“In our quest for knowledge, an undertaking as old as the humankind, we have reached the point where we just have to continue through self-organization” is the claim I made at the end of Ode to Self Organization – Part One, and I promised to explain why in Part Two.
A motivation for taking up this topic at this moment is the workshop “Self-Organizing Collective Mind” (Second International Workshop on Knowledge Federation) that Jack Park and I will be coordinating in Dubrovnik, Croatia this October, where a multidisciplinary team of knowledge workers will meet to self-organize and give impetus to self-organization in knowledge work.
Now wanting to fulfill my promise, I am realizing that I have in fact already done that in more than one occasion, for example in my book manuscript Information Must be Designed, and not the least in this blog. Already the ubiquitous bus with candle headlights in this blog’s header provides a succinct explanation: The knowledge work we have inherited from the past is not providing us the vision we need… But many people find such statements and the very idea of self-organization in knowledge work ‘abstract,’ which tends to mean ‘distant from practical reality.’
So I decided to do here something I have not done before – motivate self-organization in knowledge work by telling vignettes (brief real-life stories with a punchline). In what follows I will be simply describing events in my own life and work and looking at what goes on in the world. And I will let you spot analogies, make generalizations and draw conclusions.
This story telling will be in four parts, corresponding to the four main themes of our forthcoming Knowledge Federation workshop: journalism or public informing, academic research, education and new informing media.
1 JOURNALISM / INFORMING
Mostar, a beautiful old city in what is now Bosnia and Hercegovina, where I lived between ages 8 and 18, was virtually destroyed in an ugly civil war that raged between 1992 and 1995. The ideological vacuum that was caused by the decline of communism and dissolution of Tito’s Yugoslavia provided a fertile ground for age-old nationalisms to resurrect and escalate to an armed conflict.
While the newspapers were reporting about the details of local politics where the camps labeled ‘Croats,’ ‘Serbs’ and ‘Bosnians’ were struggling over pieces of land and positions of power, the region was going through changes that would determine the future of its inhabitants for generations: from communism as official ideology to capitalism, from a protected market to an open one, from public ownership of banks, hotels and factories to private one. Within a short time, the wealth of the entire nation will be handed out to private owners. Who will be the new capitalists? In what way will this be decided? And by whom?
I remember vividly a scene from my first visit to Mostar after the war: In the city that was still in ruins, I was walking along a street whose one whole side was a row of brand new, fancy, modern cafes, mostly empty. It was not difficult to see what had happened — since before the war the only sort of private business that was allowed was to own a coffee shop, in most people’s mind being a coffee shop owner meant having lots of money and being a capitalist. So people took loans that were then available from international donors to begin this sort of business.
Already on my second visit I could notice that most of those cafes had closed down. The attention of the international community and of aid providers had already moved to another distressed zone. Mostar would remain without a viable economy.
Those of us who lived in Mostar before the last war remember it as a place where people of different ethnicity lived in exemplary harmony. An experience we can now share to the world is how fragile is the order that we are accustomed to trust!
In times of change, media informing plays a deciding role by directing public attention and interpreting events. In Mostar, the media synergized with politicians to give the public a simple and emotionally charged narrative, the one focused on ethnic strife. But this was obviously not what was needed to empower the people to understand their situation and act constructively.
Since we all are now living in times when the global order might be challenged and may need to change, we must ask: Will our present media informing be capable of directing us towards solutions?
Or will it contribute to a Balkanization of the world?
If you know me as actively engaged in contemporary issues, you might be surprised to hear that I don’t vote and don’t follow the news. When asked to give an opinion about a contemporary theme, I sometimes say that I like to seek solutions in the context of a comprehensive societal and cultural change (or ‘cultural renewal,’ or ‘next renaissance’).
I do not believe that a better world can be created by balancing ‘special interests,’ which is how politics nowadays tends to operate. I do not want to add my own ‘special interests’ to the existing ones, because I believe that all of us will benefit a lot more from policies that are focused on systemic improvement.
I tend to see the contemporary global issues, and the sustainability issue in particular, and indeed a variety of other issues including my personal ones, as symptoms of structural defects in various organs of our social organism, which sap our vitality always, and only sometimes cause identified and named problems (this was the theme of Ode to Self-Organization – Part One).
Pleasant surprises do happen in politics, and Barack Obama is a notable example. The day when I first heard about his campaign I finished my daily work around midnight and began to watch his speeches on YouTube. I went to bed at four o’clock in the morning, feeling profoundly moved – I saw a politician capable of making a difference, and a man with enough integrity to earnestly try.
I was glad that part of my sabbatical in the US coincided with Obama’s first year of presidency. Whenever some of my Californian acquaintances would be critical of him, I would contend that Obama was as competent in his role as we may reasonably hope for. So instead of being critical of him, let us rather consider this as an experiment: If Obama fails to deliver, that might well mean that systemic constraints made his task impossible.
I was intrigued by Obama’s decision to choose healthcare reform as his first large political move. I remember sitting in my car in front of my house in Santa Cruz and continuing to listen to the National Public Radio, first to Obama’s speech, then to a series of commentaries. I learned that the Republicans were opposed to a proposal that was a variant of a one they themselves had proposed earlier. The debate, which focused entirely on details and ignored principles, reminded of the familiar treadmill of contemporary politics.
I thought about Werner Kollath, a medical researcher who already in the 1950s claimed that to reverse the alarming global health and healthcare trends, our very approach to healthcare would need to change.
On the bestseller desk in Tanum bookstore in the center of Oslo one finds a heap of copies of “Anticancer, A New Way of Life,” at the beginning of which the author, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, argues that the present cancer epidemic is predominantly a consequence of our lifestyle, by quoting a series of research results published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The story I want to tell you next is about a medical researcher who saw this problem almost a century ago, when it was still beginning to take shape, and who then spent a half-century long career developing a solution.
Werner Kollath was a progenitor of scientific research in hygiene – which he understood as the science and art of maintaining and developing health.
In his book “Civilization-Induced Diseases and Death Causes,” subtitled “A medical and political problem,” Kollath observed that contemporary medicine developed its paradigm through a successful combat with infectious diseases, and is therefore focused on identifying causes and prescribing remedies. But the diseases that we must now learn to cope with, claimed Kollath, tend to exist ‘in the domain of the non-specific’ – they are consequences of a large number of factors, most of which are environmental and lifestyle-related.
In a biography she wrote about her husband, Elisabeth Kollath summarizes various awards and praises that followed the publication of Werner Kollath’s first book, “Foundations, Method und Aims of Hygiene. An Introduction for Medical Professionals and Natural Scientists, Policy Makers and Technicians” in 1937 and adds: “There were, however, not only recognitions, but also opposition, which was caused by the third part of the book, the one which talked about nutrition. It was then that the food industry became conscious of this man, who was in the position to disturb their order of things. The sugar and chocolate industry came first and demanded with threats the withdrawal of the entire work, or at least to cover the pages by which it felt attacked. Kollath refused, and that was the beginning of the battle against the “Enemy Kollath” which would continue throughout his life. The canned food industry came out somewhat later, and soon also the pharmaceutical industry assumed an antagonistic position.” A variety of strategies were used to discredit Kollath. Elisabeth Kollath writes: “Kollath, to whose upright being every form of plotting is foreign, suffered under such attacks, which – although always changing in form – remained in essence the same.” On October 23, 1961, Kollath wrote in his diary: “The unrest never stops. They attempt to rush me to death and will in the end succeed. […] It is as if the world has gone crazy. My experiments are right, but the interpretations for the people do not get accepted, they are not acknowledged. […] Slowly I prepare myself for a dignified and already belated withdrawal. Pity, I could have done a lot more! I am tired of nonsense.”
It is noteworthy that the sugar and the chocolate industries were the first to attack Kollath. According to Dr. Servan-Schreiber, the number one promoter of cancer in the West is sugar: “We went from eating 5 kilograms of white sugar per person per year in the 1800s, to eating roughly 70 kilograms per person per year in 2000. Now sugar feeds cancer growth directly; cancer cells cannot feed on anything else than raw sugar. In fact to detect cancer in the body, we do a PET scan that measures where does radioactive sugar accumulate in the body.”
Already the above one-paragraph biography of Werner Kollath allows us to reconstruct the genealogy of the disease our healthcare is ailing from. If someone of the stature of Kollath would establish – as a socially recognized fact – that for example white sugar is a health risk, that would put at risk not only the profits of sugar industry, but even its very existence. Hence the executives and lawyers of the sugar industry will oppose such development with all their considerable might. The issue of eliminating sugar as a risk factor, on the other hand, is a ‘special interest’ that does not have a similar backing. While a person who has cancer will be ready to spend a fortune to secure a remedy, few people will be similarly dedicated to the cause of identifying and reducing manifold subtle health risks that contribute to cancer. Add to this the interests of the biochemical and medical industries, and you will have a sufficiently complete picture to look at. If policies are now made by weighing and balancing such special interests against each other, it should not surprise us if the over-all result is a grossly imbalanced healthcare, which emphasizes expensive cures and de-emphasizes – caring for health!
The events in his life made Kollath profoundly aware that this imbalanced healthcare is not only a medical problem, but just as much a political one (in the sense that it has to do with the power of whole industries, which needs to be counter-acted). He envisioned a knowledge-work practice he called ‘political hygiene’ as a pivotal element of a remedial strategy. Elisabeth Kollath writes: “The book Civilization-Induced Diseases and Death Causes was the first joint work with Karl F. Haug Publishing House, which then still under the personal leadership of Karl Haug had its headquarters in Ulm. The book was intended to be the first volume of the Publication Series on Political Hygiene, which Werner Kollath wanted to issue together with the publishing house. It ended with this first volume.”
Today Kollath’s books and biography are available only in antique stores, and only in German. It is no wonder that Obama and his team are apparently not aware of them.
Over the years I developed an uncommon approach to my own health.
The thinking behind it is simple and easy to understand: If even a single vital nutrient such as vitamin B12 or zinc is lacking in my nutrition, then all my tissues and organs will be affected because they are all inter-dependent, and eventually some bothersome symptom will develop. And conversely, if I add a single lacking nutrient or exercise or improve the functioning of a single organ in my body, then all my vital functions will be improved.
While it is generally difficult or impossible to trace the origins of even a simple headache back to its subtle, remote and multiple causes, ways to improve health are abundant and easy to identify.
I therefore focus on gradual improvements of my organism as a whole.
A challenge, as in the case of a lacking nutrient, is to identify those factors that are particularly in imbalance and to take care of those. I turned this challenge into an adventure by treating the search for such factors as a discovery journey, and by including also the psychological ones. By what sort of ‘nutrients’ can I nourish my ability to feel love, respect, dedication or enthusiasm? With time my inner emotional climate profoundly changed.
I found in this a surprisingly effective way of pursuing happiness.
I am convinced that not only health, but also other contemporary issues can be effectively approached in this way.
So what, in a nutshell, is a large defect in our informing? What is ‘a lacking nutrient’ whose inclusion into our ‘information diet’ could bring dramatic improvements?
If while driving a car you get a flat tire, you know immediately what needs to be done.
This simple and natural way of understanding things and handling problems spectacularly breaks down on the much larger scale, where our social organism and its various organs may be perceived. There, as my healthcare example might suggest, we are inclined to ignore the possibility for, metaphorically speaking, ‘changing the flat tire’ (interrupting the business as usual to handle a structural defect). We are more prone to seek solutions in terms of ‘deodorants and gas masks’ (treating unwanted symptoms – burned rubber smells foul).
With time, producing things like deodorants and gas masks and perhaps also self-help books with titles like ‘Drive on three wheels and come out ahead in the competitive world’ become profitable businesses activities contributing to the wealth of the state and employing large numbers of people. As such, they become constraints that every solution must reckon with. From that point on, the possibility of ‘changing the flat tire’ is no longer even considered.
If you have followed this blog, you must surely be aware of the theme that underlies my work – adapting knowledge work to its key roles in our social organism, such as providing vision and showing the way.
In the initial stage of working on this theme I developed Polyscopic Modeling or polyscopy and proposed it as a prototype of good or suitable informing.
In polyscopy an interpretation of a situation that points at suitable action is called gestalt. Notice that gestalt is just a word I am using for common notions ‘understanding one’s situation’ and ‘knowing what needs to be done,’ and that ‘having a correct gestalt ‘ is just another name for ‘being informed.’ I sometimes use a more colloquial term ‘mountain-top view’ instead of gestalt to emphasize that I am talking about a simple yet complete view of a situation that shows the way that must be followed.
Reasons why gestalt creation now requires special attention are well known: We are developing completely new conditions that must be understood and handled; and we are producing so much information that processing the relevant data to form a gestalt may be humanly impossible. Paradoxically, information itself has become an obstacle to being informed!
In polyscopy, gestalt creation is supported through suitable information; polyscopic information is proposed as a prototype or a model of such information. The polyscopic information is depicted by this ideogram, which is an ‘i’ (for ‘information’) inscribed in a triangle. The triangle represents the metaphorical mountain. The ‘i’ is composed as a circle or a dot on top of a square. The square represents careful, many-sided analysis, or ‘looking at all sides.’ The circle represents a simple main point, which is typically a gestalt. The placement of the circle on top of the square, which is necessary to compose an ‘i,’ suggests that information, to be suitable for providing gestalts and informing our choices, needs to provide a simple and clear direction-setting insight, which is founded upon a careful analysis that uses multiple points of view.
Polyscopy undertakes to restore the dignity of abstraction (as a way to simplicity and clarity), and to bring it into all walks of life.
Polyscopy provides specific conventions and techniques that enable the creation and use of polyscopic information.
A question remains, in what way might any such remedial informing be implemented in practice, and become common practice? And what can we do to facilitate such development? Knowledge Federation, and the workshop we will have in Dubrovnik this October, are examples of suitable strategic moves.
“Self-organizing collective mind” – the title of our workshop – suggests our strategy: We will perceive ourselves as parts in the social organism, or better said as elements in a collective mind; and we will begin to self-organize as it might suit that role.
A salient characteristic of our workshop is that our projected main goal is not to produce research articles, but to influence the practice. Members in our federation are not only academic researchers, but also journalists, entrepreneurs and other stake holders. If we succeed to bring knowledge federation into actual practice, then a variety of interests (societal, academic, business…) will be simultaneously served; they will all synergize with one another.
If you know me as a proponent of post-disciplinarity, and if at times I might even seem like an academic rebel, you might find it hard to believe that I am deep down an academic traditionalist – I feel honored to be part of the academic tradition, and I am deeply committed to its values. I might even say that I am an academic fundamentalist, if you will allow me to interpret this as meaning that I am primarily interested in questions that are academically fundamental. While I usually motivate my work by some pragmatic concern such as ‘resolving contemporary issues’ or ‘facilitating cultural renewal,’ I am aware that my motives are just as much fundamental-academic or aesthetic as they are pragmatic.
This bias of mine made me leave environmental system modeling, which was my first job at Rudjer Boskovic Institute in Zagreb. While one could hardly imagine a field that is more practically relevant, I felt that environmental modeling lacked a rigorous foundation on which academically rigorous results could be developed. So I traveled to California and undertook a study of algorithm theory, and for a while earned my bread by proving theorems.
The same inclination also led me away from algorithm theory, in Spring 1995, when I was already at the University of Oslo. I understood, at first vaguely and with time more concretely and in detail, that a truly fundamental result, well beyond anything I had ever dreamed I might attempt, could be possible!
I remember an incident that nicely depicts my state of mind at that time. I had brought an attractive sports car with me from the U.S. to Norway, and since I needed money to fix some things in the house I decided to sell it. So I sold this car to the first person who answered my ad. When an acquaintance heard for how little money the car was sold, he spent a sleepless night lamenting why he didn’t get this deal! I am not usually careless about money, and I surely do not advocate that. But in Spring 1995 I became aware that I was on a track of something so large and exciting that conventional concerns like money felt relatively unimportant. So I did this transaction as quickly as possible, to be able to get back to my work.
I have been living in a similar gestalt ever since!
So what was it that I saw? What was it that made me feel that way?
I will tell you this in a moment. But let me first introduce to you the question to which the idea whose beginning I saw was to be offered as an answer. I will do that by telling two vignettes. The first one will be about the academic developments that revealed the problem. The second one – a controversy well documented in Norwegian media – will add spice and reality touch to the first.
In an old joke a bishop came to a village and the church bell did not ring as it was a custom and a law of the Church. So the bishop asked the local priest:
– Why did the bell not ring?
The priest thought for a moment and answered:
– There are exactly nine reasons why the church bell did not ring, Your Eminence. And the first one is that we do not have a bell.
In a similarly multifarious-pathetic way, a fundamental assumption that still characterizes the popular conception of science, as well as the foundation on which the truth and the worldview in our society tend to be based – that through ‘basic research’ we are discovering the details of the actual universal mechanism, based on which we will eventually be able to understand and explain all phenomena by reasoning out the consequences – has been proven untenable during the 20th century. Already Einstein’s E=mc2 meant that the material the universe is made of is not non-destructible matter but something more subtle and illusive, akin to energy and light; and quantum physics experiments amounted to a disproof of the assumption that the universe is a mechanism. (While I usually quote Werner Heisenberg’s “Physics and Philosophy” to illustrate that point, an even better reference might the “Potsdam Manifesto,” co-authored in 2005 by Hans Petter Dürr, Heisenberg’s student and successor, whose message and subtitle reads: “We must learn to think in a new way.”) (…) Even in philosophy – the great contribution of Wittgenstein was to ‘problematize the language,’ i.e. to show that there is no objectively true point of view, because any reality picture is both made possible and limited by our way of looking, and by the language we use to describe it. And Heidegger argued that even our way of understanding reality is not the main point in knowledge work, but our way of being in it. (…) But let us hear this general message from Einstein – the popular icon of modern science – himself:
Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison.
(Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics)
Historical approaches to knowledge work and to truth, which — without questioning the assumption that ‘truth’ means ‘correspondence with reality,’ and that their purpose is to find and tell ‘the truth’ i.e. find the true description of reality — strove to find, or believed they found a perfect method by which this could be achieved, turned out to be products of illusion:
During philosophy’s childhood it was rather generally believed that it is possible to find everything which can be known by means of mere reflection. (…) Someone, indeed, might even raise the question whether, without something of this illusion, anything really great can be achieved in the realm of philosophical thought—but we do not wish to ask this question.
This more aristocratic illusion concerning the unlimited penetrative power of thought has as its counterpart the more plebeian illusion of naïve realism, according to which things “are” as they are perceived by us through our senses. This illusion dominates the daily life of men and animals; it is also the point of departure in all the sciences, especially of the natural sciences.
(Albert Einstein, Remarks on Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Knowledge)
Did I just say a moment ago that we are still today, in contempt for all that happened during the past century, believing that in the sciences we are discovering the details of the true mechanism of nature? The state of this matter is actually much worse than that: the belief that we have already produced a complete description of this mechanism, which now allows us to determine what is possible in reality by only looking at our model, even without taking a second look at reality, continues to be recognized as ‘the scientific worldview’ and used as foundation for our society’s sanctioned truth! As the following vignette will illustrate.
In 2008/2009 a best-selling book called “Snåsamannen” (The Man from Snåsa) elicited quite a bit of interest, polemics and controversy in Norwegian media. This book is a biography of Joralf Gjerstad, an 84-year old Norwegian from a village called Snåsa. In a series of anecdotes, this book describes Gjerstad’s unusual clairvoyant and healing abilities.
We are now walking in an academic mine field, and we need to step with care. So please notice that I am not claiming or assuming that Gjerstad really does have the abilities reported in this book. As you will see, I do not need that assumption. This vignette will be nothing more than a description of one out of a series of media events that this book led to, as I remember it, having seen its recording a couple of years ago on the Web. Well OK, I will do just a tiny bit more – I will present to you my own interpretation of this event, by focusing on the body language. This will give us some insights into our theme.
At a certain point the Norwegian Health Minister Bjarne Håkon Hanssen came out in the media with the claim that he too can testify of Gjerstad’s abilities, because years ago the man from Snåsa cured his own son! In a TV debate that followed, of which I saw a recording on Internet, first Hanssen appeared before the camera and told his story, to ignite the discussion.
Years ago, Hanssen told his interviewer, when he was a local politician, his baby son was colic and he and his wife were getting desperate after two months of being deprived of sleep. Having heard about Gjerstad who lived in the area, they decided to give him a try. So Hanssen called Gjerstad, and since the latter had keen interest in local politics, they ended up talking about that for a half hour until Hanssen was finally able to mention the problem he had with his son. “I will see what I can do” Gjerstad replied and hung up. Hanssen, having expected an appointment and being disappointed, could hardly report about the event to his wife, when their baby son broke wind, and again, and again, continuously for about fifteen minutes, and then fell asleep and slept the whole night, for the first time in two months. But after a couple of days his condition started to deteriorate again, so after one week the worried father decided to call Gjerstad again. And again Gjerstad said “I’ll see what I can do” and hung up, and again the baby started to break winds. But this time the colic permanently disappeared. “So my wife and I just thought that this was not an accident,” Hanssen concluded and added some reassuring words that this would of course not mean any changes or threats to conventional healthcare and medical research in Norway.
Now about the body language. In what way was Hanssen handling the situation? Was he defensive? Was his reputation, and perhaps even his post as health minister in danger? From the filmed record one could easily judge that Hanssen was in good mood, telling an interesting story and having a good time. Perhaps it helped (as he surely knew, being a professional politician) that polls showed that 75% of Norwegians believed that Gjerstad’s reported abilities were real.
A debate followed, in which six people were sitting three and three on two benches facing each other, representing the pro and the con side of this issue. Hanssen sat on the pro-side bench. The most outspoken on the con side was a colleague of mine, a University of Oslo biology professor. His name I don’t recall, and anyhow he could have been any professor, because in the debate he obviously represented the academic or scientific side; so let us simply call him Biology Professor. In his discussion, Biology Professor disqualified the claims about Gjerstad’s abilities as non-scientific. When asked to comment about the event that Hanssen reported about, related to his baby son, he explained it as a consequence of placebo.
Judging from his body language, Biology Professor was visibly upset; one could tell that for him much was at stake.
We can easily understand Biology Professor’s defiant stance. What was at stake for him (I thought) was at stake also for me – the public esteem for academia, for science, for reason, for careful verification of facts. What if hype and superstition prevail and take a firm hold in our society? Are we regressing to a prescientific worldview?
And yet I did not feel that science was adequately represented in this debate. A Persian proverb says that it is better to have a skilled enemy than an ignorant friend. I thought that Biology Professor was acting in this debate as an ignorant friend of science: He was ignoring the fact that he could no longer simply brush off the other side, because he was lacking both the academic foundation (as we saw in the previous vignette) and the public support for such stance. By taking the simplistic stance ‘we know that this is impossible because science cannot explain it,’ Biology Professor was risking to undermine the respect that science and scientists enjoy; and ultimately to pave the way for exactly the sort of development that (I thought) he was passionately and justifiably trying to preclude.
Neither should we blame Biology Professor for this sort of ignorance. Our present social organization of academic work is its reason, where there is little or no communication about fundamental matters across disciplines, and little or no incentive for such communication. As the things are now, a biology professor has his hands full keeping track of developments in biology, and little chance to follow what is happening in physics. (Fortunately, there are exceptions. One of them was Werner Kollath, whom I already talked about in connection with ‘political hygiene.’ Kollath knew enough contemporary physics to be able to construct his own experimental machinery that was using it. Kollath’s first book, the one about the foundations of hygiene, began with a survey of developments in physics because, as he observed, medical scientists and professionals could no longer afford to ignore them.)
While Joralf Gjerstad was preparing his own biography that has just recently been published (two thousand people came to promotion), this year another seemingly unrelated debate was prominent in Norwegian media. Harald Eia, a comedian with a degree in sociology, in a Norwegian Public Broadcasting Television program called Brainwashing interviewed academic sociologists and confronted them with results in biology and genetics that were contradictory to their claims. A serious message of his show was that there is little or no communication across disciplines. But its unexpected popularity might be attributed to the fact that Eia was actually making fun of us academics!
While I did not follow the details of those two debates, I watched this over-all development as a sort of a suspense story. Is an anti-academic sentiment building up in Norway? And is somebody, on either side of those debates, going to raise what I thought was the real issue that underlay them? A half-century ago a bold thinker like Benjamin Lee Whorf needed only “half an eye” to see that science, in its present form, can no longer fulfill its key role of our society’s guardian of truth and provider of worldview:
It needs but half an eye to see in these latter days that science, the Grand Revelator of modern Western culture, has reached, without having intended to, a frontier. Either it must bury its dead, close its ranks, and go forward into a landscape of increasing strangeness, replete with things shocking to a culture-trammelled understanding, or it must become, in Claude Houghton’s expressive phrase, the plagiarist of its own past.
( Benjamin Lee Whorf: Language, Thought & Reality.)
Are we coming to a point where everyone will be able to see this with two eyes?
What I understood in Spring 1995 was how knowledge work can be developed on a solid and up-to-date foundation, and at the same time become attuned to contemporary needs.
My idea was a straight-forward generalization of an already well-known one. In 1969 Herbert Simon recognized the existence of a new breed of science, which he called ‘the sciences of the artificial,’ of which my own field, computer science, was an example. The sciences of the artificial do not study natural or cultural reality but man-made things, aiming to find ways to make them better. My interest in academic foundations, along the lines pointed at in the above two vignette, helped me realize that all knowledge work can, and that practical informing also has to be considered and developed in the manner of ‘the sciences of the artificial.’
A practical way to implement this possibility is to spell out the rules (base knowledge work on a written convention). I offered Polyscopic Modeling methodology or polyscopy as a prototype of such a convention.
In the collection of ideas that polyscopy weaved into a coherent whole were proposed answers to such basic questions as: ‘What do we really mean when we write or claim something?’ This question is meaningful if we are no longer assuming that we are telling how the things really are in reality. In polyscopy, any claim is, by convention, not a statement about reality, but a way of perceiving and organizing experience and making sense of experience. (By stating this within the methodology, which is a written convention, we avoid saying it as an objective claim about reality, which would contradict that very claim.)
In polyscopy a way of looking is called scope. An author creates a scope and gives it to the readers as part of a procedure for verifying a claim. If by ‘looking through’ the scope a reader can see what is claimed, and if the proposed procedure has not been successfully put into question or ‘falsified,’ then the ‘communication experiment’ is considered successful.
In this way, polyscopy is able to provide scientific-like results (democratically verifiable facts) about in principle any theme or question, independent of disciplinary interests and methods.
This also enables us to give a rigorous meaning and methodological underpinnings to gestalts and other ‘big-picture’ results, and to raise the academic and popular esteem of abstraction and high-level insights to the level that is now reserved for conventional technical science.
There I go again, telling you all these details of my invention, as a car constructor might proudly lift up the hood to show you the details of his new engine. But those details might not interest you, and rightly so. And anyhow, they are not necessary for our main question, about the need for self-organization in knowledge work. All we really need is the story line, namely what happened.
You may now think of all I have told you so far in this Science section as setting up the stage for an experiment: Under the circumstances I described at the beginning of the section, an academic researcher proposes to his academic colleagues a way to resolve both the fundamental and the pragmatic incongruences: “Let us not limit our task of truth and worldview creation to conventional disciplinary pursuits; let us also make what we do, and the way we pursue our work, a subject of conscious attention and choice, and of design.” And he showed what this might mean, by turning his own work and career into an example.
After announcing the basic idea of polyscopy and a sketch of an application (which showed how this approach might be used to combine insights from a variety of world traditions, including scientific disciplines, to support a more balanced understanding of various factors that influence human wellbeing) at Einstein Meets Magritte conference in 1995, I spent about four years developing a coherent system of ideas, before committing any of them to publication.
In 1999 a sociology conference was asking in a call for contributions whether science becomes something larger when visual techniques are added to its repertoire of tools, and inviting researchers from other disciplines to contribute ideas. In my lecture I proposed ideograms as a complementary technique to photography, which was the technique of choice in this community. While photographs allow us to picture what can be seen, I submitted, ideograms can be used for depicting abstract objects, such as a culture and its informing. Combined with other methods from polyscopy, ideograms provide a general method for formulating and justifying (or ‘proving’) high-level claims. I called my talk “Ideograms in Polyscopic Modeling” and offered ideograms as an example visual technique and Polyscopic Modeling as a prototype of an enlarged science, or more precisely of ‘scientific method’ adapted to the purpose of general informing.
It is fair to say that several graduate students in this community really liked my ideas and that we had some good conversations. But the reaction of the community’s elders fell like a cold shower on my enthusiasm: I felt as if I came to somebody’s house for the first time and started rearranging the furniture. The question whether the ‘furniture’ fitted better or worse in this new way was beside the point and was never even mentioned. The point was that I was in their house and rearranging their furniture, and that I had no place doing that. And even this point was never explicitly mentioned, but only made clear in body language. Only a German colleague said in a conversation out in the street, “What is this? A one-man revolution?!”
As an academic fundamentalist, I was surprised to discover that an academic community is not necessarily a social structure optimized for production of interesting or useful ideas. In an extreme case, an academic community may even be something like a medieval state – a domain with its king and its queen, its counts and its pages. Those positions are won by playing according to the rules of the community; they are not relinquished to an outsider who threatens to change the rules.
I found consolation in the fact that this odd dynamics was giving me time to develop my ideas and their applications. In the years that followed I completed the methodology, and also a portfolio of example projects, amounting to a showcase of ‘design approach to academic research and teaching,’ which is now exhibited on my home page.
In 2009 I finished the manuscript of my book, Informing Must be Designed, and several months later flew to the United States for sabbatical. Naturally, in addition to acting as facilitator and emissary for Knowledge Federation and learning about related work, I embarked on this trip looking forward to what I thought of as ‘a good conversation,’ about possibilities that are now latent in academic work.
This conversation never happened.
I found my American colleagues too pressed to produce publications in their own field to even think about why academia is as it is and how it might be different.
I found the colleagues at the more prestigious universities even more pressed to produce.
As I explain below, I consider these to be signs of an extraordinarily large academic opportunity.
My portfolio of projects, showing how contemporary issues may be worked with in an academic setting, was shown on salons, and there it received attention (see my previous blog post). But being obviously outside of the existing division of academic labor, it received no response from academia.
All the answers I got to my book proposals, sent to about a dozen leading academic publishers, were variants of this one:
While the material has much merit and is strongly presented, we have concluded that the project is not a natural fit with the current aims of our publishing program.
So my manuscript cannot be published because it presents a new academic direction?
Such responses can be discouraging, not because they are negative, but because they are automatic. They reinforce this nightmarish feeling I have, that academia has been programmed!
At the core of every culture are values that are not rationally thought through and explicitly stated but aesthetic. We recognize a banker by an immaculate three-piece suit. How do we recognize good science?
A familiar aesthetics now dominates the academia: ‘Good science’ is considered to be a technical result within a specialized area, which uses state-of-the-art technical tools of the field and lots of references.
In other words, ‘good science’ is expected to follow a template and fit into a mold.
Already two centuries ago Goethe observed: “Nowadays there are many scientists who do work that is of excellent quality but irrelevant. It is of excellent quality because it follows excellent-quality examples. It is irrelevant because it is without substance.”
To see that the academic mindset that the above vignettes are illustrating is not a normal and stable state of academic affairs but a swing of a pendulum, likely to be reaching its turning point, let us go back to the time and place where it all began—to antique Athens, and the original Academia.
In Dialogues, Plato tells how Socrates, his teacher, was tried by Athenian Senate for ‘corrupting Athenian youth.’ In Apology, Socrates explains what really happened:
Caepheron [an Athenian man known to the Senate] […] went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether […] any one was wiser than I was, and the Phytian prophetess answered, that there was no man wiser. […] When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? […] I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. […] Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me […] Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked […]. […]
Finally I understood that the oracle […] is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, o men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. […]
There is another thing:– young men of the richer classes, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord; they like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate me, and proceed to examine others; there are plenty of persons, as they quickly discover, who think that they know something, but really know little or nothing; and then those who are examined by them instead of being angry with themselves are angry with me: This confounded Socrates, they say; this villainous misleader of youth!
Socrates was sentenced to drink poison. But his students created the Academia to continue his way of inquiry.
So here we can see, written in Plato’s own words, that the members of the original Academia were not committed to defending a worldview or busy improving their publication record. They were a group inspired by the spirit of not knowing, ready to challenge the foundations of all beliefs, and the legitimacy of all authorities. From this not knowing, as Yang springs from Yin, grew ever more solid knowing, and new forms of knowledge of all kinds.
It is this original academic spirit that we now need to revive.
We may paraphrase Werner Kollath and conclude that science developed its paradigm as an effort to discover the basic mechanisms of nature, in which it has been superbly successful; but to support the sort of knowledge that can help us respond to contemporary contingencies, and to evolve further culturally, an altogether different approach to knowledge work will be needed. A task that Knowledge Federation has taken up is to develop this approach and to implement it in reality.
But how can we do this practically? Will we not be instantly disciplined and converted by existing criteria of academic promotion and funding?
An opportunity that is now before us is to begin a development in the sciences that is similar to what was happening in the arts a century ago.
This analogy is rather accurate and interesting to explore. Think, for example, about the changes in painting: Standards of excellence that were based on mirroring nature by imitating the technique of the Old Masters became obsolete; something quite different began to be recognized as ‘contemporary art.’ After this change happened, to become members of an art academy, artists needed to be creative also in the very way in which they were doing their art. It was no longer the artists’ skill in following an established pattern that distinguished them as artists, but their ability, and even their courage to challenge and recreate those patterns.
Familiar factors enabled this change. Photography was developed, and also psychoanalysis… It felt pointless to try to record accurately what was seen in nature. And it felt liberating to paint what was seen within, and to experiment with the technique, and to discover new ways of doing art. But I believe that the main factor that contributed to this change was a meme and an impulse that the 20th century needed to receive from its artists, and did receive – namely the spirit of departing from traditional forms, and of free invention and creativity.
It is now a similar shift of values, and a similar deconstruction and reconstruction of routines, manners of expression and standards of excellence that this new century requires of us knowledge workers.
There is, however, a difference between contemporary art and what I believe will become contemporary science: Contemporary art was and still predominantly is art for its own sake. The approach to science that we are now called on to create will be science for planetary and human wellbeing.
To reverse the disquieting trends and begin a new era of progress, we knowledge workers must free ourselves from old patterns. We must become truly creative!
Our key challenge is to empower talented young researchers to perceive this opportunity and dare to question the conventional academic superego. It is to that end that my critical remarks in this blog post have been written.
In the last semester of the third grade of high school my grade in mathematics was a C. Our grades were to a large extent determined by our performance on quarterly written tests, and my average grade on four tests was a D. Since my oral performance was somewhat better, my grade was a C, and that was the highest grade I could get. That at the end of the school year I got an A in maths was against the rules, but it did happen. Here is how.
But allow me first to take a moment to tell you about the frustration I was experiencing trying to do those maths problems, with lots of calculations… I was unable to make myself do the drill homeworks that were prescribed as preparation; I was slow on tests; I would get impatient, try to shorten the procedure by doing several steps of calculation in my head, and I would make some silly mistake and get a wrong result.
So here is how I ended up getting an A. One day my father took me to an old professor, whose name was Mirko Kulušić, who used to be my father’s professor in high school, and who later when the local university was established became a university professor, and still later retired, and was spending most of his time with his two grandsons.
Professor Kulušić and I shared seven two-hour meetings. We would sit in his kitchen and do problems from his little Russian problem book, where every problem had one or several ‘catches’ that needed to be figured out to arrive at a solution. I still vividly remember Professor Kulušić one time being close to a solution, and whistling some merry tune through his teeth; and his face lighting up when he finally got it: “Isn’t mathematics wonderful! So much freedom, and still no anarchy!”
After this preparation I took part in high-school maths competition and I won first prizes in all events I participated in – the local, the regional and the republic. On the regional competition, where the problems were especially challenging, I had twice as many points as the second placed.
I am not telling you this to brag; I just find it remarkable that, if not for the competition, my maths grade would have been my lowest grade!
The reason why the original Academia had “Do not enter unless you know geometry” inscribed above its entrance was obviously not that those young Athenian aristocrats had any practical need for geometry. The reason was rather that they needed to undergo a training in structured, rigorous thinking that geometry was able to foster.
For similar reasons Descartes used geometry as template for envisioning science.
The practice of geometry has the power to discipline and at the same time liberate the mind (enable it to successfully explore new domains).
Modernity, however, excelled at replacing subtle yet important goals by some quantifiable parameter, and then faking the real thing by optimizing with respect to that parameter. Mathematics education is not an exception; the central goal of training the mind was replaced by an easily quantifiable one – teaching kids how to solve typical maths problems. Teachers then discovered a way to be more efficient in this job, by having their students memorize procedures for solving specific types of problems. Exams were suitably designed to measure how many such routine problems a student can solve during the exam period (and not how well the student embodies the subtleties of mathematical thinking). Drill homework exercises were developed to prepare students for such exams.
This sort of education can still discipline the mind. But it no longer liberates it!
Only the young people who are most successful at school can later become academic researchers.
So why do I keep getting surprised when our academic culture reminds me of those maths tests and drill homeworks?
One of the online conversations the Knowledge Federation community is now having is about ‘collective creativity.’
This conversation was initiated by Dejan Raković, a quantum physicist who will be reporting in Dubrovnik about the nature and control of creativity, by combining insights from quantum physics with reports about Nikola Tesla’s unordinary creative abilities.
In this conversation I contributed a vignette, which I now also share in the following paragraph.
When in 1982 I traveled from Zagreb, Croatia, to San Diego, CA to continue my education, my intention was to learn how to be a researcher. My Ph.D. advisor, János Komlós, came from the excellent Hungarian school of discrete mathematics of Alfréd Rényi and Paul Erdős. What struck me was that János and his Hungarian colleagues, who rose to fame by solving long-standing open problems in discrete mathematics and algorithm theory, all worked by taking long walks. “What might be an advantage of walking?” I wondered, “You don’t have access to literature, or even a paper and pencil to write formulas!” I began to read about creativity. I observed János and other creative people. I remember watching a documentary where Picasso paints and talks about what goes on in his mind, and realizing that Picasso too worked in a similar way as János. I understood that creativity is a result of a different way of working!
In our conversation Rob Stephenson made us aware of David Rock’s Google talk, where around Minute 7 we are told that “the normal way of thinking that you use to solve problems is an inhibitor to the solution, if the problems are complex. […] In order for an insight to happen, you actually have to stop thinking […]” Rock points at stress as an inhibitor to insight.
We concluded in our conversation that while we were probably talking about distinct points in a large space that we were only beginning to explore, those various modalities of thought that are associated with insight and creativity all seemed to involve a spontaneous and relaxed ways of being, which our education tends to discourage.
At the University of Oslo we developed a university course model called FLEXPLEARN (for ‘flexible exploratory learning’), and implemented it as Information Design course. This course was staged as a design project, where students and instructors co-created the course and the learning resources.
This allowed us to teach the students to co-create, to be sensitive to the needs of the community when choosing what theme they will focus on, and to challenge and re-create the conventional ways of doing things (in this case education).
At this year’s knowledge federation workshop in Dubrovnik I will be reporting about this course as one of the steps in the development of the Knowledge Federation course, where the lectures and other resources will be co-created by experts and students globally, and offered to learners worldwide.
When an author will be responsible for creating and maintaining only a single lecture or even one part of a lecture, in collaboration with media professionals who are also members in the federation, the reductions of effort and the improvements of quality will be substantial. It is in this way that we will be able to create learning environments that will be more alive and engaging than computer games. And that is how the things should be!
4 NEW INFORMING MEDIA
If what I have said so far made you feel that I was painting an overly dark picture of academia to make a point about the need for self-organization, I will have to agree with you. In truth, the beautiful academic spirit still lives. We find excellent minds in academia, as we find sensitive ears in classical music halls, because that is where they congregate.
Every once in a while I have the privilege of enjoying a good ‘academic orchestra’ perform.
A recent opportunity was the seminar “Reclaiming Ecological Wisdom for the Crisis of our Time,” which was organized at Stanford University’s Encina Hall by my Norwegian friends Nina Witoszek and Atle Midttun, on May 24 and 25 of this year.
The following excerpt from the invitation to this seminar will show that also by its theme and spirit this event was a counterexample to my complaints:
Do we need to rediscover wisdom? Modern Western cultures have made a fetish of specialized knowledge at the expense of wisdom. Knowledge can free us from prejudice and trigger scientific progress – but it can also lead to disenchantment and relativization of truth. The combined forces of skepticism and specialization have discredited faith in the universally “valid” insights of sages. The result is a clash between our current distrust of universal values and a sneaking intuition that we urgently need to provide existential meaning, sustenance, and guidance for humanity and the planet in peril. […]
The aim of the workshop will be to answer the question whether it is possible to reclaim wisdom in a world that has fixated on specialized, “silo-ized” knowledge and on cultural differences. […] Is it possible to speak about a wise codex of conduct that a Samoan and a Norwegian—and even a Wall Street banker—would agree about? Can this transcultural wisdom guide a behavioral shift and nurture cultural innovation for designing a sustainable future?
The moment I want to highlight was at the very end. About thirty of us were sitting around a large table. I was looking at the pocket audio-recorder that Atle inconspicuously placed at the table in front of him at the beginning of the seminar, having ensured everyone that the recordings would be only for his personal use. I was thinking about an early version of this blog post, which I was then working on. At that point we were asked to give our final comment – to say what was on our mind at that very moment, in thirty seconds or less. And I was to speak first.
I only had enough time to read this from my blog post draft:
While academic researchers discuss academic questions in academic papers, large changes of the way our culture handles knowledge, and more and more of our way of being in the world, are driven by new information media. Who is making those changes? And in what way? On the cover of the latest issue of Wired it reads in large block letters: “GEEK POWER.” And in smaller script: “From Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg. How hacker culture conquered the world.” How is this new culture different from the old one? “Facebook didn’t start with some grand theory but with a project hacked together in a couple of weeks,” Zuckerberg explains. “Our whole culture is, we want to build something quickly.”
As other participants continued to speak around the table, expressing happiness and gratitude for sharing the golden nuggets of wisdom during the past two days, I began to feel rather awkward. The moment was of course calling for giving thanks; and I was of course feeling thankful. But my federator side just wouldn’t allow me to remain content with what had been accomplished.
I was already dreaming up a cooperation, and a synergy, between our two projects – the Wisdom Seminar and the Knowledge Federation. The goal of the former is to identify or to create good memes; the goal of the latter is to empower and communicate good memes, through suitable social organization of knowledge work and through use of new media. I just couldn’t wait to begin combining those two impulses.
Under the title “Appeal to the Heart” and the ingress “Climate change is real. Evolution is true. And science needs to up its PR game.” Erin Biba writes in the June issue of Wired:
On the first day of last winter’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a panel convened to discuss the growing problem of climate change denial. It went poorly. Rather than brainstorming methods for changing public perception, the speakers wasted three hours trying to find someone to blame. Was it an anti-global-warning campaign by the coal industry? Journalists trying to make their stories appear “balanced”? The Climate-gate emails from the University of East Anglia?
But those are the wrong questions. What the scientists should have been asking was how they could reverse the problem. And the answer isn’t more science; it’s better PR. When celebrities like Tiber Woods or Tom Cruise lose control of their image, they don’t waste time at conferences. They hire an expert.
Mickey Mouse was a heroic character – a small mouse battling with big evil cats. He won against all odds, because he was uncompromisingly righteous.
Early TV cartoons continued in the footprints of older literary and narrative traditions. But it did not take long before the producers of content for the new audio-visual media discovered that an ethical message, or even a proper plot, were not really needed. The children would sit and watch like mesmerized as long as the film showed fast-moving images and emitted threatening sounds.
Also the movies for grownups, as well as other new media genres, evolved in a similar way.
Think of knowledge work as implementing the key social function of producing, preserving, selecting and delivering culturally relevant or beneficial memes; think in particular of academia as our society’s trusted and sponsored custodian of memes; think of communication technology as an enormously powerful meme multiplier (a device producing and spreading multiple copies of a meme).
By ignoring the possibility of implementing its core functions in the new technology, the academia is risking to abandon this powerful medium to actors that are contrary to its purpose and spirit. By failing to see that the medium truly has become (so important that it now decides the de facto existence of) the message, the academia is risking to make itself irrelevant!
This year Knowledge Federation workshop is bringing together scientists, technology experts and media people to co-create an organizational form where all relevant components of meme production, maintenance and delivery will work together in synchrony and synergize with one another.
Knowledge Federation includes the work with new informing media. It includes implementing knowledge federation in new media. We express our results not only in paper form, but also in the medium of technology, and in the medium of social organization of knowledge work. Our aim is to improve not only the knowledge in our community, but just as much the real-life knowledge work (our society’s ‘collective mind’). And not the least, our way of being in the world.