Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Who's Writing Rhizo14?

Well, I stole my own thunder. It happens.

I wanted to answer here the second of two questions about membership in Rhizo14, but instead I mostly addressed the question in a comment on Frances Bell's blog. You'd think that at my age I'd have more control, but Frances' post Ethics and soft boundaries between Facebook and other web services is such a fine read and engendered such a rich discussion, that I couldn't stop myself.

Anyway, the second question is "Who belongs in the group writing the authoenthography of Rhizo14?" I said much of what I wanted to say, but I think I'll repeat it here. In time to come, I may forget where I put those thoughts, and this blog has become as much my memory as my sandbox, and as it happens, I am addressing a slightly different question here than there, so even if you read this post, you would do well to read Frances' post and all the wonderful comments. It's what is so good about open, online spaces, even when they aren't so massive.

In my comments to Frances' post, I was addressing mostly the issue of power, and here I want to talk about membership, but power is implicated in membership. As in my previous post about who belongs in Rhizo14, membership in the Rhizo14 autoethnog group is a boundary issue, and complexity thinking views boundaries quite differently than reductionist thinking. Reductionism posits all agents as independent with discrete, clear boundaries between them, similar to a rack of billiard balls, with power arising in the interactions (the bumping and bouncing) between the balls. And note that all the relevant interactions can be observed, measured, and described objectively by an observer who is not on the table, who is not affected by and who does not affect the interactions.

Complexity thinking is different. The interactions among agents are matters of flows of energy, matter, information, and organization throughout a complex, multi-scale system. An agent is not merely acted upon as in the reductionist view, but an agent is formed and informed by the flows of energy, information, and organizational structures of the systems within which the agent lives and functions. And while we have some, restricted abilities to choose which systems and which energies and informations we will engage, we are not discrete entities, independent of an enclosing ecosystem. We must be part of the flow of some energy, matter, information, and organization, and those flows all implicate power. Power is the weave of the fabric we are all woven into, and it is difficult, often impossible, to isolate any single flow and to trace it back to a single source. Moreover, there isn't anyone observing outside the table. Whoever observes is part of the weave, and both they and the weave are changed as they are woven together in the observation.

So what does this mean for how we should decide who is in the Rhizo14 autoethnog group? First, let me point out emphatically that I am not denying the efficacy of the Classical views of interactions with their clear interactions between and among independent agents. The clarity of a reductionist epistemology has great affordances, but it also has its blindness, and I want to expand my view to see beyond the limitations of reductionism. I’ll try to illustrate this point by referring to Dave Cormier. I referred to Frances in my comments on her blog, so I'll pick on Dave here. I trust he will forgive me.

Dave has not declared himself part of the Rhizo14 autoethnog group, and if I recall, he expressed some misgivings about joining the group. This is a fine example of a clear, classical social contract. Independent agents agree on boundaries and behaviors between themselves: Dave outside the group and others inside. The result is that if and when the group produces a document of some kind, then Dave’s name will not appear on it as an author or in it as a participant. This understanding assumes discrete agents with clear boundaries, a simple view of group membership, power, and reality. This is all straightforward and simple, an easily understood arrangement, but for me, it's just too damned limited.

A complex view of power and reality—my view—says that Dave is already part of the autoethnog group and the document, even if he isn’t named in it. In whatever form that document eventually emerges, it has already been shaped by discussions that Dave started and engaged—flows of energy, information, and organization that in/form the document, the writing of it, the flow of it. Likewise, I suspect that Dave has himself been in/formed by the Rhizo14 discussion, so we have an instance of circular causality, a core mechanism of complex systems with their complex flows of power. Flows of energy, information, and organization have already woven us together in ways that I do not know how to disentangle. Yes, of course, the group can leave Dave out of any formal document—that is easy to do—but the formal document is really only a very small part of the Rhizo14 auto ethnography. From my point of view, most of the real work has been done on tweets, blog posts, Facebook discussions, and so on. Dave's voice is transcribed on some of those texts and informs most of the others.

So for me, it is a fiction to say that Dave Cormier is not part author of the Rhizo14 autoethnog. It may be a useful fiction for him and for others, but it is a fiction none-the-less. And of course, what is true about Dave Cormier is true about many others who have engaged the conversation about the autoethnog. They are all part of the authorial assemblage. This is problematic, but it cannot be addressed for long by simply returning to a traditional view of authorship. That view is breaking down. It is not unusual these days to find scholarly articles (especially scientific articles) with hundreds of authors. What the hell does that mean? What is happening? How many scholars can fit on the head of a pin?

Well, in virtual spaces, hundreds of thousands of scholars can fit into a single document. Consider Wikipedia as a single, coherent document. Who wrote it? Silly question, no? Consider the Linux operating system as a single, coherent document. Who wrote it? Another silly question, though we like to use Linus Torvalds as the place-holder author. It eases our mind to have a single, authoritative author (do you see how author is nested in authoritative?). We desperately need a single person—a Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or Barack Obama—to blame or credit for a thing, though Jobs didn't write the iPod, Gates didn't write Windows XP, and Obama didn't write Obamacare. We really need our fictions, and I agree that these fictions have been useful. However, I think they are becoming less useful.

I watched a TVO lecture by Douglas Thomas on A New Culture of Learning, in which he notes that students today view authority (read: authorship) differently than we scholars did when we were in school. We looked for the authoritative source of information. We wanted the man (yes, it was usually a man). If you wanted the news, you watched Walter Cronkite—he was the man, the source of authority. Today's students don't regard authority as a single source. Rather, they view authority as a process of triangulation, a process not a person. They browse the Web for many sources, including Wikipedia, and they triangulate opinion to form their own opinion, and they keep an eye on their Twitter streams in case some new info emerges. As my son, Cory, said recently to me: "Dad, don't trust anyone; trust everyone." A new concept of authority and authorship is emerging, a concept that absolutely depends on the information overload of one hundred thousand scholars on the head of a pin. I want to understand it. It's part of the DNA of rhizo-rhetoric.

This brings me to my own motivation for joining the Rhizo14 auto ethnography group: I’m interested in learning how this emerging assemblage will write this document, what authorial assemblage will actually emerge and how it will emerge. I think I can learn most from within the group, by helping to write, even here on this blog, and by being part of the assemblage. I want to define the process from the inside (a complexity point of view) and not from the outside (a reductionist point of view). I want to be part of the emergence of an authorial assemblage, and I want to feel what that is like. I just hope I am alert enough to recognize it when it happens and articulate enough to describe it.
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