Friday, November 3, 2017

Reading the "MeToo" Text as Hyperobject

In her EducauseReview article “Antigonish 2.0: A Way for Higher Ed to Help Save the Web“, Bonnie Stewart says:
The web is a big part of where we live now. But we neither understand it nor know how to use it for learning. What we need is not a revolution, but a way to develop the local and global literacies needed to foster functional democratic participation.
She echoes Paul Cilliers when she says that “we neither understand it [the Web] nor know how to use it for learning.” In his 1998 book Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems, Cilliers notes that our powerful technologies allow us to extend our technical capabilities beyond our understanding. He says:
The heart of the matter is that our technologies have become more powerful than our theories. We are capable of doing things that we do not understand. … We can create new sub-atomic particles without knowing precisely whether they actually exist outside of the laboratory. We can store, and retrieve, endless bits of information without knowing what they mean. … We have to deal with what we do not understand, and that demands new ways of thinking. (2)
The literacy that Stewart calls for is one of these new ways of thinking, especially when confronting the “endless bits of information” that engulf us. For me, new communication spaces have emerged, with different notions of community, different rules of engagement, and very different texts, and I don’t know how to use this space or to think about it. The texts are here. Now I need a literacy to understand them. I don’t think I will make it that far in this post, but I do hope to map the textual field itself so that I can begin to think about how to render literate such texts as "MeToo". I’m suggesting here that online texts—the billions of text messages, tweets, and Facebook messages, the currently dominant streams among countless others—function as a hyperobject, as Timothy Morton calls it, or a rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari), or noise (Michel Serres), or silence (Paul Goodman and the Buddhists). Approaching those texts from the perspective of hyperobjects may just help me engage them better.

I find it difficult to wrap my head around these new texts. The data alone is staggering. Google Books engineer Leonid Tacher says that, as of 2010, Google believed there are about 129,864,880 books in the world containing roughly two trillion words. That’s all the books from ancient times through 2010 that still exist. As large as that conversation is, it is dwarfed by texting, just one of our new online writing spaces. As of 2017, the world is sending 22 billion texts a day, or 8 trillion texts every year, and this number does not include the app-to-app messages in Facebook, Twitter, and other social applications (Burke). These numbers suggest, then, that texting alone is multiplying many times each year the total amount of text ever produced by humankind. Add Facebook, Twitter, and other channels, and you can begin to see the problem. Or be overwhelmed by it.

Michel Serres explores our problem with such monstrous entities as the chattersphere--the term I will use for all the writing currently filling the Net--in his book Genesis, written in French in 1982 before the sphere had emerged. In Genesis, Serres proposes a “new object for philosophy” (2), noise, which he says is the ground of reality, the reality out of which we create our realities. However, though noise is the usual state of things, we modern humans do not like it. It seems unreal to us. Serres says:
We are fascinated by the unit; only a unity seems rational to us. We scorn the senses, because their information reaches us in bursts. We scorn the groupings of the world, and we scorn those of our bodies. ... Unity dazzles on at least two counts: by its sum and by its division. That herd must be singular in its totality and it must also be made up of a given number of sheep or buffalo. We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. The aggre­gate as such is not a well-formed object; it seems irrational to us. The arithmetic of whole numbers remains a secret foundation of our understanding; we're all Pythagorians. We think only in monadologies. (2, 3)
So here is the problem: the world is a swarm, but we want order and unity. The world is complex, even chaotic, but we want simple, or no more than complicated. The world is noise, or low art, but we want distinct, discrete sounds, individual texts, high art, to make sense of it all. We believe and we have been taught that we need this high art to make sense of it all. But what if we attend to the noise, the rhizome, the hyperobject, the zombie swarm, or low art? Let’s see.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
So multiplicity is irrational and repugnant. It is low-class, low art. One Edward Hopper Nighthawks is a masterpiece, high art; a million Nighthawks is just a swarm of tee shirts gone mad, commercial and noisy, flapping this way and that. We can deal with the Hopper corpus, a group of paintings elegantly arrayed about a single painter. That makes sense. We can even put him and his paintings in a context: 20th Century American Realism. That’s tidy, rational, simple: little boxes within little boxes. You can put that on a test, and the correct answer is obvious. But a million Nighthawks stretched over flaccid bellies, waving over hard bellies, oozing and winking into classrooms, churches, nightclubs, and sidewalks—this is chaos, swarm, noise, and very definitely low art. It can and should be dismissed.

Most of my colleagues in English departments believe that we can and should dismiss texting, tweeting, and Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram messaging. That is chaos, swarm, noise, and very definitely low art. But what if we don’t dismiss this absolutely monstrous amount of text that is generated each day, each minute, each year? And if it lacks unity, definition, even context, as Serres suggests, then what is it and how do we speak of it? I'm only now beginning to learn some ways to talk about these texts.

In speaking of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari note wryly that despite the unspeakable nature of the rhizome, we must speak of it. They say, “We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome.” This enumeration, of course, is dangerous, for if we enumerate the uncountable, then we distort rather than clarify. Nonetheless. In his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Timothy Morton lists his own “approximate characteristics” of what he calls hyperobjects:
  • viscosity: Hyperobjects “'stick' to beings that are involved with them." 
  • nonlocality: "[A]ny 'local manifestation' of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject." 
  • temporal undulation: Hyperobjects "involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity." 
  • phasing: "Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time." 
  • interobjectivity: Hyperobjects "exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects." 
I think I can use these characteristics to start teasing out the ways to think about the chattersphere as low art. I’ll use the recent, high profile "MeToo" text—first because I like it and in general support its political and social aims (neither of which I will discuss here, so don't look for it) and second because it is a timely example of just the kind of text I'm trying to understand.

The first characteristic of hyperobjects that Morton discusses is viscosity. He insists that objects such as the "MeToo" text are always closer to us than they appear and that they stick to us. This viscosity may not be obvious at the local human scale. For instance, one might encounter a "MeToo" tweet and feel no immediate connection. I first encountered a "MeToo" message on Facebook while looking for recent photos of my granddaughter, and I wondered vaguely what the author was responding to. I assumed the middle-aged, professional relative of mine was expressing her wish to be included in some family event, and I moved on to find my photos.

I did not consciously feel that her message was sticking to me or that I was sticking to it, but Morton says that the Facebook message and I are entangled and remain entangled despite any distance between us and despite any conscious awareness on the part of either of us. This entanglement has a viscous quality about it that is obscured at the human scale but becomes obvious at the scale of hyperobjects. "MeToo" is here, and I am always in it even when I am not conscious of it. Morton writes: "I do not access hyperobjects across a distance, through some transparent medium. Hyperobjects are here, right here in my social and experiential space. Like faces pressed against a window" (Kindle Locations 528-534).

I can see this looming stickiness rather easily in objects such as global warming and evolution, but not so well in a tweet or Facebook message. For that, I have to fight against an intuitive sense of reality that plainly demonstrates that a message, even my own, and I are distinct and that I act on the message and it does not act on me. I am the subject, and it is the object, a text, a thing. I do not feel the viscous honey between us. When I'm off my device, I don't feel the message against my fingers, my eyeballs, oozing into my consciousness. I don't think of the message. So are the message and I really sticking to each other? And what is this stickiness, this viscosity?

First, this stickiness is not an aspect of human cognition. It's there, Morton says, between objects whether or not humans are involved or even aware. And when we humans do become aware of the viscosity between objects, then it has something of the uncanny and daemonic about it. And one doesn't have to be a believer in the spirit world to believe in this "spooky action at a distance," as Einstein called it (though one doesn't have to exclude the spirit world, either). Rather, we only need believe in gravitational and electromagnetic fields to see what Morton is talking about:
What the demonic Twin Peaks character Bob reveals, for our purposes, is something about hyperobjects, perhaps about objects in general. Hyperobjects are agents. They are indeed more than a little demonic, in the sense that they appear to straddle worlds and times, like fiber optic cables or electromagnetic fields. And they are demonic in that through them causalities flow like electricity. (Kindle Locations 563-570)
This viscosity, then, is for me like a field, or a mesh of fields, that emanate from objects such as messages and tweets, extending their reach and connections beyond the visually obvious to enfold them into each other, and into me—think gravitational fields that extend from one end of the universe to the other. This means, literally and physically, that the black hole hyperobject at the center of our galaxy impinges on me and I slightly on it and that causalities flow like electricity, or gravity, across the fields between the black hole and me. Of course, my everyday senses are not sensitive enough to pick up or distinguish the perturbations of this hyperobject, but let that black hole move or explode, and all hell will break loose. Literally.

Morton says that all objects from quanta to galaxies have this viscous connection with all other objects. Let the black hole of a Trump tweet, for instance, explode, and all hell breaks loose. Then I notice the chattersphere, but it was always already there, always already impinging on me, looming over me, sticking to me. So I became aware of the "MeToo" text in a Facebook message, but I quite likely had already seen it and failed to register it. It was just noise.

That pejorative, diminutive, dismissive “just” troubles me. It was noise, and I have trained myself to ignore noise and to treat it as a nuisance if I can’t ignore it. But the noise is always already here. It is the parasite that informs and shapes my every message. It’s the zombie swarm that I live in, and it presses into me and sticks to me, even when I am not aware of it, perhaps especially when I am not aware. I have to ease into this.

As I remember it, I next encountered "MeToo" in another Facebook message, this time by Bonnie Stewart. This time I realized something else was going on, so I googled "MeToo" and learned something about it. I added a comment to Bonnie’s conversation, and then realized that I had stumbled into the text I was wanted to discuss in this post. I began rewriting.

Now, of course, I can see "MeToo" spreading in waves--or is it particles?--across my field of vision. I can hear it echoing all around--in front and behind, below and above, left and right (however you want to define those terms). The text never quite leaves me. Unlike my favorite Keatsian ode, I cannot close the book and put it on the shelf. I cannot put it away, for there is no away. "MeToo" is in my pocket, on the television, in the conversation of friends and family, and now in this post. I’m finishing this post at a family wedding in the Bahamas, and I’m discussing "MeToo" with my niece, a twenty-something real estate investor from Michigan. She is very much in control of her successful life, and "MeToo" doesn’t mean much to her. She’s perplexed about my interest in it, but only mildly interested in learning why. After all, she is the sister of the bride, and a beach party and dinner await.

Texts such as "MeToo"—and there are thousands of them that have swarmed and gone viral since the advent of social media—restructure our relationship with text. First, "There is no metalanguage." There is no outside point of view from which to determine what a text is. We are all inside the text, which is coming at us no matter which way we turn. As Morton says, we are intra-uterine and inter-uterine, enwombed, maybe entombed, and there is no nice doctor in a white lab coat outside to explain what's happening from his objective point of view. Everything presses in on us from every side and time, and we cannot get away from it. This means for me there is no outside point of view from which to determine what "MeToo" is and is about.

I can write only from inside "MeToo", and this changes everything I know about writing, as I have been schooled in the Western rhetorical tradition which posits a single, objective, authoritative subject that speaks apart from and passes judgement upon objects under consideration. Writing inside "MeToo" decenters my authority, my outside booming voice, and speaks from inside, from many points of view. I must think about "MeToo" from the inside, and I think that the swarm can say things that cannot be said from the outside. If I want to understand "MeToo", then I have to understand not only principal humans such as Alyssa Milano, but also all the other participants, lurkers, prodigals, technologies, memes, organizational structures, and more. This is a noisy swelter that defies total clarity, but the chattersphere is a swelter, a swarm, a virus gone viral. We can focus on some specific aspects of Twitter — say the use of the Twitter application — but we can never forget that the Twitter app is an object in its own right that seeks and expresses its own position within the complex system of online messaging, just as I do, just as Milano does, just as all the other objects do. Bruno Latour will be happy.

The second characteristic of hyperobjects such as the "MeToo" text is nonlocality, a term Morton borrows from quantum physics, noting that the non-intuitive perspective needed to see hyperobjects such as global warming or, in our case here, "MeToo" was developed in the complexity sciences such as quantum, relativity, and chaos theories. Morton says:
Hyperobjects are contradictory beasts. Moreover, the aesthetic-causal realm in which hyperobjects appear to operate is in some sense nonlocal and atemporal. Or at any rate, such gigantic scales are involved— or rather such knotty relationships between gigantic and intimate scales— that hyperobjects cannot be thought as occupying a series of now-points “in” time or space. They confound the social and psychic instruments we use to measure them— even digital devices have trouble. … Nonlocality means just that— there is no such thing, at a deep level, as the local. Locality is an abstraction. (Morton, Kindle Locations 886-891)
Stop to read a single tweet from "MeToo", and you can no longer see the text. It recedes behind the dazzling brightness of the single tweet, dazzling in the sense of an atomic blast. For an instant, all is bathed in the light of that one tweet, and we forget that this tweet is not the text. It isn’t even the twittersphere. Morton says, “Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically” (Kindle Locations 901-902) because “hyperobjects [are] nonlocal: … massively distributed in time and space” (Kindle Location 910). “Locality is always a false immediacy” (Kindle Locations 913-914).

Our literary sensibilities were formed in the print age, which made it easier to focus on the immediate book to hand, that tangible artifact that we could take from a shelf, see the poem there in our hands, and then return to the shelf. We could put it away, but as Morton notes, there is no away. Because of our shift to an ecological mode of thought, we have learned that we cannot send our trash and our nuclear waste away. Morton notes wryly:
For some time we may have thought that the U-bend in the toilet was a convenient curvature of ontological space that took whatever we flush down it into a totally different dimension called Away, leaving things clean over here. Now we know better: instead of the mythical land Away, we know the waste goes to the Pacific Ocean or the wastewater treatment facility. … There is no Away on this surface, no here and no there. (Kindle Locations 610-614)
"MeToo" is in our pockets, closer than our lovers, as close as our thoughts and prayers, and yet it is not here. That tweet from Milano is not in your pocket. Not even Twitter knows where it is. Rather, it is distributed throughout the Cloud, smudged, dispersed, acentered, both lost and found, found everywhere and existing nowhere. You cannot explain the here of this tweet without reference to the beyond, and yet looking at the here blurs the beyond. Looking beyond blurs the here. You can’t know both the velocity and the location of any tweet or text. Something is always uncertain, and despite the beliefs of the New Critics, texts never include all that you need to understand them.

And yet, in a weird fractal way, they do include it all, like a hologram. A tweet is a gateway to the twittersphere, and as David Bohm says in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1985) each entity is implicated in all entities and all entities in each. The tweet then occupies a middle ground between here and there and forms a parallax with other tweets, a weird lens that hides as much as it reveals, that makes local and remote at the same time and at different times.

Time brings us to Morton’s third characteristic of hyperobjects: temporal undulation. Since Einstein, we’ve had to accept that space and time are not the stable fields within which all things are born, live, and die. They aren’t even separate fields but one spacetime, and it’s quite possible that spacetime emerges from all the things in the universe rather than being the inert medium within which everything is suspended. This view, of course, requires a peculiar, non-human point of view that is obscured at the human scale where time and space seem so reliable, fixed, and ordinary—the reliable, stable media through which we move.

Hyperobjects such as "MeToo" help us to see that time is not fixed into a regular, universal procession, and this gives those objects an uncanny feel. They drop us into the Twilight Zone of a Dali painting where clocks drip down the canvas. The "MeToo" text is never stable, but undulates like an octopus. It is both now and then. A "MeToo" text ripples across the chattersphere immediately into our pockets and at the same time recedes into the past and future, away from us. I see it now, immediately from Bonnie Stewart, yet it trails clouds of glory from a million other women in the chattersphere, pushing like chi into the future, fading away into the past. Each iteration of the meme carries its own import and impact, its own context and trajectory without ever losing the DNA of its genealogy. Each pseudopod of "MeToo" is imbricated with the past of a million gropes, wheedles, and demands and with the potential of hopes, potentials, and risks.

Unlike my favorite Keats sonnet, "MeToo" is not a stable text. Actually, a Keats sonnet is not stable either, but it has been easy to imagine it so during its 200 years in print. An electronic hyperobject such as "MeToo" allows us to see the contours of a conversation that warps time as it waves in and out of now, connecting us to both the past and future. The flow of time about "MeToo" is not regular. Rather, time percolates, sometimes oozing as a Facebook message arrives from someone I’ve known a long time, sometimes rushing along a torrent of tweets from a thousand people that I do not know. The conversation is morphing before my eyes: sometimes with a Keatsian indolence, sometimes as frenzied as e.e. Cummings or tupac shakur. I need a literacy that does not require a stable, definitive text from a stable, authoritative voice.

I need a literacy that expects a text to change and stretch over time, a text that changes and stretches time. Hyperobjects distort our sense of time, stretching and foreshortening. The future of the "MeToo" text looms over me, calling for a response, exerting a weird causality on me. The future of this conversation is as present as the past and recedes into obscurity in both directions. I must respond, but to what am I responding? My training demands a stable text to analyze, an authoritative voice to engage, but I have none. The stable text is a dead text (lawyers and critics beware). We do not linger on websites that read the same thing today as yesterday. We move on, searching for a morphing text. There is no single lesson, no moral of the story, in the "MeToo" text. There is no unity. Rather, there are a million voices raised across a vast field of spacetime, perturbing my sense of how space and time and objects are arranged. I am in the swarm. Sometimes I catch the fleeting arc of a single voice in a tweet or Facebook message, and of course, I want to reduce the conversation to that voice, to that person, but behind the piercing clarity of that voice I hear the rustle and hum of a million other voices, including voices of dissent: a colleague who messages “Not me!”, a troll who tweets, “What the fuck!”, a niece – a mid-20s woman – who writes:
For some reason all this "me too" stuff bothers me. Oh yeah it must be because every time Ive spoken up about times I've been sexually assaulted I have lost "friends", been called things( liar, jealous, a slut/ whore, drunk), and stopped getting invited to social gatherings. To this day I still see people engaging with people who have sexually assaulted me after I have shared my story with them. I am not a victim. I am a survivor. Ain't no "me too" coming from this side..
But it did come. She spoke, and her voice filled the swarm, amplified, adding to the weight and power. Her future calls to me, pulls. Causality is not just a push from the past, and I need a new literacy, caught dumb within the swarm. I am pulled here and there, now and then, and I need new sense-making tools.

I need a literacy that can accommodate the phasing of "MeToo", the fourth characteristic of hyperobjects. Morton says:
Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis. We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. The reason why they appear nonlocal and temporally foreshortened is precisely because of this transdimensional quality. We only see pieces of them at once, like a tsunami or a case of radiation sickness. If an apple were to invade a two-dimensional world, first the stick people would see some dots as the bottom of the apple touched their universe, then a rapid succession of shapes that would appear like an expanding and contracting circular blob, diminishing to a tiny circle, possibly a point, and disappearing. (Kindle Locations 1262-1267)
This is it precisely: I do not get "MeToo" tweet by tweet, message by message, in some orderly fashion that helps me resolve it into a whole. Rather, I get a strange, fragmented, fractal of a message, a tweet or two, then a rush of a million tweets, and then silence, then another rush. "MeToo" engulfs me, swallows me, and then it is gone. I see it on TV. I hear it in a podcast. My brother-in-law yells "MeToo" at a rehearsal dinner in a joking manner that indicates that he knows the conversation, but I can’t be sure that he knows what it means. I know that I don’t know what it means. I know bits, silvery bits like fish flashing in the clear Bahamian waters before vanishing.

But the vanishing, just like the appearing, is a matter of my perception. "MeToo" is still here and there, now and then. I lose touch with it, but it does not go away. There is no away. Rather, it is so large a text, that I lose track of it, even though it is still humming about me. It is a poem that I cannot put down, an ear worm that I cannot turn off, radio waves still singing through me even when my device is down. “MeToo” phases in and out and around, always humming in the noise, sometimes pronounced, articulate, and clear, but always droning. The background noise is not incidental, not a nuisance or a distortion. It is the text.

I encounter “MeToo” as one object to another, each with its own agency. We share an interobjectivity. I engage “MeToo” across what Morton calls the Mesh, that “shared sensual space” that mediates the interactions of objects and where objects present-for each other. “MeToo” and I confront each other, each interpreting the other, responding to the other, acting upon the other with whatever resources we have to hand. “MeToo” is an object for me, but I am equally an object for “MeToo”. I may claim priority in this relationship given my access to human intellect and its affordances—and I traditionally have thought this way—but “MeToo” has its own affordances and resources. “MeToo” has millions of other humans woven through it, and the drone of all those voices drowns my voice. Even if I were a genius, those millions of minds would be smarter, more resourceful, more nimble than mine alone. “MeToo” has the power of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and other technological behemoths at its disposal and is exercising them all at once. Perhaps most importantly, “MeToo” is massive. It is a swarm, and it simply outweighs me. It’s like comparing my gravitational pull on the Earth to the Earth’s gravitational pull on me. My pull is negligible.

This interobjectivity, then, challenges and undermines my role as the subject that analyzes an object. I have no privileged position to assume and from which I can analyze “MeToo”. I have no metalanguage. I have no outside, away from “MeToo”, isolated from and superior to “MeToo”. I have only the inside and the ontological rift between “MeToo” and me. I have no way to engage without being a part of—without “MeToo” and me aesthetically falling into each other while simultaneously receding ontologically from each other. I am not “MeToo”, nor is it me, but we are both inevitably entangled in our aesthetic interactions as each presents to the other and as those presentations modify what each then presents again. As “MeToo” and I know, then we are known in turn. To know this text is to be known by this text. I am revealed as I reveal. Analysis and knowledge are not one-way, but interactive and interobjective. As I know, so am I known.

All the great spiritual traditions know this, but our Western scientific tradition has forgotten it. Slowly, complexity science is correcting this mistake. When Alyssa Milano tweets the new numbers of the “MeToo” conversation, she reveals something about herself. When a troll trashes “MeToo”, he exposes more about himself. When my niece dismisses “MeToo” for a day at the beach, she reveals as well. My discussion here about “MeToo” is now part of the conversation, and as much as it makes “MeToo” known, it likely reveals more about me. “MeToo” has its own agency, and it stains me as much or more than I stain it. I cannot try to understand it—or at least I cannot try to engage it elegantly—without becoming something else forever entangled in “MeToo”. Likewise, “MeToo” is now something else, stained however slightly by me. There is no away for either of us.

And now there is no away for you, my reader, as you, too, are stained by “MeToo” and by me.

I’ve come to think that all texts have always been like "MeToo", have been hyperobjects. The Shakespeare texts are certainly hyperobjects, his memes having spread throughout not only English culture but world culture. We are stained by Shakespeare, and in turn, his texts are stained by us. They are rhizomes spreading in the rich soil of society, but as this Google Ngram Viewer shows, it has taken hundreds of years for the “sound and fury” meme to percolate through the print substrate to reach most every literate English-speaking person alive, the phrase peaking in English texts about 1950 after an initial spike in the 1640s.

In contrast, “MeToo” has saturated culture almost as much within a matter of weeks. Thus, while we could avoid the hyperobject nature of a Shakespearian text in the slow age of print, we cannot avoid the hyperobject nature of “MeToo” in the hyperfast age of social media. I think, then, that I will have to re-read Shakespeare, this time not as a discrete, self-contained object that I can analyze but as a viscous, nonlocal, undulating, and constantly phasing hyperobject that reveals as much about myself as it does about Hamlet.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Complex Classes: Heterogeneity and Homogeneity

Over the last few posts, I have characterized complex classes as a multiplicity of actants open to flows of Light and Word which animate dynamic interactions among the actants and other systems. In this post I explore heterogeneity, or diversity, with necessary discussion of homogeneity and unity. I think, too, that I will shift from the term actant to interactant which better expresses the dynamism that allows an actant to self-eco-organize itself into a functioning node in a system. In educational terms, interactant captures the dynamism that a learner and a class must have in order to learn.

Deleuze and Guattari say that the interactants in a rhizomatic system are heterogeneous. This heterogeneity, however, is much broader than classrooms full of diverse people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Though such a diversity is certainly included, it is still a collection of humans. Interactants are not limited to the human. Complexity thinking such as actor-network theory and object oriented ontology makes ample room for non-human interactants, which seem to be a part of all our complex systems. In his essay On actor-network theory, Bruno Latour corrects the misconception that actor-network theory, for instance, is mostly about human social networks:
[Actor-network theory] aims at describing … the very nature of societies. But to do so it does not limit itself to human individual actors but extend[s] the word actor -or actant- to non-human, non individual entities. Whereas social network adds information on the relations of humans in a social and natural world which is left untouched by the analysis, AT aims at accounting for the very essence of societies and natures. … Social networks will of course be included in the description but they will have no privilege nor prominence …. (p. 2)
An attempt to describe or understand or engage the modern complex class must account for the heterogeneity and diversity of its interactants. For instance, an account of modern learning must account for smartphones, which are potent interactants present in all modern classrooms. Chairs, desks, lights, books, tablets, lunch, recess, and hallway conversations are also interactants in classrooms, and the humans are constantly perturbed by the non-humans, constantly engaged in dynamic, nonlinear interactions. And yes, it must also account for different people speaking different languages from different contexts.

Even in those systems that we might think of as homogeneous—our own bodies, for instance—we find heterogeneity. Our bodies start as zygotes of rather homogeneous cells, but quickly differentiate themselves as they unpack their DNA and express themselves as hearts, lungs, brains, muscle, and skin in a unique configuration that distinguishes us from, say, mouse zygotes and from other humans. Be thankful for heterogeneity. Let us be thankful for heterogeneity and diversity.

Deleuze and Guattari explore heterogeneity in terms of language, which is "an essentially heterogeneous reality" (p. 7). They say:
A semiotic chain is like a tuber agglomerating very diverse acts, not only linguistic, but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural, and cognitive: there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community. (p. 7)
Speaking of heterogeneity in terms of language is particularly important to me as it explains the necessity for heterogeneity and diversity within a complex system. Without diversity, a complex system cannot self-eco-organize. It cannot find its way through its ecosystem. It cannot grow, evolve, adapt. In short, it cannot learn. Heterogeneity is necessary for a language to thrive, to live, and to change in order for us to adequately respond to our complex, heterogenous world.

Said another way, a complex, diverse world requires an equally complex, diverse language to map it. Anthropologist Franz Boas was correct that a rich vocabulary maps a rich world. For example, Eskimos have so many more words for snow than we southerners do. That rich, heterogeneous vocabulary allows them to map a rich, heterogenous reality that most of us reduce to a simple, homogeneous snow. We southerners are the losers, as George Orwell explored so well in 1984: if you want to limit and control people, then limit and control their language. A healthy class needs more interactants with more languages to map more of the world. In his 2001 article "Diversity, Knowledge, and Complexity Theory: Some Introductory Issues", Pierpaolo Andriani says that "Ashby’s (1960) principle of requisite variety states that the internal variety of a system should match the variety of the external environment" (258). He says that diversity is important for adaptability, or the ability of the system to learn and to cope with changes in its environment. Especially relevant to school organizations, Andriani goes on to note that a distributed network based on self-organization principles is a diversity-increasing type of organization (265) whereas the firm type of organization is diversity reducing (267). Too many classes still play down or try to paste over the diversity within the class rather than cultivating that diversity. This is unfortunate.

By Trey Ratcliff,
(CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)
In short, heterogeneity is necessary both for a fuller, richer world and for a fuller, richer understanding of the world with a wider range of possible responses for those who want to engage their world as it is becoming. Diversity makes any complex system at most any scale more capable of making its way in the world. One of the wonderful things about being a human rather than a slime mold, for instance, is that we humans have a vastly wider range of possible responses to reality, and we have that range of responses in large part because we have a more complex neural fabric that enables us to comprehend more of reality, configure that reality in more ways, and respond in more ways. Slime molds see very little of the world and can respond in few ways. Though still complex creatures, they are far simpler than we humans are. Poor them. It confuses me, then, when groups of people want to limit what we can see and how we can respond. Who wants to be slime mold?

Denial of heterogeneity makes sense mostly when a group wishes to disengage from the world by reducing its understanding and its range of possible responses to the world. The problem with homogeneity, of course, is that all walls (even classroom walls) eventually crumble or become, at best, pleasant tourist destinations as the rhizome flows around them, eager to get on with the business of creating the world. Homogeneity will not hold on Earth—at least, not until we freeze into the cosmic heat sink a few billion years from now. Until then, heterogeneity far from equilibrium and damn-near chaos rules and enables not only life but learning.

That being said, homogeneity and unity are also necessary for life and learning. Like heterogeneity, homogeneity has its place and its affordances. It has its unity. As is the case with most characteristics of complexity, heterogeneity does not stand alone as a discrete, sanctioned quality; rather, it emerges in dialog with homogeneity. It is tempered, perturbed, and engaged by homogeneity. All complex characteristics of complexity must be conceived and worked with as dynamic interactions, not as static things or qualities. Thus, the characteristic under discussion here, for which I do not know a single term, is diversity in terms of unity, or unity in terms of diversity, heterogeneity in terms of homogeneity. Neither diversity nor unity alone is the correct understanding; rather, diversity and unity. That is the correct understanding, as Shunryú Suzuki might say.

I can understand this diversity in unity by considering my own body. I am, of course, me, a unity (Yes, the me is grammatically incorrect, but rhetorically it helps me make my point), but I am also a liver, heart, brain, lungs, skin, and more, a diversity. I am both unity and diversity.

Craig Alan, David Bowie, 48x48 oil on canvas,
A shift in scale or perspective can also help me see this homogeneity within heterogeneity. The diverse people in the Craig Alan painting, David Bowie, become homogeneous dots, and while from this perspective I lose the heterogeneity and individuality of each person, I gain an image no one of those people could produce alone—unless, of course, a costumed David Bowie is in the crowd. The pattern, the new meaning, emerges from the inter-relationships of the interactants, and their heterogeneities are subsumed under a homogeneity that enables them to express something different and us to see something different.

This may seem no more than a trick of perspective, but I don't think that is the correct understanding. Rather, this is an instance of emergence, when the interactions of usually diverse interactants at a micro-scale lead to the emergence of new phenomena at a macro-scale. Get enough people, starlings, fish, neurons, or quarks together and interacting, and something new will emerge that cannot be reduced to an analysis of the constituent parts.

Complexity scientists are working on this issue of emergence. For instance, in her article "A Theory of Reality as More than the Sum of Its Parts", Natalie Wolchover covers neuroscientist Eric Hoel's concept of causal emergence which mathematically accounts for how agency at a macro-scale emerges out of the interactions at micro-scales. Let's say we want to explain how an idea emerges in the brain as a pattern of firing neurons. If we look at individual neurons, we can become hopelessly lost in the indeterminacy of the event. While the given idea requires a pattern across 12 neurons, the brain decides on the fly which 12 neurons (within certain constraints) to use. Hoel illustrates his concept with an approachable example of how it might work in our brains:
Imagine a network consisting of two groups of 10 neurons each. Each neuron in group A is linked to several neurons in group B, and when a neuron in group A fires, it usually causes one of the B neurons to fire as well. Exactly which linked neuron fires is unpredictable. If, say, the state of group A is {1,0,0,1,1,1,0,1,1,0}, where 1s and 0s represent neurons that do and don’t fire, respectively, the resulting state of group B can have myriad possible combinations of 1s and 0s. On average, six neurons in group B will fire, but which six is nearly random; the micro state is hopelessly indeterministic. Now, imagine that we coarse-grain over the system, so that this time, we group all the A neurons together and simply count the total number that fire. The state of group A is {6}. This state is highly likely to lead to the state of group B also being {6}. The macro state is more reliable and effective; calculations show it has more effective information.
In other words, some new, and more useful information has emerged at the macro-scale that did not exist at the micro-scale. This is not just a trick of perspective. Rather, something emerges that did not exist before. The constituent parts at the micro-scale, of course, are necessary for the emergent property at the macro-scale, but they are not sufficient to fully explain it. If physicist Lee Smolin is correct, then even new physical laws can emerge at macro-scales. I confess that I do not know very well how to cultivate and engage a class of diverse individuals into a unified, functioning whole and to attend to the learning and properties that emerge both at the individual scale and the class scale. This scale shifting is difficult for me, and understanding and expressing the dynamics between the scales is even more difficult. I'm glad Hoel is working on it.

Of course, we can focus at any time on either diversity or unity, heterogeneity or homogeneity. As Edgar Morin explains, we can reduce the complexity of any system either to a whole or to parts. Such a focused reduction has its affordances. Homogeneity and unity, for instance, can be a convenient shorthand to reference any group with some shared characteristic that we are focusing on, and we humans do it all the time. Homogeneity is quite likely a necessary mental construct to help us cope with the overwhelmingly rich diversity of our complex world. When I'm driving along a wooded road in central Georgia, the trees are homogeneous: just a bunch of trees. This is a benefit while I'm driving, as too careful a consideration of the heterogeneity of the trees will distract me from driving. We simply cannot process all the information flooding our senses every moment; so we ignore what we can and lump much of the rest together into coarse categories that homogenize the swarm and reduce its collected interactants to one or two characteristics that we can manage.

Likewise, heterogeneity and diversity can, among other things, help us focus on smaller and smaller parts to explore the interactions among them. We can come to understand how muscle is attached to bone and how the muscle fibers twitch. The last three centuries of Western science have had an unparalleled run of successes based on such a reductionist approach to reality.

However, such reductions to either the part or the whole eventually lead to wrong understandings when pursued exclusively. Homogeneity alone leads to stereotype and loss of individuality; heterogeneity alone leads to fragmentation and loss of unity. The affordances of both unity and diversity are short-term, provisional, and limited, but we want to make them permanent and absolute.

The problem is compounded because we usually cannot see both at the same time. At any one time, we can see people as diverse individuals or as homogeneous members of groups. For me, this limitation of vision is something like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle which says that "we cannot measure the position (x) and the momentum (p) of a particle with absolute precision." Likewise, we can see either the individual or the group, but we have difficulty seeing both at the same time. Too often, we forget that we are seeing only part of the picture, and we fall into error when we insist that the part we see is the whole picture. It never is. We must allow the whole to inform the parts and the parts to inform the whole. They do anyway.

Instructional ethics, then, must map the heterogeneity and homogeneity of complex learning. It must map whatever emerges from the dynamic interaction between diversity and unity that hums within every heart, every student, every class.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Open and Closed Education

I'm almost done with my next post in a series of posts about complex classrooms, but I want to interrupt the series to talk about open education.

It seems that a raucous discussion erupted a couple of months ago about the definition of open. As near as I can trace the discussion, Dave Wiley started on April 4, 2017, with a post "How Is Open Pedagogy Different?" that defines open pedagogy rather narrowly as the use of open educational resources (OER). He says:
Open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions. Or, to operationalize, open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical when you are using OER.
In an earlier 2013 post of his, Wiley defines the 5Rs as those educational resources that are granted free access and use of materials so that students are:
  • Free to access 
  • Free to reuse 
  • Free to revise 
  • Free to remix 
  • Free to redistribute
Jim Groom then tweeted about his discomfort with Wiley's definition, and this kicked off a rather vigorous Twitter storm among Wiley, Mike Caulfield, Jim Groom, and others. In an April 8, 2017, post "I Don't Need Permission to be Open", Jim Groom moved out of Twitter to state more precisely his problem with Wiley's strict definition of open, asking "when did open become boiled down to a strict set of permissions?"

Then, in an April 21, 2017, post "When Opens Collide", Wiley reconsidered his narrow definition and conceded that other definitions of open pedagogy did exist. Basically, he differentiated between open resources as he had defined it and open web as others such as Tantek had defined it. For Wiley, open implies permissions about the access and use of resources. For others such as Groom, open implies the freedom to access and use without any permissions. Wiley then concludes by stating that open is an insufficient principle upon which to base a pedagogy. He says:
“Open” – regardless of whether you come from the open content or open web tradition – does not have anything to say about the nature of learning. Maybe the thing that’s become the clearest to me as I’ve laid awake at night thinking about these issues is that you can’t actually build a pedagogy on a foundation of open (well, not one that isn’t incredibly impoverished). Your foundational commitments in terms of pedagogy should be to an understanding of how learning happens. Once we have made fundamental commitments in terms of a theory of learning, then we can add open to our list of facilitating methods in order get better leverage.
I do not know what Groom, Caulfield, and others think of this final position of Wiley's, but I find it problematic for the complex classroom that I've been trying to describe. Open is, in fact, one of the "foundational commitments … of pedagogy" as I am coming to understand pedagogy. Open is not merely a facilitating method used by schools in order to get better leverage, though it can be that as well. Rather, open is core to any kind of learning, regardless of theory. All learning theories assume openness even if they don't account for it.

My understanding of learning assumes that living systems—including kindergarteners and college freshman, mostly—are open to flows of energy and information in their environment. As I've argued so far in this blog, it's these flows of energy and information, Light and Word, that quicken systems into life and render them capable of using Light and Word to self-organize and, most importantly for this discussion, to perceive their environment and to learn how to engage the environment to maintain and to improve their condition. As far as I know, all living systems share to some degree this ability to learn: to change our internal organization and to respond differently to our environments.

This ability to learn absolutely depends upon a degree of openness to the environment on the part of the learning system. Any system that is not open to Light and Word cannot learn—mostly because it will die. Any pedagogy that does not understand or account for this openness is "incredibly impoverished".

Open, then, is foundational, but so is closed. In fact, both open and closed are necessary for life, identity, autonomy, and learning. Our autonomy is defined in large part by our freedom to choose what and how much energy and information we will engage (open) and what we will not engage (closed). Our knowledge and beliefs depend upon this dynamic tension between open and closed, and either extreme is deadly. Both totally open and totally closed kill a living system. Open leads to chaos and dissolution, closed leads to frozen stasis. Neither works for long; however, life tends to emerge more readily and robustly in those zones far from equilibrium (the totally closed end of the continuum), just bordering on chaos (the totally open end). Like life, learning also appears to be more robust and vibrant in those zones far from equilibrium. Traditional education, however, has tended to favor the closed, equilibrium end.

I have a six-month-old granddaughter (my first and only grandchild so far), and these days I usually find a way to work her into many of my conversations. Just now, she is an incredibly open system. She'll put most anything into her mouth, for instance, and her parents are working very hard to guard her against ingesting harmful things. She's mostly open, they are mostly closed. Moreover, they are teaching her daily what to ingest (open) and what not to ingest (closed). If my experience is any guide, then these are lessons that she will continue for the rest of her life. Learning what to put in her mouth and what not is foundational learning, a dynamic interplay of opening and closing to learn which openings and which closings most maintain and enrich her life. Learning to distinguish a Petrarchan sonnet from a Shakespearean is a refinement upon this dynamic—different in degree but not in kind. All learning begins with choices about opening and closing.

Of course, different pedagogical theories try to account for how we individually and socially ingest information, process it into knowledge, use it to respond to others, and feed it back into our environments. I suspect that like most teachers Wiley spends much time deciding what information flows to open his classes to and how to limit competing information flows (how to stay on task). These decisions are foundational, and he needs a theory that helps him or his classes make such decisions—assuming he invites his classes to participate in such decisions. Any learning theory that ignores how a class will open and close itself—how it will sustain and define itself—is impoverished from the beginning. Open is not an add-on. It's where learning begins.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Complex Classes: Dynamic Interactions

I am trying to define what I mean by complex classes, or classes in the complex domain, with the hope that a clearer understanding of complex classes will say something useful about the ethics we can bring to those classes. So far I have characterized complex classes as a collection of actants open to flows of Light and Word, or energy, matter, information, and organization. Well enough, but it's still too easy to view this collection as a bag of marbles: inert, uninteresting units, joined only by the bag they happen to be in. Of course, too many of us can say that we've been in classes like that, and likely, we can also say that we've been in classes where the bag was loosened and the marbles scattered in chaos. Those are the kinds of classes that I'm critiquing: those that are too rigid or too chaotic for any useful learning to emerge. I criticize them because I think learning emerges most readily in the complex domain, far from the equilibrium of simple or complicated domains and just this side of chaos. I hold this true for all things that learn, which just might be everything in the Universe. It's certainly true for kindergartners.

A fourth characteristic of complex systems, or rhizomes, is that actants interact dynamically. In his Prologue to his book Complexity and Postmodernism, Paul Cilliers says:
In a complex system, … the interaction among constituents of the system, and the interaction between the system and its environment, are of such a nature that the system as a whole cannot be fully understood simply by analysing its components. Moreover, these relationships are not fixed, but shift and change, often as a result of self-organisation. This can result in novel features, usually referred to in terms of emergent properties. (Prologue)
Complex classrooms, then, have no fixed relationships among its actants or among other, external clusters of actants; rather, all actants can shift and change in their relationships with all the other actants. This, of course, upsets the traditional classroom which tries to control and fix the relationships among the actants: teachers and students, and peripherally, administrators, staff, parents, and others. In complex classrooms, interactions do change. Sometimes a student teaches while the teacher learns.

Dynamic interactions are not just a characteristic of complex systems; rather, they are constitutive of those systems. No dynamic interactions means no complex system. Cilliers says:
Complexity is the result of a rich interaction of simple elements that only respond to the limited information each of them are presented with. When we look at the behaviour of a complex system as a whole, our focus shifts from the individual element in the system to the complex structure of the system. The complexity emerges as a result of the patterns of interaction between the elements. (p. 5)
The dynamic interactions begin with the infusion of Light and Word into the complex system. We can see the results of this infusion of energy in a pot of oatmeal, for instance: as we add heat to the pot, the oatmeal slowly begins to roil and turn the closer it gets to the boiling point, becoming animated. Similarly, as we turn up the flows of energy and information in a class of students, they become animated and begin to roil and turn, to interact dynamically with each other and with the information. This inflow of energy and information is a starting point. Consider our bag of inert marbles. Now imagine that they are animated by the flows of energy and information such that they are able to process that energy and information, store energy and information, and respond to each other and to their environment. This is the magic that happens in living systems, all of which are complex. As animated actants, the marbles can and must interact dynamically with each other and with their environment (remember that Deleuze and Guattari say that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7)), and dynamic interactions are not limited to simple physical jostling, things bumping into things like marbles in a bag, though jostling and bumping are certainly included. Rather, dynamic interactions are any perturbation of energy, matter, information, or organization, and usually all of them together, between any two actants. In other words, actants in a complex system are able to recognise and respond to perturbations of energy and information from within their system and without. They can feed, process, and feedback, rearranging themselves--self-eco-organizing--to meet the demands of their situations. This dynamic interactivity fundamentally defines the system at all scales: it defines communities, schools, classes, students, organs, tissues, and molecules--all the way down and all the way up.

And it defines a complex system both from inside and outside. Derrida writes convincingly to me that the inside and outside are not so distinct, and I keep his point carefully in mind. Still, distinguishing the inside (the individual, to use human terms) from the outside (society) is often useful. Indeed, it is necessary to distinguish any system from its surround. It's necessary for autonomy and identity. However, as Morin says, autonomy and identity are not a separation but a distinction:
The notion of human autonomy is complex because it depends on cultural and social conditions. To be ourselves, we need to learn a language, a culture, knowledge, and this culture itself needs to be varied enough to allow us a choice among the stock of existing ideas, and to think in an autonomous way. So this autonomy is nourished by dependence. We depend on an education, a language, a culture, a society, a brain, which is itself the product of genetic programming, and we depend also on our genes. (On Complexity 44)
Autonomy, then, in terms of dependence—another of complexity's wonderful and productive contradictions. We work out our own lives, our own salvations, between the extremes of autonomy and dependence. We must have both, and our negotiations between these two extremes are another source of the dynamism inherent in any complex system.

In his book Complexity and Postmodernism, Cilliers anticipates Morin, saying of human social systems in particular:
Individuals are engaged in a constant exchange of information. Remember that a specific node in a neural network has limited significance, that it is the patterns of interconnections that encode information and generate meaning. Similarly, no human individual’s existence is meaningful in isolation: ‘the self does not amount to much’ (Lyotard 1984: 15). The individual is constituted by its relationships to others. (pp. 119-120)
Lyotard's conclusion that the self does not amount to much immediately rearranges our traditional thinking about classrooms, certainly in the United States with its extreme focus on the individual student. I suspect that we have wasted incalculable time and energy by limiting student interactions with other students and by employing assessment regimes that focus on one student/one grade. We tend to strip away all the interactions that define a student and make a student an interesting, engaging person, in order to focus on one test score, one data stream, one set of perturbations. We end up removing most of what makes a student interesting and worthwhile to others and probably all of what makes a student valuable to themselves.

Of course, schools are not alone in reducing people to a small bag of convenient characteristics. All organizations tend to do the same: businesses, governments, churches, teams, and even families. And of course, engaging any person, or actant, in terms of all their dynamic relationships is impossible, as any dedicated ANT researcher knows. No one can know another that well--not even Rumi and his Beloved. We can't even know ourselves that well. Still, we must keep in mind that when we reduce any actant, any student, to one or two interactions, then we distort them, likely to the point that we lose what is most important about them. It's like dissecting a frog to learn how its liver works: we might learn something useful, but the frog is dead. We can focus our attention to analyze, but we must always remember to pull out to a larger view. Only from the higher view can we see the morphing patterns formed by dynamic relationships. As both Cilliers and Morin note, this runs counter to three hundred years of a highly successful Western science and technology which reduces reality to fundamental parts in order to analyze it. As Cilliers puts it:
The study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in the analytical method. A complex system is not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components. In ‘cutting up’ a system, the analytical method destroys what it seeks to understand. (p. 2)
This is not to deny the benefits of such analyses. Modern science and technology have demonstrated beyond question that analysis has its insights and can generate much actionable knowledge. Still, as Morin explains so well, this analysis blinds us to all outside our analyses. Cilliers also speaks of the problems with taking snapshots of complex systems to freeze the dynamic interactions so that we can study the moving parts:
Despite the fact that we cannot represent the essence of a complex system in determinate terms, we cannot resist, or perhaps even avoid, the construction of some kind of interpretation of the nature of the system at a given moment. These interpretations, however, are in principle limited. We are always constrained to taking snapshots of the system. ... The danger lies in falling under the spell of a specific picture and claiming a privileged position for it. Since it would not only deny the limitations of the specific angle, but also prevent further explorations [italics added by me], this spell must be broken by relentlessly showing the contradictions that result from fixing the boundaries from one perspective. Pointing out the contradictions that follow from such a closure is an activity that Derrida calls 'deconstruction'. (p. 80)
A complex class is never in equilibrium. Rather, it is always mapping new knowledge and know-how, if only figuring out how to avoid doing the next assignment or how to cheat without getting caught. I can recall only one class in near equilibrium: I once visited a high school classroom to troubleshoot a network connection only to find a teacher lecturing conscientiously to about 10 students, all with their heads down, asleep at their desks. I watched in stunned amazement for a few moments before the teacher finally shrugged and said, "Well, they're all being quiet." The class had achieved a perfect equilibrium—at least until the bell rang.

And therein lies the problem with complete equilibrium: so long as we live within this complex world, equilibrium doesn't hold. On Earth and among living things, equilibrium is the exceptional state. We are all infused with too much energy and information from too many directions, and no classroom can filter all that energy and information to focus the class on one flow of information from one source in one direction: student to teacher. The attempt at such focus requires an excessive exercise of power, which itself becomes another flow of energy and information which can disrupt learning as quickly as anything else.

Indeed the very idea of learning is dynamic, far from equilibrium. Learning demands dynamic change—an expansion beyond that which we already know. Learners are expanding beyond their old knowledge, or at least reinforcing and strengthening their old knowledge. Learning means rearranging and strengthening one's internal state to adequately respond to and cope with outside streams of energy, matter, information, and organization. These streams are never totally under the control of any student, parent, teacher, curriculum, or school.

Not only are students in a classroom dynamic because of the inflows of energy and information and the constant reorganization of their own internal states, but also because students are actants in multiple clusters. A student has multiple acting roles (child, sibling, parent, spouse, lover, team member, friend/enemy, buyer/seller, acolyte, proselyte, nerd, peer leader/follower, and countless others) that make incessant, often conflicting demands on the student. Moreover, as Cilliers notes, these clusters are all dynamic and "interact with other clusters, both directly as well as through the individual members they share with each other" (p. 7). Student families are part of my classes, and my classes are part of those families, even in college. Usually the interpenetrations are subtle—a tension in the class that I cannot identify and usually gloss over—but sometimes the tension is insistent and disruptive. A few terms ago, the father of one of my students was killed in the line of duty as a police officer. This was a community event that the class could not gloss over and had to deal with. Cilliers says:
Clusters should not be interpreted in a spatial sense, or seen as fixed, hermetically sealed entities. They can grow or shrink, be subdivided or absorbed, flourish or decay. The clusters are dynamic and interact with other clusters, both directly as well as through the individual members they share with each other. (p. 7)
Clusters, in other words, are rhizomes, and all the points (or actants) in a rhizome interact with all others. My students' social, home, and work lives are in my classes everyday, whether I acknowledge them or not, deal with them or not. They are ready and potent streams of energy and information that the class can harness and co-opt for its own learning purposes.

Complex systems must be dynamic in order to self-organize, or said another way, classes must be dynamic in order to learn. Cilliers says, "A complex system, such as a living organism or a growing economy, has to develop its structure and be able to adapt that structure in order to cope with changes in the environment" (p. 11). Later in his book, Cilliers elaborates: "The capacity for self-organisation is a property of complex systems which enables them to develop or change internal structure spontaneously and adaptively in order to cope with, or manipulate, their environment" (p. 89).

Dynamic interaction, then, has direct consequences for learning: all complex systems can adapt and learn, a characteristic for a future post in this series, but students can learn and adapt only because they are dynamic systems. Cilliers explores this dynamism in terms of Derrida's concepts of trace and différance. A trace is an interaction among actants in a system—for instance, neurons in a brain or students in a classroom—a pathway that is more or less dynamic. The more dynamic an interaction is, the more the pathway is walked, then the stronger the trace and the more weight it carries within the system. In human terms, weighted traces are, for example, the strongly held beliefs, deep friendships, rituals and habits, frequently travelled highways, voting preferences, buying patterns, and so on that give shape and meaning to our lives. We are born with the potential for these traces, but not the traces themselves. We develop those, we learn them. They are the dynamic structures that become provisionally different from the other possible but latent traces and pathways that we could have developed. These two concepts, traces and différance, help both Derrida and Cilliers illuminate the dynamics among actants within a system and among systems. Cilliers says, "Both concepts, trace and différance, are employed to say something about the inner workings of language, or rather—since language becomes the model of any system of interacting signs—of all complex systems" (pp. 44, 45). Cilliers summarizes the impact of trace and différance within complex neural networks this way:
If an ensemble of neurons … generates a pattern of activity, traces of the activity reverberate through the network. When there are loops in the network, these traces are reflected back after a certain propagation delay (deferral), and alter (make different) the activity that produced them in the first place. Since complex systems always contain loops and feedback, delayed self-altering will be one of the network's characteristics. This characteristic has much in common with the notion of différance—a concept that indicates difference and deference, that is suspended between the passive and active modes, and that has both spatial and temporal components. (p. 46)
I can easily imagine a classroom as a complex neural network optimally functioning far from equilibrium, dynamically tracing pathways among multiple actants—humans of all sorts, tools, spaces and times, processes, other systems—individual learners autonomously distinguishing themselves through dependent connections, spinning out traces to be explored and mapped. And here I find myself back with Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome, especially its fifth characteristic: cartography, or mapping as distinguished from tracing (they are not using the term trace in the same sense as Derrida—rather, they are talking about mapping one's own pathways rather than tracing the pathways of someone else). The traditional, autocratic, simple classroom attempts to create only one, static, sanctioned trace or pathway: from teacher to student. Traces among students are discouraged and the one path between teacher and student is not dynamic: it flows only one way. Students are supposed to copy or trace (in D&G's sense) the path provided by the teacher. They are not encouraged to map new pathways or traces (in Derrida's sense) for themselves. I'm encouraged by new learning methods that embrace and cultivate both the dynamism of the trace between teacher and student and the multiple traces among students and their communities. Students bring their knowledge and their multiple connections to class anyway, so why not recognize those traces and work with them? Co-opt the energy and information before it runs over you.

I should pause here to note that I am not opposed to tracing (D&G) existing traces (Derrida). While the aim of education for me is to enable learners to map (D&G) their own traces (Derrida), copying existing pathways provided by mentors and teachers, learning existing knowledge, is just as important as being able to create new knowledge. Indeed, from the learner's point of view, tracing existing knowledge and mapping new knowledge are much the same thing. Learning existing knowledge means that the knowledge is still new to the learner. Learning is always mapping the new rather than tracing the old.

And tracing the old has at least two benefits. First, learners can be guided and supported by mentors and teachers who have already walked the path and understand its affordances and dangers. This kind of support can be invaluable for both timid and reckless learners—one afraid to step onto the path and the other heedlessly running down the path.

The second benefit is even more powerful and brings me to another characteristic of complex classes: they must have a memory system. Memory is another example of the dialogical nature of complexity: complex systems are capable of both dynamic interactions and stable memories. Both are critical for the identity and persistence of the system, and they are opposites. They are not reconciled or synthesized. Rather, complex systems such as humans and classrooms are suspended in the tension between these two opposites, sometimes intent on forming new models of reality, sometimes intent on strengthening old models. Learners must be able to form new models of their realities, and they must be able to conserve their old models. Humans are limited both by what we know and by what we don't know. Humans are empowered both by what we know and by what we don't know. These contradictory statements are all true. We need both dynamic change and stubborn stability. We are all liberals and conservatives.

But more about memory later in another post. To my mind, dynamic interactions are first—but that may just be my progressive, liberal bias. For me, all the actants in a complex classroom connect and interact in shifting patterns. They must. Any instructional ethics must map and remap this swelter of connectivity and interactivity.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Complex Open Classrooms: Open and Closed

In this series of posts, I am arguing that classrooms are complex open systems, and that if we want to know how best to configure and engage a classroom, then we should work to the strengths and affordances of complex open systems rather than against them. As should become obvious, I do not think that most current educational efforts play well with complexity. Rather, I am convinced that too often we try to force classes to behave as closed systems. In other words, we try to move classes (indeed, entire schools and educational systems) from the complex domain to the simple domain, and we develop instructional, economic, political, and ethical structures to support and reinforce that simple domain. This is a problem for me, and I'm trying to think my way through it, but I am not at all suggesting that classes are currently structured as complex open systems, though some clearly are (#rhizo14/15 and DS106 come immediately to mind). My argument, I think, will run something like this: if classes are complex open systems, then we should try to play to the strengths of those systems rather than against them.

It helps me, then, to think through how complex open systems, or rhizomes, emerge, function, and die (they all do). So far my review of complex open systems says that they are multiplicities of actants animated by flows of energy and information. I want to start teasing out the implications of the dynamic relationships in this mix, and the first point for me is the fact that complex open systems are … well … open. That's a big deal, and openness points to a drastic difference between education as it usually is (more simple and closed) and education as it could be (more complex and open). But keep in mind that I'm creating a binary here with either/or extremes. In reality, most classes fall on a continuum somewhere between these two extremes of totally open and totally closed. Still, I'll start by considering the extremes:
  • A complex open system totally closed to its environment will die. Period.
  • A complex open system totally open to its environment will die. Period.
A system must be open to Light and Word from outside itself, but a system must also choose what and how much it feeds, processes, and feeds back. A complex open system, then, must learn to manage its exchanges with its environment given its resources and situation. It must maintain itself—it must find a stable state—in the zone between two phase transitions: one toward cold fixity and one toward hot dissolution. This is the right understanding. If a system, a class for instance, closes itself too much from flows of energy and information, then it risks sliding into the black hole of frozen syllabi. If it opens itself too much, then it risks sliding into the black hole of hot chaos. Either way, class is over.

Of course, there is still a fair amount of flexibility between these two extremes, and this flexibility defines the autonomy and the character of the complex open system, the class. We educators are all familiar with those classes that tend to be more closed than open. Closed classes have been typical of my educational experience, persisting even into my doctoral program when I expected classes to open up. Fortunately, many did; however, I still remember with disgust the linguistics professor who read to us from his textbook for an hour-and-a-half each class period, taking no questions and inviting no discussion—just one stream of information from one source in one direction. Deadly. I also remember with joy the classes with Isaac Bashevis Singer in which we read our stories and followed them wherever they might lead us, accompanied by a most experienced and gifted guide. I remember the #rhizo14/15 MOOCs which triggered rather open-ended discussions in response to Dave Cormier's weekly koan. I have to say up-front that I favor more open classes, but I know that some amount of closure is also necessary. Even in #rhizo14/15, we didn't talk about anything and everything, and we had some disagreements about what to include and exclude.

This managed permeability at the boundaries of a classroom, or a person, points to an inherent property of complex open systems: the juxtaposition of opposites. Closed and open are opposites. The one eliminates and excludes the other. Yet both are necessary for a complex open system to emerge and function. These juxtapositions and tensions (order/disorder, equilibrium/disequilibrium, life/death, hot/cold) exist throughout complex systems. The tensions cannot be resolved either way, or the system dies. Edgar Morin calls this tense juxtaposition a dialogic: a necessary, creative conversation between opposites with no hope of reconciliation or synthesis. It is not Hegel's thesis, antithesis, and synthesis dialectic. Indeed, reconciliation and synthesis is death. The conversation must continue for the system to continue. It's the hum that keeps the engines running. We'll see how this tension plays out again and again.

Morin notes first that the flows of energy and information through a system create a disequilibrium. The flow rattles the marbles in the bag and starts them spinning, and if the energy and information are flowing appropriately, then some magic happens: the system self-organizes. "This nourishing disequilibrium allows the system to maintain an apparent equilibrium, a state of stability and continuity" (On Complexity 11). In other words, for complex open systems, a dynamic equilibrium emerges from chaotic disequilibrium on one hand and fixed equilibrium on the other. It takes both. Rather, it takes the tension between the extremes, and how we negotiate the turbulence of this tension defines the integrity and autonomy of a system: a person or a class, for instance.

Edgar Morin explains quite nicely this paradoxical space in which complex open systems emerge and sustain themselves:
This guaranteed state, constant but fragile (the term we will use here is steady state), is somewhat paradoxical. The structures remain the same even though the constituents are changing. This is not only true for the whirlpool or the flame of a candle, but also of our organisms, where our molecules and cells are renewing themselves incessantly, while the whole remains apparently stable and stationary. In a way the system has to close itself off from the outside world to maintain its structures and its internal environment. If it did not, it would disintegrate. This closure is allowed by the very fact that the system is open. The problem becomes even more interesting when we suppose an indissoluble relationship between maintaining the structure and its changing constituents. Here we find a primary, central, obviously key problem of living beings. This problem is, however, ignored and obscured, not only by the old physics, but also by Western Cartesian metaphysics, for whom all living things are considered closed entities, not as systems that organize their closing (that is to say, their autonomy) in and by their opening. (11)
As Morin goes on to explain, we achieve identity, our distinction from the swelter and noise of the ecosystem, by judiciously closing ourselves off, but these closings are possible only because we are open in the first place. We are not either open or closed—we are both open and closed, and to emerge and sustain ourselves as complex open systems, we must engage both extremes, both open and closed, both order and chaos, both equilibrium and disequilibrium.

I have to emphasize that this is not an argument for some golden mean between two extremes. That is far too simple. Because we exist in a turbulent space, we must constantly modulate between too open and too closed, shifting this way or that based solely on the demands and configurations of the moment, constantly aware that too far either way can drop us into a deadly phase transition. We must be constantly aware, like a starling in a flock, defining our own space in a constantly shifting and morphing larger space. I really wish I could tell you exactly where in the flock you are supposed to be, but that depends on the dynamic, evolving interactions between you and the rest of the flock. And the wind, and predators, and temperature, and … well, you get the idea. You must maintain the integrity of your own space within the shifting parameters of the flock, and you must do it on the fly.

Again, Morin says it better:
The intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and … this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system. Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment. [original bolded] This connection is absolutely crucial epistemologically, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically. Logically, the system cannot be understood except by including the environment. The environment is at the same time intimate and foreign: it is a part of the system while remaining exterior to it. (11)
To understand a class or a person, then, you must understand the ecosystem they are in—the myriad relationships within the class and outside the class. This is, of course, an impossible task, but we must do it anyway. So welcome to your complex open life. Welcome to complex open classes.

This paradoxical open/closed nature of complex open systems clarifies why boundaries and identities are always so problematic. Like cell membranes or our own skins, boundaries are permeable, both keeping us mostly contained while at the same time connecting us to our ecosystems and managing the exchanges of energy, matter, information, and organization. Boundaries both distinguish and connect, and as our connections shift and morph, the boundaries of necessity expand, contract, and reshape. Boundaries for complex open classes are always provisional because there are always interactions and exchanges among actants within the class itself, across classes, and with the ecosystems of school, community, state, etc. There must be. A class cannot be defined and understood simply as a group of 1 teacher and 30 students. A class is a buzzing hive of interactions among teachers, students, smartphones, weather conditions, moon phases, nutritional flows and levels, electricity grids, textbooks, tablets, computers, networks, neurons, blood pressures, viral and bacterial swarms, and infinitely more, all coping with different agenda and perturbations—some complementary and some conflicting.

This open/closed nature of complex systems has many implications that I hope to work through, but the insight for me today is that all complex open systems such as classes emerge, function, and evolve in the turbulence of a flock on the wing, and while a class can thrive in a stabilized dynamic, it cannot thrive in a fixed structure or no structure. Instructional ethics, then, must map to the malleable and semipermeable membranes of classes.

I must append something about the open education movement, which I support. What does open education have to do with complex open systems as I am exploring them here? I'll start with a definition of open education from the Open Education Consortium:
Open education encompasses resources, tools and practices that employ a framework of open sharing to improve educational access and effectiveness worldwide. …The idea of free and open sharing in education is not new. In fact, sharing is probably the most basic characteristic of education: education is sharing knowledge, insights and information with others, upon which new knowledge, skills, ideas and understanding can be built. … Open is key; open allows not just access, but the ability to modify and use materials, information and networks so education can be personalized to individual users or woven together in new ways for large and diverse audiences.
The focus here is on access and efficacy, or the "ability to modify and use materials, information and networks so education can be personalized … or woven together … for large and diverse audiences." In terms of how I have used open and closed in this post, the Open Education Consortium seems interested in encouraging two things: increasing the flows of useable information through classes and increasing the flows of students through those classes. This follows from the definition of education as "sharing knowledge, insights and information with others, upon which new knowledge, skills, ideas and understanding can be built." This is a solid definition of education as we traditionally understand it: a more knowledgeable teacher or school transferring knowledge and skill to less knowledgeable students. The Open Education Consortium seems to understand open in terms of connecting more students and more resources to more classes (I'm using classes here to encompass everything from one-on-one tutoring sessions and a single person with a book, through traditional lectures and demonstrations, to computer drills and 160,000 member MOOCs in traditional educational institutions and outside).

This OEC emphasis appears to restrict education to one flow of information in one direction: teacher > students and in one space/time. I am arguing against such a restriction. Perhaps it's the language they are using, but this language seems to be the norm, and it seems to work for a closed, simple classroom structure. I want to push back on that language.

Open for me recognizes all the flows of information and energy through a class: flows from a teacher, of course, but also flows from the students who bring a wealth of information often relevant to the discussion at hand. I also include flows from the ecosystem: news, gossip, Spotify, text messages, sunlight, cultural norms, diet, electricity, water, air, political, social, and religious systems, and of course, gravity. Here's the point: those flows are there regardless of how the class attempts to close itself to all flows except that flow from the teacher to the students and back to the teacher in a closed loop—in a closed, simple system in which the teacher feeds prepared information to the students who feed it back in tests to complete and end the cycle. This is a very closed, sterile approach to education that is far too close (pun intended) to equilibrium. (I'm using an extreme example here to emphasize my point, but most of us have been in classes that were uncomfortably close to this extreme.) Complexity emerges in the zone far from equilibrium, closer to chaos. Chaos, of course, is also deadly for a class, but as a complex open system, education needs the turbulence of chaos to animate learning.

Learning emerges in the zone far from equilibrium. Lev Vygotsky hinted back in the 1930s at this zone of proximal development where the learner moves beyond what she already knows into that near chaotic, turbulent realm beyond her mastery. That's where the learning is. That's where the wild things are. It helps, of course, if she has the benefit of a guide who is experienced with the territory and can help her map the chaos, but regardless, the learner must be willing to open herself to the uncharted and must be willing to push beyond that which she knows. This is risky, rocky terrain, but education must cultivate this turbulence, and too much simple, closed education does not. Rather, simple education is structured to reduce the turbulence.

Turbulence means failure, frequent failure, as learners explore new neural, physical pathways. Our current educational culture abhors failure and is geared toward removing and mitigating failure rather than embracing it as a prime educational strategy. Embracing failure in my writing classrooms has been one of the keys to improving writing. I'll give a concrete example: I give assignments that I know most students do not already know how to do, and I provide very little explanation up front. Rather, I encourage them to try and promise that we will fix any problems they encounter. Let's say I tell them that they must format their academic document according to MLA style 8 (a departmental requirement), give them the link to Purdue OWL, and start them writing. Most fail the assignment, so we explore the failures in class in groups. We correct all failures, and grades go up. (I don't like grades, but I must give them, and my students expect them, so I try to use grades as productively as possible. This means regrading and regrading all documents.) Students all fail at MLA in different ways, and the turbulence of the failure primes them to learn. They engage a new flow of information, and the turbulence knocks them over. Most of them do not like it at first, especially the A students, but then magic happens: they identify what they don't know in a rather narrow zone, and they have the chance to fix it, to learn it. They see that most everyone fails in some way with MLA, even their teacher, and they develop strategies for coping.

So my students are allowed to fail, and they are allowed to learn from their failures. I believe that they learn from failures quicker than anything else, but they must have the opportunity to learn. Failure can't be the end point; rather, learning must be built into failure. Given that the failures are usually particular to each student, then the learning must be particular to each student, and suddenly, almost unexpectedly, my class is student-centered. Of course, allowing for and addressing individual failure wanders off the traceable path of a rigid lesson plan in twenty or thirty or a thousand different directions, but that's where the learning is. It opens the class, and I cannot tell you how much I, the expert guide, have learned about MLA by watching my students fail at it.

In her 2010 book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett says that "human decency and a decent politics are fostered if we tune in to the strange logic of turbulence." I think she is right. I think a decent education will follow if we tune in to the strange logic of turbulence.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Complex Open Classes: Light and Word

I started my unpacking of complex open systems with the notion that they are multiplicities, but not a multiplicity like a bag of differently-colored and differently-sized marbles unified only by virtue of being in my bag. If the bag breaks and the marbles bounce away across an expansive concrete floor, then we would hardly think of the marbles as a unified system anymore. I think I have tended to view my students this way sometimes: just a random collection of differently-colored, differently-sized people wrapped up in the bag of my Composition 1101, Section 99 class. Of course, seeing them this way is unfortunate for them and for me, but it seems to be an expedient reduction to help me through the busy trivia of my day. It's a way of disengaging from the multiplicity of the class, the swarm, to get other things done.

When I'm rested and mindful again, then I know that the students are not a grab-bag collection of random, inert things to be acted upon. Rather, they are a swarm of living, striving beings (actants), all animated by flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. Regardless of the scale at which I consider them, they are animated and sustained by the Light and the Word.

Energy, matter, information, and organization are hard-nosed scientific concepts that I borrow from Edgar Morin's discussion of complexity in his book On Complexity, and I will use those terms in various configurations throughout this exploration, but I like the poetic imagery of the Light and the Word. These are old images that have crossed the millennia to reach us and that along the way have taken on much social, political, philosophical, and religious baggage, but that's because they can do the heavy lifting. They are deep images that echo from the Beginning: "Let there be light" or "Big Bang". I also like that they echo my conservative Christian background. There is something pleasantly perverse about using the Light and the Word to account for a worldview and ethics that fundamentalists will see as do-your-own-thing, anything goes, and relativistic. They are wrong, of course. Complex open systems and the complexity ethics that attend them are anything but anything goes, but more on that later.

As a complex open system, then, my writing class cannot exist without a sufficient flow of Light and Word, energy and information. A writing class needs flows of energy and information to animate the multiple actants—students, teachers, texts, computers—into a functioning system. Everything needs those flows. This current post, for instance, needs flows from electrical systems, computer hardware and software, a millennia-long conversation about ethics, ontology, and epistemology, the organizational structures of the English language and Google Blogger, and of course, you the reader and me the writer with our own inherent flows of energy and information. Without all this throughput and more, this current text could not come to life and emerge into the wider world. Nothing comes to life without similar flows of Light and Word.

This is, as far as I know, a universal principle. In his 1968 book Energy Flow in Biology: Biological Organization as a Problem in Thermal Physics, Harold J. Morowitz notes two important ideas about complex, open, self-organizing entities: "that energy flow alone can give rise to order in a system" and "that energy flow is necessary to maintain order once it has been achieved" (26). Morowitz convinces me that complex, open systems (including my writing classes) emerge, express, and maintain their lives as flows of energy and information—flows of Light and the Word. Morowitz doesn't deal specifically with information, and I confess that I do not know which came first: the Light or the Word. From this great distance of 14 billion years, the existing evidence can seem tenuous and ambiguous, the ancient texts obscure; still, I am convinced that all the activities of life need flows of both Light and Word.

The flows are always from a hotter source to a colder sink, and they must be just right: too little, and a complex open system freezes into stasis; too much, and a system explodes into fiery chaos. As Morowitz says it:
At very low flows the system approaches equilibrium with the thermal sink; at very high flows the system approaches equilibrium with what must effectively be a very hot source. Order generally means that the system has a character different than equilibrium systems. At both extremes of flow, this condition fails to obtain. Sustained order must therefore be a property of systems of intermediate flow rate. (42, 43)
Both extremes mean death. Life happens in the sustained tension and turbulence between too cold and too hot. Learning happens in this same temperate zone. Of course, too little and too much, too cold and too hot, are not fixed values but depend mostly on the situation at hand, and all systems have some room to move. Complex open systems—we humans, for instance—have real choices to make about which flows of Light and Word to engage and how much, but we have no choice about engaging. We must engage the Light and the Word, or we die. So we must engage, and we must make choices, or have those choices made for us. This is the agonistics of the rhizome, and I think the ethics should be obvious, but I will draw out those implications later. Still, the hard fact is that no classroom can exist without appropriate flows of Light and Word: energy/matter and information/organization. Period.

We need the Light and the Word, then, to animate a system, and this, of course, involves us with entropy, or the amount of disorder within a system. We redirect flows of energy and information through a system such as a class in order to reduce the amount of disorder, or entropy, in the system. It takes a fair amount of energy and information to organize a class into a functioning system (think just of the transportation systems needed to make it happen), and there is always the first law of thermodynamics to deal with: the preservation of energy. In short, the amount of organization and complexity created in one place is always equal to the amount of disorganization created elsewhere. For instance, using a traditional print textbook requires a destruction of trees and a manufacturing plant somewhere. When we choose to direct our own, personal energies toward a given class, then we are not directing our energies elsewhere: we aren't writing our dissertation, playing with our families, working on our next presentation or novel. We must feed a class, and that always means taking from something else. To me, the ethics here are also obvious, but more on that later.

Note that energy and information flows come from outside the system proper. This may seem obvious, but it is not trivial. This relationship changes everything, and I will explore these changes in the next few posts, but for now, we should note that Light and Word come from beyond us and through us. We humans begin as fertilized eggs with a mix of DNA coming from two parents, and then we are nursed and fed Light and Word in a womb for nine months, before living for a number of years with caretakers who are responsible for feeding us energy/matter and information/organization. We eventually assume primary responsibility for our feedings: we feed, process, and feedback, feed, process, and feedback in constant cycles as Light and Word flow through us. As Edgar Morin notes in On Complexity, this means that we never achieve equilibrium, or not until we die. He says:
A closed system, like a rock or a table, is in a state of equilibrium. In other words, matter and energy exchanges with the exterior are nonexistent. The constancy of the flame of a candle, the constancy of the internal environment of a cell or an organism are not at all linked to such an equilibrium. There is, on the contrary, disequilibrium in the energetic flux that feeds them, and without this flux, there is an organization deregulation that quickly leads to decline. (10, 11)
As Mark Taylor says in his book The Moment of Complexity (2001), we live in a state far from equilibrium, and we are always in danger of slipping too close to the cold or the heat, toward fixed order or chaos.

I must say something about what I mean by Light and Word, or energy/matter and information/organization. I'll start with energy. I am not enough of a scientist to give a very precise definition of energy, so I'm comfortable using the definition from Wikipedia: "In physics, energy is the property that must be transferred to an object in order to perform work on – or to heat – the object, and can be converted in form, but not created or destroyed." It's that primordial force released at the Beginning, and that has expressed itself in many different forms as the Universe has self-organized over the past 14 billion years, or so, eventually becoming one of my writing classes (all in all, that seems a disproportionate effort for one writing class, but I'll take it as a blessing). I use the word Light to express this vitality, this ability to organize oneself and to perturb and to respond to perturbations.

This ability to self-organize and to perturb and to respond to perturbations segues directly into my understanding of information and reveals how entangled energy and information are for me. I'm open to the idea that Light and Word are different terms for the same thing, but that isn't a question I want to engage in this conversation. Rather, I'm comfortable saying that information is any perturbation that makes a difference. Mark Taylor quotes Gregory Bateson as defining information as "a difference that makes a difference" (105). That captures the gist of it for me this morning. All complex open systems can organize themselves in such ways as to sense perturbations, differences in their environments, and respond to those perturbations in ways that are meaningful to the system—respond if only barely enough to survive the perturbation. This information processing can be quite basic and fundamental as when early particles first sensed wrinkles in space/time and began to aggregate, self-organize, into galaxies under the constant and persistent instruction of gravity, as thorough and patient a teacher as I've ever met. I confess that I do not know how quarks sense things such as gravity waves, but my confusion is evidence that they can. Otherwise, I wouldn't exist and neither would you. So for me, classroom discussion, coo-chats with my four-month-old granddaughter, and this very blog post all share the same fundamental communication mechanisms as those processes that created the Universe. I like that.

Complexity ethics, then, must map well to the flows of Light and Word that sustain complex open systems and to the dynamic relationships between any system at any scale and the ecosystem that animates it. That's a tall order for classroom ethics, but it grounds the ethics, driving the pylons deep. So far, I like where this is going for me. We'll see.