the debate about IQ … It's completely irrelevant. What's relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas and how well they're cooperating, not how clever the individuals are. So we've created something called the collective brain. We're just the nodes in the network—we're just the neurons in this brain. It's the interchange of ideas—the meeting and mating of ideas between them—that is causing technological progress, incrementally, bit by bit, however bad things may happen.

Ridley is dismissing the usual emphasis in Western culture on the individual (IQ as a measurement of intellectual intelligence in a single, discrete individual) in favor of an emphasis on the network, or rhizome (how well people are … [connecting and] cooperating). This may very well be at the heart of connectivism, and I can easily connect it to my understanding of the rhizome.

When I point out this shift in a context such as a workshop with university faculty, I'm often asked if this is the end of Western Individualism. I don't think it is, but it is perhaps a rethinking of what individualism means. I believe that we have defined individualism atomistically, as something that is discrete, indivisible, stable, with an intrinsic essence and identity. We contrast this notion of individualism with group, in which the individual is lost, subsumed, made continuous with the whole, with only an extrinsic, shared essence and identity. Ridley could be interpreted as suggesting this very loss of individual identity when he says that "we're just the nodes in the network—we're just the neurons in this brain." I think his use of the somewhat pejorative and certainly limiting adverb just is unfortunate, as it implies that we are no more than an interchangeable part of some whole. I don't think this is what he means at all.

Rather, he captures his meaning earlier in his talk when he discusses the difference between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. In some ways, Neanderthals were more gifted than we: bigger, more powerful bodies, bigger brains. They were imaginative, intellectual creatures with language, art, religion, and tools, but for some reason, they did not develop commerce as we did: the interchange of ideas, tools, goods, and services that requires a marketplace and a degree of specialization. Commerce requires BOTH that we individualize into arrow-makers, axe-makers, farmers, etc. AND that we connect and collaborate in a market of some kind. In short, we must be completely individuals, completely in a group. At the same time, we must maintain our integrity as an individual, and we must find our place within a group. Our meaning depends on it.

Unfortunately, Western culture, especially the late American variety, has emphasized the individual at the expense of the network and created a false dichotomy: you are either an independent, discrete individual or a drone in a hive. No, this is wrong. It is not either/or; rather, it is both. You are an individual in a rhizome, and you work out the meaning of your life by the constant positioning, realignment, connecting and reconnecting of yourself with all the other selves in the rhizome. The rugged individualism of High Plains Drifter and Rambo may make for good movies, but it makes a very poor, dysfunctional myth for a culture.

Or for a school. Our educational systems are overwhelmingly informed with the myth of the individual. Our testing regimes, grading regimes, pedagogies, epistemologies, and learning theories are all based on the individual, ignoring the role of the network, or rhizome, in the creation and management of knowledge. From their different perspectives, both D&G's rhizomatics and Siemens' connectivism explore the shortcomings of this narrow focus on the individual. Connectivism, of course, focuses primarily on the shortcomings in education, while D&G take a broader, more philosophical approach, but both of them suggest that we risk confusion and misunderstanding when we ignore the dynamics of the rhizome when trying to explore and explain any slice of life, even education.

What pleases me most about Ridley's discussion of the Neanderthals is the implication that rhizomatic, network structures have been important to human progress long before the emergence of the Internet. George Siemens bills connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age. While I think the Internet, and all that technology associated with it, has highlighted the poverty of extreme individualism and has heightened the ways and the ease with which we can now interconnect, the Internet is but the latest iteration of the technologies humans have devised to heighten their ability to connect and collaborate.
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