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…