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 -  
[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 Commerce for a beautiful summary/presentation of conversation theory.
[6] See  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.