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Living on the range, 2021

…Oh! give me a gale of the Solomon vale,
Where the life streams with buoyancy flow;
On the banks of the Beaver, where seldom if ever,
Any poisonous herbage doth grow. Western anthem
Where seldom if ever… a good line to use to dream away what ails us, at least through the game of song, at a complex time in history when we are said to possess objective knowledge.

Complexity is a household word

Charles Dickens, a man who serialized early experiences of penury, went on to publish a weekly journal called Household Words which helped to popularize science as well as entertain.

When it comes to the household knowledge of the last half a century, at least among students of information history, systems theory, technological praxis, and learning, Rittelian problems are right up there. We now know that we cannot expect to solve issues like global warming through environmental efforts alone. And if 2020 didn’t drive this home like a herd of buffalo…

But knowing that it is a boon to be conversant in a range of approaches to more holistically – and completely – respond to challenge does not dispel the difficulties of sharing expertise 1 and the long hours of practice necessary to be conversant 2 with the variety of situations we are apt to meet particularly in the 21st century.

Range 3 is further potentially unpopular because there’s no sleeping on the job. The “inquisitive learning” that teaches interrelations 4 requires active engagement. And let’s be honest: years can be involved in the learning curve as one attempts to become conversant in specialized knowledge(s), communication – and where communication is involved, not just negotiation but receptivity, ethics…

…and reflexivity

The contemporary need for autoethnography was put most succinctly by Nina Bruni in ‘The crisis of visibility’ 5 but most memorably far before that in Bronisław Malinowski’s famous field photograph 6 depicting him at his typewriter but in the field. To say that we are not implicated in outcomes is puerile but to reveal what keeps us from recognizing this may be unflattering.

I myself was content until but a few years ago studying backwards and broadly, contemplating quondam approaches like παιδεία and scientific narrative as I tucked myself into a pleasant if “look alive!” corner of the world. But suddenly the 21st century wouldn’t leave me alone.

Ever since, I’ve been remembering things I had had no use of in recent years, by which I mean almost two decades… time flies when you are both having fun and trying to navigate a milieu best described as an unstrcutred game. One of the things I long had no use for was networking, which I had cast away as a plaything of actors. This embarassingly exaggerated view permitted me to focus on less glamorous activities: reading, contemplating, writing, researching, translating, etc., designing and guiding classes – never containing more than 300 “souls” 7 a semester.

The pursuit of range is an investment. In this, I take as my mentor Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, who begged his friends for books8 as he froze and sacrificed sleep for study.

But does pursuing range guarantee success?

One of tech humanist Howard Rheingold’s messages is that we have yet to properly understand how to use the networking potential of computers. The ability to conduct dialogue that brings out the best in those interested in participating9 has applications even in successfully shipping programs and software10.

Range is needed. It is no accident that the word could be used to summarize what the WEF dubbed as 21st century skills.

What we are really asking today is: Will we succeed in sharing and coordinating what we think we know?

Collective imagination and joint effort is needed to attain what Nora Bateson has termed symmathesy, learning to learn together. Aristotle would say, it’s not like you can figure out a solution or learn something and be done with it 2; learning is ongoing as situations change – as an aside I love how Schön’s book Technology and change: The new Heraclitus has Aristotelian undertones. Change has consistently accelerated since Schön’s time; this is documented by thinkers and professors as disparate as Steigler to Galloway. But how prepared are we for a Schönian ethic of change?

Symbolic systems ‘make’ and ‘remake’ the world and … our aesthetical grouping of the world is a militant understanding that reorganises the world in terms of works and works in terms of the world.―Paul Ricoeur, A Ricoeur reader.

Narrowcasting from the Hill

As Congress becomes a series of silos 11 thanks to the workings of Lickliderian media 12, I wonder if we are mature enough to use words – which, unlike the deprecation of bookishness as effete, towered-in if towering verbosity, actually do do things.

The notion of the text is a good paradigm for human action and action is a good referent for an entire category of texts.―Paul Ricoeur, From text to action

Texting a reflection of our reflection

An old prota (the name of a spiritual rank) reminds us that not so long ago, not everyone had mirrors.

He describes how one day, a villager was on his way home when he found a mirror. He picked it up, looked into it, and saw it to be a portrait of his father, and, putting it into his pocket, marvelled at how he had come upon it.

When he returned home, he put it away. His wife noticed this and when he went out again later, she found it but cried out when she looked at it. Her husband was cheating on her! She rushed to the village priest, “an old prota like me, who gave spiritual counsel to the villagers” – the old prota telling the story interjects. The wife reaches the priest, sobbing and sobbing.

- “What is it, my daughter?”
- “My husband is cheating on me!”
- “I know your husband. He is a good man. What made you come to that conclusion?”
- “Look!” she said, thrusting the mirror into his hand. He looks at the mirror and laughed out loud saying,
- “Why, this is a portrait of St. Nicholas!”

People become strangers in different classes. People do not speak the same language. Excommunication extends even to the level of style, grammar, amplitude of the lexicon, and so on [the difference is not only between the language tools they use but the symbolic systems through which they look at each other] … These distortions, because of the gaping abyss that has extended between the groups in power and those who are excommunicated, cannot be fixed by a mere extension of our ordinary capacity to communicate, but require an explanatory phase, a theoretical model dealing especially with this aspect of communication – in order for the excommunicated to be re-established.―Paul Ricoeur, A Ricoeur reader

Excommunication by name

The symbol systems of computing allow distal access through the use of small local datum that stand for it 13. Shipping names is faster than explaining; it is easier to label than to listen.

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated by Silicon Valley, and when I noticed that I can’t stop looking, I wondered if I was like Plato’s Leontius 14 – as I could not figure out if I was looking out of admiration or horror. What I mean is that I was trying to determine the meaning of this progress as there is evidence beyond the Heraclitian quip that as much as we may learn of Nature, Nature will also obscure 15 – so are we hurtling into a visionless abyss?

In addition to trying to participate in that knowledge to the best of my incompetent abilities, I focused on SV-based blog posts and a certain invaluable forum, which I think should be acknowledged as one of the great achievements of networked learning.

If there are excommunicating motions in play at this time, who is being excommunicated by whom?
Tech dreamers by the non-technologically literate?
Obsessive hackers by “engineers”?
Programmers by bottom-lining managers?
Maybe our dreams by our doubts and fears.

If it is true that fiction cannot be completed other than in life, and that life cannot be understood other than through stories we tell about it, then we are led to say that a life examined in the sense borrowed from Socartes [the life unexamined is not worth living], is a life narrated.―Paul Ricoeur, A Ricoeur reader. The emphasis here is on examination. As expounded in Plato’s Gorgias, many arts have their origin in experience because experience makes the days of men proceed according to art and inexperience – according to chance.

Do we love our lives?

If not, what would it take, and would our standards need to change?

Put another way, in the words of running coach and physical therapist Joe Uhan,
  1. What are you running away from?
  2. What are you running toward?

These questions have moved me (and I mean literally as well as figuratively) since childhood, when I read Maugham’s Moon and sixpence about Gauguin. Fulfilment can be found in unexpected ways and places.

Exhibit A: Ah, I wish I could make you see the enchantment of that spot, a corner hidden away from all the world, with the blue sky overhead and the rich, luxuriant trees. It was a feast of colour. And it was fragrant and cool. Words cannot describe that paradise. And here he lived, unmindful of the world and by the world forgotten. I suppose to European eyes it would have seemed astonishingly sordid. (277).

Exhibit B: Did I not tell you that I, too, in my way was an artist? (283).

But to be an artist in life requires range.

Without imagination, there is no action [on the level of projects, motivation and so on] … It is indeed through the anticipatory imagination of acting that I ‘try out’ … and that I ‘play’… It is imagination that produces the milieu, the luminous clearing, in which we can compare and evaluate motives as diverse as desires and ethical motivations… constructing metaphors is about more than meaning: it is a visionary grasping though verbal invention, wherein the similarities arrived at are the fruit of the metaphor: for the similarities are not actualised, they are created.―Paul Ricoeur, A Ricoeur reader.


Abbreviated supplementary references:

1 Lina Markauskaite and Peter Goodyear on epistemic fluency
2 Donald Schön but above all, Aristotle – with ther own versions of Gladwellian 10,000 hours
3 David Epstein’s book, Range
4 Neil Postman on education
5 Bruni, N. (2002).The crisis of visibility: Ethical dilemmas in autoethnographic research. Association of Qualitative Research, 2:1, 24-33.
6 Bronisław Malinowski both in the field and at his typewriter – in the top picture
7 Souls, entry 3
8 Johan Huizinga, Erasmus and the age of reformation, p. 49
9 John Dewey’s view of the symbosis of education, freedom, and social good
10 Joel Goldberg, What I’ve learned in 45 years in the software industry, point 2, cf. teamwork, trust, communication
11 David Schmudde, Truth storms the capitol
12 cf. Eli Pariser and C. Thi Nguyen
13 Olin, “What’s in a name”
14 Plato, Rep. 4.439
15 Pierre Hadot’s studious work on Heraclitus’ saying about change

The narrative structure of this experimental post is borrowed from Machado de Assis.

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