Thursday, March 29, 2018

RhizoRhetoric: 1 Multiplicity

I'm working with a #rhizo15 group to revise a document we've submitted for publication in a scholarly journal. The document tries to map the swarm writing that emerged from the Rhizo14/15 MOOCs, and I think our problems are two-fold:
  1. We find it difficult to demonstrate and discuss open swarm writing within the narrow boundaries of a traditional scholarly study, and
  2. We find it difficult to connect readers with a traditional research agenda to the concept of swarm writing.
One sympathetic reviewer suggests that we focus more on swarm writing, and I want to explore some ideas in the next couple of posts. One of the personal problems I have in revising this particular document is that my own thinking about swarm writing has developed much since we first wrote this document, and I find myself wanting to add new material to the document rather than merely editing the existing material. I'll try the new material here first rather than in the document to see how it wears.

I'm starting with an article about complexity from Paul Cilliers entitled "What we can learn from a theory of complexity" first published Mar 31, 2000, in Emergence: Complexity and Organization. I'm drawn to this particular article from the many I've read by Cilliers because, paradoxically, of its simple list of some relevant characteristics of complex systems. I consider swarm writing a function of a complex system, and I think these seven characteristics will help our article address the problems we have with discussing swarm writing in a traditional scholarly context.

Cilliers begins his article by listing seven characteristics of complex systems:
  1. Complex systems consist of a large number of elements that in themselves can be simple.
  2. The elements interact dynamically by exchanging energy or information. These interactions are rich. Even if specific elements only interact with a few others, the effects of these interactions are propagated throughout the system. The interactions are nonlinear.
  3. There are many direct and indirect feedback loops.
  4. Complex systems are open systems—they exchange energy or information with their environment—and operate at conditions far from equilibrium.
  5. Complex systems have memory, not located at a specific place, but distributed throughout the system. Any complex system thus has a history, and the history is of cardinal importance to the behavior of the system.
  6. The behavior of the system is determined by the nature of the interactions, not by what is contained within the components. Since the interactions are rich, dynamic, fed back, and, above all, nonlinear, the behavior of the system as a whole cannot be predicted from an inspection of its components. The notion of “emergence” is used to describe this aspect. The presence of emergent properties does not provide an argument against causality, only against deterministic forms of prediction.
  7. Complex systems are adaptive. They can (re)organize their internal structure without the intervention of an external agent.
I want to write seven posts applying each characteristic to swarm writing to see if this can help me illuminate swarm writing for those who see it as little more than standard writing in a Google Doc.

Cilliers' first characteristic involves a multiplicity of interacting parts, as I see it: "Complex systems consist of a large number of elements that in themselves can be simple." This first characteristic drives to the heart of what makes swarm writing different from the long tradition of Western rhetoric: swarm writing undermines the idea of a single, or at least unified, authorial voice usually declaiming on a single, unified topic. This also pinpoints the issues the #rhizo15 swarm is having with our document: we struggle to create a single, unified voice addressing a single, unified topic to meet the demands of traditional scholarship. In other words, we are trying to describe an open, dynamic process in a closed, rigid scholarly document.

So let me restate Cilliers in terms of swarm writing:

Swarm writing consists of a large number of actors (human and non-human) that in themselves can be simpler.

Note my changes. First, I say actors rather than elements to reflect my belief that everything in a complex system has agency. I could have used the term agent, but we use actor network theory (ANT) in our document, so I'm using actor. Also in keeping with ANT, I'm including all actors: pens, pencils, paper, Google Docs, smartphones and tablets, global communication networks, college educations, and Becky, Maha, and AK—most all the actors that play in our writing swarm, human and non-human.

Also note that I change simple to simpler to reflect my belief that most everything is complex. Consider the elements of our swarm that I list above. Perhaps a pencil is simpler than a human, less complex. Still, I see a pencil as a complex system. If you take the ANT approach to understanding a pencil, then you quickly see how the simple pencil becomes complex. A finished pencil emerges at the end of incredibly rich and complex mining, manufacturing, and marketing systems that interact with countless other actors, and then that one pencil takes a path through the world that can be incredibly rich, even unique among all pencils. For me, then, simplicity is a relative state, not an absolute characteristic.

I also should add here that while it is easy to see a million people tweeting #MeToo as swarm writing, I also think that a single person writing—me writing this current post, for instance—is swarm writing. I, too, am a swarm—no doubt a less complex swarm than my #rhizo15 swarm or the #MeToo swarm, but a swarm none the less.

Still, the way Cilliers phrases this first characteristic lays the groundwork for his later comments about emergence. As a large number of elements or actors begin to swarm together, a more complex actor can emerge: the complex system, or a writing swarm, or a novel, a nation state, a galaxy. This emergent actor is usually more complex than its constituent actors and can function at another scale.

But much needs to happen before a collection of people and their tools become a writing swarm. That's what the next characteristics and posts are about.

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