Thursday, April 5, 2018

RhizoRhetoric: 7 Self-Organize

The ability to adapt, or self-organize, is Cilliers' final characteristic of complex systems. He says it this way:
Complex systems are adaptive. They can (re)organize their internal structure without the intervention of an external agent.
I reveal my professional bias by saying it this way: complex systems can learn. And though we typically think of learning in human terms, learning is a characteristic of all complex systems from microbes and bacteria to galaxies. Some systems learn incredibly slowly (rocks, for instance, seem to adapt over millions of years) and some quickly, but all take in energy and information from their environments and reorganize themselves to accommodate changes in that environment.

Self-organization is key to a writing swarm, and in some ways, I can consider all of the previous characteristics of complex systems as the foundation to this: the ability to learn and self-organize. A writing swarm is a learning hive, and I think we all learned much.

First, we all learned more about the tools we were using. All of us in the swarm are computer literate and network savvy, yet each of us learned to use a new tool (for me, Slack) and to use new techniques for familiar tools. Here we can easily see the wonderful creative tension between memory, or existing knowledge which strives to keep the practices and structures that it has, and dynamic new knowledge which strives to change the swarm's practices and structures. Learning requires this interplay between the ability to change and resistance to change. Self-organization requires both the ability to change and the ability to resist change, adaptability as well as resilience.

Then, we all learned more about how academics are interacting on the Net, both in planned MOOCs and in looser, unplanned swarms. All of us in the swarm are highly educated academics with a substantial body of knowledge to bring to the swarm, and this body of knowledge forms a rich backdrop and resource within which to test, temper, and integrate new knowledge. As such, it both enables our ability to add to knowledge and brakes any impulse to change too quickly.

Finally, we all learned more about each other. Though few of us have met physically, all of us have gotten to know each other virtually. We are colleagues, and in some cases, friends. Whether friends or not, we trust each other, and in the few cases where trust has been undermined, the offending or offended persons have left the swarm.

In many ways, the self-organization of our particular swarm is mediated by the documents that we write. Unfortunately, the formal character of a finished, printed document obscures the tracks of the interactions that led to that formal arrangement. It's something like a formal family portrait that shows too little of how all these people are connected and interact. The history feature in Google Docs is able to reveal some of the traces of composition, and it is a vastly underutilized feature of Docs that merits substantial research. The data is there and should be mined.

We have much to say about how our swarm learned, but I wonder if we can say it all. I suspect that some learning takes place at the swarm scale, somewhat over our heads. I base this speculation (and it really is speculation) on the analogy of the bridges and rafts that army ants can build to overcome obstacles. In her Quantamagazine article "The Remarkable Self-Organization of Ants", Emily Singer explains how army ants build bridges of themselves to get the foraging swarm across gaps in their path, "a marquee example of a complex decentralized system that arises from the interactions of many individuals," much like our writing swarm. Singer says:
Bridges are built based on simple rules and possess surprising strength and flexibility. As soon as an ant senses a gap in the road, it starts to build a bridge, which can reach a span of tens of centimeters and involve hundreds of ants. Once the structure is formed, the ants will maintain their position as long as they feel traffic overhead, dismantling the bridge as soon as the traffic lightens.
The key point for me is that the ants are mostly responding to local conditions and to the few ants immediately around them. The bridge is an emergent property at a higher scale of the ants' local and simpler behavior. I have to wonder if any of the ants actually knows that it is building a bridge, or is it just doing what makes sense at the moment? Similarly, did our swarm learn things that are literally over our individual heads? Well, this will take much more thought.

RhizoRhetoric: 6 Emergence

The sixth characteristic of complex systems covers the concept of emergence:
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.
The identity and value of a writing swarm is not the result of some characteristics or features innate to the various people in that swarm or to the various tools they use or the topics they write about; rather, the identity and value of a writing swarm emerges from interactions and exchanges among the actors and activities of the swarm. For instance, the topic of swarm writing was not a concept that we were all thinking about; rather, the topic emerged from our discussions and our interactions as we struggled to identify what we were observing people do in the #rhizo14/15 MOOC.

The swarm emerged and was defined from within, not from without. For instance, the various actors in the swarm were not selected by MOOC leader Dave Cormier beforehand based on some specific expertise of each and some goal of #rhizo14/15; rather, the swarm organized itself around discussions and tasks that interested various people at various times. People dropped in and dropped out of the swarm for their own reasons and according to their own trajectories, and the characteristics of the swarm changed as the swarm's actors and tasks changed. Enough actors have persisted to maintain the identity and some of the memory of the swarm, but enough actors have changed so that the swarm can respond to new ideas and tasks and take new directions.

As Cilliers points out, this is not a chaotic process that undermines causality and reason. The trajectories that all actors and activities in the swarm follow can be traced back to sufficient causes; however, the complex interactions of the actors do undermine our ability to predict absolutely what the swarm will do next. There is no guarantee that past activities will be accurate predictors of future activities. While the swarm does have memory that preserves past activities and structures, it is also open to new energies and information that can change those activities and structures.

This is all a way of saying that a writing swarm should expect novelty. What emerges from the swarm cannot be absolutely predicted by even a thorough examination and analysis of the constituent elements. The properties of a complex system such as a writing swarm emerge at a different scale, and the swarm develops its own agency, rules, and trajectory. The unexpected is not necessarily a sign of malfunctioning, and a writing swarm should not suppress the unanticipated new out of hand.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

RhizoRhetoric: 5 Memory

The fifth characteristic of complex systems according to Paul Cilliers reads this way:
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.
As a complex system organizes itself, it develops memory: those repeated and eventually stubborn processes and structures that the system depends upon for its identity and functioning. In a sense, these stubborn habits of body and mind are the counterpoints to the dynamism that allows the complex system to learn new things. Memory is vital to complex systems, and eventually serves as an invaluable aid to a complex system, automating some processes and tempering if not dampening new energies and information. As the memory of a complex system develops and becomes stronger, it enters into what Edgar Morin calls a dialogic relationship with a system dynamism, or in educational terms: growth, learning, and development. Memory resists change, and change modifies memory. Complex systems, then, come to rely upon the constant tension between memory and learning, with memory sometimes taking the upper hand, and sometimes losing to new knowledge. This tension is not dialectical as there is no resolution or synthesis; rather, the complex system depends upon the constant, non-equilibrium and tension between memory and change.

Our writing swarm and its documents, for instance, cannot be understood and accounted for without some knowledge of its history and memory. Most immediately, the people in our swarm all shared the #rhizo14/15 MOOCs facilitated by Dave Cormier of the University of PEI. #rhizo14/15 takes its name (I think of it essentially as one course) from the rhizome of Deleuze and Guattari's philosophical work A Thousand Plateaus, and the swarm is in many ways another metaphor like a rhizome for complex systems. Thus, all of us were primed by #rhizo14/15 for thinking in terms of swarms and complex open systems.

Then, we are all connected to higher education either as students, professionals, or both, and we all share an interest in the new forms of higher education emerging and being discussed on the Net—hence, our attraction to #rhizo14/15. Particularly relevant to our current writing projects, we have all mastered the art of academic research and writing that is required for academic success. Some of us even teach research and writing to our own students. Thus, the new kinds of writing emerging on the Net are of keen interest to us professionally and personally, and our curiosity must be framed within the context of our professional work.

Next, we are all competent or better users of modern information technology. If we haven't used a particular tool that interests the swarm, then we are all adept at mastering the new tool in short order. Google Docs, the tool that we have focused on the most, was an easy decision for all of us, and we were all able to push it to its technical limits.

We need to talk about our swarm memory, such as we can remember it. And this brings me to a final point about memory in swarms: memory is distributed and not necessarily evenly. Thus, no one member of the swarm has all the memories. Even Google Docs, which records and date/time stamps every key stroke, does not have any memory of the tweets, texts, and Facebook messages among the humans, nor of their readings and research. Yet all of this memory is necessary for a full understanding of the identity of the swarm and of the documents that it has produced.

Monday, April 2, 2018

RhizoRhetoric: 4 Open

I just realized that I merged two characteristics of complex systems in yesterday's post. Cilliers' third characteristic has to do with direct and indirect feedback loops, but I won't correct my mistake here. I think I covered it sufficiently yesterday.

Cilliers' fourth characteristic reads this way:
Complex systems are open systems—they exchange energy or information with their environment—and operate at conditions far from equilibrium.
In my previous post, I explored how complex systems exchange energy and information among the elements within the system. This is the complementary process in which the system exchanges energy and information with its ecosystem. In some ways, this is the external process that feeds the internal process. A complex system (think here of a zygote or a writing swarm) may bring an internal store of energy and information (think of DNA and college degrees), but without regular exchanges of energy and information from the ecosystem, any complex system will die. Again, this is a fundamental process that accounts for the formation and functioning of stars and atoms as well as of writing swarms.

One cannot understand a writing swarm without understanding the energy and data streams that feed that swarm. The identity of the swarm emerges as the nexus of all those internal and external flows and exchanges of energy and information, and the swarm functions and sustains itself only so long as flows and exchanges persist.

The energy and information flows are dynamic, constantly evolving, which means that the complex system such as a writing swarm operates "at conditions far from equilibrium." Direct and indirect feedback loops are at work between the swarm and its environment just as they are within the various elements of the swarm itself. New information and energy feeds into a swarm, which processes that energy and information, dampening some and amplifying other but all the while modifying itself to accommodate and respond to that new data, and then the swarm feeds back new information and energy, which modifies its ecosystem across all scales. Constant feedback cycles process energy and information and feed back energy and information at both local and global scales.

This processing is at times synchronous within a writing swarm, but more often it is asynchronous as different writers across the world work and write at different times, so that documents emerge in fits. A whole section can emerge in a somewhat new direction with new energy and information, and then the entire swarm must process that new direction and adjust itself to it. Sometimes the new section finds a home, sometimes it is pruned. It is always edited and always leads to other edits as the swarm reconfigures itself.

This network of dynamic exchanges within and without the writing swarm defines the swarm and the writing that it produces. Eventually, the exchanges of energy and information stop and the document attains equilibrium. It is completed. The writing swarm, however, does not attain equilibrium; rather, it remains dynamic if it does not disband or die. Tension can emerge between the static, completed document and the dynamic, constantly reforming swarm, which can move beyond or away from the document in a very short time.

Swarm writing, then, can be a very messy process. While the swarm will try to manage its internal processing, it is always open to new information and energy streams which can surprise, delight, and confuse the swarm. Swarm writing makes great demands on the resourcefulness and resilience of the swarm to find its place within its ecosystem. This has certainly been the case with our swarm, which has struggled to find a way to express itself within an ecosystem not quite ready to listen to its song.