Archive for the ‘Cultural Design’ category

Madoff & Cultural Change in 2009

December 28, 2008

Bob Jacobson (Total Experience blog) recently posted about the Madoff scandal, and I quote:

“In every culture, the battle of the classes is so intense it overwhelms ethical considerations. Every apparent ally is lauded by those who constitute the culture’s moneyed class — and when the fraud betrays the ideology of wealth, it is he or she who pays the price, not those who enabled them to play their predatory games by idolizing them.”

Our culture has enabled them at every turn, symbolically and materially, through a lionizing media, aspirational pop culture, and the continuation of a false American Dream we’ve been sold. We’ve lived the last two decades in an culturally inflated bubble that protected us from having to consider smarter alternatives.

But during the good times, Madoff worked his community hard. It is during the so-called “good times” that people overly trust, and when hitting the bear market, they need cash and start to ask questions. Madoff was trusted because he represented a class and way of life people aspired to. In the spirit of irrational exuberance, he was a credible investor. The fact that the Ponzi scheme was exposed just NOW is a positive signal. A 3-decade long scheme was exposed, which had to happen at some point. The sign of the times to notice is that the Madoffs (and Fulds and Princes) are getting flushed out, the times of inflated CEgOs are ending.

Madoff does not represent a tipping point toward more bad times, but calls (in investment terms) a “bottom” where investors get flushed out of the markets so a new cycle can start at the depths of pessimism. It is also a culturally symbolic bottoming, with its Jungian synchronicity of occurring near the winter solstice when humans observe the progressively diminished cycle of sunlight. We may see a few more bottom signals in the year to come, however.

These patterns can be seen as historical, and therefore repeating and repeatable. We’ve gone through these cycles before, in the Gilded Age before the 1900’s, the 1920’s before the crash and what we call the “Great” depression. With some analysis of these earlier cycles, we can see that values changes once the shift is big enough. Mentioned in the prior post,  The Fourth Turning (1996) refers to the last cycle as an Unraveling, ending in the crash of massive debt, just as in the prior Unraveling cycles.

Kondratieff (1926) observed these secular cycles in Soviet and capitalist culture, and named these same cycles after the seasons. The lionizing of the rich is inherent in the last cycle. The Crisis cycle follows an Unraveling, and values changes when the reality of the economic and cultural change becomes obvious and accepted across a large population.

We are seeing a such a shift in values already, and we will see an emphasis on sustainable living, workable human scales in economics and systems, humane enterprises, cooperative (and less cut-throat) markets. The Millennial generation was not invested in Madoff’s schemes, and because they have largely observed the crash from a distance (not as heavily invested as the Boomers), they may be able to draw their own conclusions about value and sustainable practice and investment. They will be inclined to invest their energies in the new energy, infrastructures, and new agricultural projects that will sustain their future and away from the corporatist hold on things.

Because these changes are secular trends, developing over and lasting for many years, they seem to assume a kind of destinal trajectory. Our collective expectation that things will change positively will help to create a new foundation of values. And while Millenials are rejecting the Boomer’s last legacy that led to crisis, the Boomers will also help lead the way out of the crisis. What else can we do?

Creative Capitalism for a Crisis Time

December 18, 2008

One of my doctoral committee members, Alex Pattakos, blogs for HuffingtonPost and wrote Meaningful Capitalism: Change We Can Believe In

In response to the article and some of the comments, I said:

Organizations pursuing meaningful entrepreneurship are not in strong evidence by the media. We ourselves should become the new news media that changes the emphasis on what gets reported. People learn from success stories, and the meaning of success itself is and will be changing. People’s values will slowly change as their society shows these shifts in many tangible and subtle ways.

We knew this collapse was coming at some point. Capitalism was already being referred to as “late” by many writers and thinkers, over the last decade or so. Most of us just did not know what to expect our how it would appear on our national and global scene. The Crisis time we’re in now nearly exactly matches the historical theory of Strauss and Howe’s 1996 book The Fourth Turning.  And because we are now in a Fourth Turning, a Crisis era, the times are compatible with Alex’s recommendation.

The crisis of capitalism should not be framed in the “greed” dynamic – there have been greedy exploiters since before the time of Draco. Certainly Kim Jong-Il can be seen as greedy. The corporate form is merely a modern organizational framework, and is a structure developed in response to laws and conventions. It can be changed. People bring their values to work and their organizations, and as Americans facing a new crisis and a new era, we need to take responsibility for the redesign of these institutions.

JSB advocates Slow Learning at Strategy 08

August 2, 2008

Not that he calls it that, but I do. Think “Slow Food of Learning.” Here’s the segue. At his recent presentation at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy conference, John Seely Brown frames new ways of envisioning institutional architectures. As a longtime advocate of rethinking the contemporary organization, he asks how we might deploy emerging adaptations of social network technology to fundamentally change how we learn in organizations and educational systems. He’s talking Big Picture redesign of fundamental assumptions and concepts in and of organization and how we learn together.

JSB builds the platform for the network learning model. Social co-construction of knowledge, enabled by social computing, is already changing the infrastructures of organizations. Informal education networks have already been moving toward a new model. About mid-way through his presentation (see video) he advocates moving institutional education toward this model.

One basis for the shift is that traditional institutional warrants of authority are less meaningful in a world where value is being created by people in ad hoc community networks of interest. Both institutional and organizational learning will shift due to these trends. That students will workaround their institutions, find interest groups around their interests, and learn the necessary skills to satisfy the requirements for projects that nurture their projects, their learning needs, and far-reaching dreams.

This could happen. Probably not in America. (Maybe in India?  For a real scare, see the Globe and Mail’s recent article: If the schools don’t cut it, build your own.) “Why not” in America? That’s another cultural story too long to tell here, but it suffices to note that we have nurtured a couple of generations to want what the learning gives you, not the learning itself. People actually want “the degree” as an instrumental (explicit) warrant, purely “in order to.”

Patricia Kambitsch describes a program called Slow Learning, invented about 4 years ago after her experiences with co-creating the Dayton Early College Academy (a Gates Foundation project) in inner-city Dayton. What she realized was that students remain locked into the institutional warrants by mandate, and that after a decade of conventional learning, students can start to play a new game, but they face very real obstacles. Learning-to-learn requires more than new institutional architectures. It requires personal commitment beyond that supportable by culture and neighborhood. It means a (we think) permanent change of consciousness, and cultural support.

We identified a different target audience than students – mid-career adults – who often believe they need to earn another conventional degree when they decide to change career paths. Slow Learning was born from the frustration of watching our highly educated friends chase the “institutional warrant.” Especially for creative careers, when, in mid-career, it doesn’t actually MATTER whether you have a warrant. You just need to be part of the network of practitioners that learning happens in. Your warrant is that you are already known to othe practitioners, which is what you get after the degree anyway. (See some 2007 posts, such as at College is a Great Place to Learn – So What?)

So JSB is describing a theory of institutional workaround and personal learning paths that sounds a lot like community learning models, or even the Union Institute (which requires learning internships in a tutorial framework).  But to cut to the simple, here’s what Kambitsch says:

Is it possible that we could network with experts and practitioners in authentic settings other than school? Unless my goal is to establish a career as a lifelong academic, wouldn’t I be more fully engaged, raising deeper questions, building more authentic relationships with a broader network by learning outside of school? Is it possible that these experts would take me more seriously if I approach them directly as in individual interested in learning rather than hire them indirectly through an institution like school?

Sure, there’s a role for online communities and Internet-accessible courseware. But these are just enablers. Where JSB and we part ways is that community learning is largely situated and place-based. (That’s why there was a Bauhaus and a “Frankfurt School”). You cannot place yourself in a (creative or intellectual) community solely by Facebook networking. I believe real F2F engagement with your mentors is central to social learning.

Organizational learning also requires the commitment of personal presence, I believe. Virtual presence only goes so far. We are still human beings, blessed with a wide range of sensing, thinking, intuitive, and sensemaking systems and organs. Virtual life excludes most of these, thereby excluding the types of learning necessary to shift self-reflection away from the habitus of abstracting (online, reading, and typing).  To create new roles for ourselves, we literally must “act” those roles. That’s where our beginners’s mind unlocks new ways of knowing we would never find by engaging in any types of online learning activity.

Patricia is not a JSB, she mostly publishes memoirs and satire, and convenes participatory arts and writing events. I am the more abstract one in the team, and have a paper at this year’s Participatory Design conference that deepens some of John’s other ideas about socializing organizational learning practices. These ideas are not institutionally warranted, yet. But perhaps, instead, we might co-create a Learning Lab with interested parties who also see this as a possible vision.

Happy Birthday, Marshall McLuhan

July 21, 2008

July 21. It would be great to have you back with us again. I’d love to know what you would say of the Google dialogues we’re having on Transformation.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan, C.C. (July 21, 1911December 31, 1980) was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar — a professor of English literature, a literary critic, a rhetorician, and a communications theorist. McLuhan’s work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory. McLuhan is known for coining the expressions “the medium is the message” and the “global village.”

Last year on his birthday, a group of us got together in Toronto to celebrate and marched a local parade to the Coach House. We watched a little-known video of McLuhan speaking at a Ryerson College conference, I believe interviewed by a Professor Gillies. He was talking about the need for and design of the University of Canada North, (which then did not happen.) This year, a friend reminded me he had just seen a blurb in the paper.

And who out there, other than McLuhan scholars, is using the Tetrad for media analysis?

Cognitive impacts of Google’s info hegemony

July 19, 2008

Referring to the prior post, the title was meant to provoke and reprieve the Atlantic article thesis. As with many technological aids to cognitive augmentation, the answer is “both” dumber and smarter.

Perhaps we are all still only in the first few years of a new media behavior, and like “boiling frogs” we cannot see the effects on ourselves yet.  Surprisingly, there are no in-depth research studies on Google-think. As somone who’s researched and observed information behavior in the search and research domains for over 10 years, I want to consider longitudinal aspects, not just whether Google makes us “feel” smarter or dumber.

I have researchable concerns over the universal casual acceptance of Google’s information hegemony.  We are smarter in some ways, for sure – but I have also sensed a rapid dismissal of Carr’s (Atlantic article) thesis, as if it were obvious he’s just making a fuss. There may be ways – ways in which we don’t have easy access to awareness – that continual Google use makes us dumber.

How do we know what behaviors will be obviated by growing up with a ubiquitous search appliance whose evolution of relevancy reflects popular choices? (Over time, anything popular reverts to the mean, which is not exactly “smart.”) PageRank bases relevancy on (among other things) having the highest number (and weighting) of citing pages to the given page. It displays (by default) only 10 items on the results, and overwhelmingly people select the top hit in a search. While Google is powerful, the results display is not as helpful for browsing as – for example – the clustered responses of Clusty, or search enginers like Scirus being used in science research.

It rides our cultural proclivity toward instant gratification – we get a sufficient response VERY quickly, making a compelling argument to rapidly explore the top hit. How often do we pursue the hits on page 3 or further? Do we know what knowledge we are avoiding in our haste? Why do we think the most-referred to pages are the most “relevant” to our real needs? This “instant good enough” may lead us to demand that value of other types of services and supposed knowledge.

Kids may then demand this type of easy, superficial access from their teachers. A quick relevant story: The  teacher I probably learned the most from in all my years of formal education was Dave Biers, graduate psychology research methods and stats. Rather than laser print his worksheets clearly, he insisted on using old blurred, photocopied mimeo. The formulas were barely readable – so you HAD to pay attention in class, where everything was explained and scrawled on the board. This made you attend class, and attend in class. If you didn’t understand, you couldn’t act as if you did. Illegibility was a deliberate learning device.

In a 2005 article in Cognition, Technology and Work I reported on a study at Univ of Toronto on information practices in scientific research. I reported on the trend of grad students using Google and PubMed instead of the expensive, dedicated research tools often used more by their faculty, such as SciFinder, Medline, Web of Science. The earlier use of the more “opaque” search interfaces, now being obsoleted, had at one time trained a generation to think about the terms used in the domain of their research.Opacity is helpful when it reveals opportunities for further learning that you would miss if in a hurry.

This may have also enabled serendipity.Discoveries in science often happen by analogy and serendipitous relationships. Google’s ruthlessly immediacy and transparency of the “top” answers bypasses some of these learning and suggestion opportunities. Even Google Scholar hides a lot more than it shows. How do we actually “slow down” the process of info foraging so that we can find patterns in a problem domain and not just assume the top hits are best?

Now consider the McLuhan tetrad model of the replacement of an older media by a newer regime. The tetrad is a model for thinking through trends and impacts of media transformation. It is also a helpful way to map out the impacts of a new media and to make predictions of its future directions.

So using the tetrad  on Google we get:

  • What does the medium enhance?  Information foraging – finding many sufficient, alternative responses to a given question that can be described in simple keywords. Google amplifies our temporal effectiveness – it gives us the ability to respond quickly in time to almost any information need. It enhances our ability to communicate, by giving us access to other people’s points of view for a given topic of interest. It augments our (already-weakened by infoload) memories by allowing us to neglect exact dates, names, references until the point of need.
  • What does the medium make obsolete? Published encyclopedias, and many types of indexes. It obviates the memorizing of factual details, which can now be retrieved quickly when needed. (Exact retrieval is not a typical competency of human cognition). It reduces the importance of directories, compiled resources, catalogs, list services, even editorial compilations such as newspapers.
  • What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier? Do we know yet? It may return the ability to create context across domains of learning. It may enable multi-dimensional thinking, that was more common in the 18th and 19th centuries than today. Recent re-readings of Emerson and Thoreau have left me astonished at the breadth of lifeworld of authors of that time. They had a Renaissance-person grasp of culture, news, politics, geography, literature, scientific developments, and the intellectual arguments of their time. Our culture lost much of this in the specialized education created to satisfy the demands of industrialization. I have hope that searching may lead to a broader awareness and access to the multitude of meaningful references that can be positioned into waiting dendrites in our pre-understanding of things.
  • What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes? Google is flipping into itself. Google has already flipped into the world online library (Print and Books), it has flipped into the world online geosearch (Earth) and navigation (Maps). Images. News. Video. These are not just object types – these are new media with new possibilities. What’s next? Immersive broadband imagery by your preferred channel of perception.

What it does not help us with is version control. I had to rewrite the tetrad from memory after (apparently) clearing the WordPress editor somehow and clicking Save. Then finding the editor empty – why isn’t there yet a Google Undo?

Feeling dumber? Maybe it’s just Google-think.

July 13, 2008

Maybe it’s in the secret sauce?  In the last month, I’ve heard several commentaries on the notion that sustained use of Google is affecting our thinking processes. As if Google were the “bad television” of the 21st century, the meme apparently suggesting overuse of Google searching is dumbing us down because of our passive/receptive way of literally consuming information.

The Atlantic’s recent article Is Google Making Us Stupid? (July/August issue) is the most immediate and critical reading for interested information seekers. Google, Nicholas Carr suggests, has perhaps caused a permanent alteration of our information and reading behaviors, not just searching, but browsing, reading texts, researching, and sensemaking. We (many of us) now skim the surface, jump around from link to link, and cannot attend to an entire article online, let alone an entire book offline (remember, they are still available in printed form). He cites a few examples of Very Smart Persons exhibiting these symptoms. Perhaps he’s right.

My wife Patricia, being an artist, was on the leading edge of this wave. She was concerned that Google was interfering with her imagination, which is the source and font of all wonder for the creative life. She was searching Google in her dreams. And she reports that she finds herself doing similar behaviors, of relentless surfing and wandering the Net, losing total track of time. But she insists its a positive modification of mental life, if it is indeed permanent (she says “it’s the network, you’re able to see all the interconnections of things you never could before, you learn what’s behind everything.”) Something like, that anyway. Maybe she’s right – a couple of years ago she was on about Tristram Shandy being the first hypertext novel, and how that really heralded post-modern thinking. So maybe people were trying to think like Google makes us way back in 1759.

And just recently at the ELPUB conference in Toronto, in an offline conversation, John Senders (what, no Wikipedia article?), one of the founders of the field of human factors (from at least 1942), was observing basically the same thing (the “television is bad for you part”) about Google.  His observation was in effect that Google was changing the way children were learning and interacting with knowledge. Rather than trial and error, observation, finding out for themselves, etc., young children would (and do) just search and rely on whatever they locate online. His main concern was for the eventual (or even current) dumbing down of the future generations as they developed intellectually though their chief years of learning by relying on the common information appliance. He wanted to pursue the issue as a social science experiment, which is a good idea. Maybe John is right as well.

Carr’s article cites Larry Page’s statement to the effect that Google is creating a type of Internet AI, that we are all smarter when we tap into the world’s published information whenever we have a question or problem. I cite Carr’s concern that follows, that perhaps “easy access” is not the highest human or social value associated with information seeking.

“Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”… Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

Carr also cites the UK’s JISC/CIBER program, a 5 year + study on online information behavior in UK education and society. I also found this provocative publication just in time to cite and interpret for the current Redesign Research study of eBooks user experience at the University of Toronto Libraries. CIBER essentially suggests the Google Generation is trending toward a style of thinking and working characterized by endless skimming, jumping around, and scavenging rather than thinking for oneself.

“It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Maybe they are right as well. What do you think? Are we becoming Borg’d? Do you feel your link to the Matrix yet? Have you read a NOVEL lately? I will post my responses (agreements, disagreements, expansions) in a later post.

Learning – A disruptive innovation of self

June 20, 2008

You’d think we would have learned by now. Over the last 50 years we have seen our best thinkers decry the state of institutional education in the Western world (yes, we usually hear this framed as a US “National” issue, but really, the socially conformist view of education is Western if not global.) There are as many perspectives on the educational-industrial complex as there are commentators. One that comes to mind is George Carlin’s famous and distinctly non-funny observations about “our” educational system (blogged very neatly here at On Education and eLearning.) I respect Carlin’s insights on culture and social issues because comedy is a way of telling truth that cannot be censored, and that people actually get. And since George died just last week, I’d like to honor his contributions to critical thinking – he awakened perhaps millions of people in the disruptive innovation and oral tradition of comedic truth-telling.

Deeply literate (and less popular), critics of our educational systems – who have promoted a better way – include Ivan Illich, Rollo May, Neil Postman, Paolo Freire, William Irwin Thompson, Jean Houston. To some extent the host of 20th century’s greatest thinkers from Einstein to Feynman have weighed in on the sorry state of learning. My wife Patricia and I advocate Slow Learning, informed by these thinkers. Slow Learning encourages individuals to envision their desired future learning destination and then follow a real world learning plan, working with those already in the communities where you hope to later thrive.

We must allow ourselves to understand that we are truly on our own, the system is not there for us. Learning is a choice we must take into our own lives, and sustain it continually. Russ Ackoff says so.

Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg on Change This: “Education should be a lifelong enterprise, a process enhanced by an environment that supports to the greatest extent possible the attempt of people to “find themselves” throughout their lives”For too long, we have educated people for a world that no longer exists, extinguishing their creativity and instilling values antithetical to those of a free, 21st century democracy. The principal objective of education as currently provided is to ensure the maintenance and preservation of the status quo—to produce members of society who will not want to challenge any fundamental aspects of the way things are. Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching, there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. Being taught is, to a very large extent, boring and much of its content is seen as irrelevant. It is the teacher, not the student, who learns most in a traditional classroom.

Ackoff can be credited for first defining the hierarchy of knowing (1989) in the somewhat Kabbalistic series of: Data – Information – Knowledge – Understanding – Wisdom. His 2008 book Turning Learning Right Side Up asks a series of transforming questions:

Must schools be the way they are? Do classrooms make sense anymore? What should we teach? What should individuals contribute to their own education? What if students did the teaching and teachers did the learning? Is it possible to eliminate old-fashioned distinctions between subjects and between the arts and sciences? What would the ideal lifelong education look like: at the K-12 level, at universities and colleges, in the workplace, and beyond? How do you educate for a world that doesn’t yet exist?

These are powerful questions, indeed. I have oberved the programs of institutional education fall further and further into mediocrity, and see university education driven by economic instrumentalism. The only choice we can make in the here and now, for our own learning paths, is to make our own choices. Educate yourself and your children.