Sunday, March 4, 2012

Connectivity and Open Systems, #cck12

Sometimes you follow a line of thought like a crack in the ice, excited to see where it goes but also wondering if all break-throughs are such a good thing.

Anyway, in my last post I tackled the issue Frances Bell posited about "the connections between humans and non-human in understanding learning," and I suggested that Morin's concepts of open and closed systems might contribute in some way. An open system, by Morin's definition, exchanges energy, matter, organization, and information with its eco-system, which includes both closed and open systems. This exchange makes for a stabilized dynamism that is self-organizing and in some fashion aware of its environment. By awareness, I mean that the open system—an amoeba or a sunflower or human—can perceive changes and options in its environment and make choices that help it respond to those changes. For instance, an amoeba can perceive a drop of acid in its petri dish and can turn away. It seems to me that most open, living systems have relatively few perceptions and choices, but as we move toward more complex systems, we can see an increase in the relative number and variety of perceptions, choices, and responses, but this might be an entirely chauvinistic bias on my part. Amoeba may live in a world as rich with potential as mine is. I don't know. Anyway, we humans commonly believe that the dynamic relationships between the open, living system and its eco-system become more complicated and more nuanced, more distanced from a simple stimulus-response, though never losing that simple basis for interaction. In other words, stimulus-response always remains necessary for explaining the behavior of living systems, but it seems to become less sufficient an explanation as we move toward the human.

The open system, then, participates in defining itself in and through its interactions with its eco-system, and it participates in graduated degrees from the most simple life form to the most complex, us humans. Again, my chauvinism is showing. The open system starts, of course, with a given configuration of energy, matter, organization, and information from its genetic parents, but it can modify that basic configuration as it interacts with its eco-system.

The task for the open, living system is to constantly monitor its environment and to open itself to good things in the environment and close itself to bad things. Open systems have evolved different mechanisms for opening and closing themselves to manage the flow of energy, matter, organization, and information between themselves and their environments—in other words, to manage their connections—but they all seem to have some mechanism. We humans appear to have quite sophisticated mechanisms, including the ability to develop new mechanisms. This constant opening, closing, and reopening of the self effectively makes the boundaries between the individual open system and its environment dynamic, malleable, and porous, and it effectively changes the way we should define the individual. Traditionally, we have defined open, living systems from their skin, hide, cell wall inward. Now, as Morin shrewdly observes, we must define living systems from their center outward, knowing that the skin, hide, or cell wall is porous and that the boundary between the individual and her eco-system is open to negotiation, growth, and dynamic shift.

This negotiation, this interplay between the individual and its environment, introduces the concepts of intentionality and power for me. When an amoeba swims forward into a drop of acid, it has a choice to make: continue forward into a bad environment or swim away into something better. Its decision to move away forms the rudiments of intentionality and power. While the amoeba's decision may be much closer to an automatic stimulus-response kind of decision than to the complicated moral choices that humans make, it is the bedrock of intentionality and power, the sort of bedrock that a stone, for instance, does not have. As far as we know, a stone has no choices.

This allows me to distinguish between force and power. A stone has force, but no power, at least not as I am using the terms. If moving, a stone can strike another thing with force, and if the stone is bigger and harder and, thus, carries more force, then it demolishes the smaller thing, or if the other thing is bigger and harder and, thus, carries more force, then the stone is demolished. As open, living systems, we humans have force, but we also have power. If I encounter you, then I exert a gravitational force on you that does not depend on my intention, but if I hit you or hug you, then I have exerted a power on you that is dependent on intentionality. Force is independent of power; whereas, power emerges from force. Because power is an emergent property of open, living systems, force is not sufficient to explain power, though understanding force can clarify power. Power functions at a more complex level than force, and as such, it has rules and capabilities and implications that force does not.

I'll worry later about the differences between force and power, but I want to shift now to talking about humans, non-human appliances, learning, and how they all connect before I get any further out on this very thin ice.

It seems to me that much of what we humans do as open, living systems is learn about our environments: we learn what good things to connect with and bad things to avoid. Infants start learning early what to put into their mouths, what not; what to stick their fingers into, what not; when to sleep, when not; when to cry, when not. They learn to distinguish good energies and matters from bad and to choose appropriately, but infants also start learning very early about organizational and informational exchanges and how to distinguish the good from the bad. They learn family and not-family, group and not-group. They learn truth and lie, how to get to school and how not. The various connections or flows that humans cultivate or deny begin to redefine who they are. The physical, genetic substrate for any individual remains, of course, but it is not sufficient to sustain the individual, or to define them. The sustenance and definition of an individual depends as much on the interactions with the individual's eco-system as it does on the core genetic material that the individual starts with. Perhaps sustenance and definition depend more on our connections. At any rate, our connections are indispensable, and we cannot understand ourselves without understanding those connections. Our meaning emerges in our dynamic connections, and these connections seems to inevitably involve matters of intentionality, power, and learning.

When closed systems interact, we can describe the interactions as forces and regularities, but when open systems interact, even with closed systems, then we must add power and intentionality to the description, especially if we are looking at the interaction of two or multiple open systems—a student and a teacher, for instance, or a shopper and a recommendation engine.

To my mind, then, the connection between a shopper and a recommendation engine always involves intention on the part of both, but that intention cannot be understood apart from the connection. Yes, each individual brings core characteristics such as emotional dispositions and programs, but the intention of each emerges in the interaction of the two, as each shapes the other, learns the other and learns the rules of the interaction. This way of viewing intentionality is reminiscent of Randall Collins' treatment of the situation as defining the individual, rather than the other way around. In his book Interaction Ritual Theory (2004), Collins says:
We get more by starting with the situation and developing the individual, than by starting with individuals; and we get emphatically more than by the usual route of skipping from the individual to the action or cognition that ostensibly belongs to him or her and bypassing the situation entirely. … The human individual is a quasi-enduring, quasi-transient flux in time and space … This is not to say that the individual does not exist. But an individual is not simply a body, even though a body is an ingredient that individuals get constructed out of. My analytical strategy … is to start with the dynamics of situations; from this we can derive almost everything that we want to know about individuals, as a moving precipitate across situations. (3,4)
I like that. An individual is a moving precipitate, a nexus for the dynamic connections it attracts, carries, sustains, and abandons on its nomadic way.

Well, I let this sit overnight for a fresh look, and I don't think the crack in the ice took me where I thought it would, but I'm okay with that. I'll let this stand. I wanted to think about an issue I hadn't really thought about before: the connections between humans and their non-human appliances, and I did a bit of thinking. Did I reach a conclusion? Nothing that I'm willing to bet on, but I did lay some groundwork to continue thinking. I think relationships between humans and smart machines cannot be explained simply in terms of amoral force. The machines themselves are coming to simulate open systems so well that we must begin to relate to them as open systems. This necessarily involves intentionality and power, and Connectivism which focuses on connections must recognize this intentionality and power and offer an explanation for it, or at least an examination of it.
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