Sunday 26 September 2021

Digital Endosymbiosis

Digital Endosymbiosis is a realignment of universals and particulars between the activities that take place in an institution and those which take place outside it. At the moment, disciplinary discourse is confused about what is particular and what is universal. One has only to look at the critical discourse to see the identification of "pathology" in various areas (obesity? bullying? global warming?), with little attempt to see that all pathologies have the same structure with specific realisations. As the tools we use to teach become better and more refined, the underlying patterns of universals will become increasingly apparent. However, I think it is likely that these tools will emerge inter-institutionally because this will be the most effective way that institutions can realise their plans to "digitalize" the curriculum. 

This seems to be what's happening in Copenhagen, where I think real progress has been made on our digitalization project (steering collective understanding of something nobody understands is hard - but we're getting there). Also in the last week, I have been running the Global Scientific Dialogue course in Vladivostok, which will feed into an inter-institutional initiative from the Russians in the form of a Learning Futures Laboratory. I see no reason why these things shouldn't come together. Meanwhile, just to remind me of how current institutional arrangements are not viable, also this week I have been in some pretty intense negotiations with my former university about intellectual property and potential commercialisation of a project I have been involved in for 5 years.  Everything seems to happen at once. Having said that, it may all be quite good in the end.

The Global Scientific Dialogue course was excellent - again. This year I did much more around technical skill - it really is a course that is tool-led, rather than content-led - and the tools I introduced the students to included AI, Google colab and P5. All of this is framed around asking "big questions" about the future, wicked problems, etc, for which they work in small groups supervised by a team of 20 teachers. I was worried I had lost them because I tried to do something quite ambitious with Python generating word-clouds with the students own data. Actually, it turns out that many gained exactly what I'd hoped: "programming is not so easy, but it is really interesting, I realise I can do it, and I want to know more". In a course for people many of whom have never programmed before, you can't hope for more than that. And there was a remarkable moment when those students who were more experienced effectively "took over" the class to help those who were struggling, each student sharing their screen, and other Russian students talking them through how to fix their problems. I've never seen that before online - it was like "Twitch does programming". 

In Copenhagen there's been some tension around whether digitalization is about changing the curriculum (and so developing more technical skill in students), or if it is about changing teaching. It is, of course, both. The problem we have in teaching in institutions today is that all our technology has been taken over by industrial concerns. This is the deep reason why education has become increasingly transactional - the industrial systems we use are transactional. I've hatched a plan to challenge this by developing new teaching tools in-house which invite students into a collaborative process of making those tools better, and so are introduced to the technical discourse outside. Moreover, this improvement process can be done inter-institutionally. Vladivostok, Copenhagen and Liverpool might be my first pilot users.  It means that institutions can start to build a technical niche for themselves in a shared environment which connects them more directly with the world outside. Without getting carried away by this, it may mean that in the fullness of time, the inter-institutional niche becomes the main focus of educational activity, with institutionally-bound activities become more specifically focused on deep conversation around disciplines and research. I see it as a kind of institutional endosymbiosis - universals outside, particulars inside. 

I think if there's a thread that runs through everything it is that the internet will eventually transform the institution of education in ways that it clearly hasn't until now. It won't be about online classes or any other online reproduction of the traditional academy. It will be about the necessity of every individual to adapt to the digital environment as it is actually unfolding, not as institutions teach it. This necessity will mean that something will happen between institutions, not inside them. The institution will not die, but it will change into something other than what it is at the moment. As tools for teaching different subjects are refined, it will become increasingly obvious that our tools reveal the commonalities between our disciplines - universals. Beyond the development of deeper tools for inquiry, the need is for institutions to to conduct the conversation about particulars. This is what I suspect the disciplinary discourse will turn into - much more about the discovery of special cases in nature or society - a critical movement which feeds into the ongoing refinement of our universals. 

Tuesday 21 September 2021

Energy Collages in Vladivostok

When I went to the Paula Rego exhibition in London the other month, something really struck me about what Rego said about her technique of "collage". She talked about the sensual energy of tearing into something - pulling things apart (I can't remember the exact quote). My own experience too has suggested to me that there is something about tearing things apart and reassembling them. In the Global Scientific Dialogue course I've been running in Russia this week, collage and energy has been something of a theme: breaking things and fixing them. Today the students made collages from objects they found around them (inspired by Andy Goldsworthy). I'll post some of their images when I have permission from them. Yesterday, I made the  connection between tearing things apart and getting "stuck into" coding - breaking code and fixing it. There's more to be done with this, but it's all very promising. 

A lot of our social media is a collage. That is basically what a Facebook or Twitter "feed" is. It has an energy, and the continual rearrangement seems to keep on regenerating this energy. Is this why we find it addictive? Of course, its not unusual for "cheap" sources of energy to become addictive... that's what keeps McDonalds and Coca Cola in business, after all. The energy of the collages we make ourselves is hard-won; the breaking-apart of things is a real agony, and the rearrangement is a discovery. This is where the learning is.  

I've been reading Simondon's "Individuation in light of notions of Form and Information". There's a lot of stuff about energy there - both in physics and biology. Simondon goes back to the Aristotelian idea of "hylomorphism", critiquing the basic concept that in order to have any kind of "stuff", there must be some ideal form of the stuff to begin with. Hylomorphism was a doctrine to explain how it might be possible to get "something" from "nothing". The "idea" behind the thing was a way of explaining how this might happen. 

Getting something from nothing is a problem that has preoccupied physicists for most of the 20th century. If there was a "big bang" for example, where did that come from? Is a singularity something or nothing? 

I have been fascinated by Peter Rowlands's work because he turns this question around - it's not about "somethings" at all - everything is in a process of making successive "nothings". The algebra to support this idea derives from Hamilton's quaternions, and using this, it is possible to show how Einstein's mass-energy-momentum equation is really a Pythagorean triple, which factorises to zero.  But more basically, if everything is about nothing, and it is nothing which drives the process of creation in search of nothing, then we have no need for hylomorphism. 

But we do need energy. If E = mc^2, or rather E - mc^2 = 0, and this can be factorized into two expressions which represent "local" and "non-local" physical systems (whose product is nothing), then it might be possible to see how "tearing something apart" releases energy - the E in the equation. All as part of the continual process of resolving the tension between local and non-local to zero. 

Is this the driving force behind biological systems and learning? Does this explain why we are curious to know more? Cell division is, after all, a cut in the system - the creation of an asymmetry, rather like the tearing into a picture to make a collage.  Consciousness sits on cell division and self-organisation, local and non-local factors are mirrored in the relation between DNA and epigenetic marks. 

The mark of learning is to tear into things - to break things as a way of seeing things new. In Vladivostok I hope I have been there to support people doing this, and maybe in a few cases, to pick up the pieces when the shock of breaking something is too much. 

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Technology has no Curriculum (How to teach fish about water)

If there is a central tension in the wrestling match between technology/digitalization and Universities, it is that the curriculum is the central pillar of educational organisation, and the web organises itself quite differently. The online world is the epitome of self-organisation - it is no accident that the systems theorists whose work gave rise to the technology also produced the constructivist epistemology which described how natural systems needed no rigid blueprint for their development. 

Education's "curriculum-blinkers" means that education "schoolifies" the world: everything it encounters in the environment must be boxed-off with learning outcomes, a course plan and a timetable.  If this cannot be done, then basically education can't deal with it. The problem can be described in systems terms: it is basically a problem of "requisite variety".

Education works by attenuating the environment (the world) into organisational structures whose fundamental purpose is to coordinate conversations and award certificates. Education has lower variety (complexity) than the environment, but because it also creates an important part of its cultural environment in the world (it creates a niche for itself), it is able to maintain a stable existence in a complex world: it has "requisite variety". Niche construction takes many forms, but includes creating criteria for certification which can only be offered by education, professionalisation, producing artificial scarcity of knowledge and learning opportunities, creating "failure" and "success", and enculturing the young from birth into the habits of formal education.

This process of education's niche construction has depended on the world being "schoolifiable" without too much loss of information about reality. Technology threatens this. As much as the champions of digitalization try to persuade us, technology has no curriculum. It is essentially and irreducibly transdisciplinary. Of course, we can teach those aspects of "computer science" that encapsulate some of the skills and techniques of using technology, but this is only a small aspect of what technology is, what it does, how we should think about it, and what we might do with it. 

Heidegger called the essence of technology "enframing" in his famously pessimistic but penetrating essay on technology ("The Question Concerning Technology"): enframing was a kind of encapsulation of the thinkable world, rather like Blake's "mind-forged manacles".  Being the reactionary idealist he was, technology led him to want to escape into a world of poetry instead, which he saw as offering a different mode of encounter: what he called "dwelling". But this is the same Heidegger who saw that the future of philosophy lay in cybernetics. His own struggles mirror the struggles that education is now having in dealing with a world that simply doesn't fit its conceptual scheme. 

Heidegger knew he was struggling to deal with conceptualising something that resisted conceptualisation. He was a product of a traditional education system. Little wonder technology troubled him so much. Those thinkers who came from rather less conventional backgrounds like Illich had a better grasp. Technology, rather like time, gives us nothing to get hold of in the conceptual frame from which we inspect it. Our organisational structures can't grasp it. And yet, in our daily practice, our industrial practices, our communications, our creativity, our concerns about what is right and wrong, we are all swimming in it. If fish had universities, would they be able to teach them about water?

All this is telling us that our curriculum-based practices will eventually have to give way to a different way of organising human development and organisation. And yet, say this to anyone in a University and they will look at you as if you are mad. But look at what is on the horizon. The noise the technology companies are making about the future of education, and the enormous sums of money that are being invested, is mostly hot-air and greed - but not entirely. 

In evolutionary history, the most flexible and adaptable organisms survive. So compare a university (any university - they're pretty much the same) with a company like Microsoft or Google. Which is more adaptable? Which is more flexible? 

This is not to say that Google's current pitches for the future of education are the future. They are unlikely to work. But they are playing a long-game. Many of our current technologies would have been considered science fiction 30 years ago. We cannot begin to imagine our technological environment in 30 years time. But preparing for the future is what adaptive organisations do. 

Companies caught in an "adaptation block" are now developing separate branches free from the constraints of conventional business organisation. Universities need to be doing this.