Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Original Entanglement – Enacting Social Fabric – Re-Cognizing Futures

In using the idea of ‘Original Entanglement’ I want to evoke the insight that David Graeber provided when he recounted that the original Indo-European words for – Sin, Guilt and Debt – were in fact the same word (even the translation of the Lord’s prayer was originally ‘Please forgive us our debt’ not ‘trespasses’). This insight was literally an illumination for me. For the first time I understood that of course – everyone is born with ‘original debt’. Debt to our mothers, parents, family, society, etc. for our lives and the platforms which were given to us and that enabled us to build our own lives.


The theme of original debt is also the foundation for realizing social fabric. Debt as favors, obligations, responsibilities, gifts, kindnesses, harms, thefts… form the fundamental nature of the social fabric. And it is through the incurrences of such debt that we enact ourselves-through-others. What I want to accomplish in this series of postings is to elaborate that debt-as-social-fabric provides an interesting ground to imagine the future constraints that will be entailed by the digital environment. One constraint is that debt in the digital environment enables and demands a new form of accounting as social currency. However, most people don’t appreciate that currency eliminates the presence of social fabric in economic transactions – as a sort of trustless system – despite the fact that the same people can intellectually acknowledge that currency is the circulation of debt. 

The key question that arises then is can we recover social fabric as currency? How can debt be both currency and social fabric?

I have been arguing about how different conditions produce corresponding constraints that shape the basic constructs of our identity. These identity constructs are the necessary means to harness human energy and effort to do the work of sustaining society. Identity and social fabric are constructed in the contexts of revealing our ubiquitous and eternal debts, our enactions of value, our creative efforts, and our moments of trust and risk.

Why is debt social fabric? Because debt is the accounting of all forms of exchange – exchange involving both physical goods and services that fundamentally constitute social relationships in general. As I’ve noted – debt as favors, obligations, responsibilities, harms, thefts, etc. form the fundamental nature of the social fabric through which we enact ourselves-through-others. We can see this ‘accounting’ everywhere that people talk about relationships and even love – the moral accounting whereby we work to keep relationships fair and/or balanced.

Entanglement
Debt is one form of social entanglement – entanglements that are also ubiquitous constraints. However, we are entangled in many ways. Ian Hodder has explored the concept of entanglement in his book ‘Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things’. He has formulated four categories of entanglements: – those arising from humans depending on humans (HH); those arising from humans depending on things (HT); those arising from things depending on humans (TH); and those arising from things depending on things (TT).

Entanglements are further refined through two forms of dependence, which he defines as:

·        dependence(s) which are mutual enablements – in the sense that when humans use and rely on things they are enabled – to live, socialize, eat, think, etc. and in this way become more productive. But it also includes the necessary openness to the contingent nature of the things they rely on.
·        dependency/ies which are more like entrapments or like different forms of constraint that limit human abilities to develop, as societies or as individuals. These constraints can involve physical, economic, social, psychological dependencies on things – such that they become compulsive or even addictive.

For Hodder the simple addition of four sets of dependences and dependencies constitute all entanglements = HT + TT + TH + HH. Human entanglements with things and others also involves reliance, contingency and often constraint.

Humans make things and come to depend on them. We want things to remain as we want them – which things aren’t able to do – thus we become entrapped because the things we create also depend on us to maintain and/or reproduce themselves. We become entrapped in what we care about and invest ourselves into. But as McLuhan has noted – technology (things both material and non-material) is the most human ‘thing’ about us. We are not just totally dependent on our many, many things but they are dependent on us as well as on their corresponding ecologies of other things (a horseshoe for want of a nail, etc.)

There is a very complex tension in the relationship between enabling-productive (dependence/s) versus the constraining-limiting (dependency/ies)  aspects of entanglements – what Hodder calls dependence and dependency. And yet, entrapment can lead to the development of new enabling things that in turn need other things (and thus create new entrapments).

Hodder also analyses the term ‘depend’ with a focus on how humans tend to both move towards in an identification with things while simultaneously wanting to deny or avoid being dependent on the things they identify with.

The simultaneous movement of toward and away is ubiquitous in any human exchange – giving and receiving. For example, it’s recognized in the literature of the gift society that when a person gives something away (something they’ve been identified with) it’s considered that the gift-thing is will carry a part of the giver with it. In this way it may be more difficult to separate one’s self from what one exchanges. Even if the thing received is again further exchanged elsewhere, the identity of the original giver can continue to be ‘carried’ with the thing-gift. In this way we often feel that gifts carry a sense of obligation for repayment or return because they continue to carry a sense of the giver’s self. Thus, a gift implies a sort of debt. The debt can also arise because the receiver of the gift may feel a sense of increase in self or in prestige or a sense of increase connection with the giver. 

Things, gifts, exchanges are far from being contained in within a dyad. They always involve being embedded in ecologies of entanglement with others (including other things, gifts, exchanges and people). What makes these ecologies of entanglement even more complex is the tendency for human to also want to be seen as separate from things. Hodder notes, there seems something almost mystical about the ways in which humans identify with and claim to own things (p.23) make it property and yet remain separate from that thing.

Not all societies have an entrenched concept of exclusive ownership, in some societies property is inclusive such that objects are imbued with the relationships implicated in its history. In addition to concepts of a commons and use-rights held by others, the issues related to ownership can become very complex and contested. In many ways we all recognize that when people merge their interests with their things – their things develop personalities. In this way ownership is a dual process of merging humans and things.

An interesting question arises when we consider that concepts of ownership are inevitably embodied within processes of identification. We tend to think of ‘identity’ as a noun rather than as a verb – identity as a continual process of identifying-with what we experience. In fact, it is almost inconceivable to imagine having a personal experience without an ‘I’ and ‘mine’ attached to the state – as in ‘my experience’ or ‘I am happy’.

These processes of identification are also implicated in how societies structure themselves and the relationships arising between individuals. How we enact our society through relationships involving production, consumption, distribution and disposal of things – also generates social structures including those involving dominance, power, social diversity. Thus processes and relationship of identification also inextricably shape the access people have to things including food, land, technology, spaces for rites and ritual and the means of exchange.

Hodder also refers to the work of Marilyn Strathern who conceived of ‘enchainment or a distributed personhood’. The concept of enchainment refers to cultures where there is no ‘thing-in-itself’.

The term ‘enchainment’ as used by Strathern refers to Polynesian and Melanesian cultures where an artifact is not ‘a thing-in-itself’. It does not acquire identity from those who use it nor give identity to people. A thing is part of a chain of obligations and desires as things circulate, passed around as gifts. ‘If in a commodity economy things and persons assume the social form of things, then in a gift economy they assume the social form of persons’ (Strathern 1988: 103).
Ian Hodder – Entangled: An Archeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things p.89

Strathern goes further in her thinking about a cultural context where there is no boundary between the social and individual person – a condition that constructs a person as what she terms ‘dividuals’ or ‘partible persons’ which she defines as the product of chains of socially reproductive acts. In this way, every person’s identity arises as a product from innumerable social actions. Furthermore, enchainment involve the need to keep ‘things’ flowing – so that gifts are considered as obligations or responsibilities that must be quickly moved on – because to keep something stationary is considered deeply wrong. 

The idea of continual movement brings us to consider a more meta view regarding trajectories of change and even shift towards new attractors of efficiency (and other types of focal orientations). 

Hodder suggests that entanglements are nudged not by economic, ecological, infrastructural, ideological, or systems of meaning but rather by what he calls the ‘tautness’ of entanglements – the sort of tightness of the connectedness between-within the totality of the HT, TT, TH, and HH dependences and dependencies. When things go wrong (as they always do, at some point or other), fixing has to occur relationally, in ways that are fitting with respect to the rest of the existing entanglements (p. 208).

What Hodder makes very clear in his discussion of entanglement, dependences and dependencies and the inevitable processes of identification is that our relationships with things creates the obligations and duties that we have with each other and that also strain, stretch, grow and drive our societies.

In each of these types of connection there are heterogeneous assemblages of things – objects such as tools and furnaces, but also institutions (the guild of metalworkers), place, humans, social groups, rules, metaphors, rituals and abstractions. The parts of these heterogeneous assemblages are held together by flows of energy, matter and information. Thus energy is transferred from plants to animals to humans in food consumption; energy moves from the fire through the pot to the contents of the pot and then into the human eating the food; matter moves from source to production site and is exchanged, used and deposited; information flows through emulation and mimicry and through kin and family networks.

…also flowing through these heterogeneous assemblies are all the human dependence… The things in the networks are the foci of debts, obligations, rights. Since humans are involved in these networks, processes of identification and ownership become activated. The things assembled also assemble human alliances, subjects, duties, attachments. The things become entwined in the human to-ing and fro-ing in relation to things. Thing-thing relationships are never just about things; they are also about obligations and dependences. The smelting of iron is not just about hammers ad tongs. It is also about debts, rights, duties, identities, sexual metaphors and relationships with the divine. As work on social technologies, exchange and material culture, more generally has shown, doing thing with things is always embedded in human sociality.
Ian Hodder – Entangled: An Archeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things p.44



Dependences and dependencies are integral to all entanglements and create both mutualisms and inequalities that constrain and shape existing and emergent variables and affordances. Hodder references the work of Heidegger who described the practical enactment of human existence with the term ‘Dasein’ – ‘being-there’, or with the term ‘being-in-the-world’. Humans are inseparable from their context or ground or environment – they are inevitably ‘thrown-into’ pre-existing entangled ecologies of things, humans, and other beings. Human realize themselves (enact themselves) through the unfolding multiplicity and diversity of roles, situations and affordances through which they are channeled and constrained. 

McLuhan’s famous quote that ‘technology is the most human thing about us’ is very much at home in the entangled human-thing ecology that is our practical ground-of-being.

All the tools, nails, wood and so on that are involved in the project of making a wooden floor constitute an ‘equipmental totality’. When we pick up a hammer in order to knock in a nail, we just take it for granted. We do not need to think about the hammer in order to knock in a nail, we just take it for granted. We do not need to think about the hammer theoretically when we make use of it in this routine everyday way. This type of relationship with things Heidegger called ‘ready-to-hand’ (parallel to the ideas of Pitt-Rivers, Leroi-Gourhan and others listed above regarding automaton, know-how, practical, non-discursive knowledge). As Olsen notes, our bodily movement and the tools are all working together to achieve a practical project – there is a unified untheorized whole in the practices of using equipment. Who I am as a person is dependent on the equipmental contexts in which I dwell.
Ian Hodder – Entangled: An Archeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things p.28

Hodder notes that the entailing consequence of this enaction of ‘becoming-in-the-world’ is that the ‘self’ is not the starting point – rather the starting point is always the specific manner in which any equipmental ecology emerges and develops. The equipmental ecology always arises through complex reciprocating interdependence formed within particular histories, environments and cultures. Self and personhood are inseparable and continuous with these equipmental ecologies of ‘things’. As Hodder notes (somewhat similar to McLuhan), ‘the human is only possible if it has things to think through’ (p36).

Hodder’s work elaborates in considerable detail that ‘things’ have vibrant, complex lives that include tremendously varied scales and frameworks of time. Further, human social life in entangled with things that are each imbued with fields of affordances for emergent investments and entrapments which literally constitute constraints arising from a constant need to care for, and reproduce the things that humans affect and depend on. These constraints also include the inevitable scheduling, sequencing, scaling and logistic problems that are integral to enacting complex actions of sustaining and evolving entanglements in which humans have become invested. 

The inherent ‘unruliness’ of thing and entanglements that drive the development of rules, regulations and discipline as well as the development of corresponding forms of ownership, rights, obligations. The complexity of all of these constraints and enablements means that making one change in one part creates cascades throughout the ecology of entanglements.

Thus not only the trajectories but the momentum of how our entanglements change and evolve emerge from the timeframes and scales of the existing fit of entangled constituents. It is almost impossible for humans to disentangle themselves in order to return to a previous condition. We become embedded in entanglements related to architectures of car-centric transportation, or those related to domestication of plants and animals, or those related to pyro-technologies.

Each new level of entanglements entails new circularity of enablements and entrapments arising from the necessary investments in sustaining all the things involved in the emergent benefits from new and old enablements. In this way, entanglements also tend to shape ongoing trajectories, in much the same way as Kevin Kelly suggests that technology has a trajectory of increasing complexity. Extending this thinking we can appreciate that configurations of large scale entanglements can operate like attractors shaping change and the conditions of change. 

These two components of dependence, positive and negative, produce and constrain human action and lead humans into entanglements from which it becomes difficult to become detached. Because humans rely on things that have to be maintained so that they can be relied on, humans are caught in the lives and temporalities of things, their uncertain vicissitudes and their insatiable needs.
Ian Hodder – Entangled: An Archeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things p.208

What Hodder has done so well, is to illuminate the technological ground that, as McLuhan notes, is the most human part of us. Furthermore the web-like ecologies of entanglements also embody the ‘ententional’ dimensions inherent in the ‘fittedness’ that constitute entanglements. By grasping how entanglements form the ground of human existence we are more compelled to revoke the concept of the ‘isolated, atomistic self’. And as a result we naturally can extend the notion of the social self with a broader understanding of the social. 

The social self is not just constituted from complex networks of human relationships but also by the full ecology of entanglements. The digital environment is now more than an emerging attractor-of-efficiency but is also an emerging social attractor that is driving the emerging narrative of an enacted, ententional, social self. As a new attractor it is shaping the processes of individuation at the heart of a modern notion of individuality which we’ve already noted is formed through processes that arise within the context of an ever growing network of encounters with others and increasingly with things – connected things. These connected things – increasingly referred to as the ‘Internet-of-Things’ is also a new attractor-as-equipmental-context.

What Hodder’s work highlights is that the ground of the socially enacted self is also the ground of our ‘original’ and perpetual debt. A debt everyone incurs just by embracing their humanity of being born into a society, of being thrown into the world. But before I explore how the digital environment creates new conditions for understanding the nature of our original debt, I want to finish this post with one more extension of entanglement. An extension regarding human knowledge. 

Entangled Knowing – Enacted Embodied Knowledge
It’s non-controversial to say that knowledge is socially constructed, that it is the result of the complex social interactions and arises through the development of what are often called epistemic communities of practitioners/participants. But knowledge is also an entangled environment with many largely unconscious dependences and dependencies.

While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.
Michael Polanyi “Knowing and Being”

…knowledge will live not in the final article but in that web of discussion, debate, elucidation and disagreement. It’s messy. …Knowledge has inherited many other of the web’s properties. It is now linked across all boundaries, it is unsettled, it never comes fully to rest or agreement, and we can see that it is bigger than any of us could ever traverse.
David Weinberger

Knowledge is better conceived as a dynamic, non-linear flow that is profoundly social, but it is also primarily tacit and embodied in people and their entanglements. It may be more accurate to say that people are contained within knowledge rather than simply containing knowledge within the brain. To paraphrase McLuhan (who was talking about language, 2011, p.50 [knowledge] like languages are environments which are hidden from the young learner and to which, like fish to water, the learner relates synaesthetically, using all faculties at once. Thus, it is arguable that knowledge resides in a network of entanglements.  

But knowledge is even more entangled because like language, it must be translated (either to another person or into another domain), and like translation there is no guarantee of being free of distortion or error. And when a question is posed, the question acts like an invitation to generate new knowing.

This is relevant to the world of science where each established discipline has its own content domains, perspectives and corresponding language of concepts and terms. Unlike the problems of information theory – language and knowledge are also constituted through metaphors (cross-domain mappings of ‘knowledge’), frames, narratives, heuristics, etc. as inextricably part of the way humans communicate and express themselves. The issue of knowledge as language raises the question of whether explicit (unentangled) scientific knowledge can ever contain the richness and depth of all human knowledge which as already noted, is embodied and largely tacit.

Recently, Harry Collins in his wonderful book “Tacit & Explicit Knowledge” extended the understanding of tacit knowledge. He argues that tacit knowledge only becomes evident because of the development of explicit knowledge, but also makes the point that explicit knowledge is more clearly understood as ‘information’. Most importantly Collins discusses three types of tacit knowledge (TK):
  • Relational tacit knowledge (RTK);
  • Somatic tacit knowledge (STK);
  • Collective tacit knowledge (CTK)


RELATIONAL TACIT KNOWLEDGE (RTK) 

Knowledge that is in principle explainable, and can be made explicit. There is a significant problem however; we don’t always know what to make explicit, because often we simply can’t include everything that is explicable. Collins gives an example from his research of how scientist learned to build the transversely excited atmospheric pressure carbon dioxide laser (TEA laser) and then published their results as explicitly as possible. The publication included a great deal of specific detail, such as the cross-section and machining instruction for the electrodes as well as manufacturers’ parts numbers for off-the-self parts.

What Collins found was that other scientists (also working on the same laser) who used only available scientific publications failed to be able to build these lasers. The success of those seeking to replicate what the successful lab had accomplished was achieved only after scientist from unsuccessful labs were able to time socially interacting with scientist who had successfully built a working laser. 

This case illustrates that learning and education relies more on ‘enculturation’ rather than an ‘algorithmical model’ of knowledge transfer: ”learning to build the laser was like learning a new language or culture, rather than absorbing discrete new pieces of information.” Another important reason to accept that learning is deeply similar to enculturation, is because of the inability to develop a fully explicable knowledge. This is a consequence of the ‘rules regress’ principle – that no set of rules can contain all the rules for their own application.

The necessity for socialization also includes the necessity to access ‘ostensive’ knowledge – what can be learned only by having it literally pointed to – whether it is an object, state, process or practice. For example everyone who understand that ‘red’ is a reference to a color had to have the color pointed-out before they could know what color ‘red’ was. Ostensive knowledge also has to be relied on because in many situations, the description would be too complicated if possible at all. Relational tacit knowledge also involves issues such as codifiability, and teachability. 

SOMATIC TACIT KNOWLEDGE (STK)

This is knowledge which includes bodily skill or experience, (unconscious know-how) such as the classic example of riding a bike. We don’t learn to ride a bike from reading or being told about it. It helps to watch someone ride and we can be given some guidance (e.g. look in the distance, start on a small hill and coast, etc.). Another example is asking a touch typist to write out the letters of the alphabet as they are laid out on the keyboard (without looking). Most people are unable to do this. Somatic tacit knowledge is essentially what we normally consider as tacit knowledge. It is also the basis of the understanding that how we ‘SAY’ we do things is usually not how we ‘Actually’ do things.

This tension between explaining how and actually doing has tended to place excessive focus on the body as the seat of the tacit and in this way limit our understanding of the concept. It remains the generally accepted view, and assumes that all tacit knowledge is explicable. But even more important is how trying to make this sort of knowledge conscious (which means explicit while in the act of performance) can make the performance not possible. For example, while biking we can watch others or think about something else, but if we start consciously observing our own skill in staying balanced, we risk falling over. The opposite of making tacit knowledge explicitly conscious is the experience of ‘flow’ – being totally in the moment.

COLLECTIVE TACIT KNOWLEDGE (CTK) 

This includes social, contextual and enculturated knowledge. Collins uses the examples of learning to ride a bike in traffic or the acquisition of fluency in a language. Language itself can only arise in a social context and fluency can only be achieved in a social contexts – a single individual doesn’t need a language nor can they become fluent in a language without extensive interaction with others. The concept of mastery of language can be extended to include particular domains such as disciplinary fields and includes the capacity to apply conceptual metaphors (as defined by George Lakoff).

CTK moves beyond cognitive sensory motor expertise and into expertise involving interactive social interactive life and conditions.
This is another argument supporting the realization of the social self and the unique human domains where the self can shape and is shaped by social interactions, rules and even more significantly to adapt to and thrive in multiple and evolving contexts of rules. What that means is that human are capable of ‘polymorphic’ actions “actions that require different behaviours for successful instantiations depending on context and require different interpretations of the same behaviour depending on context”.

Also like in STK, it is impossible to become fully conscious of processes of fluency in to moments of enaction. For example generally in conversation we never pre-assemble what we say – we don’t look for a verb, noun ect. We may be careful in what we say but once a conversation is ‘fluid’ it can seem to flow of its own accord.

Collective tacit knowledge is the central domain of embodied knowledge and is ultimately beyond a full explication. Both collective and somatic tacit knowledge involve depths that simply cannot be made explicit. Because of this they can only be learned through mechanisms of ‘socialization/enculturation’.

Cognition is the most socially-conditioned activity of man, and knowledge is the paramount social creation. The very structure of language presents a compelling philosophy characteristic of that community, and even a single word can represent a complex theory…. Every epistemological theory is trivial that does not take the sociological dependence of all cognition into account in a fundamental and detailed manner.(Fleck 1935, p. 42 in Douglas 1987, p. 12). 

I would argue that core to collective tacit knowledge is social entanglement. Collins argues that social interactional expertise (social skill – skill in negotiating and navigating entanglement) is essential in any society founded on significant divisions of labour. Once social, interactional and/or entanglement expertise, is understood in a graspable way, it become almost ubiquitously evident, as the most effective method of acquiring CTK.

One could argue that the master-apprentice model (involved In many vocational, educational, professional and disciplinary programs) shape expert knowledge through lineages of practice and instrumentation. These approaches develop the tacit knowledge and the collective fluencies upon which bodies of explicit knowledge float. This may seem contradictory to my previous post regarding a plausible shift toward a more curiosity-driven education. However, the curiosity-driven education is supported by the rise of networked individualism – a capacity to develop networks of collaborative personal teachings through both masters and peers. 

The digital environment is a powerfully enabling environment for more self-directed collaboration with many others, thus ensuring that knowledge flows from where it is to where it’s needed. Furthermore, this apparent trajectory of learning is one of increasing collaborative-learning-by-doing which depends and enhances the power of collective tacit knowledge to generate and embody new knowledge –through the social self.

Kevin Kelly has commented on the paradox of choice in relation to happiness. He points out that evidence suggests that individuals often can become happier when they can narrow their choices. The paradox is that societies can produce many more happy individuals when a society can increase the range of choices available. This makes sense, in that the more choices a society can offer, the more niches can emerge for individuals to find a place of their unique contributions. This parallels the social self – as the foundation for individuation of all people through the hyper-exchange enabled by the digital environment.

In this way, I would argue that collaboration not only supports but elevates expertise in ‘learning how to learn’ multiple fluencies and therefore an enhancement of collective tacit knowledge. This is actually important for accelerating progress in science and technology, the arts and all other domains of know-how. All science involves instruments expertise in the instruments because of course instruments always require 'tinkering'. There is a deep craft-like quality to the 'doing of science' whether it is the crafting an instrument, a measure, or the language of a good question. This craft-like quality to expertise applies to the all the arts and professions in equal measure. 

Bodies of knowledge, disciplines, large-scale projects (CERN, Human Genome Project, Space Exploration, etc.), or organizations of all sorts, inevitably develop social practices and cultures that enable them to define and delineate the shared language, coding schemes, cognitive frames, theories, mental models, and emotional/psychological investment through social practices and culture. It is the embodied interpretative systems arising from practices and culture which mediate the tacit knowledge creation, articulation, exchange and access that makes explicit knowledge effective. By forming a rich ‘commons’ of collective tacit knowledge and then mastering the explicit codes, theory and tools, participants in an epistemic community can exchange their knowledge as information.

I have briefly explored the nature of knowledge in order to highlight further the entanglement of humans with and between things and other humans. I wanted to illustrate just how entanglement is the actual condition of social fabric and thus also highlight our original debt. If we can acknowledge inextricable entanglement then we are in a position to grasp that all original creative work both owes a debt to the creative commons that nourished the work, that provided the platform from which all works could spring; and in turn how this creates a debt for all others that follow. 

The digital environment continues its emergence, changing the conditions of change and shaping new fundamental attractors. Our entanglement with things, people, information and knowledge will become more transparent in the both the immediate moment as well as transparent trajectories through time. The atmosphere of the digital environment can very likely enable unimaginable visualization of information that we will expect to be able to customize – just as we know expect to be able to search any question we can dream up. Objects will have their histories available for anyone to query. Within conditions such as these the boundaries between information, currency and  accounting dissolve. We are now being challenged to more deeply re-imagine a political-economy relevant to new types of ‘value’ – value that is non-rival, abundant, intangible and subject to increasing returns.

My next post will continue to explore the possibilities of such a political-economy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Curiosity-Driven versus Disciplined Enactment of a Learned Mind

What’s the score here? Why is a page of news a problem in orchestration?
How does the jazzy, ragtime discontinuity of press items link up with other modern art forms?
To achieve coverage from China to Peru, and also simultaneity of focus, can you imagine anything more effective than this front page cubism?
You never thought of a page of news as a symbolist landscape?
Front Page (probes) – p.3

Why does the Hearst press attempt to organize the news of each day into a Victorian melodrama?
Anything queer in a big urban press going flat out for the small town, the small guy and cracker-barrel sentiments?
Is it a some screen or just the fog from a confoosed brain?
Nose for News (probes) – p.5
Marshall McLuhan – The Mechanical Bride. 1951. Ginko Press

I had intended on looking at the circulation of debt as an embodiment of social fabric in this post – but a couple of recent experiences and readings have inspired me to extend my line of thinking about the emerging narrative of the social self. I think pursuing this line of thinking will contribute to understanding how the constraints of a post-scarcity condition in the political-economies of the digital economy will emphasize the narratives of our social selves.

In my last post I talked about the interesting paradox inherent in the emerging narrative of an enacted, ententional, social self. It is that the process of individuation at the heart of a modern notion of individuality arises in the context of an ever growing network of encounters with others and increasingly with things – connected things.


It is the richness of our encounters with the world that enables a truly individuated individuality (a uniquely self-aware, social-psychological-embodied knowing self as opposed to an idiosyncratic psycho-bio-genetic, being deeply constrained by small-group structures). Our encounters include those with people we don’t know (moments where it is possible to explore new behavior – and have our mirror-neurons respond to an embodied incorporation of mysteries presented by new people) or new types of interaction with people we already know, or engaging in liminal situations. 

What the paradox is – is that the more connected one becomes – the more unique experiences with ‘other’ arise and the more possibilities to individuate there are. The social self is the self that can radically evolve – unlike the isolated, atomistic and permanent self-identity. This paradox of individuation also develops a new disposition - that despite the fact that social interaction can also be filled with uncertainly – even scary – it also requires that people be ready to face those many uncertainties including engaging in liminal conditions that encounters with ‘other’ involve.

I began with quotes from the two first essays in Marshall McLuhan’s first book (derived from his PhD Dissertation) ‘The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man’. This was written throughout the 1940s and published in 1951. The first article talks about the front page of the New York Times (the first one above). The second article refers to another front page – but I couldn’t find it so I’ve just picked something that seemed similar. 

Why are McLuhan’s probes-as-insights significant? I think they highlight (so graphically) many recent critiques of what the Internet is doing to our brains – that is radically transforming our capability to pay attention – not only ever shorter attention but also inducing a perpetual ‘partial attention syndrome’ – a consequence of ‘multi-tasking’. These critiques include that our increasing dependence on search is eroding our memory and making us dumber. 

But when one looks at the front page crammed to the limit with short bits of news from all over the nation and the world – we see that traditional broadcast media has been priming us for at least a century to shorten our attention span and to ‘float like a butterfly’ from topic to topic. As for partial attention – one only has to recall the iconic image of the father or parent screened behind the wall-o-print while mumbling ‘yes dear’. 

However, McLuhan saw much more deeply into the effect of media. He noted that the traditional broadcast print media was a ‘collective work of art’ created on a daily basis for ‘industrial man’ – an assemblage of 1001 tales of ‘entertainment’ told by an anonymous narrator to an anonymous audience.

The discontinuity of juxtaposed info-snacks linked the technical-mechanical dimension of the newspaper to the techniques of emerging art and concepts of science such as the physics of quantum reality and relativity.

McLuhan was adamant that this discontinuity did not warrant ‘wails that chaos and irrationalism were descending upon us’. But that rather the complexity of the discontinuous, of new science was enabling a new perception of the world, a new intelligibility providing new insights. 

In essence, what was arising was a planet that was in fact a single city. This is an amazing insight by McLuhan considering that he was writing these thoughts in the 40s and published them in 1951. For McLuhan – the new sciences, the new techno-social conditions meant that irrationalism was actually more intolerable and instead demanded from people more intelligent effort and more social integrity than ever before. For McLuhan the 20th Century techniques of world news coverage had created a ‘new state of mind’ increasingly beyond parochial rootedness in local or national political opinion.

The discontinuity evident in the front page of newspapers and magazines became an invisible ground – with an entailing effect that McLuhan suggested inevitably enforces ‘a deep sense of human solidarity’. Although the traditional broadcast media seemed to condition people to accept the authority of the media opinions and attitudes, what McLuhan noted was a ‘new art form’ that was universal in scope and presented in the technical layouts of print. ‘To the alerted eye, the front page of a newspaper is a superficial chaos which can lead the mind to attend to cosmic harmonies of a very high order.’ 

However, McLuhan also suggested that people would rather immerse themselves in the content than have a deep grasp of the meaning of the esthetic and/or intellectual character of the medium.

What McLuhan pointed out over half a century ago was that literate minds were already being deeply changed by the message of popular broadcast media – a message of irrational-seeming-hyper-juxtaposition of radically divergent and global content. The 20th Century literate mind was challenged with having to wayfind between the worlds of mass broadcast media (newspapers, magazines, radio, and later TV) and the experiences of an educational system who’s focus was ‘disciplining’ the mind.

Any listen to a Sugata Mitra or Ken Robinson TED talk provides a concise overview of an industrial education system that focused not only on disciplining behavior to prepare students to function is a highly regimented/scheduled world of industrial work – but also to discipline a mind to occupy specialized professional-occupational niches within a finite knowledge structure. 


I began my real academic enculturation in the 80s, with all my university knowledge derived from very limited face-to-face encounters with professors, more with cohort students, books, journals and magazines and finally TV & radio. Having grown up in a working class home with no books to speak of, I remember the feeling when I entered the university library for the first time. 

Whole worlds of knowledge – ready to combine and recombine in unfathomable ways to create new knowledge. But the rub was the impossibility of unleashing the full range of my curiosity given the pressures of time and resources available to fulfil the requirement of my chosen ‘discipline’. Disciplining my learning and thus my mind meant that whole swathes of the Dewey Decimal system became simply outside of my personal capacity to explore. There was too much to know and too little time. The pressures and constraints of the academic structures of learning continually demanded a channeling of my curiosity into an ever narrow path. 

Academic disciplines can easily become journaled guilds based on communities of intellectual peers who can confer credibility on one’s work. When it works well this community of peers confers credibility based on rigorous and critical review that enables sound continual progress. However, when it works less well, this sort of community of peers can shape a sort of crony-careerism where the publish-or-perish incentive structure is fulfilled through a form of collusive hyper-specialized focus on a minutia that is formed into a ‘field’ inevitably becomes exclusively contained in a related journal. These sorts of academic structures have provided the channels that most of our pre-Internet generation of university/college students, have had to accept in order to receive a disciplined post-secondary educational journey. 

Whatever our particular experience to the disciplining of our minds has been, the inevitable outcome is productive of a relatively narrow and coherent educational experience. Even those who fought to be as eclectic as their interests, tended to have to accept to remain within the constraints of a disciplined focus that enabled an occupational-professional pursuit – and ‘job’.

The Classic Tree of Science depicted above is from The Golden Encyclopedia, 1959, and is essentially how universities continue to shape disciplines and faculties. Of course things have changed. For example, the production of knowledge increasingly entails more open evolving contexts where many more actors participate, and where resources are no longer fixed, predictable or under direct control and research priorities must adapt to a constantly shifting landscape and the research enterprise must embrace more uncertainty. Lip service is often paid to the importance of ‘multidisciplinary’ approaches.

However, in the 21st Century, generating knowledge is increasingly about: practical usefulness within a context of the application of knowledge; it is transdisciplinary (new disciplines arise in the efforts to apply and implement knowledge); it is more heterarchical and transient; it is required to be more socially accountable and reflexive (a context of implication) and therefore tends to require a larger, more diverse and temporary ecology of epistemic communities, practitioners, actors, stakeholders and participants involving a continuous negotiation[1] in order to collaborate on problems defined in specific and localized contexts[2]

The emergence of capabilities inherent in the digital environment such as ‘big data’ and ‘social computing’ has accelerated the transformation of knowledge generation beyond the traditional occupational and professional frameworks[3].

The complex, multiway interactions the Net enables means that networks of experts can be smarter than the sum of their participants. (p.62)
David Weinber.2012. “Too Big Too Know”

Paradox of Science and Mass Media

What I find so interesting is the paradox of the front page that McLuhan illuminates as such an apparently random assemblage of discontinuous content with the industrial emphasis of an educational system of disciplining minds. It is as if they as shadows of each other. Yet on the other hand the nature of mass media involves significant control over content by professional editorial oversight, in which case the message of irrational-seeming-hyper-juxtaposition of radically divergent and global content may be better seen as another form of centrally directed attention – aimed to discipline minds. If this is a reasonable assumption – than there is no paradox.

But the 21st Century experience of the Internet is one where access to content which is increasingly not conditioned by ‘professional’ editing and ordering. Where consumers of content are often also producers – the pro-sumer – but also where search empowers the pro-sumers’ curiosity in ways that are unprecedented. We are now asking questions with the expectations of finding an answer almost immediately. If we just look at Google – it now answers 40,000 questions every second, translating to 3.5 million searches per day[4]. Before the Internet, how many of these questions were never asked? It is a safe assumption that as the 21st Century continues to advance everyone in the world be empowered to ask what ever question that arises with an expectation that some relevant answer can be found – ultimately meaning that curiosity will become the major driver of learning.

And this is the really interesting aspect the enabling of curiosity – imagining what the generation currently emerging for whom their whole life experience is one where access to the web has been a ubiquitous part of their life. We are already inundated with data and information – as David Weinberger has aptly said – It’s Too Big To Know. 

Today’s kids have access to more information and know-how outside of school than is fed to them inside of school. They will grow up not with ‘Big Data’ but with ‘Celestial Data’ – that will be ready at hand, in increasingly diverse media. This is the vanguard of real digital natives who are habituated to getting information related to any passing curiosity that happens to arise in their mind or in their conversations – a way of living where curiosity driven knowledge acquisition is an unquestioned habit – like breathing.

Let’s take an example, YouTube is current the most popular search engine for anyone who wants to learn ‘how to do something’. But it is also an inexhaustible source of video presentations-lectures-discussions on any topic one is curious about. The user-interface of YouTube also presents a list of further enticements to curiosity which operate a little like the library shelf (but instead it is organized according to a recommendation algorithm of knowledge) and a little like the front page’s assemblages of discontinuities. Each YouTube video has a list of ‘recommended’ or related videos determined by algorithms tuned to content and/or previous searches. These lists presents seductive, ever bifurcating trail of curiosities – delectable crumbs of thinking to follow as time permits. In my own experience it takes an act of will not to get lost in this seduction to follow the ever branching mycelial trail of interesting curiosities.

However, unlike a newspaper’s or a magazine’s assemblage of discontinuities – the Internet has no master editor choosing the content and crafting it in support of any particular narrative. Instead there are a proliferation of voices, points of view and competing narratives. There is no Dewey Decimal Classification system organizing the streams of our inquiries within rigorously bounded knowledge domains. Internet searches, news feeds, and social media assembled recommendations provide a hyper-discontinuity. 

Some have argued that the Internet has actually reduced the diversity of the content we encounter by enabling people to more easily create an information echo-chamber or bubble around themselves. The cheap counter argument to this is simply to point to the increasing convergence in the ownership of broadcast media, to Chomsky’s manufacturing consent, to the FOX media empire. The media bubble was actually pierced with the advance of the Internet and the rise of social media. For someone to create and sustain a personal echo-chamber via the Internet (and especially social media) requires an effort and vigilance that is near impossible. No matter how careful we are in only following people we believe are of like mind and thus closely tied, the fact remain every person has their own proliferation of other networks of interests  – linking them to other people and sources. In this way new information inevitably leaks into very insular circles. Of course that doesn’t mean that people can’t continue to live within their own beliefs – transforming whatever territory they engage with into the personal maps they believe are true.

Given that people engage with Internet media – through their searches, social media networks, and other types of platforms – they will inevitably encounter hyper-diversities of content. What does this foresee? 

I think what the Internet enables in the young and maybe awakens even in those of us who are less native is an inevitable pre-eminence of a curiosity-driven mind – a more rhizomatic approach to learning, engaging with content, and any sort of creative activity. This might not seem so alien as we all laud curiosity – but this is enabling an order of magnitude more of access to new breadths of discontinuities – beyond the confines of the traditional disciplining of entrainments involved of our education-occupation and even of traditional ‘hobby/leisure’ channels.

However, the curiosity-driven mind is not just shaped by the expectation of searching for and finding answers and/or information to any question that may arise. It also includes new approaches for formal education – for example the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) – which invites unprecedented masses of people to enroll in an ever increasing range of formal courses – simply out of curiosity – to get a taste of what a subject is about. 

While it is true that an overwhelming number of people who enroll in MOOCs don’t complete them, the minority that do still represent unprecedentedly large numbers. And for those who are seriously engaged the education they seek through MOOCs they have access to unprecedented variety of courses beyond the traditional disciplinary domains – a variety that no single university can offer. Furthermore, individuals can take courses that traditional university educational programs would not allow because they fall outside of traditional disciplinary/occupational streams.

What does this mean for the digital native imbued with the expectation of ‘free range curiosity’? Perhaps a habit of unbounded curiosity driving unique education-career pathways – hyper-specializations in dynamically emerging niches of expertise. An education that may look (to the traditionally disciplined mind) more like dilettantish-sampling than serious study. An appearance of continual wayfinding through weird assemblages of learning experiences. 

There is something both wonderful and scary in this change in conditions of change. Our children developing as natives in the digital environment are living in a vastly different informational world – one that enables many more unique forms of creative synthesis of knowledge – unleashing vast diversities of types of thinking based on unique assemblages of knowledge streams. The scary part is that this is also like a new Babel - making languaging and efforts to develop a common body of knowledge more difficult. The apparent shadow of the mycelial-curiosity-driven mind will be a sense of breadth that lacks depth as well as an anxiety that without the constraints of a discipline-occupation to provide a ‘common language’ for a coherent body of knowledge (hence the intellectual Babel where no-one can understand what other are really saying).

However, the paradox of hyper-specialization is an increasing dependence on hyper-exchange – which means a conditions that drives a new form of generalist knowledge (remember the breadth and variety of encountered content) – and a likely emergence and expectation of better forms of conversation suited to a social-self enabled to participate in knowledge generation. An emerging, new constraint shaping the social-self will likely involve the shaping of an intrinsic curiosity as a foundation of scaling learning and creative exploration in an ever accelerating world of innovation, learning-while-doing and hyper-specialization. In addition to intrinsic curiosity is a deeply embodied social engagement – conversational diplomacies enabling the establishment of Context – that can establish common Language – that establishes engagement – toward agreements that in turn enable coordinated (self-organizing) action and social computing[5].

Does this sound farfetched? It certainly doesn’t seem to align with the image of the ‘Tree of Science’ shown above. But the image of the Map of Relationships of Scientific Paradigms[6] shows a very different knowledge environment and evolving trajectory.

The curiosity driven mind is nourished by a diet of ever more abundant knowledge and the fundamental economic property of knowledge is that it is non-rival – sharing knowledge doesn’t diminish the original possessor of knowledge even as it enriches the recipient. Despite the age-old adage that knowledge is power – the emerging truism is that knowledge shared is power-squared. An economy of abundance is a fundamentally different economic condition, than an economy focused on the allocation of scarce, rival resources and goods. Attempts to induce a paradigm of scarcity and rivalness around information and knowledge through forms of absolute intellectual property can only result in the underutilization of information and knowledge. The traditional business models and the incumbents who are dependent on them seek to design systems that would prevent knowledge/information abundance and the zero marginal costs inherent in replication of digital information.

The curiosity-driven mind – one that wants to do more than absorb what is ‘given’ but to also build upon and create new knowledge/products/ value, is already developing new economic models that not based on the monopoly of knowledge – but rather establish that knowledge is a commons of social goods – knowledge that is free at the point of use yet able to be accounted for in its use and in this way enables the recognition and revealing of all the pathways of the inevitably social roots of value creation.

There is another aspect of the digital environment that is significant in enabling the curiosity-driven mind. This is the world of the video game and the massive multiplayer online game (MMOG). There has been a lot written on benefits of the video game and I don’t want to summarize these discussions. But among the many key features of the video game I’d like to highlight two. 

The virtual environment of a video game tends to be an open one which is full of secrets and prizes – and thus a central feature of every video game is of course the continual and iterative exploration and testing of the game environment. Another key feature of every video game is the degree of continual failure that players must acclimatize themselves to, if they wish to ‘beat the game’. Habitual commitment to exploration and the need to accept an experience of overwhelming failure until success – these are both powerful habits and forms of literacy supporting a curiosity-driven mind for life-long learning. 

The MMOG also generates these habitual commitments but adds a powerful new literacy involved with developing social fabric. Many challenges involved in achieving success in an MMOG require substantive effort to coordinate group actions to succeed in the game. Such group efforts to accomplish even a single quest in the game, can sometimes take regular repeated trials over months before success is achieved.

Mark Chen (2012:4)[7], summarizes the literacies integral to video gaming and also (one could argue) to all literacies necessary for citizens of the digital environment (e.g. see Jenkins et al., 2006; National Research Council’s 21st century skills for student success, 2010) and primal in shaping, what I’ve been proposing as a curiosity-driven mind.
Being literate means being able to take on an identity as someone who is part of a larger discourse, affinity group, or particular domain of practice (Gee, 2003; Heath, 1983; Street, 1984). A full or legitimate participant is someone who can produce, consume, remix, and critique the cultural goods and actions of their particular group. In other words, new literacy studies always looks at the social setting in which meaningful interactions and discourse occur.
Chen summarizes many of the literacies involved in the mastery of new media (including those of the MMOG) into a concise list which I have modified somewhat here:
  • produce, consume, remix, and critique all sorts of media – Vital for an engaged citizen.
  • communicate and coordinate on joint tasks – Vital for mobilizing collective resources to solve global problems.
  • play and problem solve – the ability to act as a scientist and engineer.
  • perform, identity shift, and metacognate – a vital ability to reflect on where one is in any particular situation in terms of overall mission, goals, task at hand – in order to assess what the situation and to imagine what could be in the future. This also involves the capacity to accept and play different roles as necessary.
  • think in terms of systems and complex social networks to shape an awareness of how people and things are interconnected and dynamically changing – vital in order to leverage networks and conditions of change.
These literacies and their associated skills can only be fully mastered through engagement and participation. Chen notes that an interesting emergent experience arising from gaming (and I think also from any curiosity-driven quests) is what James Paul Gee (2003:55) calls a ‘projective identity’. This involves an imaginative capacity to view the constraints of their current interconnections in a way that enables imagining what outcomes should result in order to exercise more strategic choices in order to further imagine a range of futures that could be enabled and relevant to all involved.

While Chen focuses on gaming in the quote below, I believe that here again, he describes an essential emergent feature of the curiosity-driven mind: 
To play is to explore the rule / constraint systems in a game, motivated by an imagined reality. In many cases, to play expertly is to push at these rules / constraints, to exploit them and break them, to make the world the way it ought to be. This obviously turns the way learning happens in schools on its head. The very act of gaming is subversive and radical, the antithesis of top-down models of authoritative schooling. Yet seeing these benefits to gaming makes it clear that games represent sites of empowerment and agency.
The subversive nature of curiosity that is enabled through the digital environment’s overwhelming abundance of information is at least an order of magnitude different than the type of experience of the ‘authority’ shaped discontinuity that constitutes broadcast-mass media. The emergence of the art of the ‘mashup’, the ‘sample’, the rapid assemblages of curiosity-driven knowledges – of a mycelial education rather than a linearly disciplined one –is producing a different generation of minds – a change in the conditions of change and brings us back to McLuhan’s prescient observation that is even more applicable to the persuasive entailments of an open Internet – ‘To the alerted eye, the front page of a newspaper [Open-Internet] is a superficial chaos which can lead the mind to attend to cosmic harmonies of a very high order.

The next post will build on this and previous posts to explore entanglement between humans and humans, humans and things, things and things. How engagement in the world creates dependences (mutual enablements) and dependencies (sorts of entapments). This will be based on my reading of Ian Hodder’s book ‘Entangled: An Archeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things’. I hope that with this next post I will have established a ‘good enough’ foundation to begin the more substantial exploration of how debt is a necessary constraint that enables the work necessary, to create and sustain social fabric constituting life with and within a digital environment. Debt as favors, obligations, responsibilities, form the fundamental nature of the social fabric through which we enact ourselves-through-others

Understanding the nature of debt-as-social-fabric provides an interesting ground to imagine the possible constraints that the digital environment enables and demands. Constraints that are necessary to harness human efforts to do the work of sustaining social fabric by revealing our ubiquitous and eternal debts, our enactions of value, our creative efforts, and our moments of trust and risk. Constraints that enable the revealing of value where ever it is created will also shape new constructions of social identity and social self.

[1] For example a recent Nature articles discusses the impact of blogging and twitter on peer-review - http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110119/pdf/469286a.pdf  
[2] See Nowotny et al (2001) “Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty”  and Gibbons et al (1994) “The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies”.
[3] See Neilsen (2011) and Weinberger (2012) for highly readable accounts of the transformation of science being wrought by social media and social computing.
[5] See Paul Pangaro – An Economy of Insight – Conversations as Transactions in the Future of Commercehttp://pangaro.com/futurecom/ for a beautiful summary/presentation of conversation theory.
[6] See http://wbpaley.com/brad/mapOfScience/scienceMapFullColorPrint2_lowRes_b.jpg  to expand this image for more readable details.
[7] Leet Noobs: The Life And Death Of An Expert Player Group In World Of Warcraft. Peter Lang.