Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Battle for Open

Grading has slowed my writing and reading, but I couldn't help noticing a few posts, the first one from Audrey Watters about The Battle for "Open". As I had just written about open systems, I was curious to compare her idea of openness with my own. I did not find an explicit statement about openness in her post, but if I'm reading between the lines correctly, then I think we are coming at the idea from quite different perspectives.

Watters links to some of her earlier posts about openness, and I pick up from them that openness for her has to do with how we define things, especially access to things, "culturally, pedagogically, politically, financially".  In a 2011 post, she says, "I think we're in store for lots of conflict over what constitutes "open" -- how it's funded, how it's labeled and licensed, who mandates "what counts."" Then in her next end-of-year post, she mostly writes about the open textbook movement and the friction it is experiencing from slow adoption by students and faculty and from challenges by commercial vendors. If I understand correctly, then, Watters is working with openness in cultural, pedagogical, political, financial, and legal contexts. These are likely the contexts that most interest most readers, and eventually, they are the contexts I have to move into. However, I have been coming at openness through complexity and open systems theories, which can be more than just a bit abstract. Still, it has likely left me with a slightly more optimistic perspective than Watters', as the natural laws that describe complex, open systems give me great confidence that in the long run openness will win out. Complex systems are open, and I count all humans, collective and individual, and all knowledge as complex systems. Thus, I'm confident that in the long run, humans will always find ways to open communication.

This does not mean, however, that the legal and normative laws that function at the social level cannot impede or modify the exchange of information among complex systems, at least in the short term. They can and they do. We all see that. We pass laws, for instance, to govern the exchange of music, and those laws can cause great trouble for those who enact more open exchanges than the laws allow. Openness (or piracy as the music conglomerates and their lawyers term it) is inevitable, but vested interests will fight it, sometimes vehemently, even violently.

I also want to note that openness for me is a relative term not an absolute term. Nothing is ever completely closed or completely open, but always on a sliding scale of more or less open. If complex systems were totally open to their environments, then they would lose their internal integrity and collapse, merge, or die. The boundaries of complex systems are fluid, flexible zones that interpenetrate other boundaries, but they are not totally open. Exchanges are always managed, or the system suffers. We humans, for instance, have to be open to intake food, but we can't intake the wrong kind of food or too much of any kind of food. If we do, we damage ourselves. Watters no doubt supports near universal access to low/no cost textbooks, but she would not favor a virus spread by such textbooks, or an attack to change the content of all those texts to something damaging (but then that raises the question of damaging to whom?). In other words, Watters likely favors, as most all of us do, some management of the boundaries of any complex system, virtual or real. Where to put the boundary and who should enforce the boundary is always the point of contention, and that issue will never, ever go away. Moreover, the boundary will shift as technologies and social structures shift. As we shift from print books to tablets, we are inevitably changing the rules of exchange of academic information, but we should not expect the textbook publishers to be happy about it, or acquiescent. We are always and forever negotiating our boundaries. It's a messy process, and never completely pleasing to anyone. As near as I can tell, it's the burden of living.

Still, I applaud what Watters is doing, and I'm most jealous that she can keep track of all these developments in education. She is such a better scholar than I. Still, I have to keep in mind that the boundaries of any complex system, such as a textbook, always tend to open more and more to the ecosystem (if it survives as a textbook at all), but a complex system is never totally open without losing itself and its identity. Finally, negotiating the boundaries of any system is a never-ending task (just try keeping things out of a baby's mouth, for instance). It's the hard work of life and must be embraced.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Educational Complexity and Open Systems

The fourth property of complexity that both Taborga and Lawrimore discuss within the context of modern organizations is openness or, as Lawrimore terms it, adaptability. This is, I think, a particularly critical property of complexity and most relevant to my current conversations about education, especially the conversation about MOOCs. Openness and the concomitant adaptability overturn so much of how we normally think about the world, especially education, that it is difficult to decide where to start, so I'll begin with what our two interlocutors say and see where it leads:

Taborga says:
The fourth property of complexity is that the system is open. An open system responds to its environment. Complexity Theory posits that all systems are open with the possibility that the total universe is the only closed system. Continuing with the project team example, there are numerous external influences that determines the project’s course. Funding would be an important external variable for a project team.
Lawrimore speaks of adaptation rather than openness, but clearly he is approaching the same property of complexity:
Adaptive refers to the fact that living systems constantly adapt to their changing environments. (Adapt means "fit to.") In organizations people adapt to each other, to customers, the economy, competitors and many other things. They are able to adapt through learning. Continuous learning is very important in Complexity organizations.
A view of time, temporality, lies at the heart of what they are both saying. All complex systems have an evolutionary arc that we can trace fairly well looking back on it, but that we find very difficult to trace looking forward. This seems such an obvious thing to say—especially in light of Darwin and our common, everyday experience—but it isn't. Basically, we humans do not like an open future. We spend great resources and energy on trying to fix the future, in all senses of the word fix. This is, I think, the heart of fundamentalism, especially the scientific and religious varieties, both of which posit a deterministic view of reality. The fundamentalist scientists believe that if they can know the position and speed of all the particles of a system (and only they can), then they can determine any past or future disposition of that system. As Lee Smolin describes it in Time Reborn (2013), they believe that systems are path independent and totally controlled by eternal natural laws expressible in timeless mathematical formulae that work each time, every time to accurately describe reality both past and present. The fundamentalist religious believers, on the same hand, believe that if they can properly interpret scripture (and only they can) then they can determine the past and future disposition of all humans on the planet and predict the End of Times. For them, all history is path independent, its arc ordained by the divine from the Beginning and all controlled by eternal divine law expressible in timeless ritual formulae that work each time, every time to accurately describe reality both past and present.

Complexity says otherwise. Eternal scientific laws are not much improvement over eternal religious laws because reality is NOT absolutely determined by either set of laws, certainly not by both. At the heart of every atom and every galaxy lies enough probability to provide wiggle room for almost anything to emerge, including somewhat conscious and intelligent apes, and whatever emerges comes with new laws to follow, as laws, physical and otherwise, are also emergent properties of emergent systems. All complex systems—and for me that includes everything from the most inert rocks to gravity—are open to change. Heraclitus would be proud.

So, one might complain, anything goes in this open-ended, relativistic universe? Don't be absurd, and don't jump off the Golden Gate Bridge to test it. The probability of your death is near certain (about 98%), and as one of the few known survivors (the fortunate effect of just the tiniest wiggle room) is likely to tell you: on the way down, you might change your mind. No, open adaptability is that zone between an anything-goes chaos and an only-one-thing-goes determinism, and life and all that we humans hold dear emerges in this open, temperate zone poised between hot, erratic chaos and cold, fixed determinism. We humans can enjoy the heat of chaos for a time, but too close for too long and we die a hot death. We can depend on the fixed cold of determinism for a time, but too close for too long and we die a cold death. Frost had it right when he said in his poem Fire and Ice that the world would end with either fire or ice and that either "would suffice."

Unfortunately, too much of modern education is based on a scientific determinism, which replaces a religious determinism. Some may see that as progress, and perhaps so, but not much, I think, and certainly not enough progress. We need a complex view of learning based on an understanding of open, adaptable systems. Indeed, if people were not open, adaptable, and changeable, then what would be the point of education? Fortunately, people are open and adaptable systems; thus, education is a worthwhile endeavor. Why, then, have we constructed schools on the factory system for the purpose of batch producing a consistent product? I think I can understand why we did it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when industrialism was triumphing in business and reductionism in science, but why are we persisting into the 21st century? Ford's assembly line was a fairly decent system for outputting an endless line of black-only Model Ts, but even the assembly line has moved way beyond Ford's early iteration of it. As an aside, I think his fascination with the assembly line goes a long way in explaining Ford's attraction to fascism. The assembly line is fascism for business, and while it  may have narrow benefits for a narrow time, one shouldn't base a life or a nation on it.

Morin helps me understand the implications of this openness and adaptability, especially for education. First, open systems can be understood most completely only if we account for their relationships with the environment. As Morin says,  "Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment" (On Complexity, 11). If you want to understand a student, you don't get very far looking merely at GPA, though GPA does have real, if limited, utility. In other words, you cannot reduce a student to one, or even a collection, of objective characteristics and expect to know very much. Students are not closed systems, definable from the outside-in. They are open systems, definable from the inside-out to all their connections and interactions with their ecosystems over time. All complex, open systems must be understood from the inside-out and not reduced to some handful of essential characteristics from the outside-in. This includes school subjects, which cannot be closed into disciplines but must be explored from the inside out into. Morin's thoughts about studying open systems are most apropos to education, I think:
Methodologically, it becomes difficult to study open systems as entities that can be radically isolated. Theoretically and empirically, the concept of an open system opens the door to a theory of evolution, that can only come from the interaction of system and eco-system, and, in its most significant organizational leaps, can be conceived of as the "going beyond," the surpassing, of the system into a meta-system. The door is, therefore, open for a theory of self-eco-organizing systems. These systems are themselves open, of course, because far from escaping 'openness,' evolution toward complexity increases it. In other words, it is a theory of living systems. (11)
 Let me add here that this approach to openness is perhaps what most attracted me to the conversation about Connectivism, a theory of education first formally suggested by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in about 2005. Some have questioned whether or not Connectivism is really a theory, but they are mostly trying to define Connectivism from the outside, to reduce it to a few canonical characteristics. Both Siemens and Downes have also performed this kind of definition in their writings (and, by the way, I do value this kind of definition—I just think it is radically limited when applied to complex, open systems), but what is really brilliant about what Siemens and Downes have done is to pretty much abandon defining Connectivism from the outside as objective observers and turn to defining it from the inside as engaged participants. The result of this switch has been MOOCs, among other things. Connectivism is now defining itself from inside-out, and the definition has gone in directions that I suspect Siemens and Downes would have never explored or pursued. It is a messy definition, but much more real, I think, and infinitely more engaging. Connectivism, then, is being defined not merely on the basis of what characteristics separate it from all other theories but mostly on the basis of what it connects us to, on the affordances that it provides. The boundaries of the theory are better seen from the inside as the outward limits of how far we can take these particular set of ideas.

Of course, I think all theories are better seen from the inside, especially if you want to understand them, but we are in the reductionistic habit of separating to define, not connecting to define. The complexity theory behind open systems will change that, I think. And again: I am not saying that defining from the outside-in has no value. It does. But it is only part of the story, and a small part at that. You will never really understand rap music if you stay on the outside. You have to get inside it to understand it. You have to see what it can connect you to, where it can take you, and that is seen from the inside. Open systems are like that. Everything is like that.

When Morin says that "methodologically, it becomes difficult to study open systems as entities that can be radically isolated", I am reminded of the marvelous work that Jenny Mackness and her associates Williams and Gumtau are doing with emergent learning. Of course, they are studying open systems, but I suspect, their tools are still based too much on a reductionist approach to science that works from the outside-in. Mackness has said to me that merely coming up with the new terms and concepts to describe what they are seeing has been a struggle. If you want to see better how to approach complex, open educational systems, then you should follow their work.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Complexity and Agency in Education

Agency is the third principle of complexity that both Taborga and Lawrimore discuss. To my mind, agency is a complementary concept of feedback, or organizational recursion, that I explored in my last post. What is the use of a feedback loop if an agent has no choice in response to the feedback? None, as far as I can see. Agency suggests that an agent is capable of perceiving patterns in its environment and then choosing a response to those patterns based on whatever criteria it is working under. The feedback loop and agency together, then, lead to the principle of self-organization than both Taborga and Lawrimore discuss later.

Both Taborga and Lawrimore discuss agency in terms of human agents, mostly within the context of organizations. This is not a bad place to start, and it's the concept of agency that most interests most people.

Taborga says:
Under the third property of complexity, agents can adapt their strategies according to their own history. This means that agents in the system can change themselves based on their own perceptions. In a project team, any member can improve their performance based on their own understanding of how they are doing.
Lawrimore says:
People Are Agents - The living parts (people) of complex systems are called agents. An agent is "one who acts, exerts power, and represents the organization as a whole." Agents interact with each other, affect each other, and in so doing are capable of a high degree of creativity and innovation which cannot be precisely predicted. Whether you call your people agents or not, it is important to recognize their power to act as agents and the value of their interacting with each other. In Complexity organizations, taking care of customers and creating innovative solutions are not just the responsibility of specific departments but of all agents.
Still, I think it's a huge mistake to limit agency to humans functioning in human organizations. That focus is a symptom of a chauvinism that privileges the human over the rest of reality, making us in some way super-natural. We are not. Rather, agency appears to be a principle of all complex systems throughout all space and time, and agency works at all scales of reality. Agency is the capability to process sensory input and to chose responses based on how we process those inputs. We easily recognize agency in humans, but we fail to recognize it in, for instance, our immune systems, but how silly to overlook the magical agency of such a powerful and resourceful system. As Wikipedia says it: "To function properly, an immune system must detect a wide variety of agents, from viruses to parasitic worms, and distinguish them from the organism's own healthy tissue. Pathogens can rapidly evolve and adapt, and thereby avoid detection and neutralization by the immune system, however, multiple defense mechanisms have also evolved to recognize and neutralize pathogens." The lymphocytes in our bodies patrol the hallways looking for pathogens to destroy. The lymphocytes receive sensory input from the environments inside our bodies, process those inputs into actionable knowledge, and then take action on their interpreted knowledge. And this is not a merely mechanical process. Lymphocytes can learn from their sensory inputs and modify their responses based on new information. That is agency. They can choose to attack a cell or not. They can learn to attack a cell or not. They can make mistakes. The ability to make mistakes may be as solid an indication of agency as anything else, and it appears to be a trait of all living systems.

Agency may be a trait of all systems from the micro to the macro, even those we usually think of as non-living. I'm currently reading Lee Smolin's book Time Reborn (2013), and he suggests that at the micro scale electrons make choices about their properties based on their entanglement with other particles and that at the macro scale the Universe made some pretty important choices about initial conditions that led to the formation of galaxies and stars and … uhhh … us. So it seems to be agency from top to bottom, through and through. Agency is fundamental to everything about the universe that we humans find interesting, and any discussion about anything must account for agency. This deep presence of agency probably explains why children dislike it so much when schools try to strip them of agency or thwart their agency.

It's easy to see the orchestration of agency among the various levels of reality as one of the primary tasks of modern education. Teachers are responsible for coordinating and negotiating everything from the agencies of physical and virtual viruses through the agencies of students and parents to the agencies of local and national governments.

The key question for me becomes how to cultivate the agency of each student to engage the agencies of the class, the school, the state, the world. Hmm … if I had that answer, I'd share it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Educational Complexity and Organizational Recursion

A second property of complexity is what Edgar Morin calls organizational recursion. Taborga and Lawrimore both use the more common term feedback, which I think fails to capture the richer implications of the complex interactions inherent in complex systems, but feedback provides an easier starting place with organizational recursion, so I start there.

Taborga says:
Feedback is particularly relevant to complexity. The system responds to and acts on feedback within the system and received from the outside world. A project team, for example, can change course when it receives feedback that a risk has been discovered.
Lawrimore says:
Feedback Impacts Systems: The primary way a system interacts with its environment or other systems is through feedback. When you move your hand, your nerves provide feedback signals to your brain so you know where your hand is. When a customer tells you he likes or dislikes something which your organization is doing, that is important feedback. Feedback in the form of information or signals is essential for an organization to be able to adapt to changes in its environment. Feedback within the organization is also essential for people to adapt to each other. Feedback occurs in two forms: balancing, which keeps the system stable by limiting change (like a thermostat), and reinforcing, which intensifies the change or activity.
Most people seem to understand simple feedback—our fingers tentatively touch a piece of metal, and we get sensory feedback that tells us if the metal is hot or cold or safe to handle—but I suspect that most see feedback in this linear fashion, something like a stimulus-response mechanism: we see a piece of chocolate, and our mouth waters. This seems to be the gist of feedback for Taborga and Lawrimore, but it is too narrow a view to explain complexity.

Morin's concept of organizational recursion is better. In his book On Complexity (2008), Morin says that recursion is:
a process where the products and the effects are at the same time causes and producers of what produces them. … The recursive idea is, therefore, an idea that has broken away from the linear idea of cause and effect, of product/producer, or structure/superstructure, because everything that is product comes back on what produces it in a cycle that is itself self-constituting, self-organizing, and self-producing. (49, 50)
Morin uses the recursive loops among people and societies to help us visualize this dynamic feedback loop: "individuals produce society that produces individuals" (49). This is a problematic concept for our view of simple classrooms. As Nicolescu has demonstrated, complexity undermines the hegemony of local causality: that any given event is necessarily caused by (follows from) another, previous event proximate in space and time. Does society follow from the interactions of a collection of people, or do the interactions of a collection of people follow from the society? The answer is yes, and that's a damned nuisance for those who want to find the magic causal bullet for any situation.

Recursive, or circular, causality seriously complexifies our understanding of schooling (as well as everything else), for it suggests that a student is both the product of her school and also the producer, in part, of that school. Without the school, the student would not be quite what she is, for the school feeds back into the student. Likewise, without the student, the school would not be quite what it is, for the student feeds back into the school. This recursive feedback loop constantly changes both agents, which in turn changes the other, again and over again.

This circular causality enlarges our sense of how education takes place. Traditionally, we have assumed that a teacher's instruction is the local, effective cause of a student's learning. Our entire assessment regime for student, teacher, and curriculum is based on this assumption. If the student is learning, then the teacher did something right to make that happen—end of story. However, circular causality says that local causality is only a part of the story, often not the largest part. Rather, we must factor in the recursive, evolving interactions of the student and teacher, then the recursive interactions of the student to other students, then the recursive interactions of the student to the content, to her family, to her outside social groups, and so forth, until we finally realize that the single student's learning can be assessed only in the nexus of all the recursive interactions, what Morin calls retro-eco-interactions, with all of her connections, including whatever local causes are, in fact, present. Measuring a student's learning is like measuring a thunderstorm: a few numbers are a start, but just barely, and those numbers can be as obfuscating as enlightening.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Complexity and Systems

I've reviewed my posts, and I notice that complexity has been dominating my writing for the past several months. I've looked at my reading list, and it appears that it will dominate for several more months. I'm plowing through lots of ideas that are new or almost-new to me, but I feel some need to stop pushing outward and pause long enough to see where my boundaries have gotten to. I feel the need to define. Of course, this is definition from the inside-out, not the outside-in. I'm not trying to limit my sense of complexity by separating it from other concepts; rather, I'm trying to see what new shapes have emerged to give form to the new ideas I'm working through. More importantly, I want to see what new gateways, or connections, are emerging as the new ideas interact with other things I know. What affordances do my thoughts about complexity provide me, especially as I think about education, more especially as I prepare to facilitate today's class about writing arguments.

This drive to define has been clarified for me by a couple of posts Complexity is … Complex on the Saybrook University blog site and Complexity: Introduction to the Basic Concepts. In both posts, the authors Jorge Taborga and E. W. Lawrimore list the characteristics of complexity thinking that they find particularly relevant to organizations. I've seen other lists, most differ in some lesser or greater way, but given that complexity is itself complex and may never be a well-defined scientific theory, then these two lists are as good a place to begin as any other, and because I want to talk about complexity in education, then it may be better than other lists that tend to focus on the sciences rather than on organizations.

Both Taborga and Lawrimore begin with the idea of systems. Taborga says: 
Complexity relates to a system—a system is a collection of many interacting objects or "agents." These agents can range from atomic particles to humans and, in an organization, they include processes and procedures. … A system … can have agents and networks. A network in a project team could be the leadership team.
Lawrimore says much the same:
Any system is a group of two or more parts which interact to function as a whole. (The root word systema means "organized whole.") The parts of a system are interconnected and interdependent. Every system is composed of subsystems and is nested within larger systems. A person is part of a department, which is part of a company, which is part of a community, state, nation and world. They are all systems. The important thing to understand whenever we talk about systems is that we are emphasizing that everything and everyone are interconnected and the whole has characteristics different from the parts. For example an organization has a "personality" that is more than just a group of people.
Systems thinking is a great place to start with complexity. It's where Edgar Morin starts in his book On Complexity (2008), and in some ways, systems thinking includes or leads to most of the other characteristics that Morin, Taborga, and Lawrimore discuss. Morin defines a system as "a complex unity, a whole that cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts" (10). Thus, systems are assemblages of different elements which work together to do things that no subset of the assemblage could do. Open systems interact with their ecosystems by exchanging matter, energy, organization, and information, and all living things are open systems. This leads Morin immediately to two major implications of systems thinking:
  1. The organization in a system is not determined by equilibrium, but by the tension between equilibrium and disequilibrium (order and chaos), or "stabilized dynamics" (11). Thus, a complex system is never static; rather, it always has an evolutionary arc which is the result of its unfolding, internal dynamics, which is the result of its juxtaposition between cold, fixed order and white hot chaos.
  2. The intelligibility of a system depends as much on its relationship with its environment as it does on the internal constitution of the system. A system cannot be defined by reducing it to the collection and organization of internal parts, but must include its interactions with its ecosystem.
These are profound changes in the way we normally think of the world, and many late 20th century thinkers have explored these implications. For instance, in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) Ludwig Wittgenstein contrasts his view of language with Augustine's attempt to define language, and systems thinking provides the coherent context for Wittgenstein's departure. Augustine defines language in our commonsense, dictionary sense that a word stands for some stable object or idea. Rock stands for an actual hard, collected mineral form. This approach tries to reduce the meaning of the word rock to its barest essentials, fixing it as a word separate from all other words with a reliable, fixed relationship to some real thing. Such a definition ignores the internal construction of the word, the evolutionary arc of the word, and the use of the word among other words. In other words, it ignores the word rock as a system with its own internal constitution (four letters) and arrangement, its own history of usage, and its relationships in any given text to all the other words in that text, to the writer who chose the word for various rhetorical purposes, and to the readers who read the word according to their own strategies for understanding, and the collection of literature in which the text exists. Wittgenstein says pointedly that "for a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PI 43).

This statement makes sense in a systems approach to reality. For Wittgenstein, the meaning of even a single word cannot be reduced to a single, discrete chunk that humans can pass back and forth among themselves like a coin. Rather, it is a living, evolving entity with its own DNA (in the case of rock, four letters of 26 with a particular arrangement), but also its own evolutionary history and its own interaction in the current conversation. While the word rock brings its own DNA to any conversation, it also has agency (a concept we'll explore later), and it can expand, restrict, or otherwise shift its meaning to make space for itself in a given context.

This changes everything, certainly everything in education, which is so preoccupied with meaning. We speak casually, day-to-day about our classes, for instance, and we think we all understand the meaning of the word class, but even to ourselves in the solitude of our own minds, the meaning of class in reference to my 12:30 Argumentative Writing class this term is quite different than the meaning of class in reference to last term's 6:00 World Literature I class. Meaning, then, is not some nugget that we find and can use. Rather, it is something that emerges in the engagements and interactions among speakers and that changes as speakers and engagements change.

This is a profound shift in how we commonly think of meaning and conduct our school business. We can no longer speak of transferring knowledge. There is no nugget to transfer. Rather, we can only speak of engaging other active minds with the resources at hand (including words) to create a space, a field (another systems concept), in which meaning can emerge. We can trust that the meaning that emerges for me is similar enough to the meaning that emerges for you that we can work and play together, but life is full of examples that prove to us time and again that meaning is fluid and shifty and that agreement takes lots of hard work or an exercise of power.

Of course, systems thinking not only changes the way we think about meaning but also how we think about physical reality itself. Michel Serres makes this clear in his Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995) with Bruno Latour. As just one example, Serres explains that time can not be reduced to the flat, fixed tick of a clock that measures in a locked, laminar fashion the succession of moments throughout the universe. Time is not a fixed progression of numbers along a single line. Rather, time is topological, like space. Serres says it better:
The usual theory supposes time to be always and everywhere laminar. With geometrically rigid and measurable distances—at least constant. Someday it will be said that that is eternity! It is neither true nor possible. No, time flows in a turbulent and chaotic manner; it percolates. All of our difficulties with the theory of history come from the fact that we think of time in this inadequate and naive way. (59)
This kind of systems thinking seriously undermines the way that we conduct education, especially a K12 education that streams cohorts of students along the factory assembly line in laminar fashion, expecting for instance, that we can reduce every nine-year-old boy and girl to a Fourth Grader to be stamped in the same machinery, or curriculum, to produce a consistent, consumable product. Many of our difficulties in education "come from the fact that we think of time in this inadequate and naive way." Systems thinking allows us to see each student as an unfolding, emerging agent with a meaning that emerges from the dynamic tension between a shared physical and social DNA on one hand and a unique trajectory full of potential on the other. Each student will emerge differently, and we need a school system that embodies that systems approach.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Emergent Boundaries

In their article Complexity and transdisciplinarity – Discontinuity, levels of Reality and the Hidden Third (2012, Futures 44, 711–718), Paul Cilliers and Basarab Nicolescu discuss the implications of emergence for boundaries. They say that:
The properties of a complex system are not confined to the properties of the individual components in isolation. The relationships between the components give rise to new properties which can be called emergent.
Emergence is a commonly recognized feature of complex systems, and it basically says that the properties of a complex system are not limited to its constituent parts; rather, new properties—new structures and behaviors—can emerge from the dynamic functions within the complex system and between the complex system and its ecosystem. The boundaries of a complex system must be elastic enough to include any newly emerging properties. Perhaps a better way to say this is that our definitions of the boundary of any complex system should be pliable enough to recognize that the shape of the complex system has changed. As the complex system rearranges its structure and develops new properties through its own internal activities and its external exchanges with its environment, then we must anticipate the emergence of new boundaries.

I'm old enough to have witnessed the many changes to the boundaries of my bank account. I am not old enough to have known when a bank account consisted of metal coins stored in a vault and data security consisted of a big lock and an armed guard. However, I think that most people still have this physical, mechanical view of their money and how to secure it. I fear that too many data security people also have this view.

Consider, for instance, my bank account: I'm in Florida, the bank's corporate offices are in Virginia, the online banking applications I use may be on servers in a third location or in distributed locations, the billing center is in Atlanta, the data could be housed in some data center operated by a third party company in a fifth location, the help center is in India, and each geographical location likely has different regulatory controls and business practices, certainly different data security practices. So just where the hell is my money, and how do I define the boundaries around this amorphous monster? Is it not obvious that assigning boundaries to my money is no longer like assigning boundaries to a stack of coins? And is it not obvious that my bank account has emergent properties and interactions that I'm probably not aware of, that perhaps no single person is aware of all the emergent properties of even this one, small account? Finally, consider the financial accounts of a Warren Buffett or an Apple, Inc., and I defy anyone to draw neat boundaries, or even ragged ones, around those puppies.

Cilliers and Nicolescu make another important point about boundaries as emergent properties of complex systems:
It is common to argue that the system is more than the sum of its parts. This is true to the extent that emergence is not simply a result of the characteristics of the components. However, in some sense the system is also less than the sum of its parts. The emergent properties of the system constrain the behavior of the system to the extent that not all the possible characteristics of the components of the system can be realized in the dynamic interaction which constitutes the system. (715)
Boundaries, then, have a complex role to play in complex systems. They not only set the limits of the internal interactions within the system, but they also form the zone of engagement between the system and its ecosystem. As Cilliers and Nicolescu say it, "Boundaries operate with the purpose to demarcate, but also, and essentially, to connect" (716).

In complex systems, boundaries are always problematic, and as near as I can tell, that makes data security problematic. Boundaries always demarcate, but they also, and essentially, connect. No complex system can have a boundary that does not connect as well as separate. Ahh, there's the rub.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Boundaries as Enabling, not Confining

Next, I want to work through an article by Paul Cilliers called Knowledge, limits and boundaries (2005, Futures, 37, 605–613). Prof. Cilliers is mostly exploring the concept of knowledge, but he makes some observations about how knowledge is entangled with boundaries and limits that can help us understand better the problematic nature of data security.

Cilliers first notes that we should avoid thinking of boundaries as "something that separates one thing from another" (611). Rather, boundaries are those things that constitute "that which is bounded." Without a functioning boundary, there is no defined, bound thing that we can know or interact with. In other words, without a functioning boundary, I have no bank account. My account ceases to exist as an entity or thing, and whatever data it contained, or defined, is dissipated into larger systems. Our consideration of boundary, then, shifts from an attempt to keep things out (something that separates one thing from another) to an effort to express things within (something that constitutes that which is bounded). This reminds me of Edgar Morin's advice in On Complexity that we must learn to define things from the inside out and not from the outside in. Data security begins with constituting and maintaining the integrity of the data as an entity. It begins on the inside by defining outwardly what constitutes my bank account, for instance. Boundaries, then, are a push outward toward the functional limits that say, in effect, this account has this structure, this much data/money, at this time, and no more.

This push outward suggests that boundaries are dynamic and malleable, or as Richardson and Lissack say, boundaries "are emergent, critically organized, and temporary." Cilliers says it a little differently:
The boundary of a complex system is not clearly defined once it has ‘emerged’. Boundaries are simultaneously a function of the activity of the system itself, and a product of the strategy of description involved.
 A boundary, then, is the outer limit of the entity and the expression of the entity's internal functions, growth, and changes and its exchanges and interactions with its ecosystem. The boundary, however, is not merely an epiphenomenon, a secondary byproduct, of the entity. Rather, it is a functioning, constitutive aspect of the entity and a major aspect by which we humans can describe the entity, recognizing it as distinct in some way from its surroundings. But it is never static and fixed. Even in so simple a system as my bank account, the boundaries wax and wane as data/money flows in and out and as the number and character of interactions with larger economic systems shift.

The second point that Cilliers makes follows from this dynamic, malleability of the boundaries of a complex system. Our usual habits of mind tell us that any entity occupies a contiguous space. A turtle, for instance, is all inside itself and everything non-turtle is outside. In the practical, everyday world, this may be a useful way to frame reality, but this insistence on all of the turtle being inside the turtle is certainly not true of social or virtual entities. Social groups such as English teachers or skateboarders exist in disparate locations. They can clearly function as a group, but specifying the enclosing boundary can be very problematic. Even my bank account is problematic. It can exist in multiple places, which is both a convenience and a problem.

Because social, virtual, and quantum entities can exist in different spatial locations, then "non-contiguous sub-systems could be part of many different systems simultaneously. This would mean that different systems interpenetrate each other, that they share internal organs" (Cilliers, 611). My bank account is part, however minuscule, of my bank's general balance, on the ledger of checking accounts, and in whatever other aggregates the bank finds useful. Throw in the more than 400,000 ATMs just in the US alone, and the boundaries of my bank account start squirting out everywhere. This is the benefit and the burden of virtual entities, but it isn't limited to virtual entities. Our physical transportation lanes (roads, airways, shipping lanes, etc) have similarly extended and made fluid the boundaries of countries, companies, militaries, goods, and services. And if we add the people who have knowledge of my bank account as, for instance, bank employees, it becomes even more complex. The awareness of the data in my bank account leaves the bank each day as an accountant to become a parent, spouse, part-time student, or whatever else, and the carry with them the data in my account, even if they are unaware of it. My data is now sharing internal organs with systems around the world. How do you like my boundaries now?

I think that most things in the universe are complex systems, rather than simple or complicated systems; thus, I believe that most entities have complex boundaries such as Cilliers has described. This means that even my knowledge of boundaries is a complex system with complex boundaries. I can push the limits of my knowledge, and this pushing shifts the boundaries. This knowledge can interpenetrate other knowledge systems, for instance, my knowledge about story telling or your knowledge about MOOCs, and this internal development and external interpenetration makes for very complex boundaries, which makes it very difficult for me to fix a definition of my understanding of complex boundaries and about impossible to secure that understanding.

Complex boundaries also make for very complex approaches to data security. If, in fact, most data are complex systems or subsystems, then how do we think about securing their complex boundaries? If we start with the idea that boundaries enable an entity and enable our knowledge of that entity, then how do we go about securing that boundary? Good question. I'm still looking for an answer.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dynamic, Complex Boundaries

So what do complex boundaries look like? I have to confess, I have rather vague ideas. Fortunately, some other people have done a fair amount of thinking about this issue, including poet Robert Frost, whom I've spoken about before, and I think we can learn something from them.

Before I get to Frost, I want to absorb the work of some other people, most of whom, unlike Frost, intentionally engage and think about complexity. I want to start with an article called On the Status of Boundaries, both Natural and Organizational: A Complex Systems Perspective (Emergence, ISSN: 1521-3250, 2002, 3(4): 32-49) by Kurt A Richardson and Michael R. Lissack. I start with them because of how they start their article: "Contemporary science with its strong positivism tends to trivialize the nature of boundaries." I think this says better, certainly more succinctly, what I was trying to say in my previous post: those who manage data security tend to trivialize the nature of boundaries, and this likely leads to most of their problems. I should probably go back and rewrite yesterday's post, but …

Anyway, Richardson and Lissack then go on to say that "Complexity thinking forces us to review our conceptions of what natural boundaries are", and the rest of the article attempts just that. They make some points that shed light on the issue for data security—and for education, by the way. I'll deal with data security in this post. They first establish, to my satisfaction at any rate, that boundaries are the foundation of knowledge—if we can't identify boundaries that distinguish one thing from other things, then we have difficulty saying we know that thing; however, our "boundary assumptions go unquestioned, resulting in flawed understanding and leading to flawed decisions and actions" (33).

As does Snowden's Cynefin Framework, they distinguish complex systems from complicated systems, but their distinctions rely more on scientific properties than on the organizational properties of Snowden. For Richardson and Lissack, complex systems are
comprised of a large number of non-linearly interacting non-decomposable elements. The interactivity must be such that the system cannot be reducible to two or more distinct systems, and must be sufficient (where the determination of “sufficient” is problematic) to allow the system to display the behaviours characteristic of such systems. (34)
While some complicated systems, computers for instance, can contain non-linear interactions, they are not complex. Unlike the prescribed and fixed sub-systems of a complicated system such as a jet airplane, complex systems have emergent and temporary sub-systems. This implies that the boundaries of complex systems are inevitably emergent and temporary, and all human organizations and their sub-organizations are complex systems. Richardson and Lissack say pointedly that "the boundaries describing subsystems in a complicated system are prescribed and fixed, whereas the boundaries delimiting subsystems in a complex system are emergent, critically organized, and temporary. By this definition most organizational working boundaries are those of a complex system" (36).

Herein lies the big problem for data security. Emergent and temporary boundaries don't merely complicate the data security issue, they complexify it. Boundaries emerge and wane, though many are stable enough for us to rely on over the course of a human lifetime. Many more are not so stable, but the point for an organization is that all boundaries will shift, wax, and wane. This is a physical fact.

Moreover, organizational boundaries are rendered further problematic by the fact of scale. Boundaries tend to exist at one scale of reality and not at another. For instance, the very thick, impregnable steel walls of a bank vault become quite porous and pregnable at the atomic scale. Information can leach through the thickest steel. Curiously enough, most modern information works at a very small scale which most of us, including data security experts, simply cannot imagine and at which we are not mentally or physically equipped to function.

Then, boundaries within even the most simple of structures are dynamic. Drawing on the work of Sommerer and Ott (1993, A physical system with qualitatively uncertain dynamics, Nature, 365: 138–40), Richardson and Lissack note that "even with qualitatively stable order parameters, qualitatively unstable behavior occurs" (40). When two systems interact—two people, for instance—then the boundaries cannot remain stable. We know this intuitively, but we design organizations and data security systems as if the boundaries surrounding our data are fixed and persistent. They are neither. They cannot be.

Richardson and Lissack conclude their article with a philosophical position called quasi-critical pluralism, a dynamic, dialogic position between objective realism on one hand and subjective constructivism on the other. That philosophical position deserves its own discussion, but later. As it is, I'm enjoying this line of thought, so I think I'll continue it for a few more posts.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Data Security and Boundaries

Data security is a problem for everyone, even for colleges and universities, as a recent post in The Chronicle suggests. Paul Voosen quotes Daniel K. Nelson, director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Office of Human Research Ethics, the team supposedly in charge on protecting sensitive data, "We're really just all waking up as a community to both the power and challenges of dealing with this." It is a serious issue, but I'm wondering if it is being defined correctly. If I take seriously what I've been reading lately about complex boundaries, then I know that I have to change how I think about data security.

It seems to me that data security has largely been framed in the simple or, at most, complicated domains according to Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework. This means that organizations have framed data security as a problem of enclosing well-defined, discrete data within well-defined, discrete boundaries, with well-defined rules for managing the exchange of that data across those boundaries with managed entities outside the boundaries. In this simple domain, the relationship between cause and effect is well known and explicit and people interact with the data according to best practices. This is something, I think, like the data in my checking account. That data is protected within strict boundaries, and the transactions, such as deposits, withdrawals, and inquiries, with that data follow well-defined best practices.

At least, that is how we define or frame the issue of protecting the data in my checking account. We want it to be a simple, airtight procedure, with reliable maintenance and audits of the data and reliable, verifiable exchanges between that data and the bank, my creditors, my employer, and me. The bank especially wants the process to be simple because it has millions of accounts, and it wants a simple procedure that it can reproduce and apply across all those accounts and rely on to protect the data in each account. Another way to say this is that we all want clear, inviolable boundaries around the data in my account, with well-defined and well-managed gateways through the boundaries that control the exchanges between the data on one side and appropriate stakeholders on the other side. This simple arrangement defines a simple system: my employer deposits data which I can use as money into my account regularly, the bank holds and protects that data, and my creditors appropriate some of that data regularly to keep my lifestyle going. The boundaries around the data protect the data and manage the interactions of the various stakeholders in this simple system. And by the way, it hardly matters if I stick to a strictly cash system. I move from virtual boundaries to physical boundaries (a safe or a weapon) to guard my data (money), but the relationships and boundaries retain pretty much the same functions.

Wouldn't it be nice if boundaries were really this simple? Unfortunately, they don't seem to be.

Rather, boundaries are complex. They are not merely complicated, which is just the simple multiplied with more parts and more gateways. Think of the complicated domain as a person (not me) with lots of data in lots of bank accounts with transactions among all those accounts and with all those various outside deposits, transfers, and withdrawals. The data security for this sort of complicated system likely requires much expertise to design and administer—not only  expertise from data security people, but also accountants and lawyers. Fortunately, my bank account is still in the simple domain, but I understand there are people whose numerous accounts are necessarily in the complicated domain "in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense - Analyze - Respond and we can apply good practice." However, as with the simple domain, the complicated domain still has one or a few really good answers and practices, even if we often require experts to help us figure out what those answers and practices are.

The complex domain is different, for in this domain "the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe - Sense - Respond and we can sense emergent practice." These are the financial systems of gamblers (aka day traders) who have completely uncertain deposits, transfers, and withdrawals with uncertain stakeholders, and all within ecosystems or markets almost completely outside of their control. They can win much and lose much, but they can tell why only in retrospect. They can sense emergent practices, and experience can improve their chances, but they can never guarantee an outcome.

Of course, I think that all financial systems, just like all other systems, are complex. Only a long, stable economy can give us the illusion that our financial systems—such as my little bank account—are simple systems with regular, secure deposits and withdrawals and a set of clear, secure relationships among stakeholders: me, my employer, my bank, and my creditors. As the 2008 recession taught us, all accounts are complex, with uncertain transactions among uncertain stakeholders within an uncertain, dynamic financial ecosystem outside the control of anyone.

Likewise, data security is a complex system with complex emergent properties, and we will profit if we view it as a complex problem rather than a simple or even complicated problem. More on that tomorrow.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Writing through a Loss of Voice

A number of posts from Jenny Mackness, Bon Stewart, and Paul Prinsloo caught my attention this week. All three deal with loss of their individual blogging voices. By accident, I read them in reverse-order, but the series was started by Prinsloo, self-described as "an education consultant and researcher at the University of South Africa (Unisa), an African mega open distance learning (ODL) higher education institution." As was the case with Bon Stewart, Prinsloo was a new voice for me, so it was somewhat ironic that I found his voice as he was losing it.

In his post Being tongue-tied and speechless in higher education: implications for notions of (il)literacy #metaliteracy, Prinsloo eloquently describes his precipitous loss of voice, so that after an extended period of prolific blogging, "Suddenly I have become illiterate (a point to which I will return later), in a world I did not understand anymore." He looks for reasons for his aphasia (problems with any or all of the following: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.), but "there is nothing specific that comes to mind. Not only do I suspect that there are many possible reasons, but the reasons are also interconnected, interdependent and layered." He concludes his fine post by wondering if many our students are also "tongue-tied and speechless, but not illiterate?"

Through a happy Twitter-enabled chance, Stewart picked up on Prisloo's post, and it resonated with her. She, too, had fallen away from blogging, sensing a loss of voice, and as had Prinsloo, she looked for explanations: "My silence hasn’t been mainly personal, though: rather, it stems from same uncertainty of speech writ large and broad; a pervasive, sinking sense of not knowing the contexts into which I speak and write and share my ideas."

Mackness suggests in her sympathetic reading of Stewart that perhaps she is frozen by a sense of conscious incompetence, or a sense that one is unable to perform competently in some arena. This was actually the first post of the series that I read, and I was intrigued enough to follow the discussion back through Stewart to Prinsloo. I am interested in this loss of voice as I have experienced it myself and in my students. I teach writing, and the "tongue-tied and speechless, but not illiterate" condition that Prinsloo describes is familiar. In a follow-up post, Mackness recommends advice from Jack Kerouac and Stephen Downes to keep moving forward, keep the fingers moving, and almost by magic the ideas will start moving again. The written voice will emerge from the moving fingers. Perhaps. I do use free-writing exercises with my students, but I can't say that they always work.

Several things occur to me about this exchange. First, all of these people are accomplished, polished writers. If they can suffer a loss of voice, then I can understand even better that my students who are not polished writers can also suffer a loss of voice, or not become confident enough to develop a voice in the first place. Public writing of most any kind means putting oneself out there. It means exposing oneself to possible ridicule and attack, embarassment and injury. This can be most threatening to beginning writers who have not become competent with language, but it can also be threatening to experienced writers who find themselves in a conversation about which they know relatively little or in a conversation with others who have much more power than they do. I do NOT think this is the case with these blog writers, but it is definitely the case with most of my students. Not only are they unsure of their command of written English, but in school they are forced to write to advanced experts, their teachers, about topics, the teachers' topics, that the students have not yet mastered. This is an awful situation, and probably the only sane thing to do is to plagiarize some expert just as we all once plagiarized our parents' political and social views in grade school.

But as I said, I don't think these writers are suffering from a sense of conscious incompetence. They know they can write, and they know that they have some useful knowledge to share. They also know that in any given conversation, they may encounter someone more knowledgeable or more mellifluous. In this case, silence is the intelligent response, or at most, some probing questions. I studied with Isaac Bashevis Singer at the University of Miami, and it was clear from our first meeting that I would never know as much about writing as he nor would I ever be able to say what I did know as well as he. So mostly I was quiet, save when I had an intelligent question. Singer was kind enough to treat all my questions as intelligent. I'm currently reading Michel Serres, and again, I'm mostly silent, making few pronouncements about the text, mostly asking questions. Serres knows more than I do about his issues, and he says it better. We have all been annoyed by those who were too bold and too dense to know when to be quiet.

But again, I don't think these writers are cowering before the collected brilliance and insight of the Internet. They are all experienced net writers, and they know that everyone is always more brilliant than anyone (e.e. cummings would be most proud), but they also know that it takes the voices of all the anyones to make up the voice of everyone. I think that their loss of voice stems from other causes.

I think that they may be overlooking fatigue. Sometimes, I'm just too damned tired to talk. Stewart notes that she is currently in a doctoral program, and like the rest of us, she likely has a range of other social, familial, and employment obligations that each take up half of her time. The trouble is, of course, that the Net is never too damned tired to talk. It is incessant, and no one can keep up with it. Burnout is real for me, so I think it might be real for them, and sometimes, the only intelligent response to burnout is silence.

But I think that Stewart points at a more potent reason for loss of voice when she says that she has "a pervasive, sinking sense of not knowing the contexts into which I speak and write and share my ideas. … Over the last year – particularly the more I followed and unpacked the hype cycle of MOOCs – the more I felt like I no longer recognize the story of education as it gets told. Or enacted in policy and curriculum design. Or reported in the news. I have been silent because I no longer felt like I knew how to talk about any of it." I think Stewart is spot on here. She has not moved; rather, the conversation has moved, and she's no longer certain that she wants to be part of it. It's as if she were singing in a choir that suddenly and unexpectedly shifts keys to C and she's still singing in B. As would any intelligent, sensitive person, she quits singing until she can reorient herself, and she doesn't rejoin the singing until she decides that the key of C works for her.

I, too, joined early the conversation about MOOCs, mostly because I found MOOCs so engaging and inspiring, but also like Stewart, I lately find the conversation shifting to a different key, one not suited to my vocal range. I may write a post about that shift, now that Stewart has pointed to it, but I'm not sure that I have the interest to think about it. More likely, I will continue to think about MOOCs in ways that make sense to me, and trust that enough others will engage in that conversation. If they don't, then I will eventually quit talking about MOOCs, I suppose.

I think this shift in conversation is familiar to most of us, certainly in our social contexts. I think we've all been in a good conversation at a party or other gathering when the conversation shifts gears and becomes less interesting to us. Maybe new people join the conversation, and all of a sudden, the tone changes. It's time to get a drink or go to the john.

It's unfortunate that this shift in conversation can have such an adverse affect on the best of writers. The change in a conversation can make us feel as if our loss of voice is somehow our fault—after all, lots of other people still seem to have lots to talk about in this conversation—but I don't think it is our fault. Rather, our silence is a reasonable response to the new conversation that has emerged. The key response to such a situation is to disengage in silence (shouting usually does no good), and find or create another conversation. Engaged and sensitive writers such as Prinsloo, Stewart, and Mackness will always find an engaged and sensitive audience, I think.

Finally, I want to point out that all of these writers were able to write through their loss of voice, despite their loss of voice. It illustrates the advice I give my students when they say they have nothing to say: I tell them to write just that and to keep writing it until they write something else. Writing about not writing is a great way to kickstart your writing and find your voice. I have a bit of respect for silence. The long, slow writing that Mackness refers to can include long, slow stretches of silence. At least for me, and I'm good with that.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Complex Time and Education

A discussion of complex time can too easily become abstract and abstruse, at least for me, but I don't think it necessarily must become so. Time is one of those basic concepts that pretty much informs everything else, even education (I say education with some tongue in cheek, maybe the whole tongue in cheek), so Time has practical implications. The problem is that we usually don't know-tice those implications because they are so basic. Like air, we don't raise Time to consciousness until it's gone or changed. Then we notice too late.

What I take from my readings of Smolin and Serres is that Time is not what we think it is. It is not the regular march of events, all queued up in a neatly progressing, laminar flow, which we can accurately measure and rely on to synchronize our activities. This view of time, which is really quite modern as most any study of the technology of timekeeping will demonstrate, is part of humanity's efforts to wrench the natural complexity of the world into the simple domain for our convenience. Wrenching natural complexity into some kind of simplicity is one of the great works of humanity, taking up much of our energies and time. Simple, limited categories with simple, limited actions and interactions make life so much easier in so many ways. To fall back on a trivial example I have used elsewhere in this blog, we want a well-ordered sock drawer that makes it easy to keep, manage, and retrieve our socks. The problem is that much of life doesn't like being confined to neatly arranged sock drawers. Certainly people don't, but that doesn't stop us from trying to put them there.

Likewise, we want to make Time a simple, limited sock drawer, neatly and regularly progressing, each second, hour, and day named, labeled, and marching by to a strict and universal metronomic beat. This view of Time has great benefits: from helping us show up for dinner on time to helping us launch a spacecraft to Mars. We cannot easily dismiss the affordances of a regular Time proceeding along a single, segmented, straight line. Unfortunately, actual Time—the Time that exists out there in the wild—seems to care for our single, segmented, straight line about as much as a litter of puppies do.

If Smolin is correct, then Time is not eternal and unchanging. Rather, it is something like an emergent property of the Universe, and it changes as that Universe changes, and as we slip among different scales of the Universe at different speeds. Time percolates, as Serres says it. I really like that image: percolation, the uneven flow through a textured boundary. I'm not sure that Time is in fact a flow at all, but flow does capture the sense of movement that we have when we experience time, and percolation captures the sense we have that some times move differently than other times, while still other times don't move at all. Moreover, for Serres, the Past and the Future are not flat, geometrically regular structures; rather, they are rich, textured topographies with hills, valleys, cliffs, reversals, and dead ends. Time flows like a river, then, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes caught in eddies, sometimes backing up. At any one point of the river, some part of the river can be flowing in most any direction.

Needless to say, then, Time—the actual Time that we swim in—often disregards or even violates our simple, sock drawer arrangement of time. Consider, for instance, my reading of Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time by Serres and Latour. We like to think that a book—like Time—follows a linear progression with a clear starting point (the Big Bang) and proceeding in some orderly fashion through to the end, and that we can measure this in some kind of words per minute (say, 100 WPM as numbers combined with acronyms often enhance our sense that we are measuring something significant). We should build the meaning of the book bit by bit at 100 WPM, accreting meaning, until we have fashioned the complete edifice, but that isn't what happened to me in this book, and as I think about it, it doesn't happen to me in most books—at least not the ones I would ever reread. The reading proceeds very unevenly, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and sometimes completely reversing itself. The reading percolates, and that reading is bound up in Time. It takes time to read, and that time percolates like oil oozing through fracked bedrock. There is no metronome, or not one that makes sense.

Most of Time is like this: oil oozing through bedrock, coughing, gushing, slipping laterally, backing up, and we confuse and frustrate ourselves when we forget that time is like this.

I am not, however, arguing that we all throw away our timepieces and revert to Grateful Dead time. We cannot overlook the powerful affordances of simple, regularized time, and some important processes are still dependent on this kind of time, but we should never forget that it is a fiction, and we should not be surprised when Time slips the sock drawer and oozes in some direction we did not expect. Most importantly, we should not try to preserve simple time when it is no longer beneficial—for instance, when we are educating people.

An industrial, factory age relied overwhelmingly on a consistent, regular, ubiquitous measure of Time. The assembly line demanded it, and it helped us to build the 20th century. We educated the majority of our societies based on this mechanical, simple time. We built, and destroyed, much with the assembly line model of space and time, but most of us have moved beyond the assembly line model. We live in a networked world, not a mechanical factory world; however, we are still educating in a factory model. We move people through educational programs in batches, all at the same time, all at the same pace, all measured at the same regular intervals, all based on the same simple view of Time. The affordances of such a time structure are disappearing, and in most places, they are long since gone. Now, such a model actually hinders education rather than helping. We should let it go. It's time for education to percolate. We have the tools to do it—now we just need the mindset.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Complexity and Time

I'm trying to sort out my current thinking about complexity, and I started the process of untangling myself a couple of weeks ago with a reference to time as that zone of engagement between the chaos of an open-ended future and the simplicity of a fixed, closed past.

I was pleased then when I came across the RSA lecture Time Reborn by Lee Smolin, founder of The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada:

If you have watched Smolin's presentation, then I think you will see that he is arguing that the laws of physics are themselves emergent properties that change. I do not presume to know how they change, and those details are somewhat tangential to the point I want to make. If Smolin is correct, then ALL of the universe is a dynamic, open-ended, complex system. Even time, or space/time, is dynamic, and the laws that describe it change as it changes. It's all a dance, and nothing lasts forever. I mean, if you can't rely on time, what can you rely on?

That every where and when is complex does not mean that we cannot carve out simple spaces for ourselves. For instance, we can examine the mating habits of red ants or the development of the Italian sonnet, and we gain great powers and capabilities through this focus and reduction. We can learn about cell structures and processes and then figure out how to curb disease or correct an injury. We can, and should, define discrete, simple systems within which we have the ability to know to a nearly complete degree all elements and processes within the system so that we are able to work forward to predict all possible states of the system and to work backward to uncover all possible causes of those states. These are wonderful accomplishments and of great benefit to humanity, but the moment we believe that our knowledge is stable and eternal, then we deceive ourselves and list heavily toward error and closed-minded fundamentalism.

All can and will change. Fortunately, at the scale of human life, many of the processes we work with day-to-day function at a much different scale; thus, those processes appear within a normal human lifespan to be stable. Time changes, but not as quickly as we do, so most of us can effectively ignore its changes.

Like time, rocks and stars fall into the slow category, but rock stars do not. And here is the rub. Much of human life is changing today much faster than it did before, so fast that we cannot expect for things to be stable for years or decades, much less centuries. As I've noted within this blog before, roughly from 1995 to 2005, humanity changed from fewer than half the world's population having ever made a phone call to over half the population owning a cell phone. This is hyper-churning. With our technologies, we have created an evolutionary dynamic that is churning knowledge and culture so fast that we can no longer fool ourselves that things are eternal.

Rather, I should say that we must fool ourselves to continue to believe that things are eternal in the old sense of lasting unchanged forever. "We hold these truths to be self-evident": and so on. This undeniable hyperactivity is unsettling for many, and may well explain the resurgence of all kinds of fundamentalisms as people seek stability, a respite from the heat of change.

It seems that once you start looking for things, then you see them everywhere. Just days after I listened to Smolins' talk about the emergent properties of time, I read a book by Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995), in which Serres tries to explain his view of time and its implications for his approach to philosophy. It seems that for Serres time is not merely, or simply, the steady, laminar flow of events along a straight line from future through now into past that most of us think it is. Rather, time is a topological structure of great complexity. Time percolates, flowing unevenly through the loose rock of now, moving rapidly here, slowing elsewhere, and in some places, completely reversing. And this uneven, turbulent flow is not along a smooth, straight line, but through a richly contoured, deeply textured landscape that runs smoothly downhill here and stalls there and swirls into eddies elsewhere. Thus, for Serres as for Faulkner, we are not evenly separated from the past and the future. Rather, some of the past folds back into the present, and the future arrives unevenly. As Serres says it so well:
Time does not always flow according to a line … nor according to a plan but, rather, according to an extraordinarily complex mixture, as though it reflected stopping points, ruptures, deep wells, chimneys of thunderous acceleration, rendings, gaps—all sown at random, at least in a visible disorder. Thus, the development of history truly resembles what chaos theory describes. Once you understand this, it's not hard to accept the fact that time doesn't always develop according to a line and thus things that are very close can exist in culture, but the line makes them appear very distant from one another. Or, on the other hand, that there are things that seem very close that, in fact, are very distant from one another. Lucretius and modern theory of fluids are considered as two places separated by an immense distance, whereas I see them as in the same neighborhood. … The classical theory is that of the line, continuous or inerrupted, while mine would be more chaotic. Time flows in an extraordinarily complex, unexpected, complicated way. (57, 58)
Serres then connects time and weather in the French word le temps, which  "at a profound level … are the same thing" (58). Well, Serres took some time for me to read, and the meaning of his book percolated through my brain very unevenly. I think this has implications for reading and writing, but I'll have to think more.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Rigors of Complexity

I read with some interest Arnold Dodge's recent Huffington Post called It's the Complexity, Stupid, though I wasn't so happy with the epithet. It's eye-catching, but I think it distracts us from complexity and reifies the very group of people he should be embracing. Mr. Dodge is a veteran of the New York public school system and currently the chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at Long Island University-Post, so he likely knows a few things about education, and perhaps a few things about complexity.

He starts his post by noting the failure of public education to service our young people so that they can be contributing members of society, lead a full and rewarding life, and understand that they are stewards of the next version of life on our planet. This failure, he says, is the greatest threat to our nation's security. That's a bold statement, and I have no idea if he's correct (a meteor strike or global warming seem a greater threats), but it's an engaging introduction. We like apocalyptic calls to action—they are simple, and this is where Mr. Dodge gets caught by the very drive for simplicity that he is attacking. And why are our schools failing? Again, he gives us a simple answer: because we prefer simplicity over complexity.

Yes, we do. Almost all of us. Fortunately, that does not make us all stupid. It makes us too left-brained, if Iain MacGilchrist is correct about the divided brain, which can leave us blind to some very useful information about the world, but it doesn't leave us stupid. But then stupid is a simple reification of all those people that Mr. Dodge wants to think differently. That seems a problem to me.

Reification is a nice concept that Mr. Dodge picks up from Stephen Jay Gould's 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, a book I have not read, but it seems that reification, at least as Mr. Dodge is using it, is a kind of reductionism characteristic of the drive toward the simple. As Gould says we "give the word 'intelligence' to this wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. This shorthand symbol is then reified and intelligence achieves its dubious status as a unitary thing." Like the word stupid, a simple shorthand symbol to reference a complex entity, but Mr. Dodge overlooks that most symbol systems, language certainly, have this tendency. The name Keith Hamon reifies the complex entity writing to you in this post. The term reification itself reifies a complex behavior and mental process.

Complexity demands that we vibrate, or dance if you like, between the statically reduced and reified on the one hand and the open-ended cosmic on the other. The reified is graspable and useable by the left brain, and the holistic is contemplated by the right brain. We need the simple for power to do and say things, and we need the holistic to make sense of what we do and say. Complexity is the tension and interaction between the two extremes: the simple on one hand and chaos on the other. MacGilchrist makes a strong argument, for me, that our current age is mentally unbalanced in favor of the left brain's drive for simplicity. This explains much of what I see from religious fundamentalism to scientific, technological, political, and business fundamentalism. This is unfortunate, but who cannot have a certain sympathy for those who prefer the simple over the chaotic? Most of us spend much of our time and energy trying to build simplicity into our lives: schedules, relationships, reliable incomes, maps, routines, and more. As Iran just proved to us again, we prefer the simplicity of an awful dictator to chaos. But just as both China and the Soviet Union have also proved, too much rigid simplicity does not lead to a satisfactory society for most people. We want something that oscillates between the simple and the chaotic.

I am not suggesting here some Golden Mean or dialectic; rather, I am suggesting a dialogic in the sense of Edgar Morin and Iain MacGilchrist. In his book The Master and the Emissary, MacGilchrist says that the left and right hemispheres of our brains provide antagonistic visions of the world, and our mental state is a dynamic unfolding of the tensions and interactions between the two visions. Morin says in more universal language that the dialogic "allows us to connect ideas within ourselves that are thrown back on each other" and allows us to contemplate "the necessary and complementary presence of antagonistic process or instances." There is a dialogic, too, between the Mr. Dodge's simple and the chaotic, and this dialogic is necessary for life. We can reify this zone of engagement and call it complexity.

At times, we favor the simple, at other times, the chaotic, and all of us know people who favor too much simplicity or too much chaos. Our lives are an unfolding of the tensions and interactions between the simple and the chaotic, and it may seem that this complex zone is the right place to be, but that isn't quite right. It is not a place to be; rather, it is a place of becoming that exists only as a dialog, or a dance, between the simple and the chaotic. I am not talking about a balance here, but a suspension—a not altogether happy suspension. We must be diligent and vigilant to maintain this dialog, and most of us do not have that kind of sustained energy. Thus, we lapse into the simple or the chaotic when our energies fail us. Some of us just stay there, and I can understand why.

Well, that turned into a real Sunday School lesson, didn't it?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Assessing Complex Systems and Sonnet 73

As my own views about education continue to emerge, I understand them best within the context of the conversation about complexity—complexity as a large, transdisciplinary conversation that has been emerging for centuries, but that was made unavoidable by the emergence of relativity and quantum physics at the beginning of the 20th century. The fact that I just used a form of the term emerge three times in a single sentence suggests how much Complexity has informed my thinking. As I am so very fond of following rabbit holes, it helps me from time to time to gather my thoughts to see if something coherent emerges. See?

I've been reading through a series of articles about complexity and the limits of knowledge from a 2005 special edition of Futures. I recommend it to anyone interested in either complexity or knowledge or the knowledge of complexity or the complexity of knowledge. You can really get tangled up, or at least I can. So I want to do a bit of untangling.

At the largest scale I can think about, complexity is that zone of engagement between the open-ended future and the closed past. We call that zone of engagement the now or the present. I could refer to it as The Now and perhaps win an honorable mention in the next Eckhart Tolle book or a few minutes on Oprah, but I'm feeling sober this morning, so I'll just stick with the now. Complexity is the activity that emerges between the juxtaposition of the hot, open-ended potential of the future and the cold, fixed certainty of the past. Complexity is the result of the tension between hot and cold, or to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace, it is the result of the miscegenation between a hot air mass and a cold air mass. That image works for me: we exist in the thunderstorm of the now, and though we may long for the potential of the future or the certainty of the past, we cannot live in either place. Life, and by extension knowledge, cannot exist in the chaotic order of the future or the fixed order of the past, but only in the dynamic, emerging order of the now as the heat of the future slides by and is transformed into the cold of the past (I'm perfectly willing to believe that the transition from hot activity to cold fixity only gives us the illusion of movement, but the visual metaphor is appealing to me). The complexity of the now is all we get, all we have, but because the now is a complex system, it is profoundly affected by and interacts with both the future and the past. Both the future and the past inform the now, and the dynamism of the now informs both the future and past in turn.

So for me, complexity is about as big an idea as I can have—sort of a God idea, but I don't intend to talk about God in this post; rather, I want to talk about knowledge and education and what the overarching concept of complexity has to do with them. How does it inform my ideas of knowledge and education? That's the question.

In their Introduction: Complexity and Knowledge (Futures, 2005, Vol. 37, pp. 581-584), Peter Allen and Paul Torrens note that the study of open systems proved to be very problematic for scientific knowledge in both the hard and soft sciences. They say:
For isolated and closed systems classical thermodynamics gave us the knowledge to predict the transformations and final equilibrium states of a system. Obviously, for frictionless systems such as those involved in planetary motion, Newton’s Laws allowed the prediction of orbits and eclipses, both forwards and backwards in time. Knowledge was complete and related directly to prediction. But, open systems were much more problematic. (581-582)
Closed systems, it seems, function in the simple and complicated domains, as defined in the Cynefin Framework. The simple and complicated domains afford us "the knowledge to predict the transformations and final equilibrium states of a system … both forwards and backwards in time." In closed systems, we can arrive at complete knowledge with reliable—testable and verifiable—predictions. Open systems do not allow such affordances.

This is a big problem, as Allen and Torrens note. So what's wrong with open, complex systems? First, we have a boundary issue. Open systems do not have discrete boundaries. I can see this quite clearly when I try to imagine the boundary between now and the future. The boundary has a thickness. I can feel the future coming and the past slipping, sometimes quite strongly, but I can never quite put my finger on the exact line between the future and now, and as soon as I fix my finger to a line, it slips into the past (the line, not my finger, which fortunately stays with me in the now). So the boundary also has an incredible thinness. So which is it—thick or thin? Well, both, of course. The boundary is open, and the exchanges between the system inside (now, for instance) and the systems outside (future and past, for instance) modify all systems. I really am speaking universally here; thus, I include those systems within the simple and complicated domains. From my point of view, everything belongs to the complex domain, and the simple and complicated are but temporary arrangements that we form for our convenience—like a sock drawer, or a classroom. We can pretend for a moment that our classrooms belong to the simple or complicated domains, but they don't. The classroom is a complex system of complex systems, and to treat them otherwise is to risk complete misunderstanding.

The dynamic interaction at the boundaries among complex, open systems means that it is very difficult to limit ourselves to local causality. In other words, the events in any one classroom are the result of remote causes (familial, social, economic, political, etc.) just as much, sometimes more so, as local causes (say, a classroom lecture or demonstration), and we are unlikely to be able to assess exactly what caused any given behavior in our students. Nor can we predict reliably the effects of any applied intervention or instructional design. As Allen and Torrens put it:
The simplest definition of a complex system is one that can respond in more than one way to its environment. … So, ‘knowledge’ about the future trajectory of the system can be both quantitatively and qualitatively wrong. … Innovation can occur, and it may have untold implications for the future evolution of both the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ the system. Similarly, the same ‘intervention’ may produce two different results on what were believed to be similar systems, since a single complex system can respond to an intervention in different possible ways. The outcomes could differ qualitatively and this surely must therefore introduce some doubt into the ethical basis for the intervention. … These new ideas force us to accept a significant reduction in our powers of prediction, and even in our ability to frame a useful question.
I find myself, here, slipping into considerations about evaluation and assessment in education, and I'm reminded of the recent words by Christina Hendricks, Stephen Downes, and Keith Brennan about how to assess a MOOC. I won't go into the details of their discussion, but I will say that from my vantage point measuring a MOOC, or any other classroom, is more like measuring a thunderstorm than measuring an automobile. That being said, I think we are beginning to develop some useful metrics for measuring open, complex systems. I may need to complete one of Siemens' learning analytics MOOCs to learn what some of those metrics.

I want to add, as well, that I think we literary scholars have been confronting open, complex systems for a long time. Consider a Shakespearian sonnet—Sonnet 73 will do. Almost all the data that I can gather from traditional measurement (meter, rhyme, number of lines, number of feet, etc.) says so very little about the poem. That data can enrich my understanding and appreciation of the poem, but by itself, that data reduces the poem to a closed system, a handy sock drawer, some trivia to answer on a test, and I would never read the poem again if that's all I had. Only when I open the poem to its environment, allow it to breathe, allow it to help me make connections to grandma, winter freezes, and dying embers, to my hopes and fears, only then do I find value and meaning. I find that value and meaning difficult to measure and assess, but I'm hopeful that we are developing the tools that will help us do so. Some very interesting things are happening in the digital humanities that point this way. I'll have to read some more.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Flexible Disciplines, Flexible Boundaries, and Making Meaning

I think I have a bit more to say about boundaries, especially in terms of the boundaries that distinguish the academic disciplines. I've been arguing that the boundaries between, say, history and physics are nowhere near as rigid and as static as academic purists might insist, but neither are the boundaries between history and physics imaginary, capricious, and unnecessary as academic anarchists might insist. (I recognize that I am creating extremes with my contrast of purists and anarchists and that most educationists lie somewhere between or even outside these two extremes, but it helps me to see my point.) Boundaries are both necessary for human activity and knowledge and temporary.

I rely here on a few articles by South African complexity scholar Paul Cilliers and by Dave Snowden's Cynefin Framework, and my argument, I think, makes a basic assumption: that education and educational structures are complex systems tending to the chaotic, rather than complicated systems tending to the simple. I believe this is so despite the enormous energy expended in wrenching education into a simple system. Education ain't simple. It probably isn't even complicated. It's complex, at best. To my mind, then, the biggest problem with academic disciplines is that we try to move them into the simple and/or complicated domains of the Cynefin Framework where their boundaries are fixed, explicit, and easily taught, with clear canons of content and methodologies. In the simple or even complicated domains, it's easy to distinguish the historian from the physicist. In the complex domain, disciplinary and canonical boundaries are much more problematic, though no less useful, even necessary. Paul Cilliers helps me understand this.

In several critiques (Knowledge, Complexity, and Understanding (2000), Knowledge, limits and boundaries (2005), and Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely (2007), for instance), Cilliers argues that knowledge is best understood as an emergent property "constituted within a complex system of interactions". This view of knowledge avoids both extremes of the purist and the anarchist, or as Cilliers more accurately calls them: the fundamentalist and the relativist. As Cilliers says:
An understanding of knowledge as constituted within a complex system of interactions would, on the one hand, deny that knowledge can be seen as atomised ‘facts’ that have objective meaning. Knowledge comes to be in a dynamic network of interactions, a network that does not have distinctive borders. On the other hand, this perspective would also deny that knowledge is something purely subjective, mainly because one cannot conceive of the subject as something prior to the ‘network of knowledge’, but rather as something constituted within that network. The argument from complexity thus wants to move beyond the objective/subjective dichotomy. (Knowledge, limits and boundaries, p. 608)
Knowledge, then, is not representational, "linked to the sign which represents it", but relational, "the result of a dynamic interaction between all the meaningful components in the system … itself a complex process" (Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely, p. 85). This presents an immediate problem, however, given the open nature of complex systems. If complete knowledge must account for an infinite number of interactions across the open boundaries of complex systems, then how do we ever attain actionable knowledge, given that we have a limited amount of time? Because we, as knowledge makers, are ourselves contextualized, and each context limits the number of system components presented for knowledge making. In other words, though a single rose is ultimately connected through its complex interactions to the entire rest of the Universe, the meaning of the rose is constrained when I cut it from my own garden and present it to my wife on Valentine's Day, which provides a bounded context within which meaning can emerge. The boundaries make the emergence of a particular meaning possible.

Of course, the meaning is no more absolute than the boundaries that enable it. In the relatively straightforward example above, the meaning of the rose will be slightly different, perhaps radically different, for me than for my wife as we bring our different contexts to the event, but it will be similar enough that we can at least speak meaningfully with each other—though we should be mindful that the very stuff of most romantic comedies involves the different meanings drawn by men and women from even so well-bounded and commonly shared an event as Valentine's Day. Boundaries in complex systems are not permanent or rigid, though they can persist in recognizable contours for long times.

So to directly address my concerns with Marion Brady's dismissal of disciplinary boundaries, I think he slightly overstates his case. We cannot dispense with boundaries in complex systems such as academic disciplines if we want to create meaning, or knowledge. Likewise, we cannot calcify our boundaries without destroying knowledge. As Cilliers says it:
One can, and often should, emphasise the interrelatedness of systems. Often the boundaries of systems are constructions we impose in order to reduce the complexity. This can lead to oversimplifications, to reductive descriptions of the system. However, if boundaries become too vague, we end up with a kind of holism which does not allow much to be said. … We need limits in order to say something. (Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely, p. 88)
Perhaps, though, Brady's discontent with disciplinary boundaries comes from the usual interpretation of boundaries as "something that separates one thing from another" (Knowledge, limits and boundaries, p. 611). In this view of boundaries, one cannot be both an historian and a physicist at the same time. History and physics are separate things, and one cannot be in both places at once. Of course, complexity and quantum theories ignore this kind of classical logic. Cilliers makes some suggestions about how we might think differently about boundaries, ways that make sense within complex systems.

First, "we should rather think of a boundary as something that constitutes that which is bounded. This shift will help us to see the boundary as something enabling, rather than as confining" (p. 611). From this view, our skins, those well-known and most familiar boundaries, don't separate us from the rest of the world; rather, they enable our interaction with the world by helping to maintain our own integrity as a persisting complex system and providing somewhat stable and recognizable contours that the rest of the world can engage and through which energy and information may be exchanged. Likewise, disciplinary boundaries need not separate historians from physicists, but they should enable useful, valuable interaction between historians and physicists, shifting and stretching as different issues supply different contexts of meaning, again enabling a mutually valuable exchange of energy and information.

Next, we should rethink our physical images about the place of a boundary. We must replace our visual metaphors which force us to think of complex systems "as something contiguous in space." Complex social systems, Cilliers notes, are not necessarily contiguous; thus, "parts of the system may exist in totally different spatial locations." This is certainly the case with history as an academic discipline, which is not a spatially contiguous physical system. This implies that a historian likely belongs to many different complex systems (families, churches, political parties, etc) and "that different systems interpenetrate each other, that they share internal organs." So where's the boundary? It's always provisional, determined by the context referenced at any given time for any given event. Furthermore, Cilliers notes that any node in a system is "never far away from the boundary. If the components of the system are richly interconnected, there will always be a short route from any component to the 'outside' of the system. … the boundary is folded in, or perhaps, the system consists of boundaries only. Everything is always interacting and interfacing with others and with the environment; the notions of 'inside' and 'outside' are never simple and uncontested" (p. 611).

So maybe that can address Brady's concerns with disciplinary boundaries. At least somewhat.