Tuesday 24 February 2015

Rethinking peer-to-peer (and revisiting the PLE)

All technological development tends towards functionalism - even if we intend it to be critical. There's something critical and potentially transformative in FedWiki for example (see http://fed.wiki.org/view/welcome-visitors), and there certainly appeared to be something critical and transformative in the web itself. But now we have become rather cynical about it all. The web ended up as a Pandora's box (Edward Said, on experiencing online communication in the early 70s quickly came to the conclusion that the future would be determined by those who control the network). FedWiki has a sexy user interface; it's like Github, and that's cool... Yet it seems that we've grown tired of endlessly seeking solutions divorced from problems, in the hope that the solution we invent will eventually find a really important problem where everyone will be glad we invented it! Too often our solutions in search of problems create more problems! It's a symptom of bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are very bad at thinking about what their real problems are.

Universities have become bureaucratic on the back of technologies. Increasing efficiencies have left little space in the lives of academics to think. If we only paused for breath, we know what really matters, what we ought to be doing with the few years that we live on this planet. I was very touched by what Oliver Sachs - revealing that he will soon die from cancer - said in a letter circulated on the internet last week:
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
That should give us all pause for thought. Does scrabbling around looking for solutions to imaginary problems fit with this thoughtfulness?

I don't want to rule it out. Which is why I want to talk again about technology; but I also want to talk about the problems we face. Functionalism is the real devil: it manifests as managerialism, bureaucracy, technocracy and the credo of every naked emperor, tin-pot dictator, bully and zealot. Yet functionalism is part of the world - our civilisation has flourished because of it. But it must be brought into continual contact with those things - like death, beauty, art, love and politics - which remind us of its folly. What is our problem today? It is that this dialectical encounter between functionalism and its opposites is not happening in our boardrooms, parliaments, councils - or universities. It is not happening because, I believe, functionalism has leveraged technology to impose 'compliance' and to stifle debate. We have no capacity for politicising technology.

Functionalism exploits technology by using it to amplify what Searle calls the 'status functions' surrounding technologies. New technologies not only declare their own political legitimacy (without voting) but also the legitimacy of the power-brokers and designers who made the technology in the first place. Learning technologists have been particular guilty of this: making declarations about tools that all-too-often nobody wants. So here's a question: How do we create a situation where new technologies are created but where individuals are not forced to accept the declarations by the powerful? Actually, this is a question we've faced before: it is the question behind the Personal Learning Environment! But hang on... the PLE didn't work for exactly the reasons I've just mentioned - status functions about things nobody wants.

There is a central problem with the status function around technology: it is always directed at the individual user. It is the individual user who has to comply with the technology. The status function becomes a tool for atomising individuals. So what if it didn't focus on individuals? I was very interested a while ago in technologies for groups - particularly those based around the Real Time Web. Socrative can be a great tool in the classroom, for example. But it's not between groups and individuals - it's about focusing on relationships rather than individuals: it is about looking at the betweeness of people rather than individual functions. So don't start with an individual user; start with a pair of users. (I like Douglas Hofstadter's idea of the 'Pairson' in his "I am a strange loop").

I think that means that we need to conceive of activities between pairs of people before we think of technologies. In conceiving of relationality rather than individuality, we can start to identify some of the deeper problems of our society. Suddenly, the managerial rhetoric fades away (wishful thinking?): it cannot be about individual compliance and performance; it's about relational ecologies. Decisions are not about coercing behaviour but about nurturing growth. Measurement is not about identifying efficiency but monitoring diversity. What relational things can pairs do which are usefully measurable to them and to those observing them?

Some pairs have rich compatibility with complementing skill-sets; some pairs have no compatibility or exhibit pathological master-slave relations. But what if pairs could explore their relationships through playing games with each other, and then release the ecological structures they have mutually discovered to be embellished by other pairs? A peer-to-peer network can arise from the pair to the team to the department to the company.

Is there any need for any central status declaration?  Probably not. It could all be done on a peer-to-peer basis: "find a game to help you discover about your relationship with each other: here are some suggestions". It is no longer about compliance of the individual; it is about discovery of the other person. It is, fundamentally, a learning exercise.

Technically, this is straightforward: Dropbox, Google Drive or many other such tools have storage APIs (such as the rather cool http://fargo.io/ which is just built on DropBox). It reminds me of an early attempt at a serverless VLE developed by Oleg Liber called Colloquia. In Colloquia, everything was handled by email; now we have individual cloud storage. It is also interesting that this is a very different approach to 'big data': Big data attenuates human complexity, atomises individuals and aggregates these 2-dimensional people to identify 'trends'. It's all a bit like sub-prime mortgages! A relationship-focused, peer-to-peer activity would look in depth at individual attributes and be able to measure the richness of the ecologies within organisations.

That might give us a way of addressing the real problem of our plague of functionalism. 

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