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A problem of common expression

If the labours of men of Science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of Science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science itself . . .
— Wordsworth, W. & Coleridge, S. (1911). Wordsworth’s Preface of 1802, Lyrical Ballads 1798. Oxford: Horace Hart, 240.

While it is generally accepted that technology-related research needs to be interdisciplinary, actionable interdisciplinary approaches are rare and complex. Further, the naming of related fields is also complex. Even if we are “only” talking about technology and the literacy of learning, a cursory count of related fields yesterday left me with over 25 fields, although with some redundancy in perspectives, theory, and approaches. Examples include digital rhetoric, ICT (information and communication technology) literacy, the digital humanities, and technology enhanced learning. I did not include in that number adjacent but also overlapping fields like knowledge management or technoethics.

Gaining awareness of technological information and communication infrastructures is more than a generic problem, requiring the kind of innovative thought that went into coining the (precisely-defined) word “scientist” in the 1830s. The word was to bring unity to fields that in William Whewell’s account were subdividing “like a great empire falling to pieces”. The “separation of sympathies and intellectual habits has ended in a destruction, on each side, of that mental discipline which leads to success in the other province”.

New informational structures emerge that need new words; new synthesis is required. How will we illustrate the “collective wisdom” of this age? Surely not like the German charicature of the scientist almost two centuries ago – cited by Whewell, portrayed as “the poking of the nature pokers” – ? Funny image at a time when we begin to realize the natural, or environmental, consequences to the art of science.

The problem of restructuring is familiar to the humanities. History – and archaeology – literally show how the organization of lines of communication changes and fades over time, e.g. Petra after the Romans.

Today, other interrelational paths are similarly in the process of disappearing. Clay Shirky writing on the demise of the newspaper in 2008 notes that even passionate defenders of newspapers cannot “plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away”:

with the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data.

Drawing a parallel with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, by way of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s account, he concludes that the invention of digital technology has left us in the throes of a revolution. Old organizational forms are broken as new ones emerge in ways that cannot be predicted.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

It is understandable why this might be a problem for newspapers, the subject of Shirky’s column, but it is less intelligible why this is a problem for education, which should theoretically and historically know better. It is from the ivory tower that we can recognize the historical pattern of a revolution, for example.

But meta-pattern recognition involving not just practical, productive knowledge but also that of power topologies and the consequences of causes requires synthetic knowledge, hearkening back to Aristotle with all his discussion of branches of the tree of knowledge. I mention Aristotle because I think he presents a key for us in his emphasis on the practical importance of ethics and how he positions logic.

Logic, in his system of thought, seems to have functioned as a general tool for understanding. Just as we have updated our understanding of logic, which has moved beyond Aristotle’s to now include symbols, propositions, variables, etc., I wonder if logic should be reintroduced to schools as a required subject, being further updated by algorithmic design techniques and recursion.

Why recursion? It is the tool used by the tool, but also a tool for thought that can help us arrive at a “synthesis of better artifacts”, to reference Douglas Engelbart. He writes of “recursive decomposition” as a means by which to reach them:

Ultimately, every such recursive decomposition of a given capability in the hierarchy will find every one of its branching paths terminated by basic capabilities. … Many of the branching paths in the decomposition of a given higher-order capability will terminate in the same basic capability, since a given basic capability will often be used within many different higher-order capabilities.

Engelbart’s work – over half a century old now – was already addressing the problem of common expression during a time of technical revolution, which is to say a time of technological restructuring of hierarchies. An important basic capability includes personal relational skills. An example follows below.

Engelbart, and thinkers like him, have already set out a productive course for productive action that we can take through the technoscientific revolution. All we have to do is implement it. In Gardner Campbell’s words, “The goal must be what Engelbart calls an integrated domain: within the learner, within the learning environment, within the network itself.” Campbell proposes that we cultivate personal cyberinfrastructures:

These personal cyberinfrastructures will be visible, fractal-like, in the institutional cyberinfrastructures, and the network effects that arise recursively within that relationship will allow new learning and new connections to emerge as a natural part of individual and collaborative efforts.
To build a cyberinfrastructure that scales without stiflling innovation, that is self-supporting without being isolated or fatally idiosyncratic, we must start with the individual learners. Those of us who work with students must guide them to build their own personal cyberinfrastructures, to embark on their own web odysseys. And yes, we must be ready to receive their guidance as well.

A hermeneutic view of a textual web involves a surrendering to other voices, developing an inner ear for similarities with them, listening and withdrawing, questioning again, whether they be voices of the past or of a network. This is how we can learn how to read and speak more vigorously and will be addressed in my book on re-presencing the digital trace.

The problem of common expression is not only about seeing “connexion” but learning how to self-host a voice within its digital infrastructure. We can seek a domain of our own.

Technoscience is a discourse problem the generic concept can’t help us with. It is personal cyberinfrastructures that can help “build a just and sustainable world that supports human flourishing in community”, as per Campbell. Working in this direction can help lobby for a better tomorrow. An example of how this actually works can be seen even through personal blogs, like Heather Burns’, which some attribute to the overturning of citizen-hostile “online-safety” legislation.


Even disregarding all formal similarities that have nothing to do with the generic concept, if a person transfers an expression from one thing to the other, he has in mind something that is common to both of them; but this in no way needs to be generic universality. Rather, he is following his widening experience, which looks for similarities, whether in the appearance of things or in their significance for us. — Gadamer, H. (1975).Truth and Method). New York: Seabury Press, 388.
To live together on the basis of speech, includes, of course, mutual understanding. — Gadamer, H. (1978). “Hermeneutics and Structuralism: Merging Horizons.” Lecture. York University, Toronto, Transcript on VoegelinView

p.s. I wish I had discovered Gardner Campbell’s work earlier. He was writing about a technoscientific odyssey before me. Also, proof that personal cyberinfrastructures work can be seen in Heather Burns’ post The week the open web won.



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