"What our age needs is communicative intellect. For intellect to be communicative, it must be active, practical, engaged. In a culture of the simulacrum, the site of communicative engagement is electronic media. In the mediatrix, praxis precedes theory, which always arrives too late. The communicative intellect forgets the theory of communicative praxis in order to create a practice of communication."
-- Taylor and Saarinen
"For communication to have meaning it must have a life. It must transcend "you and me" and become "us". If I truly communicate, I see in you a life that is not me and partake of it. And you see and partake of me. In a small way we then grow out of our old selves and become something new. To have this kind of sharing I cannot enter into a conversation clutching myself. I must enter it with loose boundaries, I must give myself to the relationship, and be willing to be what grows out of it..."
-- Hugh Prather
"People will speak. They will not speak in order to convince, or to drown the noise of silence. They will speak because it will be easy to do so, and because life will surge from their mouths together with the words. Everything will be filled with life. There will no longer be room for anything dead or unintelligible."
-- Jean-Marie LeClezio
LEARNING AND NETWORKS
This brief essay, addressing concepts of learning within networks, is a follow-up to the introduction of the neoscenes occupation project** that appeared in the last issue of acoustic.space in 1999.
It is encouraging to note a growing awareness within the ECB, BIN, NICE and other cultural networks regarding the critical importance of education. There is much work yet to be done, however. The present focus of attention within cultural organizations seems to be on fund-raising efforts and the associated (often short-term) practical challenges to survival. Of course, these are very important tasks for assembling viable systems, and, to be sure, issues of funding and political presence are critical to the existence of physically localized organizations -- this brief essay is not meant to be a critique of the realities of existence! But at the same time, if cultural networks focus single-mindedly on fiscal and structural issues, there is a real danger that their long-term vitality may be jeopardized.
The open engagement of the local and remote communities in organic and transformative learning, is a key for the long-term viability of a network. The stimulation of positive conditions for personal and collective growth should be a primary concern for network participants. Modernist education models are not at all adequate or even desirable when mapped into the flat social structure of a network. It is, in fact, the rise of global networks that offer us the opportunity to transform the entire contemporary nature of education and its relationship with learning.
Based on anecdotal and first-hand evidence gathered in educational systems across the developed world, it appears that academic education is becoming more and more irrelevant despite its dominant institutional position within local and national social structures. A core factor for this disengagement is the reliance of educational systems on the format (and associated ideology) of the printed book and associated patterns of mediated rote "learning."
Observe a child in his/her natural routine of living, and you will see the operation of a primary process of human learning. Children learn intuitively by observing and imitating actions or acting spontaneously in connection to their immediate environment. They do not learn by being told what to do or by reading what the doing is like. The negative refrain "do as I say, not as I do" guiltily echoes in many a parent's head when confronted by the true reality of the learning process.
This aspect of individual development only highlights the weakness of text-based instruction -- a system that often relies on regurgitation of previously condensed and simplified information as supplied by textbooks. The rise of modern industrial society and the rise of a mass education system follow parallel evolutionary paths that are more or less detached from the day-to-day needs and experiences of the individual. To illustrate the trajectory, one need only consider the field of engineering. As one pillar supporting the agenda of global industrial development, engineering holds as its grail the efficient use of time and materials. The modernist concept of education focuses on a similar goal of efficiency in the use of the knowledge, information, and the student - "learning" to be allotted in measured portions (curricula), not too much, not too little -- so that the student becomes skilled enough to produce within the needs of the production matrix, but not too knowledgeable to become aware of the explicit imbalances of the overall system. Many teachers are conscious of this built-in paradox, but are powerless to implement systemic changes that would be required to "fix" the current state of things. The massive social transformation from an Industrial to Information Society is proceeding in such a way that most educational institutions are not able to re-tool themselves in any but surficial ways (for example, the distance learning fiasco).
What are the solutions? How can education, and the broader concept of learning be redefined and expanded so that it embraces vital cultural and social "do-ing" as a source of energy? How can energized alternatives be implemented? Even taken on a surficial and pragmatic level, this challenge is crucial to face. For example, if we consider the development of an informed population having an empowering level of media literacy, the learning experience must focus on experiences that lie almost wholly outside of the realm of traditional text-based education. This implies the creation of an altogether new paradigm, not a simple methodological shift.
To a skilled and sensitive teacher, this is perhaps an obvious sentiment to be acted upon in the traditional classroom whenever possible. The question is, where are the skilled teachers who understand the implications of the contemporary information society? I think they are to be found among the many active practitioners within our networks! What then are the best strategies for extending the fruits of their wisdom that are collectively represented within cultural networks?
The first step is to establish a healthy network. This is a dynamic, time-consuming, lively, and more or less intuitive process that relies of a multiplicity of sustained dialogues between individual nodes. A strong network made up of local cultural/community initiatives becomes the locus for significant creative activities. As this space or situation becomes vitally active, it automatically becomes the site of learning. It would be wrong, however, to assume that any networked situation is an optimized opportunity for learning. There is always the option to raise the intensity level of collaborative learning through careful facilitation and focusing of attention. This is where our experienced practitioners should enter the scene, at the moment when the opportunities for sharing knowledge arise. This process of dynamic "full disclosure" of personal experience is a powerful flux of energy that initiates and sustains dialogue like no other single act. This energy directly feeds back into the network to keep it healthy.
It is important to acknowledge that there are already significant learning activities happening in network spaces, and this is not a call to codify or otherwise regulate those situations. It is only a call to activate the self-awareness that sharing energies within these complex situations is fundamental to the propagation of wisdom. And in a world where fashions and paradigms change with the electronic winds of media, a little long-term wisdom can do a lot to strengthen and extend the community structures we are seeking to build through these networks.
A particular strength of creative learning situations that operate within distributed networks is that they have the possibility of escaping at least some of the oppressive effects imposed by local hierarchies. Most local controlling hierarchies (for example, an academy administration, or a bureaucratic cultural funding body) have little appreciation or even basic knowledge of the development of networked environments. They may even have an active phobia of any technological implementations, naively directed at the digital object. This fear is justified in the sense that open network platforms have and will continue to contain complex evolutionary sites of social interaction which threaten the status quo. The negative and homophobic expression of these fears appears to be strengthening in many "open societies." It is not a coincidence that traditional models of education rely on fear to accomplish their goals! At the same moment as these negative forces are mobilizing, we have an incredible opportunity to activate local and distributed communities to create situations where real learning evolves. The structures of fear and ignorance across the social landscape can be slowly transformed into enlightened and inspiring community.
I will close this essay with a challenge directed to the cultural networks that are engaged in the struggle to use technology as a creative platform for social, cultural, and individual change: that in the coming months they formulate new ways that they can share the collective knowledge and wisdom they have gained. With a thoughtful open-platform of dialogue and action in this area, the long-term vitality of these networks and their presence as a significant feature of the cultural landscape will be guaranteed.
Thanks to all of you who are so thoughtfully engaged out there on the network, it has been my pleasure to discuss some of these issues with you over the past year!
John Hopkins, Helsinki 30.09.2000
**neoscenes occupation at http://neoscenes.net/nso is creating an autonomous network of culturally active people with a dynamic agenda.
John Hopkins is currently engaged in numerous dialogues concerning culture, education, technology, creativity, and networking via remote presence with many network nodes globally and at the Media Lab of the University of Art and Design Helsinki. For information about the neoscenes occupation project or the neoscenes mailing list, you can email him at