Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 20 Part. 1 “Community and contact drive good online learning”

THE BOOK OF THE VOID

The Ni To Ichi Way of strategy is recorded in this the Book of the Void.

What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing. It is not included in man’s knowledge. Of course the void is nothingness. By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.

People in this world look at things mistakenly, and think that what they do not understand must be the void. This is not the true void. It is bewilderment.

In the Way of strategy, also, those who study as warriors think that whatever they cannot understand in their craft is the void. This is not the true void.

To attain the Way of strategy as a warrior you must study fully other martial arts and not deviate even a little from the Way of the warrior. With your spirit settled, accumulate practice day by day, and hour by hour. Polish the twofold spirit heart and mind, and sharpen the twofold gaze perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.

Until you realise the true Way, whether in Buddhism or in common sense, you may think that things are correct and in order. However, if we look at things objectively, from the viewpoint of laws of the world, we see various doctrines departing from the true Way. Know well this spirit, and with forthrightness as the foundation and the true spirit as the Way. Enact strategy broadly, correctly and openly.

Then you will come to think of things in a wide sense and, taking the void as the Way, you will see the Way as void.

In the void is virtue, and no evil. Wisdom has existance, principle has existance, the Way has existance, spirit is nothingness.

Twelfth day of the fifth month, second year of Shoho (1645)

Teruro Magonojo

SHINMEN MUSASHI

The Greek philosopher Parmenides (510/540 BCE) identified “the void” with nothing, and therefore (by definition) it does not exist. He asked that we do not even begin to consider non-being at all, as we cannot. But this did not stop Martin Heidegger who in The End of Philosophy (2003, p.42)  reiterated Leibniz, “Thatness (existentia) is revealed as an insurrection against nothingness.” He also dares to pose the central question of philosophy “why is there something rather than nothing?” Physicists also muse with that question. Without Dasein choosing to make something out of nothing, there would be nothing.

Help! I can’t Post, Publish, or Save – I don’t seem to be interacting with either man or machine… do I exist in the interstices’ and margins of the internet, or am I in the void?

When the CD was produced I can remember a breakfast time news program which featured that no longer will our records be at risk. They were hailed as ‘indestructible’ and as I remember they spread marmalade on them and wiped them clean and even showed them being towed behind a limousine replacing the tin cans that used to be dragged behind indicating ‘just married’. This wasn’t true. There is no absolute security as things, people and their residues slip into the void.

The notion of nothingness or emptiness has played a central role in philosophy from its origins in both Western and Eastern traditions. Community and contact imply that something, that somebody, is there in the world beyond our selves. That there is at least the illusion, traces of others or others agency  [is this like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?].

Yet more technologies and social networks leading to more hyper-ontologies,and consensual hallucinations

As I write this I am struggling right now to post it, that is do anything at with it. I write post and lose it.  There is a problem with WordPress, I am not alone in this problem as others, members of the WordPress community, have had the same problem. You press draft or publish and bang! A tabla rasa blank slate appears. What is more is that even looking through several threads no-one seems to have received a sufficient answer, or worked it out. One guy even has at his disposal a SEO company under a retaining fee  and didn’t fulfil his promise to share their paid for findings. WordPress happiness engineers are also silent in the wings or the void which I wonder if that is where all that work has disappeared to. It is indeed not the true void is is indeed bewilderment. I care that I am alone with my problem or the problem with my technique or machine. Those reading this as I revise and update this post please bear with me, I hope normal service will be resumed shortly. It is taking forever and this is not good usability. I write therefore I am.

As former British PM, Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society,” the notion of ‘community’ is an abstracted reified form of notion of ‘contact’. What is society? We may see some of its functioning and effects but we can’t feel, touch, smell or even see a ‘society’ – nor economics beyond people drawing money from an ATM or paying at the cash register. But my god, how people in government and academia harp on about these terms as if their very lives depended upon them, and often they do. But the sad cases of neglected and feral children only empathise the role of the social and in its lack, the environment on development and personhood. While there may be no blank slate without others we adapt to what is. If this is wolves then we adapt and grow into their ways, if it is a darkened room, then we adapt and grow into that. Our social experience is the sum total of all those encounters and relationships we have with those we meet or witness or experience in life and through or via media on a daily basis. ‘Community’ is those we have prolonged and regularized encounters with informal and semi-formal ways.

Yes, even the internet itself is privy to such reification as society. In a simple but fascinating and eloquent test CBC reporter Barbara Nichol posed a simple question to a number of so-called  experts :” where is the Internet?” The replies were sort of telling.

From a neurobiology student: “I can’t imagine anything. It’s up in the sky.”

From a designer and art director: “An expanding void.”

From a psychiatrist: “A swirling fog of particles that pulse with light in a seemingly random pattern.”

From a contemporary art dealer: “It’s just air. No start. No finish.”

Only by contact with more than one other does any idea of community or the social begin to take form or shape. In fact if you follow the logic of the six degrees of separation theory then each one of us is only six steps away from any other celebrity or maniac. And contact is not enough, there has to be some form of dialogue or interaction, some exchange, some difference for contact to be meaningful and relevant, for it to be passed on at all, and viral . This is social physics.

Facebook has brought me in contact with friends whom I have had no contact with for years, yet the simple communication of “Hello” sparks off a chain of associations and memories from that time. I have spoken to, as no doubt many others have, to best friends, close friends, marginal friends, from over my entire lifecycle, from primary school, secondary school, my undergraduate days, my working lives, my postgraduate days, even more recently my life as an ex-pat. Through the communication power of the technology they have returned from the void and become manifest in my room in Cambodia. Some fade away again, and others periodically reappear. It makes me like a character in an Arabian tale, or a participant in a 19th century seance, I can conjure them by rubbing the lamp or calling them from the beyond, but what do I wish for, what do they wish for?

Are we a community?

In the practice of living in settlements humans began to realize the need for diversity and mutuality in their daily routines. Before, as hunter-gatherers, they lived in a world with no human-defined boundaries, survival, occupation and environment were as one. Enmeshed in nature they found or hunted what they knew or could, trying different approaches and possible foods as they moved on, or when food or water depleted in a certain place, they moved on. They had no sense of home, home and habitus was where they were at.

When they realised settlements they became enmeshed within circuits of crops growing, and animal husbandry, the growing and maintenance of livestock for eating, the seasons and circulation, ritual and routine, periodicity, iterations, and the idea of a return. Each household made their own tools and fabricated their own pottery and clothes. Surplus production in agriculture started to drive changes. Not only did rapid population growth happen, but cultivators and those raising livestock could exchange part of their harvest for the specialized services and productions of those making tools, ceramics, cloth and processed food such as bread. Not everyone was needed to produce the wheat that made the bread, not everyone was needed to make the bread from wheat. This is all very practical and common sense.

Thus human communities became differentiated on an occupational basis, probably based on skill and predilection. Roles and hierarchies formed the origin of management and governance. Political, military and religious leaders arose who eventually formed elites that intermarried and became involved in ruling and staging ceremonies on a full-time basis. Militias formed to protect land and stores. Demarcation formed. Homes and lands became private places and spaces, a sense of the inner and outer developed.

Beyond farming and local trade, the utilization of localized natural resources in which the village and town was also enmeshed came also to feature in the prospect of exchanges of materials. This denoted regional specialization and interregional trade. It further identified the prospects of one region over another, just as the fertility of one area over another become of focus to farmers and those now dependent upon farming. Ugly old kings of myth and legend married beautiful young ladies who get killed when they fall for a handsome poor guy on the side and so on and so forth.

Much later during feudalism when land had been apportioned and designated to elites, serfs became tethered to the ground, the manor, in which they were born into, their roles fixed by their rank, and typically orientated occupationally by what their what parents or family had ‘always done’  for a living. Cities had grown and within them merchant and craft Guilds. Guilds provided a social group not only organised for the sharing of matters regarding business – new tools, products, prices etc. – but also social welfare for member’s families and so forth. Guilds galvanised those of the same trade or craft in to communities of practice (CoP, a termed put into modern use by cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, i.e. Lave & Wenger, 1991). These have been defined as “groups of individuals with common goals.” If you check this definition on the internet you see that “groups of individuals with common goals” has been applied variously in definitions of “organization”, “a team”, “community” and including “virtual community”. And following the discussion of the internet, ‘where’ is this goal?

However, motivating, drawing together individuals under a banner is not a forgone conclusion; it is often a difficult task, which requires a variety of social skills. leadership and great investments of time and other important resources. Aligning objectives, defining satisfactory outcomes, aligning interests, developing ‘common sense’, building consensus, ascertaining and eliciting complementary skills – all are merely  part of such processes.

Having had the opportunity to study ‘group dynamics in action’ I am only too aware of various issues and problems that can arise from in-group politics and processes and the influences brought to the group by personal- and self- interests (on behalf of the individual or the firm they represent), and out-of-group or extraneous interests and conditions such as why the group exists at all/ What are the meta-goals and objectives, what is the state of the art with regards to the problem being tackled, socio-economic conditions and resourcing, assistance and external advice and so on. As Carl Rogers noted:

” Often there is consternation, anxiety, and irritation at first – particularly because of the lack of structure. Only gradually does it become evident that the major aim of nearly every member is to find ways of relating to other members of the group and to himself. Then as they gradually, tentatively, and fearfully explore their feelings and attitudes towards one another and towards themselves, it becomes increasingly evident that what they have first presented are façades, masks. Only cautiously do the real feelings and real persons emerge. The contrast between the outer shell and the inner person becomes more and more apparent as the hours go by. Little by little, a sense of genuine communication builds up, and the person who has been thoroughly walled off from others comes out with some small segment of his actual feelings.” (Rogers, 1970; p.15)

In Coser’s model of conflict, as outlined in The Functions of Social Conflict (1964), small, homogeneous groups cannot tolerate conflict within the group, but can increase internal solidarity through the creation of a common outside ‘enemy’. Conflict with out-groups may increase the internal cohesion of the group by helping to define the group identity and boundaries. So we have seen this from time immaterial at various levels leading to the nation state and sometimes its definition by civil war.

Phase one – the pop group as a prototype community of practice

My first real experience of this was when I formed a group of musicians in my home town. As everyone was working and I was at college we had to get together in our spare time. We also had to get around apparently inconsolable differences in taste and attitude to music, which we finally did. Now my town didn’t have a large selection environment (the socio-economic environment created by that network of actors, institutions, and routines) for drummers, or even bass players come to that. It seemed in this pond life that everyone liked to play guitar or sing.

We had to negotiate and thrash it out with each other in order to push our competencies, finally when we got to the stage of ‘canning’ that is recording what we had practised and rehearsed. This would help us evolve and thrive as we could send demos to record companies and gig venues. It a typical route to growth of fandom and ‘likes’. But in practice in the studio there were concerns from everyone regarding their contribution, their prominence, their presence in the mix.”The drums are not loud enough” “I can’t hear my bass” … you get the picture. The baffled bewildered engineer was not staring into the void, but rather cacophony and chaos as everyone constantly moved the fader control up and up on their track until all were fully open.

The cows on common ground – the village green

It became a take on the ‘ tragedy of the commons‘ , what we lacked was a system the expertise and leadership and authority of a producer, someone who we could trust would act on behalf of the musical piece as an independent whole, independent from the self-seeking interests and predications of those participant in creating it (‘us’), who understood and could also interpret the articulated and expressed desires of the band [and in cases their manger and investor] also as a unitary whole. Sometimes this could be done in a less expensive and ad hoc way by sharing examples from the work of other artists with the engineer who worked the studio equipment.

But this sometimes brought to bear a further quandary arising from the diversity in tastes in genres of the members, and of course the engineer himself.  Engineers, typically, have eclectic tastes in music themselves which often reflects their purely technical rather than aesthetic or conceptual parameters (i.e. “I can tell the use of limiting on this recording, but I am wondering if it is 100ms or 200, nice touch though”).

The drummer would bring punk rock recordings to suggest his preferred sounds, the keyboard player would bring synthesiser pop chart music, the guitarist heavy rock and so forth. The engineer would then  likely refer to obscure German bands of the 1960s who were always and forever  ‘light years ahead of their time’.  The interpretation then, would be entrusted to the producer and would be an amalgam of technical, aesthetic, and conceptual elements, essentially denoting him or her as an extra member of the group. It could produce noise and confusion, ‘less than professional results’ or, much more desirable, something which had character and was ‘original’.

There is no better example of this than the work of Daniel Lanios and the experimental musician Brian Eno in their work with the Irish Rock band U2. Eno has been credited in applying the attitudes and techniques from experimental music to his own material and that of more commercialised production work such as U2, Coldplay, and David Bowie. As such he has straddled the gap between the avant garde and the pop culture, in a manner which few other artists, across media,  have done.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts re-mix (2006) Kindly click for more information

His work, embraces serendipity and chance operations, hallmarks of experimental music (i.e. John Cage) , and  has included found voices and instruments, the incorporation of the idiosyncrasies of malfunctioning instruments and even the development of  a set of cards which contain instructions to be drawn at random within the working process and aimed at breaking down over-rationalisations, preconceptions, mental stalemates and linear thinking.

It must be understood that music today is an apotheosis of the social and technical with respect to creativity, and with today’ s vast sonic possibilities, it represents an artform which has always been the most plastic. With the digital medium it becomes evermore so with people are literally only held by their ability to imagine what they want to hear. Brain Eno has also ventured into the realm of social networks and media when he and David Byrne released a re-mix of their classic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The website allowed users to remix their own versions of the album and submit them online where listeners could rate and critique them. This path extends with LUX and Bloom, an iPhone App which has just today launched an online extravaganza aimed at getting the public involved. In all I consider this work to be the apotheosis of a meta-creative approach where one provides the elements and means for user creation, reconfigurations and new experiences. Such an element was also created for the game Spore created by Will Wright, the developer behind the Simcity series of games. This is a game that I have used to teach my son elements of evolution and innovation [ in fact he is playing right now as I speak]. The soundtrack by Eno is user configurable so that the user can create not only their own visual and interactive elements, but also unique soundtracks within parameters.

Perspective on the fundamentals of evolution. Please click for more information.

In a sense it is what the developers of creative tools have done. Microsoft word, Adobe and Goggle Docs  for writing, Apple and Pro-tools for sonic sculpture, Photoshop for photographs all lend the prospect of manipulations of content in manners not previously possible. But they were tools crafted by mainly toolmakers, not by artists themselves.

A question remains however, is just how much interaction with creatives these programs have in development, as well as the more general ‘users’ drawn from a more general public. This could be contrasted with how much consultation there is between engineers in an effort to identify just how much such potentials are unlocked by the technology, as opposed innovation in creative techniques employed by professional and amateur creatives. There is a remarkable deficit in references to how creatives input into the development of these creative tools. This contrasts with a mountain of material which offers tips and advice on how to use them.

Phase two – encounter groups as small communities of practice

Clearly, experimental, ‘encounter’ or ‘T’ groups set up within an accredited university and within an academic context to explore the nature of group working from an experiential position is a very different prospect to one that is exclusively pursued as a scholarly exercise. It is the promise of a form of training where theories of the social can be empirically tested, proven or refuted, in action, as kinds of lifelong reflexive ethnographies.

” In reflexive ethnographies, the researcher’s personal experience becomes important primarily in how it illuminates the culture under study. Reflexive ethnographies range along a continuum from starting research from one’s own experience to ethnographies where the researcher’s experience is actually studies along with other participants, to confessional tales where the researcher’s experience of doing the study become the focus of investigation.” (Ellis and Bochner, 2000: p.740)

This is the kind of reflection Schon (1983) describes as `in action’ (p49). That is you do something and you consider what is happening as you do it, and also why you consider both subject and your interpretations in such a manner. Reflexivity, in ethnography, has come to mean thinking carefully about who has done the research and how, under what conditions, how it was written, by whom, and what impact these might have on the value of the ethnography produced.

This is very different to the hard scientific approach in the social and human sciences which insists upon an objective detached and unbiased view uncontaminated by extraneous influences to the phenomena under investigation. The problem arises when ‘the data’ has to re-contextualised, that is made usable, by rendering it, and weaving it in to a story, narrative again. Conflicting accounts may arise between teams of scientists, and their spokespeople, which end up in regressive debates mainly focussed on who has more evidence or proof that they are right.The public meanwhile wait for a definitive call from those ‘authorities; on whether bottled water is better than tap water for health.

Furthermore, it is considered undisciplined, non-linear and lacking procedural thought and even logic woe betide [read for this ‘ rigorous’  and ‘trustworthy’] , feelings, attitudes and politics. Why should art, and humour,jealousy and pesonal interest, pursuits and experiences matter to the exploration of the ‘true’ nature of objective and subjective reality? Beyond the masks and veneer it is relatively easy to understand there is less than six degrees separation experientially, and if we must make something out of patterning and categorising phenomena, or come to recognise patterns emerging from phenomenological accounts, then we might as well start with why there is at least the appearance that when we share thoughts about something we are in communion and contact and on the same page. I can’t confirm if we share a consensual hallucination or not unless I ask you.  But why I am asking you this, why in this manner, what it is I am asking you precisely, and what I am going to do with the answer, how I am going to use the answer is important. Early ethnographers who travelled were like tour guides watching, taking notes, describing and unpacking what they witnessed and and not just translating this, but writing it in the first place from the position of their own education, training and prejudices, or at least those perceived in their academic mentors, audiences and fellows. There is really not that much difference in this approach from designers who would prefer their own company and advice from each other, or their online communities of developers, than listen to a user-experience consultant or worse, end-users (which no doubt wear nose rings are covered in tattoos and wear strange hats whilst carrying spears).

Let;’s face it there is a lot of politically correct renditions of participative approaches and efforts to conduct user-experience research. These practices whilst creating jobs for some come to be worthy things accrediting deigns in the design companies clients. But one can hardly imagine a firm who have knocked up a poor design, passing over a really harsh critique from a third party ‘objective’ UX company, or even affording the time to do a complete re-design. there plenty of room for corruption, in a social arrangement which is like the onus of private education in realtion to being rigorous in teaching and assessment – there is no economic incentive or positive publicity in  failing a student.

Karen O’Reily sums up the ‘reflexive turn‘ in the social sciences very succinctly:

“Prior to what has become known as ‘the reflexive turn’, ethnographers did their research without being self-critical, without thinking about their own role or their own impact, without reflecting on the various conditions under which the research was done (such as who was paying for it or who gave access to whom), and without taking much time to think about how to write up findings. It was if the ethnographer merely had to capture the, usually exotic, societies they studied, and then tell everyone else what they were like. It is still the same in much documentary film-making. We rarely get to see the photographer, the ways the sets were arranged, what happened before and after filming, how the film-maker decided what to put in and leave out, and so on.  Yet few of us still believe ‘the camera never lies’.”

We were taught French at school and Latin [before it was dropped] as if it really mattered. we were at the same threatened that if we didn’t stick in we would be in the short term physical hit, and in the long term unemployable. There is a sick irony to that prophesy today when many graduate and even post-graduates can only find work for minimum wage stacking supermarket shelves overnight. But to me these subjects as they were given, as they were presented at school and while they seemed so arbitrary. But they were all that were offered. You had no choice but to conform to them or face consequences.  It certainly mattered not that I was not attracted to them. In fact, they struck me as learning purely for learning’s sake, perhaps a good thing in Plato’s Academy, but seemed so irrelevant to a child of the manufacturing era. You couldn’t go home and try it out, you were not inclined to do so with your friends at break time. Later geography and history came under the same critique, then maths, physics, Chemistry, biology, and finally engineering drawing and even metalwork. Only English lit a dim light in the window, and only that because you could write essays from your mind instead of regurgitating the intangible and the non-experiential. even art classes became a real chore.

This is why I do not blame some of my ESL students with respect to their English lessons. However, when in the late 70s I travelled first to France, and then to Morocco and Algeria, I needed to speak it. Should the notion of the group or management team, committee, or business partnerships be any different? Should they not know the language and vocabulary of how groups, apart and separate from there focus or goals, passions and concerns, work? Virtual groups also throw the technology and interfaces into this mix.

At The School for Independent Study we explored and debated the who, what, why, where and when of groups. But there were some ground rules set by the institution who had to mediate with external agencies such as the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA). We needed to be appraised, assessed in order to show that learning was and had taken place.  Of course education and learning are experiences but they are different from fun park rides in that their must be qualifier of these experiences that they equip and future proof  us, and to offer educationalists some feedback into what they may be doing right or getting wrong.

One basic caveat is this group work was that you cannot engage in tasks which directly relate to your personal and individual line of study. So this from the onset, made it a very different form of group than when we consider a team of managers or designers, those who may have worked on other projects together, work and exist within the same firm and culture, or within a community of practice which extends beyond the boundaries of the firm to partners firms and other managers and engineers, online and off-line. Also very practically they tackle problems resonant and concordant with their individual or overlapping expertise and organisational goals.

It was also different due to its very contrived origins  from the types of groups entrepreneurs would build around themselves, either of friends that were available (I think about Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin here as glib and famous examples). There seems more community and contact is early Microsoft, Apple and Facebook than having people of different age groups, cultural backgrounds, etc, coming together because they must in order to complete a study.

Of course this is not to take away from the fact that there were those who clearly enjoyed the process, their were those who were intimidated by the process, those who were knowledgeable in the process and studying it while they did [all the time], those who viewed themselves as cleverer than the process and ‘above or beyond it’ , and those who would simply put up with the process. In short it was a forced diversity.

“…as they gradually, tentatively, and fearfully explore their feelings and attitudes towards one another and towards themselves, it becomes increasingly evident that what they have first presented are façades, masks ….in such a group the individual comes to know himself and each of the others more completely than is possible in the usual social or working relationships. He becomes deeply acquainted with the other members and with his own inner self, the self that otherwise tends to be hidden behind his façade. Hence he relates better to others, both in the group and later in the everyday life situation.”  (Rogers, Ibid. p.15)

Another caveat was that you had to develop the tools to analyse what was happening in the group. This forced ‘meta’ learning. You had to be part of the group, emotionally and experientially, but at the same time you had to detach yourself from the group and view it as objectively as possible in terms of its processes and the dynamics between people, and how these impacted performance for good (i.e were concordant with the group stated and articulated ambitions and aims) or bad (divestiture from targets, aims and ambitions). It was not important that, for instance, the group succeeded in its goal to produce a bird table for the local mental hospital, what was important was this report or analysis of what went on and possible reason why the goal was not achieved. Clearly the artificiality lay precisely in the stated philosophy of ‘process and method rather than outcome’. Some of those who were proponents of group working and were watching themselves watching themselves [gulp!] began to fray a little at the edges with the  feedbacks. I would consider myself as straddling the ‘above and beyond’ position whilst also treating it as a pure experience of getting innovated with people [I will be posting about my experience in a later follow-up on Aphorism 17 – “On-line Learning should not be downgraded to facilitation”).

In the unforgiving conditions of the free market out-with the bubble we were in, the zero tolerance for absolute failure, that is taking on a project for a customer or client and not delivering, would be zero, in the sense that we would not be paid, open ourselves up to contractual difficulties and even penalties, and damage reputation. These are tantamount to all the neoliberal arguments for deregulation and opening up all manner of services to the discretion and  critique of the market [that’s if it can be said to have these traits at all – society, the social and community may not exist expect in the minds of people, what about markets? – Gore Vidal, the American writer, once famously quipped that the US economic system is “free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich”.].

Now the point to be made here is that if we went the other way and claimed ‘content, rather than process and method’ we may have ended up with a process which would identify which members of the group were best equipped to deal with the problem at hand and support them to tackle it.

This would in the above example be these with wood working skills or expertise and everyone supporting them such as in providing materials and tools when they need it in the manner a surgeon is given this tools at the time of need, or even has his or her brow wiped as he or she sweats. This is the counter-argument which suggest a stratification of society into experts in diverse fields. The dilemma, debates and diatribes of such a group would report quite differently and speak mainly of its problem solving in terms of identifying who was best placed to do what within the team. This would cut administration costs in time and effort.

Cross functional teams in industry work this way where they are consciously put together in terms of each member having complementary input into a project. given a free reign it is clear that manufacturing has its needs and requirements, as does product development, and those responsible for financial controls and so on. Like the music group in the studio, not all of the elements can be combined at full strength or prominence in the mix, rather an overall process of negotiation and rational must be built at the social level in order to foster the best possible outcome. This is true if it is an aesthetic or functional outcome. Now these conditions pre-suppose that we would be working on a carpentry style project, and that we would have this expertise to draw upon within the group. In fact the choice of projects could be left to a ‘leader’ who would only choose those projects that were felt to succeed.

Why diversify when you can reduce risk by taking on projects that you know you can handle with ease? Without exposure to, and adopting an optimising strategy to project selection and operation, opens then the prospect of over- and rigid specialisation, a lack of agility and ability to cope with unexpected problems and events. There may be social loafing with un-skilled members becoming marginalised and redundant causing social unrest. There may be problems with and potential conflict arising with ownership of the project in the group and so forth. There may even be takeovers of the group by members dominant in communication, even loudness of voice, or through holding the group to ransom by withholding their technical expertise. All this I have witnessed in my organisational research of firms, but I  also saw evidence in these groups at college.

When I realised these realities I began to develop a third option, a third way, which found favour with proponents for both philosophies [or political ideologies as these translate to progressive left and conservative right views] and that was creating a framework within the framework we were working in. The subject was a video project with the theme of ‘the ending of a relationship’.

It was sufficiently vague, open ended, like a manifesto aphorism or a McLuhan probe and aimed inducing and invoking, drawing out a myriad set of ideas from prospective participants. Possible subjects were posted and people could subscribe to one or another. When 6 or more people gathered then the group would consolidate and form and agree on structure, meeting times, governance, rules, etc. Then there would be some discussion regarding the theme with the aim that everyone aligned their vision to the overall project. This planning period could take time as people jostled their idea of what it was that attracted them to the group in the first place, suggested by the theme. understanding this I choose to introduce the working process into the realisation of the theme.

Each member would in a sense write a script articulating their own interpretation of the theme. Each 5 minute piece would be directed, and performed by each member. In a sense it was a parody of Andy Warhol’s ‘5 minutes of fame’. They would have complete editorial and directorial control over their 5 minutes. The other group members would essentially work for them for a similar division of the working hours the group allocated to the project. The result would be edited into a 30 min video [which would take up half of the final presentation].

This suggestion met with some fairly heated discussion, which lasted a few meetings, with some member threatening to leave as they felt that this was not group working or a group working together] this approach was adopted. In a sense we were repeating the history of centralised hierarchies and elites in both capitalist and socialist systems. This contrasted with this distributed organisation which in a sense was a facsimile or microcosm of the philosophy of the entire university course.

The results were very well received and came to be shown not only in the final presentation to faculty and other groups, but shown in the university’s own art school and other art schools in London to prospective experts . The final product showed 5 interpretations of the theme [the original discontent participant who saw this as a threat to socialised means of production, actually became one of the strongest proponents of this approach, and yet failed to meet the deadline for their contribution], which were very different in terms of subject matter and appearance and filming techniques. They made a kaleidoscope of ideas emerging from the process and method of working and from interpretation and imagination sparked from the theme and its discussion. In a sense it was harnessing diversity, promoting diversity and showing the richness and success which can derive from diversity.

The relevance for a reflexivity both t the individual level within the group, and for the group as a galvanised whole was a truly important aspect of making it, or keeping it real. Groups and teams are today a crucial competent of creative work, and with virtuality and crowd-sourcing can clearly be very large indeed. However, it is the small group which is perhaps the most creative and innovative such as hackathons or teams of online poker players who work in concert to solve problems. It is very hard to measure the effectiveness of working independently and interdependently on focused tasks and in groups on problems of a more cross0funcational and managerial ‘meta’ level. a range of studies exploring creativity and innovation, as well as psychological studies such as social facilitation, have emphasized the distinctive place for both modes.

Phase three – the European research fireworks FP4, FP5, FP6, FP7 -can you really innovate in a bubble?

Also, another ‘artificial’ group [which I define as those which are created outside of traditional free markets or coming together according in a kind of autopoetic manner in accordance with the interests of the group [i.e. friends embarking on a business project where there are incentives for them to get together], was the exposure I received while working and researching in the UK university system.

I had as a management researcher specialising in new tech, a fair exposure to projects coming through the EU research framework projects I have worked on. The EU, as it does, wishes to see companies from across the continent working in close busy intense innovations projects together. Like all modernist standardisation/homogenisation projects a German widget can and must fit a an Italian thingy, just as Germany is now the chief producers of Greek Feta cheese for our British supermarket shelves, so a Greek software company, should be able to parse their core competencies and devices with offering from a French media buyer, a Spanish newspaper, a British computer company, and so on. The vision of course was akin to the famous 70s coke advertisement which depicted representatives of the world’s creeds and races transcending their religious and ideological differences, their ethnic and cultural roots to sing in harmony how they wanted to ” buy the world a coke“.

In this forced, federated and socially fabricated [or engineered???] view it had representatives of content and technical companies, which we must bear in mind are highly predatory volatile and fiercely competitive sectors in their own patches locally and globally. The emphasis here was modus operandi of most capitalist projects, doing and committing as little as possible and maximising benefits and incomes. In the face of having to make certain functions and features interoperate, which would take man-hours and resources, was to spend an inordinate amount of time negotiating just who would not do what.

The university contribution, typically in areas such as user research and business modelling (typically my role in the mix) were the minority voice but increasingly a necessary one according to the EU caveats and dictates regarding the projects [they had learned in the first few frameworks that the technology developers, left to their own devices would likely be conservative with respects to their inputs (as any business is) while taking advantage of any funding opportunities available. The reams of reports and papers produced I think were hardly read, their impact almost zero, although they did keep academics off the street, brought money into the university and even hewed out careers.

‘Principles’ of user-research and business modelling (rather than application) presented some policing that would ensure that projects and their prospects would be made ‘real’, manifest. They would act in a kind of auditing role, ensuring something happened or at least could be accounted for if it didn’t. For instance one could only test a prototype and what would be the sense in developing a product or set of function which would never see the light of day in global commercial markets.

If the general or overall goal, the meta-goal if your will, was improving EU competitiveness with Japan and the United States, then it was marketable end-products or ‘really useful knowledge’ that could inform new product development which surely was the goal of the developments. In a strange set of relationships and affairs it was the academic input that attempted to ground and flesh out any notion of commercialisation, not the ‘ industry’ input.

Where the tendency is individualistic and self-seeking, self-conscious etc. trying to optimize the group towards a single goals let alone multiple tasks can prove trying (c.f. my earlier piece on such experiments at the School for Independent Study). But I can’t imagine that any non-market-based funding allocation scheme developed and administered by European centralised government would end up being other than a welfare program or a mechanism for rewarding political “favourites”. Politics and crony-ism would replace true merit and effort. Government can’t escape the spectre of politics. Like it or not, the market imposes a reality and discipline that is simply not present in most government decision making. These projects, innovation in a market-free bubble, which have hardly had much impact apart from bolstering the budgets of the firms involved while they got on with the ‘real’ work at hand. It kept many academics off the street corners though, including myself. I had to make, as many of them do something out of nothing [the Void]. But it could still be published in the obscure journals where they hardly competed with the theories coming out of MIT, Harvard and Stamford. The benchmarks and signature universities to which most others wishing to rise in the league tables or through the academic ranks like to emulate.

Phase four – teaching students inductively, teaching them to be autodidacts

I’m going to keep this one fairly brief. But if you had more awareness of the nature of group dynamics not only would you be a better manager and have less shocks when things go not according to plan due to how people are…. But you have some idea to work out where things went right and went pair shaped. A class is a group. If you are put inside as a teacher, then you are its leader, a privileged member, that should bring oversight to both the subject being taught, why it is being taught, and its relevance to world and the student/s. You should also bring oversight to how the subject comes to be absorbed and or put into practice or learnt. What needs to be absorbed, why does it need to be remembered, and where and when and on what occasions is it useful? You should also bring with you ideas of how the group, including yourself can work together and learn and create. I find myself often using contextual usability ideas with respect to the imparting and use of knowledge. if some idea, concept of theory seems to be sticking, that is, it manifests poor usability, what new approaches can be taken to let it more easily be understood?  Which ideas or theories would one use more of than perhaps others. From the functional perspective this would concerns ‘usage’. The knowledge codified in a book with its chapters and so forth or even within the chapters or sections – is it all relevant to the same degree, or are some points more salient than others, are some theories stronger than others, which knowledge is redundant in the local environment and which is more relevant. This ‘usefulness’. Having the class organise around these approaches can prove very useful in sorting out priorities between and within subjects. Why should this only happen at the essay stage when the student gets his or her retort “I do not consider x’s idea of y as being z for the following reasons w…”.

A recurring problem I had when trying to get my lecturers to use more inductive methods for teaching opposed to drill and kill was that they indicated that students seemed to view ‘group work’ as ‘time off’  the real, serious, monotonous, boring act of being taught. This is something like Spittler, (2001) refers to as thick participation, which:

“…implies apprenticeship and practice, natural conversation and observation, lived experience and sensuous research.” [Spittler, 2001: p.1]

Much of this comes about because of cultural preconceptions that both students and local lecturers have regarding ‘education’ or ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’ . in the developing world many of them have not been taught to think at all, either lecturer or student, they have been taught to act like they do or are, or to remember facts prima facie, without any thought or notion of application or context. This builds the glass wall not only between the teacher and the student, but between the institution and the outside world and community in which it is situated.

A real encounter. Yes?

Students need to be shown how group based projects and work are more intense and grounded from of learning than lecturing. Not only is it to do with ownership of the knowledge, but much more to do with them experiencing and making messy theoretical ideas and ‘totalising best practice’ coming from predominately first world textbooks and examples, and finding out for themselves of they are worth the paper they are written within the local context. Just because it is published and exists doesn’t mean it is useful or relevant, or in any way enlightening.

This is often something very different for students and they need support and hell to even get their head around it in the beginning. Lecturer who have tried to implement it complain of social loafing and plagiarism in the groups., but the way I recommended them to get around this is to do as I was trained – that is, invoke the caveat that they must report upon their experience of the group independent of any personal evolution of outcomes. Basically this is an audit of what happened who did what, what worked and what didn’t and the influence each group member had on that. These short consider reports can be cross-compared and on a final presentation question can be asked to the group as a hole or individual members regarding the level of participation and contribution, and steer it positively to recommendations of what areas need to be improved.

This ultimately leans me towards a more general question of why we need a sociology of science and technology at all, or why there are ethical ‘problems’ or gaps between public understanding and science. If people were a little more reflexive regarding their fields, scholarly activity, and academic pursuits we may just catch a glimpse of where it should all go, or be directed at. But the likely hood is that it takes disaster, great misfortune, wars, or paradigm shifts to so that we can peek at the wood within the trees.

to be continued…

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