Friday, October 2, 2015

Rhizo15 as Hyperobject

One of the great things about blogging within a community of scholars is that you can't run out of ideas. My community keeps giving me new things to write—not always in the direction that I intend to go, but always in good, productive directions.

For example, my last post was in response to a comment and post from Maha Bali. This current post is in response to a comment from Frances Bell, a question from her son, and a tweet from Sandra Sinfield. I'm surrounded by active minds, and if I just stay awake, then I can never run out of things to say. My ecosystem is infinitely rich. Can a pedagogue be in any better position?

In this post, I start exploring this ecosystem in terms of object-oriented ontology, using Timothy Morton's concept of the hyperobject, and I will try to draw out the practical implications, as Sandra Sinfield's tweet challenges me to do. Let's start with Frances' comment on my last post:
My son had asked me at breakfast "What is Google to you?" - a good question. So if I think of your post as an object related to Google and to we humans who are reading and commenting then I can see that we objects cannot fully know each other. But the epistemology that Google, a complex assemblage of people and non-humans, reveals in its cookie statement, suggests a bumpy ontology. Google is interested in the very much reduced version of us that can help it sell ads. It simultaneously ignores and remembers. So Google will still 'know' and remember the comments from your old blog that are now forgotten here. It will use that data for currently known and future unknown commercial purposes and all because I was tempted to click "Got it".
What is Google to you? What a challenging question and what a brilliant response, and how fortunate for me as I want to discuss object oriented ontology anyway. The question and answer are rich enough to take in several directions, but for my purposes here, Frances describes beautifully the nature of hyperobjects, a term Timothy Morton uses in his 2013 book of the same name to refer to "things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans" (Kindle Locations 106-107). Morton mostly talks about global warming as a hyperobject (he's big into the ecology movement), but Google is also a hyperobject, as is Rhizo14/15, and my ENGL1101 class, my garden, and myself.

If Morton is correct, all objects—including me—are hyperobjects given that all objects are "massively distributed in time and space relative" to some other object. In middle Georgia, USA, I am a hyperobject relative to gnats, those tiny, flying annoyances that live a short time during the summer, mostly by buzzing around my face, attracted by the moisture at my eyes, nose, and mouth. Yes, for gnats I am a giant, lumbering, undulating landscape with pools of water and some natural and inexplicable risks of landslides and earthquakes as I turn away and swat at them. For gnats, I stretch from horizon to horizon and far beyond their pasts and their futures. I phase in and out of their floating, buzzing reality a few feet above my patio. I am a known source of water and risk, but the rest of me is very mysterious, withdrawn from them, unknowable. But not unimportant or irrelevant to them, especially if I swat one of the pesky things. I am to gnats as Google is to me. Or Rhizo14/15 is to me.

Is this mere fictional hyperbole? Morton and OOO say not; rather, this is how objects fundamentally interact with one another, and we humans can learn much about the interactions of objects by examining hyperobjects, which are massively distributed in space and/or time relative to us and which make obvious to us certain characteristics that are common to all interactions at all scales of reality.

This is a big claim, and I am not yet completely convinced, though I'm not even sure what my objections are. Maybe it's just too new for me. Still, I'm finding it instructive to follow mainly because I have been involved over the past two years with a swarm of people trying to understand and to explain what happened in Rhizo14/15—a cluster of people that includes Maha, Frances, and Sandra, among many others. I use the word cluster to capture as neutrally as possible a group of people and interactions that may not be a community to all involved and is certainly not consistently coordinated or cooperative, and yet that for me has a recognizable identity, something of a coherence of interactions. This may just be me tracing constellations in the night sky. Or it could be me struggling with a hyperobject. Either way, I think following the OOO argument could be enlightening.

So I hope to write a series of posts that explore Rhizo14/15 in terms of the various characteristics of hyperobjects that Morton lists in his book (Kindle Locations 112-118), perhaps a post for each characteristic:
  1. viscosity: Hyperobjects “'stick' to beings that are involved with them."
  2. nonlocality: "[A]ny 'local manifestation' of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject."
  3. temporal undulation: Hyperobjects "involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity."
  4. phasing: "Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time."
  5. interobjectivity: Hyperobjects "exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects."
I hope I can gain some clarity into Rhizo14/15, the hyperobject that I've been living with and thinking and writing about for the past two years. Mostly, I want practical insights that address Sandra's challenge in her tweet: "how can we utilize in our praxis?" I hope to find out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Object Oriented Ontology and the Withdrawn Being

As a way of understanding actor-network theory (ANT), I'm reading into object oriented ontology (OOO), starting with Levi Bryant's The Democracy of Objects, which I think will help me explain why ANT tends to place both human and non-human objects on an equal ontological basis. I started this reading with my last post after a three month hiatus, but I don't think I wrote so well. In a comment to that post, Maha Bali said that she felt over her head with the resulting conversation. This suggests to me that I did not write well, for when bright people can't figure out what you've said, then you haven't said it well enough.

Then a day or so later, Maha wrote a beautiful post called Because Virtual is also Real that captures so much better than I did where I'm going with OOO. She begins her post this way:
Irvin Yalom reminds us of the complexity of human beings. Since categorization allows us “neither [to] identify nor nurture the parts, the vital parts, of the other that transcend category” (Yalom, 1989, p. 185). In life, as in research, we often use categorization to support our analysis, but we should never forget that this categorization is constructed and even imposed, and there is much more that lies beyond it, and we must realize that “the other is never fully knowable” (Yalom, 1989, p. 185′ the book is called Love’s Executioner)
This is the heart of the matter: no object—including other humans—is fully knowable by another object—including other humans. All objects are complex, and all have an integrity of being that is not fully knowable by or accessible to any other object. This integrity (I like this word at the moment, but it may not be exactly right) of the object places all objects on an equal ontological footing, equally inaccessible. Each object exists in its own right, under its own magic, so to speak. Ontology, then, is not reducible to epistemology, or said another way: what a thing is cannot be reduced to or fully captured by what another thing knows of it and says of it or how another thing interacts with it.

I am not suggesting that Maha was blogging about object-oriented ontology. She wasn't. Rather, she was mostly talking about how virtual relationships can be as valid as actual relationships, in large part because neither kind of relationship fully reveals the other person to us. Thus, both kinds of relationships provide limited, though still valid relationships. Even though Maha may not have been thinking about object-oriented ontology at all, she captures it better than I did in my post. For instance, she captures in a practical way OOO theorist Timothy Morton's point in his book Hyperobjects (2013), where he discusses the shared characteristics of hyperobjects, which "are nonlocal; in other words, any 'local manifestation' of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject" (Kindle Locations 113-114).
Quantum theory specifies that quanta withdraw from one another, including the quanta with which we measure them. In other words, quanta really are discrete, and one mark of this discreteness is the constant translation or mistranslation of one quantum by another. Thus, when you set up quanta to measure the position of a quantum, its momentum withdraws, and vice versa. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that when an “observer”— not a subject per se, but a measuring device involving photons or electrons (or whatever)— makes an observation, at least one aspect of the observed is occluded. … More generally, what Bohr called complementarity ensures that no quantum has total access to any other quantum. Just as a focusing lens makes one object appear sharper while others appear blurrier, one quantum variable comes into sharp definition at the expense of others. This isn’t about how a human knows an object, but how a photon interacts with a photosensitive molecule. Some phenomena are irreducibly undecidable, both wavelike and particle-like. The way an electron encounters the nucleus of an atom involves a dark side. Objects withdraw from each other at a profound physical level. (Kindle Locations 748-758)
See? Any object, including other humans, are always withdrawn, hidden, nonlocal. And this is true, OOO says, at the most fundamental levels of reality, not just among humans. Morton uses the metaphor of an octopus, saying even of himself: "all entities (including “myself”) are shy, retiring octopuses that squirt out a dissembling ink as they withdraw into the ontological shadows" (Kindle Locations 149-150). Levi Bryant devotes chapters to this idea of objects being withdrawn (emphasis here on being), and I'm getting a bit ahead of myself by discussing it now, but I read Maha's post, so I had to bring it up.

By the way, I am not yet an object-oriented ontologist. I don't know enough yet, though obviously I'm curious enough to look in on it. I'm using OOO so far to see if it can clarify the Rhizo research I've been doing with the swarm. I'm not sure it can, but I'm optimistic.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rhizo, ANT, and Object Oriented Ontology

In my research with the Rhizo swarm, I have read enough actor-network theory to know that ANT practitioners give nonhuman actors equal status to human actors, flattening the field of reality and removing humans from their position of privilege. But I wasn't sure why ANT did that and on what basis it rendered reality flat. I think I understand better as I read more about object oriented ontology, or OOO. Oooo, that's nice (how could I resist?). I was introduced to OOO through Timothy Morton's 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, but not until I dived into Levi Bryant's The Democracy of Objects (2011) did I start making some necessary connections that help explain for me what our rhizo group has been doing in its ANT explorations.

First for me, Bryant clarifies the problem that OOO is trying to address: the subject/object dualism that we have inherited from the Enlightenment, which subtly but radically shifted thought about reality from questions of ontology (being) to questions about epistemology (knowing). In other words, about the time of Descartes and Hume, many people (certainly not all) quit asking what things are and started asking what we know about things. Knowing was placed before being, epistemology before ontology, and this privileged humans over all other objects, which were defined in terms of their relationship to human subjects. In a deep sense, then, objects are as they are known and signified by human subjects. This seriously devalues nonhuman objects, including some pretty impressive objects such as quarks and galaxies. As Bryant says, it
condemns philosophy to a thoroughly anthropocentric reference. Because the ontological question of substance is elided into the epistemological question of our knowledge of substance, all discussions of substance necessarily contain a human reference.The subtext or fine print surrounding our discussions of substance always contain reference to an implicit “for-us”. This is true even of the anti-humanist structuralists and post- structuralists who purport to dispense with the subject in favor of various impersonal and anonymous social forces like language and structure that exceed the intentions of individuals. Here we still remain in the orbit of an anthropocentric universe insofar as society and culture are human phenomena, and all of being is subordinated to these forces. Being is thereby reduced to what being is for us. (DoE, 19)
This switch to epistemology over ontology does more than simply devalue the Universe, making it a correlate of mind, subject, culture, or language. It also splits philosophy into realists such as Descartes who argue that human representations can accurately map reality and the anti-realists such as Hume who argue that human representations can not reliably map reality, but always remain a matter of consensus and inter-subjective agreement. Though these are radically different and very antagonistic views of reality, they both privilege the human subject over all other objects. They differ mostly in whether they believe that language, math, and other human representations accurately map reality as it is or as we see it.

Lots of thinkers have objected to this Cartesian dualism, and the object oriented ontologists appear to be among the latest to suggest a corrective. The job of object oriented ontology is to return ontology to its original place before epistemology, or being before knowing. They argue that when we put ontology first, then objects exist in their own right and not as mere backgrounds for human representations and that humans become one object among all the other objects. This should not imply some kind of naive equality. Different objects in different contexts can assume greater or lesser importance. Bryant quotes Ian Bogost's quip that all objects … equally exist while they do not exist equally (19). Bryant also notes that object oriented ontology does not exclude humans; rather, it decenters the human. Bryant says that for OOO "there is only one type of being: objects. As a consequence, humans are not excluded, but are rather objects among the various types of objects that exist or populate the world, each with their own specific powers and capacities" (20).

This, then, helps me understand why ANT theorists insist that we must account for all agents, all objects, both human and non-human, for no object exists merely as a representation for some other object. No object exists by virtue of its correlation to some subject. Objects are agents, existing and acting in their own right, and if we want to explore and understand an event such as Rhizo15, then we must account for the actions and interactions of as many actors/objects as possible, and we must account for each object/actor in its own right and from its own point of view. This is not easy, and I do not know if I can do it, but I think it is what ANT and OOO call us to do.


This is my first post in over three months as I have been greatly distracted by taking a new teaching position with a new university (Middle Georgia State University) and moving from West Palm Beach, FL, to Macon, GA. I've decided to move my blog to a new URL and tweak its look, in part to mark my other changes. Though this change has interrupted my blogging—a grievous loss to me—it has overall been very good for me and my family. I'm happy.

And I have much more to say about Rhizo, ANT, and OOO, but later.

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.