Thursday, January 31, 2008

Technology Enhanced Social Learning and post-industrial knowledge development (Part 1)

The industrial model of learning was based on the notion of competitive individual achievement. It implicitly and often explicitly encouraged the hoarding of knowledge, a certain form of passivity (or refusal of interaction) and a suspicion of colleagues and fellow practitioners who may be seen as potential rivals. On the positive side it also encouraged the ambition of leadership, but the practical problems associated with leading a group of individuals tend to diminish the effect of leadership, which is always easier to develop within collaborative teams. If I had the time, I would explore how the ideological individualism of the industrial age – in which individuals existed as resources to be allocated to profitable ventures (this capitalist logic is still the driver of an economy that is now global) – tends to create leaders whose most valuable skills are manipulation and various forms of collective brainwashing (the “science” of Public Relations). The twentieth century provided some stunning examples of masters of manipulation and the new century seems to have numerous examples of “leaders” ready to perpetuate the tradition, though there are a number of reasons for thinking that some kind of change is in the offing. One of the reasons for hope is that there are signs of a significant shift in the way culture (i.e. people’s behaviour) interacts with the economy.

Although the terms have been bandied about for some time, we have only recently entered a phase of transition from the industrial to the post-industrial age in learning, which will be characterized less by the instilling pre-defined authoritative knowledge than by managing the evolution of the capacity of performance in real contexts of production and social relationships. More than the mere transfer of knowledge, it involves the dynamic creation and restructuring of the myriad of things we know (more than what we traditionally think of as “knowledge”) accompanied by the generation of skills rooted in a rapidly changing context of performance. Although many experts and the media have focused on the extraordinary impact of information technology, which increases our ability to store and retrieve knowledge, the technology that has had the most radical impact on learning and indeed productive behaviour of all types is communication technology, both synchronous and asynchronous. It can of course be directly linked to knowledge creation and retrieval.

Recognizing the true source of knowledge development

The basic reality of human societies is that people learn from each other as complex social beings; not as repositories of bodies of knowledge, but rather as practitioners of professional and social skills that mobilise in non-linear fashion a wide range of forms of knowledge: gesture, attitude, perception, the ability to localize information, complex mental networks of association, visual, acoustic and kinaesthetic memory, etc. The post-industrial age has opened the channels of communication that until very recently were clogged by penury, handicapped by time delays and inhibited by unit costs that no longer exist. Bandwidth has ceased to be a problem; both spoken and written communication can be instantaneous; and the factor of cost has melted into the constantly diminishing price of access to the technology. This opening of the floodgates of communication is a far more radical change than all the advances in programming and storage, however impressed we may still be by tools such as Google Earth. One of the reasons this change is so radical is that, unlike programming and software manipulation, communication is a natural human skill that can be perfected, certainly, but doesn’t need to be formally acquired.

The transition from an individualistic model of knowledge acquisition to the much richer and more dynamic notion of “learning organizations” that create and transform as well as simply consult knowledge has only just begun. Our contexts of work and habitat, our routines and hierarchies, our behavioural expectations in our interactions with others are still modelled on or heavily influenced by the old paradigms, though the pressure is increasing on a daily basis to move towards something far more fluid. The advent of the Web 2.0, the Social Web, has opened up for the first time the possibility of shifting the model for learning away from the traditional institutional framework and the individualistic paradigm towards a model that embraces collectively constructed and shared knowledge.

Peering into the future

The challenge of the new paradigm is organisational, methodological and to a much lesser extent, technical. Software, networks and media must be conducive to easy appropriation and use, but that is already the trend that will undoubtedly continue as technology providers are obliged to make their products more attractive and usable at an increasingly rapid pace. New research will be concerned with design and production of optimally adapted technical environments, but the most urgent requirement – before optimisation can be achieved – is the social and methodological design that can incite organisations to renovate their practices of knowledge development.

The reality of the Social Web can be summarized by the notion of “gregarious exchange”, what Jay Cross usually refers to as “the art of conversation”. Interestingly, if the initial impulse behind Web 2.0 was typically individualistic consumer-orientated behaviour (expressing personal taste in music and entertainment, as well as “sharing” cultural content, legally or illegally!), the Social Web has already evolved into an informal publishing platform of ideas, opinions and personal cultural production. This means that users are spontaneously adhering to a culture in which an optimal balance between input and output will be progressively defined. For the training world, this is a major step forward in the culture of learning. Output becomes visible for the group to profit from, judge and criticize and (according to the wiki model) to evolve and perfect. Where for at least two centuries teachers and trainers have either struggled to incite the production of output of minimal quality and intended for the eyes of the teacher only, spontaneously formed social groups are producing and learning to refine the quality of their production thanks to what are now self-imposed and group-defined expectations. This constitutes the basis of a revolution in learning methodology whose long-term consequences do not yet seem to have been taken into account by most active decision-makers in the field of education and training.

Observation of current practice on the Social Web shows that while it is usually individuals who act (often driven by the kind of pride and ambition associated with past individualistic educational practices), the key to performance is the creation of groups, usually defined by some common interest or other principle of cultural proximity. At the same time the global nature of Internet based communication has changed the notion of “proximity” to one that it would be more appropriate to define culturally than geographically. The new geographical spread created by an increasingly “virtual” and therefore global environment that redefines cultural relationships is both a major opportunity to develop stronger relationships (commercial, cultural and even political) across borders and a potential source of discomfort if not disarray. A serious effort is required to define and secure the operating principles and social bearings of these newly acquired input/output reflexes.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

What Saddam was too culturally blind to see

From an Associated Press article that appeared today:

"Saddam Hussein allowed the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction to deter rival Iran and did not think the United States would stage a major invasion, according to an FBI interrogator who questioned the Iraqi leader after his capture."

“He told me he initially miscalculated ... President Bush’s intentions,” said Piro. “He thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998 ... a four-day aerial attack.”

I find this very intriguing and requiring some sort of cultural explanation. How can it be that the head of a government, who had been a close ally of the US for more than 10 years, couldn't see what was obvious to everyone else, to wit, that with or without justification, Bush was the kind of "cultural being" -- a certain style of AmerIcan, imbued with a certain form of AmerIcan values -- who was going to "just do it", Nike style?

Was there a single person in the US -- whether for or against Bush -- that doubted his intentions at any time in the year preceding the invasion? I don't think I knew any. So what led Saddam so far astray that he couldn't see or even learn from others what was so patently obvious?

The article doesn't answer this question, but I think the interculturalist community can help to do so. The article does provide a few clues, history a few more and psychoanalysis yet another!

Time and patterns of behaviour would be the first one. Almost all political entities, especially democratic ones, remain relatively stable and predictable in spite of changing parties or clans in power. Call it the illusion of democracy (the idea that the people can change things through elections, whereas elections merely serve to ensure continuity) or rather the rock solid logic of representative democracy. The more politicians replace each other, the more their policies remain consistent if not identical, which is the very spirit of "representation", since it's the mob or, to be polite, the "wisdom of crowds" that founds and defends not only general policies but also permanent styles of relationship with other cultures and peoples. There is always leeway for debate, which can on occasion become acrimonious, but the attitudes, within the accepted range, tend to remain stable. (A good example of the dynamics between stability and instability is the current status -- nearing a peak of instability -- of the US attitude concerning Mexicans both as a people and a cultural force. Since no society is capable of defining cultural issues with any sense of rationality - i.e. distance -, the range of emotions is wide during periods of instability, but the policy, in spite of numerous "democratic" initiatives, will inevitably tend towards some middle ground).

The difference between Reagan's, Bush the Elder's and Clinton's foreign policy with regard to Iraq and indeed everything else, was minimal. From Saddam's point of view, US policy was solidly based on Iran being seen as what might be called the "hub of evil", that is before Bush the Younger stretched it into an "axis" that included Iraq and North Korea (quite a geographical spread and, consequently, a clear tip-off to the culturally savvy that something was up). It was impossible for Saddam to think that his well-established strategic role in containing Iran would ever make him vulnerable to anything other than annoying skirmishes. The three previous presidents had used variants of a consistent strategy: Reagan by encouraging Iraq to attack Iran and directly supporting a brutal and aggressive war, Bush I by establishing a "New World Order" that humiliated Iraq for a moment but was careful to show deep respect for Saddam's regime by allowing it to stay in place and refusing to create the inevitable chaos that would come of giving power to a Shiite majority. Clinton predictably "managed" the ensuing state of relative equilibrium, engaging in the occasional skirmish and showing a certain level of satisfaction in the virtual control of Iraq ensured by the policy of US dominated no-fly zones. Although the ongoing role of Iraq as the antidote to Iran made no sense in terms of political or moral principles, it was a totally rational system created by Reagan, given formal definition by a man named Bush and ultimately inherited by the same Bush's son. Since the "clan" was back in power 20 years on, for Saddam nothing was likely to change radically. Such, in any case, was the likely reasoning of a man hailing from a clan culture. Saddam clearly didn't understand the individualism at the heart of US culture... nor the implications of the Oedipal tradition (which, by the way, everyone in the West still seems to consider universal, following Freud, but whose universalism Lacan -- Freud's most adamant orthodox defender -- called into question after spending some time in Japan, where he claimed the Oedipus complex simply didn't exist. For all his "parisianisme", Lacan was a true interculturalist). Is Oedipus -- the man who killed his father and married his mother -- a purely Western icon? And is Oedipus's self-inflicted blindness the emblem of our own cultural blindness?

On Saddam's perception of the political situation, here is what the article says: "Piro said Saddam also said that he wanted to keep up the illusion that he had the [WMD] program in part because he thought it would deter a likely Iranian invasion."

Clearly part of Saddam's problem was that he didn't have access to the writings of the neo-cons who had invaded the White House. Or perhaps like the rest of us, he considered those "thinkers" to be an academic lunatic fringe, a kind of sect that everyone tolerates but no one takes seriously. In all cases, he underestimated the possible effects of US individualism, the kind that allows certain personalities to rise to positions of unassailable power, control and a sense of manipulative mission, without relying on well-established social structures to get to their summit. Examples abound in business (Bill Gates, Donald Trump), religion (Jerry Falwell, Ron L Hubbard, Jim Jones, etc. ad inifinitum) and political bureaucracy (J. Edgar Hoover), but public policy had traditionally benefited from the Constitutional checks and balances that prevented similar "achievers" from attaining discretionary power capable of overturning the sense of existing institutions.

Over a 20 year period, however, something actually had changed in US politics, its clearest starting point being the election of Reagan in 1980 accompanied by the slogan "America's back". Pure patriotic emotion and media amplification rather than morally based reasoning and diplomatic tact were becoming the new "norm" for political action. But Reagan's own exploitation of it was more electoral than anything else. Hardly a brilliant man or an original thinker, Reagan actually made a point -- perhaps for reasons of personal pride -- of maintaining a tradition of "responsible political reflection" accompanied by a sense of RealPolitik that kept itself at a certain distance from the otherwise useful electoral illusions. Looking back at the new millennium, it may have required a Banana Republic style presidential election (2000) to provide the catalyst for a shift towards the definitive adoption of emotion and media amplification as the central source of policy. But other phenomena indicate that the time had perhaps come for pure emotion and the media to play their role in a world where the patterns of the recent past had produced another "grande illusion": the idea, confirmed in the Clinton years, of a permanently expanding economy fueled by stock markets and purely financial management (this in spite of the 2000 dotcom crash, which curiously -- because of the technology theme -- may have further confirmed the dominance of finance over any concrete feature of the "real economy").

Saddam had no perception of any of these changes in the political culture or the potential of US individualism to reverse significant trends. In particular it now appears that he had no idea what Bush the younger might do, even if after the shock of 9/11 -- and the political manipulation that followed in its wake -- we AmerIcans could see it coming as a virtual certainty and therefore were not surprised by Bush the Younger's New World Disorder inaugurated in March 2003 with the complicity of Blair and Aznar. And even that monumental political decision played out pretty much according to the pattern of the new stock market, not as a political event to be prepared, negotiated and managed, but as a bet on futures*. A majority of AmerIcans thought at the time that the aggressive "takeover bid" of Saddam's Iraq was a sound operation of strategic market positioning (i.e. invasion of Iraq as a prelude to throttling Iran and securing stable resourcing in oil from the Middle East). The rest of us were treated as irrelevant because the only argument we had was "moral" (and we all know the equation "performance efficiency trumps ethics...except when the law imposes compliance issues", a question recently discussed among our Yahoo interculturalists in relation to diversity training; see as well the Steven Pinker piece in the New York Times magazine, where using this sort of implicit logic he appears to place Bill Gates above Mother Teresa in terms of ethical worth.

Finally, the article offers us the following culturally significant anecdote concerning the first Gulf war:

Piro also mentioned Saddam’s revelation during questioning that what pushed him to invade Kuwait in 1990 was a dishonorable swipe at Iraqi women made by the Kuwaiti leader, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah.

During the buildup to the invasion, Iraq had accused Kuwait of flooding the world market with oil and demanded compensation for oil produced from a disputed area on the border of the two countries.

Piro said that Al Sabah told the foreign minister of Iraq during a discussion aimed at resolving some of those conflicts that “he would not stop doing what he was doing until he turned every Iraqi woman into a $10 prostitute. And that really sealed it for him, to invade Kuwait,” said Piro.


That isn't the full story of course, but it's interesting to note the impact of Al Sabah's threat in Middle East culture. What was Al Sabah thinking? Did he fail to understand Middle East Arab culture? As an oil billionaire functioning within an economy dominated by the US, had he been infected by Texas culture, where such insults are mere expressions of macho bravado, the object of admiration for rhetorical skill? Or was he so sure of his position with the US that he felt he could afford to proffer such a hurtful insult?

One of the missing parts of the story is that the AmerIcan ambassador at the time had indicated informally that the US wouldn't prevent Iraq from invading Kuwait, which seemed logical enough to Saddam given his solid position as the buttress against Iran. For reasons of "global coherence", particularly in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, the US changed its attitude and quickly humbled Iraq but just as quickly re-established a political equilibrium that was at the limit of acceptable for Saddam and seemed, in its way, to guarantee long-term stability. Until, that is, Bin Laden (another US protégé during the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan) provided an irrational (i.e. emotional) pretext to see all Arabs and Muslims as the enemy and set in motion the surreal neo-con game plan of taking over the Middle East to manage it on their enlightened terms (the triumph of the culture of rational economic individualism, for which the entire world has been waiting...manna in the desert).

* Has anyone noticed a major cultural shift in the economic press? The stock market used to be about "investment" and economic value, but now the press routinely talks about "betting" on markets, trends or specific stocks. Recent economic news has been largely financial: the subprime fiasco and this week's Société Générale scandal. Wall Street doesn't yet have a hotel in its name in Las Vegas (now that would be a clever new theme to exploit, wouldn't it?), but it does seem to have borrowed its culture from Nevada (or Atlantic City, the home of Monopoly as well as east coast casinos). Actually I think a squeamish sense of political correctness would prevent even the cleverest Las Vegas real estate investors (gamblers?) from pointing too clearly to the speculative and greed-orientated nature of the stock market.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The "logic" of networking

This could be considered as a more focused comment on the main point of my previous post addressing the Big Question for January on Learning Circuits.

Stephen Downes has focused on the vital debate about what he quite rightly calls "the network way of thinking" and provides links to a debate that others have developed about the finality and mechanics of our emerging networking culture. From an intercultural perspective I find this debate extremely interesting, to be classified in the category of "how individualist cultures grapple with the utterly alien notion of group relationships". My conclusion is that they fail, much as the fictional inhabitants of a two-dimensional world cannot imagine what the world would be like with a third dimension (Edwin Abbot's classic "Flatland", 1884). In failing they reveal the limitations imposed by their obligatory frames of reference. It's money (markets and production efficiency) or love (family and sex) and nothing else. (Actually there is a third factor: sharing of obsessions among like-minded consumers and achieving admiration through the mutual perception of the quality of one's tastes).

For the first time in centuries the Web has, it seems, raised the question of how our white European civilization, whose recent evolution has been intimately linked to the development of capitalism (organization and ownership of resources, but also the creation of a value system derived from economics for defining the status of merit for the individual) can "use" the availability of tools that respond to the fundamental human instinct of relationship building. Given that relationship building has been strenuously repressed for the past three centuries or so as a source of inefficiency (it's even associated with cheating in the form of nepotism or cronyism) as well as a violation of principles of the equality of individuals, everyone seems to be in the dark about what relationships are good for and whether there is a legitimate justification for them. The fact that some people are actually making fortunes out of providing software that encourage relationship building has given the concept a new-found prestige. After all, the governing principles of all decision-making nowadays is "if there's money to made, go for it" and "if it's profitable, it must be good."

I would suggest looking at Asian cultures -- and in particular because of their current political and economic significance -- China and India to discover, first of all, that relationships/networks can be a natural part of both social and economic activity and a fundamental component of the value system; secondly, that they don't require specific communication tools (hardware or software) to exist; and thirdly that the "economy" of such networks is a subtle mix of efficiency and affect... which means that we in the west perceive it inevitably as messy, unfair and arbitrary. And yet, like Galileo, we have to add... "but it turns" (for them, of course, not for us) so maybe it's worth reviewing the model.

My prediction for the next ten years is that we in the west will undergo a major learning experience focused on new models of social relationships/networking. We will discover and begin to adapt to what the Chinese call guanxi, a concept somewhere between network and relationship, with multiple behavioral ramifications. With major geo-political shifts taking place against a background of continuing technological change, marked by the growing strength of Asia to counter the US economic hegemony of the past 60 years (the US representing the ultimate template for extreme individualism), we may discover -- or even be forced to discover -- the value of paying attention to the way guanxi works. It represents a much more complex model of "engagement" than anything that has come out of our "local" debates (we like to think they're global, but -- and this is a measure of our naivete -- we are all prisoners of our village culture).

How that "enlightenment" encompassing a new vision of networking will happen nobody can predict. But it's worth knowing that there are other models than, on the one hand, our hopelessly "logical" but poorer than destitute "free markets governed by the actions of rational agents" or, on the other hand, the newly constructed stages for narcissistic activism (Second Life, Twitter).

Friday, January 04, 2008

The paradox of change and learning technology

If Iowa is any indication, 2008 looks to be a year of change, or rather of a growing desire for change. Of course, even when called for by the vox populi, change may not occur since we should never discount the resources of the powers of resistance -- always equal to the task -- who will find new ways of making sure the status quo maintains its fundamental rights. Pakistan gives us an idea of one tactic for protecting vested interests; a bit brutal, but there are other more subtle ways that can easily be mobilized in our western democracies.

So what does politics have to do with changes in the learning scene in 2008? The parallels are worth considering; to wit, the fact that in both domains the methods of the past have quite obviously failed to deliver anything but disappointing results. In politics, the received wisdom was that when there was a problem you carried a big stick, replacing it with a bigger one when necessary, and if you thought it was big enough for the annoyance you were faced with at any given moment you used it (whether preceded by talking softly or aggressively) to hammer home your favorite truth or doctrine and/or snuff out the enemy. In the field of learning, the stick had on its rough surface grades, degrees, diplomas and certification while its hard core consisted of controlling and amassing information (the equivalent of military might) and deploying it in places called, variously, "the classroom", "the training room" or "the learning management system".

But the big stick as the ultimate and unique solution seems to have failed once again and the choice between increasing its size or calling the premise into question has come to the fore. When that happens change becomes possible.

On both fronts, some things have visibly changed over the past 12 months and more is likely to change over the next 12. In 2007 the buzzword in the training technology sector, "Web 2.0", was transformed into a slogan and rallying cry. It is now perceived as corresponding to something that may just have a real and tangible impact on our lives. I call this the belief in the "tangible virtual" and it represents the major cultural innovation we're likely to see develop in 2008, although Second Life already pretends to be exactly that (whereas it is merely the graphic illusion of it).

I think two contrasting things will happen:

1) The Social Web as a cultural meme will gain credibility and draw towards it a sufficient number of users -- aware and unaware of the new culture they are associating with -- to validate at least the idea that it is a desirable general feature of the global environment (and this will be true even in the developing world where it is less present but ultimately more promising in terms of its transformative power and the human services that may for the first time be providable if not yet provided).

2) The myth that consists of thinking that the Social Web is authentically social will begin to be deflated, creating a desire for a truly social web, which we won't be tempted to call 3.0 because a truly social web doesn't need to be “semantic” (it seems that everyone is convinced that semantics will be the key feature for the “appellation contrôlée” of Web 3.0). The true Social Web (don't count on seeing it before 2012) won’t be defined by software but rather by human behavior. I prefer to think of it in terms of the Chinese concept of relationship and would call it the Guanxi Web. But we’ll have to learn a lot more about the way the Chinese do things before we get there. Or alternatively, wait for them to create it and follow in their footsteps (would our pride of technology leaders stand for that?).

In the more immediate future, starting this year, we will begin to understand that the relationship between what we now call the "social web" and human social interaction is as tenuous as the relationship we imagined between the artificial concept of “e-Learning” and actual human knowledge development, a disjunct we took nearly ten years to comprehend.

As soon as we realize, some time later this year, that everything we marvel at for being “the tangible virtual” is little more than an intriguing oxymoron (i.e. a poetic illusion) we will discover a need for something that would more appropriately be called the “tangible real” accompanied by a tangible virtual subtext, opening the gates of a new type of creativity rooted in the desire for the real rather than the desire to escape it. The historically minded may already have noticed that the tangible real coupled with the tangible virtual has been missing in our civilization since at least the 18th century, a period in which taverns, coffee houses, theatres and salons still actually encouraged people both to define and adapt to an intellectual environment created in common but spread and shared far beyond the local. The social intellect was subsequently corralled into universities as formal education, after laying the bricks of its buildings, laid the brakes on social learning and any kind of authentic intelligent (rather than intellectual) culture. This model needs to be dismantled and replaced, but don’t count on Starbucks or Second Life to take us there! In 2008 we will begin to see that Second Life is more like Second Wife, an object of fantasy (power and libido) that momentarily fulfils the individual while stifling communities by abolishing what is genuinely common or relegating it to the background. Second Life could be compared to an inflatable doll we fill with our own hot vapors (isn't that literally what we do with the avatars?). Of course it does serve a purpose in our global economy and culture (just as spam does) and so will continue to survive, but I don’t believe it defines our future in any serious way.

In conclusion, if this is a truly a period of change, as I think it is, that means we will be changing not only our ways of doing things but also our ways of thinking about change itself, and that applies to everyone including experts, thought leaders and fortune-tellers. We’d all like to be right in our predictions, but if we are tending towards something truly social, the result simply won’t resemble anything we individuals can imagine, however good we may be at analysing trends. Mainly because we all tend to reason like bankers, in terms of linear curves or market analysts in terms of product life cycles. After all, some of us still remember John Chambers’ “rounding error”, which with hindsight should be a sobering reminder of the value of "informed forecasting".