What's going on?

Nothing like a trip to remind one how good home is. It's 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) here in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The forecast says it may hit 25 degrees tomorrow. The temperature will not go above freezing until after I depart on Saturday. I suspect that one reason the learning technology in New Brunswick is so top-drawer is that no one hits the golf course or goes wind-surfing when the wind-chill drops under zero.

You know how you learn a new word, one you've never seen before, and all of a sudden you see it three times in the next week? We humans see what we're alert to. As I've been talking with people, reading the web, and taking in news the last 90 days, the concept of complexity has been the meme I see everywhere I turn.

Why has complexity become my recurring obsession? Perhaps because complexity challenges the bedrock of Isaac Newton, rationality, cause and effect, an ordered universe, and faith in logic. The worldview I believed in for the first fifty years of my life does not explain the world I live in today. Some things will never be figured out. Prayer does not assure salvation. Anything could happen. The world defies logic. Shit happens.

My mind works in parallel. Sometimes this is a gift, often it's a distraction. No matter how focused I am, my consciousness always drops down a few steps to look at micro-level underpinnings and hops up a step or two to perceive things in context.

"Complexity challenges the bedrock of Isaac Newton, rationality, cause and effect, an ordered universe, and faith in logic."
The best stand-in I've found for the formation of complex adaptive systems, the first entity that gives rise to complexity is the liquid bad-guy in Terminator II. If you missed this epic, starring my present governor, I should explain that this chacter would turn into droplets of liquid when lasted by a shotgun or wanting to pour under a locked door. Then the droplets would re-form to recreate the relentless bad guy. The droplets were powerless, the overall form something else entirely. Jam two or three of these characters in a small room and heaven only knows what's going to happen. That's what happens when complex adaptive systems collide.

Whir. My mind's going up a level here, to look at some implications of the post-newtonian worldview.

  "The In Crowd"
Complexity, unpredicability
"Faith of our Fathers"
Newton, Descartes, et alia
Value Intangibles Tangibles
Learning Informal Authorized
Scope Infinite Constrained
Timing Instantly In advance
Direction Independent Instructed
Form Recombinant Hardwired
Timing Impromptu Scheduled
Role of worker Improv Scripted

Over a wonderful meal of PEI mussels and Atlantic Salmon in rice paper, a friend suggested I pay more attention to you, my dear readers. Yesterday 2,417 of you dropped by Intenret Time Blog.

What do you think of this visiion of what's to come? Add your two cents in the Comments area below.

Posted by Jay Cross at March 17, 2004 09:14 PM | TrackBack

We were brought up to believe in predictable linear progression within an ordered framework that conforms to rational rules. We need to put things in boxes, label and catalog them, know what their properties are and understand how they interact with each other. The expectation that everything has a place and a purpose is the basis of science, society, religion. It is also the foundation of our understanding of how to teach. Language is gibberish without grammar. Math is arcane hieroglyphics without theorems. Science is superstition without calculus. Religion without dogma is mere ritual. So what happened to make us begin to let go of the need to be formulaic? Is this an active evolution in our thinking, or is it a response to a changing world? Is it a progression or a regression?

Complexity is getting in the way of the nicely ordered world in which we live. We are discovering that systems can evolve within our lifetimes, and that we have to adapt our beliefs and our own systems to accommodate, anticipate, or stimulate those evolutions. Management gurus have been talking about dynamiting paradigms for as long as I have been reading them, and time was when the latest fad in management-speak could be expected to have a lifetime of a decade or more. Remember Management By Objectives?

Now the life expectancy of a new concept is months, not years. Ideas are born on the endangered list. And instead of a few bright minds trickling new thinking down to the masses as was the case fifty years ago, the masses are generating their own ideas and turning them into movements overnight. Communication has never been so rampant across society, and has never been as democratized as it is today. I am talking not just the of Internet and its multiple connectedness applications, but cell phones, cable news networks, and other mass media – despite monopolistic control of much of the medium, the message is firmly in the hands of the individual.

If communication grows knowledge, and knowledge is power, and power corrupts, then communication corrupts – or at least challenges – our comfort with the status quo. Education used to be controlled and channeled, and conditioned our thinking. If education is like an irrigation system, channeling knowledge to achieve preconceived ends, then raw knowledge is like rain – if the system does not accommodate and focus it, it erodes, carves a new landscape, and finds its own way. That’s what I think is happening now. There is a growing trend to bypass, undermine, disintermediate, or make irrelevant many of the established power structures in the communication of knowledge. Peer-2-peer, social networks, just-in-time mentoring, blogging, RSS, are all part of the facilitating environment. But the phenomenon goes beyond corporate learning, and indeed is more prevalent in social learning (how was the movie? what’s the secret of a good meatloaf? why should I vote for Arnie? where’s a good place to hang out? did you hear about earth’s third moon?). Like political opinion polls, unchained learning can create false knowledge, beliefs that achieve the critical mass of mythology and effectively become true. I suspect that the almost viral growth of networked communication is only partially “because we can now do it” and is primarily because the world is changing so fast that such communication has become essential. The two feed off each other. And a by-product is some acceleration in the evolution of collective thinking which intelligently challenges the Newtonian norms of the past.

Posted by: Godfrey Parkin at March 18, 2004 07:29 AM

For many years the Santa Fe Institute struggled for existance even though the work that they were doing along with others, globally, was progressing. James Glieck's populist version of their work labeled Chaos Theory brought the issue to the eye of the public. Additionally, some of the models started to have relevance in areas which were of interest to many- such as economics. Additionally, pop versions of this became the new differentiator for management consultants when BPR and similar domains became over crowded and before KM became the next "big thing". Complexity became or has become a Humpty Dumpty word, "it means what i want it to mean" kind of word without the "science" and math to back it up. In fact, being able to tie it to science by inference seems to have enhanced its value and legitimacy similar to academic areas that have adopted "science" as a legitimizer of the discipline.

Almost a compulsive case of apophenia. if you can create the bridge that brings others across then you have played the right card.

Parkin's comments on education seem accurate but for reasons other than the rise of a wired, interconnected world. At one time, education could claim that it was the gateway to economic success. This was in conflict with the idea that education was the key to a participatory public in a democracy- socialization. Today public funding, at least in the US, is in a state of uncertainty- public vs private good. Private funding is clearer whether it is for socialization as with religious schools or to further economic hegemony through elite intellectual institutions, k-16. Some, of course embrace both. But the issues at hand are "complicated" and not necessarily complex in the strict mathematical or scientific definition of the term.

One of the issue that is overlooked is "trust" in this complicated world of the Internet. Who on line is a "dog"? who can be "trusted" are critical issues. Education used to accept the position as intellectual arbiter of the "truth"- Ah, the problems that the phenomenologists and their post modern descendents saddled us with.

And that is what we are left with, a deconstructed world where we are trying to make sense by constructing models with new labels. But has the world really changed? Or have our stories? and who provides those stories?

Posted by: tom abeles at March 19, 2004 12:36 PM


Posted by: Jay Cross at March 23, 2004 10:19 PM

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