A "wiki-like" symmathesic design pattern

Yesterday, I read Ward Cunningham and Bo Leuf’s The Wiki Way: Quick collaboration on the web (2001) and this inspired a dream I woke up with this morning about small changes I could make to this digital garden and to the sites I use for my courses that would better support the “symmasthetic” approach I strive for. This post reviews what is meant by symmathesy, or “learning together”, how a wiki-like structure can support this, and the immediate and gradual changes I will be making to this digital garden. It will conclude with how thinking through this is clarifying my thinking about my 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

The digital gardens I have are this one, another personal one that is languishing, and the ones I made for my courses.

Regarding this one, I was asking myself this week: how can I make more explicit that some of the ideas in this digital garden are thought experiments, or thoughts in the process of being more maturely formed? 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.

As we all live in a very uncertain world, I think we all need to get used to symmasthetic design that points to our aporia. 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 also 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, which I will now introduce here on a trial basis, to see if they bring value. I will begin with two: “Thought experiment” and “In progress”, to solve the problem mentioned above. Will the posts with these tags be searchable? Will they just be a distraction, on top of the already existing relational links that appear at the end of posts?

Cunningham and Leuf also suggest topic or higher-level pages and creating alternative entry points. I have made use of that in my courses but not here. So, this is something I will introduce here. What I will introduce to my courses is having students create their own entry-point, hierarchical pages. In the courses, it is important, as Cunningham and Leuf impressively note, for there to be some scaffolding.

I remain convinced that having students do written projects on the wiki-like garden is a better use of time than them staring at me speak for 90 minutes in a video conference, even if the 90 minutes includes breakout rooms. This past year, I reduced my speaking to about 10-15 minutes, but did spend 30-60 minutes fielding individual questions. As this was on top of me moderating the written projects and typing up notes, this is clearly unsustainable, especially as this year my teaching load is increasing with three new graduate-level courses. 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!

Though in the humanities, this is a very problematic point if we consider that we used to speak of a canon. D. G. Myers is a thought-provoking source on this topic. He touches on how methods are important, such as close reading in the context of philology. To that I would add questions.

With questions, we come back to arrangement; a pattern for this can be found in Plato, where none of the dialogues are a “final say”. This is similar, too, to Cunningham and Leuf’s book, which bring in other voices, multiple applications of an idea, and invite further dialogue on the book’s site. That is how I envision my book, too. If it does a good job, it will help support a love for ongoing learning and promote a wiki culture.

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

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