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.

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)


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. 


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.


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.


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