A "wiki-like" symmathesic design pattern

Ward Cunningham and Bo Leuf’s The Wiki Way: Quick collaboration on the web (2001) supports “symmathesy”, or “learning together”. This post will define symmathesy in more detail and explore how the wiki design pattern supports the extension of learning across media: from the digital garden to the book.


Symmathesy, or “learning together” posits that due to the interconnected relationship of the living and complex world, all of the ‘vitae’ (organic parts of the whole) that comprise it are always learning together, forming and informing each other – towards pathology or towards health. To honor the “complexity inherent in living processes requires that we employ more rigor, not less” and “take into account the larger consequences of our ‘actions’ […] to better understand the many facets of our interactions” (Bateson 2015; also cf. Bateson 2016). Bateson’s word “symmathesy” to stress the interdependence of the features of the networked learning environment.
The word is further suggestive if we take her point that in the fields that have sought to learn how we learn that emerged from cybernetics, the vocabulary that frames our understanding is too mechanical and can pretend to a mastery that is unrealistic. Through symmathesy, we are reminded of the organic nature of life, replete with its stages and own models of growth. This model can embolden those who dare to begin the unexpected – which can be challenging even where this ‘unexpected’ is mitigated through design. — Goetz & Jovanović (2020), “Building Environing Conditions for Symmathesy in a Networked Project”

The wiki pattern

The above can be supported by the wiki pattern as set out in Cunningham and Leuf’s 2001 work. Here are some quotes that demonstrate how:

A note about its technological dimension and interface: it is very significant, as the authors state, that such collaborative servers “simply don’t need elaborate interfaces”. Further, “A successful discussion server must be easy for its participants to use” (emphasis added). “All other potential powerhouse features are likely to be orders of magnitude less important, especially if they require extra software to be installed.”

How this wiki pattern informs my digital gardens and courses

Wikis support process-based learning and bring experience in iterative knowledge management. As noted above, the wiki supports these aspects of learning through not being linear and always evolving and stressing idea organization as well as content. However, this brings the problem of how to distinguish those ideas in this digital garden are thought experiments and those that are more maturely formed.

As we all live in a very uncertain world, and if we are serious about trying to solve wicked problems, symmasthetic design that points to our aporia has a legitimate place in learning design. This is also important if we are serious about symmasthetically learning to learn together. Wiki-like design organically supports this. It is used by professionals in writing for distributed teams, though may be known by another name, like P2s.

Wikis further support the attempt to branch out (important in a complex world in need of inter-/trans-disciplinary thinkers) but allow for some attempts to fall off like autumn leaves if they are not sustainable at a given time. They also support re-planting, later. Even if they are small, there is something to be said for collaborating on small things.

It is significant that a wiki, or wiki-like garden, does not have to be invented from scratch for the non-technical, to allow for more focus on the ideas and thinking. That was indeed the approach I took in making the “wiki-like” gardens used here and in my courses — however, there are functionalities that have gone un(der)used. One feature is the tag or label. This wiki sometimes uses two: “Thought experiment” and “In progress”, to solve the problem mentioned above.

Creating topic or higher-level pages and alternative entry points is a good exercise in knowledge management and could even be used to replace variations of the midterm exam.

The quality of student work produced by the end of the semester continues to suggest the efficacy of making use of class time in such a way as to reduce lecturing and increase research and wiki writing work. Here are some posts where I go over how I worked in the past two years: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

One way for students to incrementally take over some of that work can be achieved by making clear the hierarchical wiki structure, and have them gradually progress up it. This design will not suit all students, but no design does.

An additional reason for adopting such design is that it is democratic design as Cunningham and Leuf state, which I believe, after Dewey, is worth practicing. In such democratic design, I also draw inspiration from Peter Elbow, who is known for the “democratization of writing”.

How this is helping my book

Cunningham and Leuf’s wiki way is a help to my book design in more way than one. Above all, a book about digital traces should allow the experience of the trace to influence its design. The wiki way supports my role as symmasthetic designer over “teacher” thus putting emphasis on the design over the illusion of finished content. In case there are any sage-on-the-stage yearners left: how can we seek finished content in such a rapidly-changing world? How will that be of service to students who will likely have to change jobs or even careers multiple times in their life? This is not to say that content is moot.

Finally, the wiki way promotes the interaction and interrelation of multiple voices and multiple applications of ideas. That is what I hope my book will promote, too. If it does a good job, it will support a love of ongoing learning.

Co-communication is far better than being anxious about uncertainty.

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