Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Problem of Intentionality, #cck12

In a recent exchange on Dave Cormier's post Embracing Uncertainty and the strange problem of habituation, Frances Bell challenged that Connectivism "tends to overplay the network effect and underplay human agency." It seems that she does not see much room in Connectivism for intentionality. I am not as familiar with the actor network theory that she referenced, so I did a bit of reading, including France's own article Network theories for technology-enabled learning and social change: Connectivism and actor network theory, (and graded 70 papers from my first year college students), and while I've much thinking to do yet on the issue, I want to make a few remarks.

I'll start by addressing Bell's complaint that Connectivism overplays "the network effect." She may very well be correct. While I won't speak for other Connectivists, I will say that I have a tendency to focus way too much on networks, or its more robust big sister—the rhizome. I do have a defense, though, and it has to do with contrast between the individual on one hand and the network on the other. Let me say up front that my discussion draws heavily from Edgar Morin's excellent little book On Complexity (2008), a book that I recommend to all who are interested in Connectivism and its related discussions.

Western culture has three hundred years of intense scrutiny of the individual by a science and philosophy that habitually reduced phenomena to closed systems, or discrete individuals, understandable in and of themselves. In educational terms, we have studied students as individuals, pretty much limited to what's inside their skins and brains. We teach them as individuals, we certainly test and assess them that way, and we promote them that way. We tend to think of knowledge as a function of individual brains (materialists) or minds (mentalists and spiritualists). My own field, rhetoric, has reduced writing to the use of proper grammatical and syntactical structures combined in regular ways—something like a fine watch. This is a mechanistic world view at its finest.

This science has had almost unbelievable run of successes that is difficult to challenge, but of course, it has been challenged. As Morin notes, the epistemology of classical science was undermined in the 20th century by a microphysics "which revealed the interdependence of subject and object, the insertion of randomness into knowledge, the de-reification of the notion of matter, [and] the eruption of logical contradiction in empirical description" (9) and by a macrophysics which "unites in a single entity the concepts of space and time" (9). And now, "the pedestal of knowledge is cracking" (8).

We now recognize that most systems in the Universe are not closed, especially those systems that we find most interesting: living systems, including us humans. We living things are open systems in a constant and dynamic exchange with our various eco-systems, or the networks within which we are embedded. (Forgive me here as I use eco-systems and networks interchangeably. I know that they are not synonymous.)

This brings me to my point: this blossoming awareness of open systems (Morin's term) and networks (Connectivism) and rhizomatics (Deleuze and Guattari) has proven to be among the most engaging and captivating strain of intellectual thought, at least to my mind, in the latter half of the 20th century. I suppose there are still things to say about the individual, but the rhizome is such rich and fertile ground that I, for one, am seduced by it and spend most of my time talking about it. I suspect that others find it equally attractive.

However, the emergence of the rhizome/network/open systems line of thought really should not dismiss all that we have learned through such great effort about the individual. That knowledge is still critical to our understanding. In fact, I think that we cannot understand the rhizome/network/open system without including the individual. Again, Morin says it best: "Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment" (11).

For me, the Sunday School lesson is this: if you want to understand any phenomenon, especially any phenomenon such as intentionality that involves living systems, then you must consider both the individual and the network, the system and the eco-system. We've had 300 years of emphasis on the individual, and now some of us are perhaps over-emphasizing the network. I'm okay with that, but only up to a point, and I'm always pleased when someone reminds me that my point of view is just a bit skewed. It usually is.

Frances said more things, but I will address them later. This is a start.


  1. Not much time now Keith so just a quick comment. I agree with you that individual and network both need attention. A difference between connectivism and Actor Network Theory is that ANT is more interested in the formation and decay of networks than in networks as entities. However ANT has also been criticised for its limited treatment of power relations and I think the same is the case for connectivism. One aspect of that is the networks/ groups distinction from the Downes version of connectivism that seems to accord networks with norms that are self-fulfilling prophecies. Except of course, they aren't.
    Daily, I watch people (myself included) playing out power relations on social networks. At least I don't pretend they don't exist.
    You might find this thread relevant (and I see you got a mention from me)

  2. Frances, thanks for the link to your post. What I liked most as I read it was your insistence on dialogue, which which forms the heart of Morin's view of complexity (his dialogic) and is in contrast to the dialectic, primarily as it does not seek a resolution either through an over-powering of one side by the other or through a mutual folding into a synthesis. Rather, the dialogic posits an interplay, a dialogue, between entities. This stabilized dynamism is precisely the engine for new ideas, new orders, and creativity in the universe.

    I think we lose something when we push too early to close off a concept with too strict a definition. One of the things I so desperately love about these MOOCs is that I am in constant dialogue with so many wonderful people, and that's where all my new and interesting ideas come from.

    I'm also interested in your thoughts on power and how it plays out in networks. I think power is a real issue in networks, and I will look for the chance to discuss it more. After I think a bit.