Friday, March 30, 2018

RhizoRhetoric: 2 & 3 Rich Interactions

Paul Cilliers' article "What we can learn from a theory of complexity" posits seven characteristics of complex systems, and I'm exploring each of the seven to illuminate the concept of swarm writing. Like Deleuze and Guattari, Cilliers begins with the characteristic of multiplicity, which I explored in my last post. In short, a complex system is composed of multiple elements at multiple scales.

In this post, I apply to swarm writing Cilliers' second characteristic of complex systems, rich interactions:
The elements interact dynamically by exchanging energy or information. These interactions are rich. Even if specific elements only interact with a few others, the effects of these interactions are propagated throughout the system. The interactions are nonlinear. There are many direct and indirect feedback loops.
This single characteristic could easily be parsed into half a dozen characteristics, but I think the main idea for me is that the emergence of a complex system such as swarm writing depends upon the ability and tendency of various elements to interact with one another. Prior to this rich interaction, a collection of elements is no more than a random scattering of people with no connection and no interactions with one another. Not until these elements—say, a group of people who happen to share a MOOC—begin to interact can a complex system, such as swarm writing, emerge. The coherence and identity of the swarm emerges from the rich interactions among the elements. The entity that emerges—in our case, a swarm—functions and has its identity at a scale different from its individual elements.

The network of interactions within a complex system is kickstarted by the exchange of energy and information, and in the case of swarm writing, mostly by the exchange of information—though I think most of my fellows in the swarm will agree that we exchanged lots of energy as well. Flows of energy and information inform all complex systems, and this process connects the emergence of writing swarms with the emergence of stars, galaxies, earths, life, nation states, the Internet, and love affairs. This flow of energy and information is about as fundamental a process as humans can imagine, and I find it gratifying to imagine a rhetoric that begins at the same place as the Universe.

I think, then, that our document about swarm writing should say more about the exchanges of information and energy that informed the emergence of our particular swarm. I believe this would clarify for recalcitrant readers what we are trying to say. I can begin a list of the information and energy that I know about, but I really need my swarm here. Flows of energy and information are much like the flows of streams that feed a river: they come from a thousand different sources and take a million different paths. I cannot know all of them. Even my swarm cannot know all of them, but they can know enough of them to give a sense of the complex ecosystem that we are trying to describe. We should do this.

Then, the interactions among the actors in a swarm are mostly local, but because they are nonlinear with many direct and indirect feedback loops, they can propagate throughout the swarm. This makes great sense of any swarm, writing or otherwise. For instance, I interacted mostly with a handful of people and mostly through Facebook and Google Docs. Others in the swarm interacted with a different group of actors, similar to mine, but not the same (note the fractal flavor here). Moreover, my local, immediate connections morphed from the beginnings with #rhizo14 until this latest version of the swarm writing this document.

Like all the different actors in the #rhizo14 swarm, I brought certain ideas and energy to the group mostly communicated to my immediate, local connections. Those connections then muted some of my ideas, or amplified some. The amplified ideas propagated to the rest of the #rhizo14 swarm, perturbing the group in various ways, changing the flavors of its interactions and identity. In communication terms, I was helping to develop and re-channel the conversation, as were other actors in the swarm. These complex set of interactions are what made #rhizo14 and its sub-swarms what they are. I think we need to say that in our current essay. We can at least hint at it, providing a general sketch.

Then, note the interactions between the different scales of the swarm. The entities that function at different scales—the total #rhizo14 swarm, the sub-swarms, the individuals—are not insulated from each other. Rather, energy and information are exchanged across scales in direct and indirect feedback loops that inform and modify each other. Each scale feeds on the other scales, modifies its own internal structures and functions, and then feeds back to the other scales, which modify in turn, around and around in a mostly elegant swarm.

Finally, the nature and identity of the swarm emerges from the interactions among the actors, not from the individual characteristics—such as intelligence or beliefs about education—of the individual actors. The documents that emerge from swarm writing are a result of the network of rich interactions among the actors. The documents are the result of non-linear mathematical operations, not the result of simple linear addition or subtraction. Thus, small events such as using Slack or not can lead to big effects. Similarly, large events such as the failure of #rhizo16 to actually convene can lead to small effects. Moreover, the interactions are not all nice. Our writing swarm did not simply hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Interactions are at various times cooperative, collaborative, and competitive. We challenged each other, usually courteously, but not always. We should discuss this in our paper.

I think our paper will benefit from a brief description and discussion of the rich interactions in our swarm, and I challenge our group to consider it.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

RhizoRhetoric: 1 Multiplicity

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

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

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

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

So let me restate Cilliers in terms of swarm writing:

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

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

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

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

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

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