Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Writing at Different Scales, #cck12

So what happens to the field of writing if we start with the idea that writing is a function of complex networks?

One of the first concepts that I draw from the study of networks is that network structures appear at most any scale from which you consider an entity. For instance, if we think of human consciousness as a function of complex networks, we find networks whether we consider consciousness at the molecular or cellular levels, the neuronal level, the brain regions level, the level of the nervous system as it extends throughout the body, and on to the sensory level, and out to the interpersonal, social, cultural, historical levels. Physics is currently able to push in to reality all the way to strings (those wispy networks of harmonic vibrations) and push out all the way to networks of galaxies. A dedicated student could follow consciousness all the way in to strings and all the way out to galaxies, I think.

Writing is similar. Whether we look at the scale of cognition, physico-motor, language, interpersonal, social, poetic/rhetoric, genre, or more, we find network structures at work. This text, for instance — this very post that I am writing and you are reading — can be thought of as a network structure: morphemes networked into various words, words networked into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into sections or posts, posts into a blog, the blog into larger educational, intellectual, and social networks. I think this network structure has always been a feature of written texts, but it was not obvious. Given the requirements of print, we tended to emphasize the linear nature of text, but we can think of this linearity in the same way we might consider a strand of DNA: linear if we view it one way, but very much a network if we shift our view just a bit. We can think of DNA strands as they unfold, or blossom, into a living organism. We can think of these sentences as they unfold into a living discussion. These sentences in this post are strands of DNA expanding in an ecosystem, creating an organism that interacts with other organisms, that both draws from and adds to the ecosystem/s within which it finds itself. And of course, hypertext makes explicit this network nature of written text.

But I think even standard printed text can also be seen as a network structure. For instance, this post is one node within this blog, and it interacts with the blog in much the same way that a new tadpole interacts with its puddle. This post draws value and energy from the blog as an ecosystem, and it feeds back its own value. I can scale down, and see the same dynamic at work: this very sentence is a node within this paragraph, and it draws meaning and value from the paragraph and returns meaning and value to the paragraph. This blog is easily seen as just one node within a network of blogs all exploring higher education, or writing, or Connectivism, or things I'm not even aware of.

And meaning emerges at all those different scales, and the meaning at one scale interacts with, supports, and modifies the meanings at the other scales, and we can see different meanings whether we are giving a text a close reading or fitting it into its larger genre. Different meanings emerge at different scales. This is a very dynamic way to think about writing and written texts, and it gives us dynamic tools for thinking about writing and for teaching writing. This, I think, is worth exploring.

We also see that the rules, the patterns of organization and interaction, can shift from scale to scale. This is a new idea for me just now, and I need to do more work on it, but it seems right. I like the ring of it.

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