Thursday, September 04, 2008

Facebook and the culture of learning

Jay Cross, following the lead of JP Rangaswami has provoked a discussion of the possible pertinence of Facebook as a tool for learning. As someone who attributes to Facebook a good part of the successful emergence of the Social Web as a general cultural phenomenon, which I see as the key to the future of learning in a radical break with the past, I have no axe to grind with Facebook itself. Yet I allowed myself to take a contrarian position on this question by proposing first to situate the cultural foundations of the Facebook phenomenon in very general terms (an appeal to US individualism with a strong appeal to ambient narcissism) and then to examine the possible factors of motivation behind some of the observable emerging trends in knowledge management through social tools. I could have gone much further by examining the nature of what I would call the collectivist impulse that is a very strong but perpetually marginalised component of US culture, but I was only making a brief commentary on the issue raised by Jay. A further comment by Clark Quinn, in which he takes the position that Facebook is about doing rather than being, provoked a further comment, which I published on Jay's blog. Since it raises a possibly controversial issue, I'm reproducing here to give it a specifically cultural (rather than learning-related) context. The starting point is the very civilized dialogue that is now taking place across blogs and on into conferences and unconferences in which people who generally think and work in similar ways have come together to predict and sometimes prepare the future of both learning and corporate communication. What follows is my second commentary to Jay's Informal Learning blog.

It’s interesting how we can all be part of a culture that agrees on principles that include transparency, generosity and trust. I don’t think any of us would have a problem reaching a consensus on those ideals, their pragmatic interest and the necessity to promote them so that they become a part of the entire professional culture that surrounds us. But sometimes I have the feeling that our conversations resemble a political convention pushing candidates and platforms and engaging in massive self-justification. The risk is a lack of critical perspective.

The danger I see in this – as well as the explanation of the temptation itself – is that a different kind of command-and-control model is looming in the background. Could it be that having failed to establish control over subordinates and colleagues because of new lifestyles inaugurated and reinforced partly by technology within a culture that is, at bottom, both individualist and consumerist, we are seeking to create new norms of monitoring and surveillance built on the now trendy principle of gaining knowledge of everything everyone is “doing” in order to micromanage them? Knowledge is power. And the road to consolidating that power is the appeal to the narcissism of the few who set the standard for a newly idealized exhibitionism. The best way to do that is to create behavioral norms of self-revelation. Confession has always been the most efficient way of solving crimes!

When we began transforming corporate culture in the 1980s by getting people to learn how to use the PC, we had to struggle with the resistance of managers (IT managers being clearly the worst of the lot) to the idea of transferring power to lowly employees. This was a typical cultural problem… i.e. typical because it played out below the threshold of conscious awareness. But it was real. It helps explain the victory of MS-DOS over Mac in the corporate world: the austerity of DOS was a gauge of seriousness, ensuring a better focus on highly controlled work processes.

With the advent of the World Wide Web things got seriously out of hand after the only limited damage of Windows (tardily imitating Mac). With the Web, staff could do all sorts of things that had nothing to do with their programmed tasks: personal e-mail, games, pornography, blogging, etc. all of them considered to be absolute distractions from serious work.

So what’s the best cynical strategy for re-establishing order? Create a culture that makes spying the norm, not through clandestine operations and strict policing but through the provoked complicity of the spied-upon. Promoting the idea of self-promotion, encouraging exhibitionism as a basic value, one which will be perceived as a key to advancement, is by far the most efficient way of ultimately gaining control over behavior. Looked at from this perspective, Clark’s remark that it isn’t “look at me” but “look at what I’m doing” says it all. Command-and-control style management isn’t interested in the “me’s” that populate the workplace; they’re interested in controlling what those self-interested me’s are doing. And why not, if everyone agrees? It could be the solution to the problem. But I see it less as a question of learning than one of spying, controlling and “normalizing” behavior.

And are we sure everyone actually does agree with the permanent need for self-exposure? I’m not. Can we be sure that it truly will solve the problem of distraction? I’m not convinced of that either.

Is this a conscious strategy of subversion? Certainly not, but most of management and power culture isn’t conscious. My analysis may seem slightly paranoid, but I firmly believe society needs the milder forms of paranoia (conspiracy theories) as a ferment to help refine our analysis of innovation and the motives behind it. After all, it may be the only known antidote to the syndrome of the political convention!


Going beyond the commentary published on Informal Learning, I should append my own belief that, as in all phases of cultural evolution (or revolution), there will inevitably be a pronounced struggle between centrifugal and centripetal forces. In such situations it's always interesting to see by what means and how thoroughly these conflicts are resolved. The centrifugal trend can lead to the emergence of new and multiple centers of gravity radically revising the old system or simply transfer mass within the existing system to other areas reconfiguring superficially the dynamic gravitional relationsuips. The centripetal forces can, when they are effective, pull in the energy and reverse the inertia of the forces that were initially directed outwards, creating new internal dynamics. It all depends on how flexible the systems are as well as how consolidated the force is in either direction. That is why I think that even when we are impressed by a new disruptive force, we need to look carefully at how the non-disruptive forces will react.