Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Assertive Humility

So in my last post I introduced the idea that engagement of complex spaces such as in cMOOCs requires ethical choices. We must define the open, shifting space to make sense of it, deciding what is valuable and what is not, what is in, what is out, and how it should be arranged. We must frame and arrange the complex space, including ourselves in it, and our ethics are revealed in this framing and arranging. This framing and arranging always unfolds with less knowledge than we desire, less than we usually recognize. In complex spaces, we are always acting on the basis of relative ignorance. This lands us in the first complex ethical issue and characterizes the dialogical nature of ethics within the complex domain.

Think of it as being one locust inside a swarm of locusts, far from the edge, and having to make decisions about your place in the swarm and the proper way to move within the swarm. Frame a space of about 35 locusts including yourself, and call it a collaborative autoethnography to give yourself a manageable focus on the swarm. What is the correct stance here?

The first stance is humility. You will never, ever have enough information within your frame to move with absolute certainty within the swarm. The swarm ever has surprises for you that come from all the swarm outside your frame that, despite your frame, is still interacting with the swarm inside your frame. This is always the case.

Like Woermann and Cilliers and Morin, I believe in general complexity as opposed to restricted complexity, both of which Morin defines in his 2008 article Restricted Complexity, General Complexity. Though many in science have accepted complexity and its concomitant incomplete knowledge, many complexity scientists still hold to the nineteenth century faith that we will discover the rules and structures of complexity given enough time and computing power. This restricted view of complexity still believes in the Theory of Everything (TOE). I do not believe in the big TOE. Like Woermann, Cilliers, Morin, and others, I believe that "Complex phenomena are irreducible, or, to elaborate in the words of the theoretical biologist, Robert Rosen (1985: 424), a system is complex precisely ‘to the extent that it admits non-equivalent encodings; encodings which cannot be reduced to one another’" (450).

Within complex spaces, we must always act from positions of relative ignorance, make our choices partially blind. At best, we are less blind than others—we may see 100 other locusts and not just 35—but compared to the swarm both 100 and 35 are near blindness. This is unlike closed systems such as The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (the APA style guide). Inside a closed, simple system such as APA, we can often act with absolute certainty. We should not presume to act with absolute certainty within a complex system. Our lives are overwhelmingly lived out in complex spaces. Simple spaces are the rare exceptions, won through tremendous social effort. In part, we humans have invented simple spaces to relieve ourselves of the unbearable weight of ethical choices. There may be ethical choices about whether or not to use APA style, but once APA is chosen, the ethical choices are eliminated. One cannot make an unethical choice in APA, one can only make an inaccurate or unskillful choice. Truly ethical choices belong in the complex domain.

And they are awful choices, an unbearable weight. Ask the poets and the prophets, they will tell you. What you don't know far exceeds what you do know, yet you have to make a choice. You don't know enough to make an absolutely certain choice, yet you still have to make a choice. This should make you humble.

Woermann and Cilliers define this humility in terms of a self-critical rationality and intellectual honesty "that makes no claim for objectivity, or for any special status for the grounds from which the claim is made. A self-critical rationality is therefore the outcome of acknowledging the irreducible nature of complexity" (450).

But as Woermann and Cilliers are careful to say, this does not mean that anything goes, that one choice is as good as another. We must still do the hard work of trying to understand:
We must still be competent at performing the necessary calculations and considering the relevant information, but we should also recognise that doing the groundwork won’t resolve the complexity and that we still remain responsible for our modelling choices, since each choice gives rise to ‘a different spectrum of possible consequences, different successes and failures, and different strengths and weaknesses’ (102). Knowledge acquisition is not the objective pursuit of truth, but rather a process of working towards finding suitable strategies for dealing with complex phenomena.
We are not likely to find truth in a MOOC, but we might find suitable strategies for dealing with complex phenomena.

I suspect that given the topic of ethics, many will not be convinced if I don't provide a rule, an ethical principle. I think a stance is the best I can do: Be confidently humble, or humbly confident. Do you like assertive humility? We are called to make choices based on questionable, contextualized information, but we are called to make choices nonetheless. Quite possibly another context exists within the same swarm in which our choices would be obviously, painfully wrong. Almost certainly another context will arise someday in which our choices are derisively wrong.

We are in an irreconcilable position: on the one hand, we must act; on the other, we do not have complete information. We are suspended between the need to act and our lack of knowledge. This terrifies many of us. Others reduce their situations to the simple domain. Others have too much confidence in their own knowledge. None of these are the ethical stance demanded of us. We must cultivate our knowledge and value, make choices in experimentation with the real, as Deleuze and Guattari say it, all the while knowing that we may well be in error now and will certainly be in error in some other context.

As Morin often points out, irreconcilable positions are the engines of complex spaces, where we are always poised between life and death, order and disorder—where all the fun is. As he says in Restricted Complexity, General Complexity:
We return again to the logical core of complexity which we will see, is dialogical: separability-inseparability, whole-parts, effect-cause, product-producer, life-death, homo sapiens-homo demens, etc. It is here that the principle of the excluded middle reveals its limit. The excluded middle states “A cannot be A and not A”, whereas it can be one and the other. For example, Spinoza is Jewish and non-Jewish, he is neither Jewish, nor non-Jewish. It is here that the dialogic is not the response to these paradoxes, but the means of facing them, by considering the complementarity of antagonisms and the productive play, sometimes vital, of complementary antagonisms.
A complex ethic does not seek to resolve these complementary antagonisms in some dialectic, but to cultivate the inherent, creative energy in these dialogics.


I think I want to add something more specific. What does this assertive humility say about engaging a cMOOC? It says first that you should not expect to get it all. You can't swallow the whole swarm. You won't know all the people, and you won't read all the content. Neither will anyone else.

Each participant will try to frame the swarm as best they can, many as a traditional classroom, which will cause them much anxiety. Have compassion for them. They are using the frames they know for a space that they don't know.

Very few will frame the swarm as you frame it; thus, almost no one will experience the same MOOC. They will structure, interpret, and value people, content, and events differently than you will. Some will see a white/gold dress, and some a blue/black dress. No one's frame can claim an objective, transcendent, privileged status against which all other frames may be judged or assessed. This is especially the case with the facilitators.

You can join a MOOC such as Rhizo14 expecting to discuss Deleuze and Guattari and even find a few others who share your frame, more or less. Still, the group may frame the content and discussion differently. You should expect antagonistic frames. This is often where the most energy is generated, in the tension between opposing frames. You bring your values and value and present them honestly, knowing that others will bring opposing values and value.

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