Adjacent chaos/anarchy/growth/domination/futures #change11

In this week’s blog, Jon Dron explores the nature of technologies (#change11). He starts with an interesting (and crucial) definition: “All technologies are assemblies that orchestrate phenomena to some purpose (Arthur, 2009). They may consist of, use or embody tools that may be physical or conceptual or both. There are as much technologies of prayer as there are of steam locomotion (Franklin, 1999)”.

From the above as well as from his PowerPoint slides, the definition of ‘technology’ therefore embodies (in following Arthur, 2009) any orchestration of phenomena for some purpose.  With this definition as basis, pedagogy is therefore a technology.

Dron continues to distinguish between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ technologies  – a binary that made me do a double-take.  Any (or rather most…) binary classifications make me uncomfortable. But this blog is not about ‘hard’ of ‘soft’ technologies, but about the way technology (in the Arthurian sense) creates, sustains, promotes or discourages the adjacent possible (see a wonderful essay on The Genius of the Tinkerer, published in 2010 in the Wall Street Journal).

As basis for my reflection on how technology (whether pedagogy, organisational structures and restructuring, printed materials, etc) allow for the adjacent possible; I take some of the thoughts provided by Steven Johnson (2010, “Where good ideas come from. The seven patterns of innovation”). Johnson (2010:52) writes that “innovative systems have a tendency to gravitate toward the ‘edge of chaos’: the fertile zone between too much order and too much anarchy”.   He further moots the crucial distinction that it is not networks and crowds that are smart, but someone in the crowd or a node in a network  – “It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network” (2010:58).

Networks and interaction between people allows for ‘hunches’ to be confirmed, validated and voila – you have a bright spark of genius (see Johnson’s fabulous description on ‘the slow hunch’ and serendipity”.  He writes: “Liquid networks create an environment where […] partial ideas can connect; they provide a kind of dating service for promising hunches” (2010:75). [I LOVE the metaphor].  There is however a sad part to this story as well – “hunches that don’t connect are doomed to stay hunches” (2010:76). Not only do ‘slow’ hunches need a correct or enabling environment, but they often need longer time-frames. ”Because these slow hunches need so much time to develop, they are fragile creatures, easily lost to the more pressing needs of day-to-day issues” (2010:77).  Johnson (2010:81) then states that hunches mature “by stealth, in small steps. They fade into view”.

To really celebrate the possibilities and create spaces where the ‘adjacent possible’ will flourish, one often have to have the courage to open doors. More than one at a time. “But sometimes you need to move a wall” (Johnson 2010:65).

What kind of technology (in the Arthurian sense) will help us to create spaces where the ‘adjacent possible’ can flourish? What kind of organisational spaces should we construct or open where slow hunches can mature and find viable partners?

Looking at the challenges facing ODL and other higher education institutions, most of the technologies we employ such as pedagogies or restructuring and the streamlining of processes – may actually close doors and build more walls where slow hunches and the ‘adjacent possible’ die lonely deaths.

If all “technologies are assemblies that orchestrate phenomena to some purpose” (Arthur, 2009, quoted by Jon Dron), surely we must expand our tolerance for disequilibrium and discomfort fertile enabling environments that functions as “dating service for promising hunches”?

On the other hand, we should not forget that this “orchestration of phenomena to some purpose” can also be used as “technologies of domination” (Hoppers, 2000, 2001). An interesting point to explore further would be to reflect on how hard and soft technologies either serve the ‘adjacent possible’ or become ‘technologies of domination’.

In closing, technologies can therefore be either incubators for hunches or mortuaries – and often management in higher education prefer the quiet of mortuaries…


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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10 Responses to Adjacent chaos/anarchy/growth/domination/futures #change11

  1. Alice says:

    LOVE the idea of a “hunch dating service”! And we know how long it takes to get a good date!?

  2. jaapsoft2 says:

    Your last words about management are so true. Management is about order and rules, managers as a rule do not tolerate chaos. Managers (most of them) love hard technology (or hard organizing). Most people, and students are just like managers. They only can tolerate just a small amount of chaos. The art of teaching is to carefully present a small amount of chaos to students.

    • Jaap – thanks for the response. I suspect we should also not forget that context plays a crucial role in evaluating “hardness” and “softness”. Theere are situations where someone (often a manager or a leader) has to make a swift (and hard) decision – e.g. on oil rigs when a disaster looms, or in responding to a crisis. I suspect the danger is that ‘management’ sometimes portray circumstances as a crises to push a certain agenda.

      I still find Snowden and Boone’s article “A leader’s framework for decision making” (Harvard Business Review, November 2007) a very useful and pragmatic between going “hard” or “soft”.

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  4. Jon Dron says:

    The edge of chaos is the place to be! That’s where dynamic stability occurs, where we can evolve into what we need to be, not the hard space of Stalinist regimes nor the over-soft space of the Red Queen. We need sufficient softness in our technologies to take us there. If they are too hard, change is impossible: someone else has orchestrated the whole thing and we become slaves to the machine. But if they are too soft, change is too difficult and we will soon be lost in social space. I reckon that, by assembling hard pieces, we gain both the capacity to adapt and evolve, and the capacity to make our lives easier, as long as we get that balance, on the edge of chaos, a little to the Stalinist side, right.

    • Jon- thanks for your response. Love your juxtaposition between the hard places of Stalinist regimes and the over-soft spaces of the Red Queen.

      Your adding of the adjective “too” as in “too hard” and “too soft” immediately breaks open (at least for me) the somewhat static binary of “hard” and “soft”.

      You end your response to my posting with the words: “I reckon that, by assembling hard pieces, we gain both the capacity to adapt and evolve, and the capacity to make our lives easier, as long as we get that balance, on the edge of chaos, a little to the Stalinist side, right”. Reminds me of the saying: “If you are not living on the edge, you’re wasting space”…

      • Absolutely! It’s a continuum with no blacks and whites, at least when you look at it from the distance most of us care about – kind of like photolithography, where we see greys instead of black and white in a printed photo. At a very fine scale, someone has to make the nuts and bolts, program the bits and bytes, etc: a computer is made of nothing but hard parts but is arguably the softest technology ever invented, for instance (I think I’d be hard-pressed to decide whether it is a softer technology than language, though).

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