Saturday 26 November 2011

Contemplation, Attachment and Technology

Imagine you are in the most elegant library. There is a smell of books; leather bindings; dust. There is a hushed atmosphere as people process solemnly through dusty bookshelves, stopping occasionally to inspect the volumes. The sounds are of distance footsteps and the occasional turn of pages. And each sound echoes through the vastness of the building. Dark corners catch your eye and entice you in to explore some undiscovered treasure that has not had hands laid on it for many decades, if not centuries.

Now imagine you are in a modern library with computers and sparsely separated bookshelves. Many of the books are in store, and many are now only available as electronic copies. The atmosphere, whilst respectful, is busy; databases are searched, results displayed, links clicked, leads followed-up.

I think the first example provides a context for a contemplative form of life; the second example provides a context for an active form of life. In my paper with Oleg on the Personal Learning Environment (see, I drew attention to Arendt's 'vita activa' and the 'vita contemplativa'. Technology practice, as practice, is more related to vita activa than vita contemplativa. The challenge of the PLE was for the active and passive aspects of technological engagement to be balanced. In truth, I now think this balance to be impossible with the PLE as we described it: the active life is dominant, to the detriment of contemplation.

At the heart of the contemplative life is the conviviality of 'being together' (like scholars are together in hushed communion in the library), and our hope with the PLE was that it should lead to conviviality. It hasn't. It has instead led what Habermas would call 'strategic action': a very active pursuit.

I'm thinking that with my current interest in Von Foerster's Eigenform, I can put more meat on this idea. The contemplative state is much closer to the 'pure eigenform' which folds in on itself. It is a rapturous, timeless, close-to-death-like state which embraces everything: it is a state of total love. The active state, by contrast, is a broken eigenform, where successive recursions lead to the continuously driven generation of new eigenforms. In the process, time is created which drives forwards further processes of asymmetry. This is consistent with what I argued in the PLE paper about System 5 and 4 being effectively more contemplative, and systems 3, 2 and 1 being more active. System 5, as I said yesterday, is responsible for steering towards the perfect eigenform.

But here I think it is important to recognise the importance of attachment. The first library provides a context for contemplation because of the potential stability of a eigenform in this environment. That stability depends partly on the shared experience of all who are there. And here, there might be some symmetrical magic which relates the physical environment with the psychological cognitive processes whereby the eigenforms which are generated are indeed relatively stable and fold in on themselves. It is through this state that we might say that there are "attachments" (but maybe not in Bowlby's language of course) to place and other people.

In the second library, as the eigenform is disrupted, so is attachment. System 5 seeks to chase attachments as a way of seeking the pure eigenform, but in this case it is elusive. As the individual chases the objects and people of attachment, so the symmetry is broken and often objects of attachment are lost.

This latter case seems to me to be the experience of computers: a shifting environment wherein attachments are lost and symmetries broken, but time continuously being generated. It may be that we need to recognise that this is a problem for learning, knowledge and society. To address it, I believe that the best approach is to go for the 'conviviality' card: it is the lack of convivial attachments which leads directly to the loss of the contemplative mode. If we could find some way of putting this back, then maybe we would get somewhere less alienating.


Paul Lefrere said...

interesting post! and I also like your paper with Oleg i( Luckily I can access it from my library. Thinking of those without a subscription, do you perhaps have a pre-publication version that you could post as open access?

Mark McGuire said...

Hi Mark

I think there are several factors that influence contemplation and attachment. Whether the artifact tells a story of the past (physical artifact) or whether it points to any number of possible futures (digital artifact) has a lot to do with what it encourages and enables. A space can be designed so that it invites us to look out or to look in. The proximity of other people allows for conversations, which can help us to develop new thought and ideas, but they require attention that is then not available for quiet reflection. Digital technologies and artifacts are usually future-focussed and privilege temporary, fleeting experiences. Attachment and contemplation requires that we "go analog" or consciously work at developing a "here and now" online. Hopefully, one in which we are not alone.

Mark McGuire
Twitter: mark_mcguire

Lee Schulz said...

Certainly modern libraries provide us with great convenience and text saving data. But still you have to admit, we miss the old ways of doing research. Just saying..