Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Agency and the Death of Steve Jobs

A Sunday School Lesson:

The common attitude about Steve Jobs reflects the old view of agency, especially in business: that one person causes things to happen. Most of us so hope that is true, but the reality is that Apple was much more than Steve Jobs and that Jobs could not have done iPads without Apple and Apple could not have done them without Jobs. Steve Jobs became for most people a handy reduction of the complexity of Apple.

The iPad is an emergence of all the parts working at Apple, much like this post, which is an emergence of the billions of underlying calculations and logical processes within my MacBook Pro. Whatever meaning you derive from the words in this post absolutely depends upon the regular mathematical and logical processes at work in the heart of my 2.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processor. These processes are causal: one process leads logically, predictably, and necessarily to the next process.

One might be tempted, then, to extrapolate the causality at work on the processor scale to the social blog post scale. This is a big mistake. The processes at work in my CPU do not cause the meaning that you and I see in this post. Those underlying electronic processes are necessary for meaning to emerge at this scale – a post on our computer screens – but they are not sufficient to explain it. Try it: follow the flow of electrons, translate them into a stream of 1s and 0s, watch as those trillions of 1s and 0s combine, split, store, dump, and interact, and you will never see any evidence – not even a glimmer – of the meaning in this post. You would see a fantastic light show, but you would not see this post or its meaning. You can't get from there to here.

At least not without a gradual process of emergence from network scale to network scale through the rhizome of this blog. The 1s and 0s aggregate into bytes to form letters (and I'm doing a lot of glossing here), but even the letter you think you see on your screen is an emergent entity. You are really looking at millions of pixels interacting in certain ways so that what you accept as letters emerge on your screen. As you see these emergent letters, the vaguest wisps of what we commonly think of as meaning are starting to emerge, but even here at the scale of morpheme and grapheme, you would be hard pressed to actually see the meaning in this post. You cannot find causality even at this nearby scale: morphemes and graphemes are necessary for meaning, but they, too, do not cause meaning. As the morphemes and graphemes aggregate in certain ways into words, then we get closer to our common concept of meaning, but even at this scale – so close at hand – it's very difficult to find the cause of the meaning that we see in this post.

Common meaning does seem to emerge as words aggregate into sentences. Ahh, this is it, we say. Now we have meaning, now we can explain meaning. Perhaps. But just for fun, take any sentence out of this post to stand alone:

At least not without a gradual process of emergence from network scale to network scale through the rhizome of this blog.

I chose the first sentence (yes, I know it is not a complete sentence) of the previous paragraph. It was handy. By itself, it means almost nothing, or almost anything, which is the same thing as far as meaning goes. Of course, it's difficult for you and me to read that sentence outside of the context of this blog post because we've already read it within context, but if you want some small fun, share that sentence with someone who hasn't read this post and see what meaning they make of it. I'm willing to bet not much.

So we have to move up to the paragraph level, then, for meaning to emerge? That helps, but not as much as we might hope. So move up to the post level? That's better, perhaps. If I've written well, then this post might have some hope of standing alone as a meaning-bearing artifact, but really, if you don't also have some sense of this blog in general and of the conversations about emergence, rhizomes, and connectivism, then does this post make much sense? I don't think so. If any of my Composition I students read this, they will not likely understand much of it. And of course, we have not yet considered our own brains and the rhizome of meanings that we each bring to this post. Is that where the meaning is? In our several heads?

The answer – to my mind, at any rate – is quite clear: the meaning isn't in any one of those places. Rather, the meaning is distributed across all the rhizome from the neat march of 1s and 0s in my CPU to the cacophony of conversations across the ages about what it means to mean something. And here's the magic: the more meaning you perceive across the rhizome, then the more meaning you can perceive in any one location.

The meaning of the iPad isn't located in Steve Jobs, either. Rather, the meaning of the iPad is distributed across the rhizome: in the thousands of people across the globe who helped create it to the millions of people who use it and the billions who don't, to those who love it and those who hate it. Steve Jobs is necessary for understanding the iPad, but he is not sufficient. He is part of the DNA of the iPad, just as electronic processes are part of the DNA of this post, but he is not the meaning of the iPad. Rather, the iPad cannot be reduced to Steve Jobs, ultimately not even to Apple. The meaning is distributed throughout the rhizome, and if you want to map that meaning, then you must go know/mad.


  1. Hi, Doc. The only rhizome,es I have to worry about these days are the ones the bamboo is sending out in my garden. Miss you a whole bunch. Think of you whenever I sit in what I always consider your chair in the office. Trust all is well with all the family. Don't know if you'll ever read this post, but you can always email me at hjmteach@bellsouth.net.

    How about Man City winning the Premiership! I was at the West Ham game in Manchester in April, when we turned what looked like being a loss to Man U into our win, finally, after 44 years. I was in the company of Tony Book, who used to be my neighbor, and Alan Bell, the much renowned Coty player of old. Quite a night!

    All the best to you. Hilary Mitchell

  2. Thanks for the connection, Hilary. I gladly declare the chair yours. I'm confident you will fill it better than I did.

    And yes, I followed Man City closely, and I was glad I did. They won! Must have been due to my support. At least, that's my story.

    Enjoy the rhizome. :-)