Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Agency and the Death of Steve Jobs

A Sunday School Lesson:

The common attitude about Steve Jobs reflects the old view of agency, especially in business: that one person causes things to happen. Most of us so hope that is true, but the reality is that Apple was much more than Steve Jobs and that Jobs could not have done iPads without Apple and Apple could not have done them without Jobs. Steve Jobs became for most people a handy reduction of the complexity of Apple.

The iPad is an emergence of all the parts working at Apple, much like this post, which is an emergence of the billions of underlying calculations and logical processes within my MacBook Pro. Whatever meaning you derive from the words in this post absolutely depends upon the regular mathematical and logical processes at work in the heart of my 2.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processor. These processes are causal: one process leads logically, predictably, and necessarily to the next process.

One might be tempted, then, to extrapolate the causality at work on the processor scale to the social blog post scale. This is a big mistake. The processes at work in my CPU do not cause the meaning that you and I see in this post. Those underlying electronic processes are necessary for meaning to emerge at this scale – a post on our computer screens – but they are not sufficient to explain it. Try it: follow the flow of electrons, translate them into a stream of 1s and 0s, watch as those trillions of 1s and 0s combine, split, store, dump, and interact, and you will never see any evidence – not even a glimmer – of the meaning in this post. You would see a fantastic light show, but you would not see this post or its meaning. You can't get from there to here.

At least not without a gradual process of emergence from network scale to network scale through the rhizome of this blog. The 1s and 0s aggregate into bytes to form letters (and I'm doing a lot of glossing here), but even the letter you think you see on your screen is an emergent entity. You are really looking at millions of pixels interacting in certain ways so that what you accept as letters emerge on your screen. As you see these emergent letters, the vaguest wisps of what we commonly think of as meaning are starting to emerge, but even here at the scale of morpheme and grapheme, you would be hard pressed to actually see the meaning in this post. You cannot find causality even at this nearby scale: morphemes and graphemes are necessary for meaning, but they, too, do not cause meaning. As the morphemes and graphemes aggregate in certain ways into words, then we get closer to our common concept of meaning, but even at this scale – so close at hand – it's very difficult to find the cause of the meaning that we see in this post.

Common meaning does seem to emerge as words aggregate into sentences. Ahh, this is it, we say. Now we have meaning, now we can explain meaning. Perhaps. But just for fun, take any sentence out of this post to stand alone:

At least not without a gradual process of emergence from network scale to network scale through the rhizome of this blog.

I chose the first sentence (yes, I know it is not a complete sentence) of the previous paragraph. It was handy. By itself, it means almost nothing, or almost anything, which is the same thing as far as meaning goes. Of course, it's difficult for you and me to read that sentence outside of the context of this blog post because we've already read it within context, but if you want some small fun, share that sentence with someone who hasn't read this post and see what meaning they make of it. I'm willing to bet not much.

So we have to move up to the paragraph level, then, for meaning to emerge? That helps, but not as much as we might hope. So move up to the post level? That's better, perhaps. If I've written well, then this post might have some hope of standing alone as a meaning-bearing artifact, but really, if you don't also have some sense of this blog in general and of the conversations about emergence, rhizomes, and connectivism, then does this post make much sense? I don't think so. If any of my Composition I students read this, they will not likely understand much of it. And of course, we have not yet considered our own brains and the rhizome of meanings that we each bring to this post. Is that where the meaning is? In our several heads?

The answer – to my mind, at any rate – is quite clear: the meaning isn't in any one of those places. Rather, the meaning is distributed across all the rhizome from the neat march of 1s and 0s in my CPU to the cacophony of conversations across the ages about what it means to mean something. And here's the magic: the more meaning you perceive across the rhizome, then the more meaning you can perceive in any one location.

The meaning of the iPad isn't located in Steve Jobs, either. Rather, the meaning of the iPad is distributed across the rhizome: in the thousands of people across the globe who helped create it to the millions of people who use it and the billions who don't, to those who love it and those who hate it. Steve Jobs is necessary for understanding the iPad, but he is not sufficient. He is part of the DNA of the iPad, just as electronic processes are part of the DNA of this post, but he is not the meaning of the iPad. Rather, the iPad cannot be reduced to Steve Jobs, ultimately not even to Apple. The meaning is distributed throughout the rhizome, and if you want to map that meaning, then you must go know/mad.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

More Agency, Rhetoric, and Connectivism

If agency is the ability to recognize and respond to the surround, then does agency fit with connectivism? Yes. In fact, I can't think of an educational theory that agency does not complement. Education is hardly understandable without some notion of agency on either the teacher's part, the student's part, or usually both parts. But is agency in connectivism distinguishable from agency in behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism? I think so.

In her article Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted (CCC 62:3, 420-449), Marilyn M. Cooper locates her concept of rhetorical agency in the same theoretical framework as connectivism: complexity theory, and for her the acting agent is a complex system within a complex system. She is quite clear that the agent is not a classical subject, or a "centered, conscious, rational self", and she defines her task as rescuing the notion of agency from the "death of the subject" (420). She begins this rescue by denying the existence of the subject: "a workable theory of agency requires the death not only of the modernist subject but of the whole notion of the subject" because "the subject is inescapably defined by an agonistic relation to the object/other: the subject attempts to control the object/other in order to escape being controlled" (423).

As I understand her, Cooper is troubled by the inherent and unavoidable power struggle in a modern, reductionist view of the subject – a view I associate with behaviorism and cognitivism. As long as we view agents as discrete subjects distinct from and independent of the objects/others around them, then we cannot avoid sliding into issues of power. Indeed, the agency of a modernist subject can only be viewed in terms of power: the ability of the subject to effect change in an object through the exercise of power, however benign or well-intentioned. This idea of agency as power neatly captures the traditional notion of education: a teacher/school effecting change in students through the exercise of power, usually well-intentioned. We then measure the amount of change in the students to determine the efficacy of the teacher/school. It's a wonderfully simple model that seems as if it should work. One could almost wish it did.

Cooper replaces subject with actor/agent, which she borrows from Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory: "Unlike subjects, agents are defined neither by mastery, nor by determination, nor by fragmentation. They are unique, embodied, and autonomous individuals in that they are self-organizing, but by virtue of that fact, they, as well as the surround with which they interact, are always changing" (425). Agency is an emergent property of the interactions of agents with their surround, "the process through which organisms create meanings through acting into the world and changing their structure in response to the perceived consequences of their actions" (426). In other words, we perturb the world, Prufrock notwithstanding, and the world perturbs us in return. In the patterns of this interaction, we come to recognize and know our intentions and agency. Does this complex agency have a place in connectivism? I think so.

Both Cooper's concept of agency and connectivism, then, are grounded in complexity theory. In his blog post What is the unique idea in Connectivism?, George Siemens says that connectivists "find support for connectivism in the more nebulous theories of complexity and systems-based thinking." In his article Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge, Stephen Downes notes that knowledge itself is an emergent property of the interactions of neurons: "human thought amounts to patterns of interactions in neural networks." Knowledge does not lie in any neuron or any grouping of neurons but in the emergent patterns of neuronal interactions and networking.

While Siemens and Downes both ground their thinking in complexity theory, I find the most useful treatment for agency in David Cormier's concept of the community as curriculum. In his 2008 article Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum, Cormier describes how curriculum itself can be an emergent property of a community of learners: "In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions."

To my mind, Cooper's concept of agency fits quite nicely into Cormier's community as curriculum, particularly as expressed in connectivist MOOCs. Agency, curriculum, and knowledge all emerge as properties of the interactions of a community of learners, and all three are the trajectories of the patterns of interactions among the various nodes of the community. As learners join a community such as a MOOC, their very presence (even lurkers) perturbs the community, which in turn feeds back into the learner's own mind. The dynamic interplay and interaction of learners, artifacts, and network enables patterns of intention and mapping, in Deleuze's terms, to emerge, and our awareness of these patterns helps us to articulate, mentally and physically, the agencies, knowledges, and curricula that bubble up out of the brew.

I think I have more to say about agency and the rhizome, especially in light of Cormier's use of the term and Cooper's dismissal of Deleuze and Guattari, but not tonight.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Agency, Rhetoric, and Connectivism

In an earlier post, I discussed intentionality in the rhizome in response to some comments and questions from Frances Bell. Her questions revealed some significant gaps in my thinking which I'm still trying to fill, but the article Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted (CCC 62:3, Feb 2011) by Marilyn M. Cooper has brought me some clarity and direction, so I want to discuss the issue of agency a bit more.

First, I'm disappointed that I haven't thought more about agency. After all, the core idea behind rhetoric is that one can say or write things that have an effect on the beliefs and behaviors of others. As Cooper says in her article, our common conception of an agent is "one who through conscious intention or free will causes changes in the world" (421). Rhetoric makes little sense without the concomitant concept of agency. If our spoken and written words cannot cause change in the world, then why bother?

So, I have three questions to answer:
  1. What is agency for me?
  2. What does it have to do with Rhetoric?
  3. What does it have to do with Connectivism?
I'll try to start an answer to the first question in this post. Cooper defines agency as "an emergent property of embodied individuals … agency does not arise from conscious mental acts, though consciousness does play a role. Agency instead is based on individuals' lived knowledge that their actions are their own" (421). Her argument about agency rests on:
  1. complexity theory, which describes complex systems that self-organize through reiterative feedforward/feedback loops, reveal emergent characteristics not necessarily inherent in the individual parts of the system, and that change nonlinearly in a dance of perturbation and response as agents interact, and
  2. an enactive approach to the study of mind, "which combines neuroscience and phenomenology to develop understandings of cognitive processes and brain dynamics as embodied nonlinear self-organizing systems interacting with the surround" (421).
Agency for Cooper, then, seems to emerge as a property of the individual's complex interactions with its surround (Cooper's term, borrowed from Glen Mazis' Humans, Animals, Machines: Blurring Boundaries) and from the trajectory of the individual's struggle to create meaning, or self, out of these complex interactions. She quotes Walter Freeman (How Brains Make Up Their Minds, 2000): "This dynamic system is the self in each of us. It is the agency in charge, not our awareness, which is constantly trying to catch up with what we do" (428).

Just now, I want to say this more simply: agency for me is the ability to recognize a situation and to respond to it. When an amoeba swimming in a petri dish perceives that it has swum into a drop of acid and it turns about to swim the other way, then that amoeba exhibits agency. When a lymphocyte detects an invading pathogen in the body and destroys it, then that lymphocyte exhibits agency. When a virus protection program detects a virus in a bit of code in something I download and quarantines that code, then that virus protection program exhibits agency. When I detect a bit of knowledge about agency and learn it, then I exhibit agency. Our habitual recognitions and responses (interactions with our surround) form the trajectory of our agency.

This definition differs from the common definition above in a key way: for me and for Cooper, too, agency is not dependent upon "conscious intention or free will". In other words, it doesn't matter whether or not the amoeba, the lymphocyte, the virus protection program, or I am aware of making a choice or can choose to do other than we do. As Cooper says, "neither conscious intention nor free will—at least as we commonly think of them—is involved in acting or bringing about change" (421). I like this definition as it allows me to stitch agency into the heart of most every physical and chemical reaction, and I really like that animation of the Universe. It sings for me, and I can dance with it. Cooper, too, seems willing to extend agency far beyond the human. In one of her notes, she says that her definition of agency "holds not only for all animals but also for machines, plants, and material objects" (444). Indeed, the enactive approach to the study of mind that Cooper gleans from Walter Freeman's work says that much of the process of forming our intentions is nonconscious. "Both nonconscious and conscious processes contribute to intentional action, and agents are aware of only some of the processes as they take place. The part of the loop involving intent, action , and the creation of the meaning of sensory input is largely nonconscious, as is the resultant formation of memories and dispositions. Through these processes, the agent is provided with meaning for free" (429).

This definition of agency also differs from the common use of the term in its sense of causality: our agency and intentions do not necessarily lead to specific results, as reality teaches us regularly. Complexity theorists Maturana and Varela note that the interactions between an agent and its surround do "not determine what its effects are going to be … the changes that result from the interaction between the living being and its environment are brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed system" (426; emphasis in the original). Agency, then, is seldom causal in a linear way. Rather, an agent perturbs its environment, and the resultant perturbation is seldom exactly what the agent intended.

So agency is a property that emerges from the history of an individual's interactions within its complex systems. (Again, agency is not a product of the conscious mind. Rather, our awareness of intention is quite often after the fact of agency: a rationalization that credits us for some action that went well or excuses us for some action that went awry. Of course, our own stories about our intentions and our perceptions of the consequences of our intentions feedback into and modify our agency; thus, our conscious intentions contribute to agency–becoming ingredients in the agency soup–but they do not originate it.) Agency is our habitual ways of being and acting with our surround–trajectories of mind/body, trajectories both conscious and nonconscious, trajectories that perturb and in turn are perturbed by the trajectories of other agents with whom we interact. Agency is the pattern and trajectory that our presence, or absence, creates within a complex system.

This was fun and quite educational for me, so I'll write more about the relevance of this concept of agency with Connectivism and rhetoric. Cooper makes some very useful points about agency and rhetoric that I'd like to explore.