Saturday, 31 March 2012

"Meaning" and the structuring of expectations

When Newman writes about the intellect, the principal category that he draws on to describe what it does is 'meaning'
"The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause."
Here Newman is saying in a more modern way what Aristotle and Aquinas said many hundreds of years earlier. For Aristotle and Aquinas, the intellect is a power of the soul, and comprises an 'active' and 'passive' component. The distinction between the active and passive intellect is a distinction between potentiality and actuality in knowing; that human knowing passes from a state in which it does not think, to one in which it does. The passive intellect apprehends the forms of things we can understand. What "seizes" for Newman, Aquinas might call the passive intellect. But it's potential is the unity of the 'general law', and it is the active intellect which moves towards that potential. What is not clear in Aristotle (although Aquinas and undoubtedly Newman are more clear) is whether this 'active' intellect which moves potential knowledge to active knowledge is in fact God.

The question of what Newman calls 'meaning' and 'investing something with an idea' can now be considered in this process. Meaning can have components of both the passive intellect and the active intellect. The very 'seizing' of something relies on it carrying some meaning that we latch on to, and from there our active intellect drives us to realise the knowledge inherent in it. But the drive for knowledge, the process of realising it, is continually meaningful. And there lies a problem with the active/passive distinction in that it leads us to think we can have one without the other. There always appears to be a force that drives towards understanding (that is active); but with it there is that which apprehends form and recognises potential. But might it be that the active/passive distinction revolves around the principle of 'potentiality' itself, and that one way through this philosophical conundrum is to think about 'anticipation' and 'expectation'?

The recognising of potential suggests some anticipatory capacity within human perception: that what we perceive is somehow situated on a horizon of what we might expect to see. But human perception is highly complex, and whilst we can talk about 'expection' in a linear way (for example, 'expecting sales to be up next month' or 'expecting my daughter to be bored when we go on holiday'), lived experience is a continuous interaction with sensory-physical, social, biologicical and psychological perturbations. Every single tranche of experience may have its own 'anticipation' (do I anticipate the next beat of my heart or my next breath?... maybe if I'm scared...?)

That is where it may be more useful to think about a 'structuring of expectations'... where a multitude of different expectations coexist, interact and continually reorganise themselves and actions, and new perturbations occur. But what is interesting here is that we might be able to get a handle on expectations with our existing knowledge about 'information'.

It seems reasonable that expectations, even when they are subliminal, are probabilistic in some way: some things may be more expected than others; there are clearly moments when we recognise something as inevitable. Given this, a mathematics of expectation might be possible where we can:
a. analyse the structuring of expectations in a particular experience
b. simulate expectation systems given certain parameters.
I will continue this theme in a later post, but for now let us briefly consider the situation of the perception of something which we might find 'meaningful' (although prior to our understanding it). A chemical explosion of Sodium or Potassium on water is rarely not perceived as meaningful. The event is surprising and in so many ways unexpected. Water is not associated with fire (unless of put one out); neither is metallic-looking Sodium.  But when we put them together there is an explosion.

Now, in the context of the chemistry lab, this is done carefully with some planning. And there are expectations there too. The messages are "now we are going to do something special!". But there are also expectations socially, for all the other children in the class, being present at an event where 'now we are going to do something special' is occurring. Rumours will abound (other children may have seen this before). So generally there is a conflict of expectation between what is expected of the water and the metal, what is expected in the situation, what is expected socially, and so on.

Each of these layers of expectation have their own probabilistic natures. But whilst within the class there is a fairly high probability of something special happening (because the class has been prepared for it), there is a low probability when thinking about the water and the metal that it will explode. But then what happens with the actual explosion? The probability of something special in the classroom is realised, but the once incredibly low probability of an explosion with water and metal is also realised and coincides with the class expectation. It is as if there has been a 'transfer' of expectations from one dimension to another. Notwithstanding the force of the explosion, the intellectual effect is powerful. Potentiality is realised ("we can make a bomb!"), the active intellect is in full-swing.

At this point I think all I want to say is that Newman's description of the intellect as 'giving something a meaning' is a process whereby perception causes a restructuring of expectations - or a transfer of expectations, and that with this transfer, the processes of the 'active' intellect are set loose.

In the next post, I will pursue this idea as a way of understanding musical experience.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Meaning, Understanding and Learning

If educational engagements are not meaningful -  for both teachers and learners - then nothing in education really works: meaningless education is an oxymoron. Unfortunately, it is an oxymoron which we somehow succeeded in realising! Meaningfulness can be a precursor to deeper levels of understanding. Things mean something to us before we begin to understand them (think about falling in love). Indeed, it is in finding something meaningful that is often the spur to being driven to a deeper understanding (in the case of love, that can take a lifetime!). So the distinction between meaning and understanding is important to be clear about. The process that leads to understanding we call learning.

In current educational discourse, these terms get conflated. This is partly to do with the fact that in the learning process, information is sought or delivered (by learners or by teachers). Informally, we talk about the meaning of information being explained (by teachers) so that it might be understood (by learners). The problem here is that information is mistaken for meaning: we say, "the meaning is in the content." But only information is in the content. And there is a high probability of the information being meaningless to learners - particularly in the beginning.

Creating something meaningful through the presentation of information is a function of teaching. But for teachers to do this, there are pre-requisites:
  • the information must be meaningful to the teacher (amongst the many idiotic curriculum requirements in schools, this is often a challenge!)
  • teachers' enthusiasm for the meaning of the content is meaningful to the learners
  • Individual learner enthusiasm is available to other learners (facilitated through activity)
  • that the learners' concerns, their perspectives on life and their development are meaningful to the teacher
These are not trivial points, although they would appear to be obvious. But so many examples of educational practice fall foul of these issues. If curricula are dictated by government (or even institutions), there is a risk of meaninglessness in the teacher concerning the content. If students are disinterested in the teacher, nothing will happen. If the teacher is disinterested in their learners at the expense of the content, nothing will happen (for example, castigating them for 'lack of intelligence').

All these problems will result in control problems in the classroom. In university, this usually manifests in a lack of attendance. In school, where attendance is compulsory, disruptive behaviour is the only route available to learners. Both are expressions of the meaninglessness of the situation learners (and often, teachers) find themselves in.

But behind this are some fundamental questions:

  1. Should we achieve meaningful engagement through allowing learners to identify what is meaningful to them? (which would produce some sort of inquiry-based learning)
  2. Should we achieve meaningful engagement through allowing teachers to teach what is meaningful to them?
  3. Should we achieve meaningful engagement through focusing on effective classroom management?
  4. Should we achieve meaningful learning through abolishing the classroom altogether?
The risk of (1) is that what learners see as meaningful to them isn't meaningful to anyone else (including the teacher). Many PhDs suffer from this problem! The risk of (2) is that however passionate the teacher, learners may simply not be interested (and education systems are not flexible enough, or trust teachers enough to allow this to happen). The risk of (3) is that it puts the cart before the horse and imposes control through discipline and punishment rather than realises the natural control inherent in the learning situation. The risk of (4) is the atomisation of the individual, where the conditions for meaningful interactions are eroded away in a sea of individual preoccupations. 

The deep problem of education is that it requires a delicate balance of all approaches. But technology can help. With (1), the web allows for a rich discovery of resources which are of direct interest to the learner. With (2) teachers have powerful resources available to them (particularly now video resources) with which they can convey their enthusiasm in new and compelling ways. But (3) is more difficult, because technology, in not addressing the needs of communities, has been less effective at addressing the needs of coordination and control by teachers (apart from Learning Design - but that was a bit of a mistake). I think the technologies of the real-time web will address some of this. Finally, given this, (4) is a bit of a red-herring  - although atomisation is where much of our current technology has taken us. 

Given technical support for (1), (2) and (3), I think more effective coordination of learning can be achieved - the ultimate goal of which is more meaningful interactions. But, recalling my the earlier categorisation, that is only the beginning of the journey. Because if an engagement is really meaningful then interest takes hold to seek understanding. In that process, once again, technology is a powerful aid. Indeed, after a meaningful educational experience, technology works rather well (those who experience meaning in something are driven and motivated to seek understanding). 

Where we struggle with learning technology (and education in general) is in establishing meaningful interactions in the first place. This is because we have not grasped 'meaning' as a concept distinct from 'understanding', 'information' and 'learning'. In my next posts, this is what I want to explore.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

How can we know the dancer from the dance... (on 'Twirling' to Bach)

A friend commented on a desire to twirl on a swivel chair to the music of Bach. "But Mozart is not the same for twirling!". Having noticed my daughter also having a propensity for twirling on swivel chairs (although not requiring the aid of music), I thought this was an interesting statement.

I think there's something in it. After all, 'spinning' in Bach and Baroque music generally is well-known to musicologists: 'Fortspinnung' is a feature of many arias in Bach cantatas (see Motifs are repeated at different levels of the scale creating a continual driving musical energy (actually, the driving force is usually the rhythm) that unfolds over time in an apparently relentless pursuit of the final cadence.

Having said that, not all Bach is like this.. I'd like to know about the 'twirling' properties of the final "At the Sepulchre" chorus in the St John Passion (Taverner Players – St John Passion BWV 245, Part Two: No.39 Rhut wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine) (this still has some aspects of 'fortspinnung', but a very different mood), or the slow movement of the first violin concerto (Joji Hattori;Scottish Chamber Orchestra – Violin Concerto in A minor BWV 1041: Andante). But Mozart is clearly different in sensibility, and this may explain its difference in 'twirling' property, which in itself may seen to be a manifestation of that driving rhythmic force.

The difference would appear to have something to do with the driving rhythm of the semiquavers in the Bach example (letft) which become replaced with the 'alberti' rhythm of Mozart in the left hand here:
But what else is going on in these two examples? In the rhythmic patterning of the left hand in the Mozart example there is more melodic and harmonic stability. The jump up a 5th requires some sort of 'filling-in' to make it harmonically satisfying. Contrasting this to the Bach, although harmonically there is basically one chord per bar, the harmony is inferred through a scalic movement, each step of which contains a range of possibilities as to how the next step might proceed. In essence, the level of uncertainty note-by-note in Bach is greater than in Mozart. With my cybernetics hat on (very fetching!) I might be tempted to say that Bach has greater entropy, although this would be misleading because although the note-by-note uncertainty might be greater, Mozart uses low-entropy moments (with devices like the alberti bass) where time sometimes appears to be suspended to create structural surprises with thematic and tonal developments over a broader span in his music. It is the difference between a microscopic and a macroscopic perspective, and a question which I ask myself as I write this is "if you were to look at the total entropy patterns across the spans of both Bach and Mozart, how would they compare?"

That's interesting, but not what I want to think about here. Because what matters in this case is the difference in the physical (and presumably emotional) responses to the music. What are the differences in us as we hear the music? And what about the difference in our physical responses to it?

'Twirling' is a sympathetic physical response - like dancing. Yeats knew about this and asked the obvious question:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
I wonder if an answer to this lies in the essence of 'sympathy' and the coordination between music and movement. What seems to occur is a 'coupling' - a self-regulating relationship between music in the environment and the biological system of a human being with a particular disposition and freedom to respond. What occurs physically is psychologically meaningful: in coupling the twirling and the music there is a harmony between psychological expectations of the music and expectations of physical sensations which feeds back to the continuing production of those physical sensations (so twirling continues) as the music continues to produce the conditions that feed it. And 'fortspinnung' may produce these conditions most effectively.

Mozart's music, in having 'low entropy' moments punctuated with 'surprise increases' in disorder (which are then controlled) clearly does not lend itself to a continuous physical movement like 'twirling'. It requires something more nuanced, sensual and responsive where phrasing is mirrored by waves of emotional and physical response which are more like caresses than continuous motion. Hard to do that with a swivel chair! But if one were to move to Mozart in sympathy, the same issues of expectation of the music and expectation of the physical sensation apply. The meaningfulness of a movement to music lies in the alignment of expectations both of physical feedback and musical events.

But finally there is the question as to why we are drawn to different kinds of music at different times and in psychological states. I suspect this has something to do with what we feel we need to do to our bodies at a particular moment in time in response to broader self-regulation within ourselves in response to our environment. In chaotic and stressful times, when there is high entropy in our own minds, a low-entropy physical sensation like swivelling on a chair may provide a necessary corrective (how might that work?). But with space to think and reflect, maybe a need for a more sinuous movement takes hold... (not that my improvisation below falls into either category!)

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Rethinking Public Services

The current economic difficulty started with a crisis in banking and is ending with a crisis in public services as nations grapple with the fallout out of their intervention with the banking crisis. The public services in the form of health, education, welfare, law enforcement, street lighting, public housing, planning, waste management, transport, utilities management and broadcasting are relatively recent in historical terms, and many of them have undergone radical reform, deregulation and privatisation which has blurred the boundary between public and private industry. But despite this, there remain clear distinctions between public service and private industry in terms of accountability (shareholders or voters?), motivation (profit or social good?) and coordination (corporate strategy or community strategy?).

Politicians of the left and right argue about the benefits of central planning vs the free market (and how that dynamic has been changed by the crisis!), but clearly there are benefits and disadvantages on both sides of the equation. Often it depends on who you would prefer to hold you to ransom: banking giants or union barons? (not that there are any of the latter left). Either way, being held to ransom isn't nice, but it now appears that the problem lies with over-powerful global corporations, not just in banking (for which, for the majority of the population equals housing), but IT, telecommunications, utilities management, insurance and media.

The latest candidate for deregulation and possible privatisation (if not of existing institutions, then encouragement of new private ventures) is higher education. But education is a strange one because its benefits are less tangible than keeping warm, seeing where you are going at night or being able to turn on the tap. Yet, we regard it as a civil right.

As has been the pattern with other deregulations and privatisations, a pattern of institutional takeovers and the emergence of global brands in education is probable within the next 10 years or so. This is why I believe 2012 is such an important year in the history of education (and probably not just in the UK). But on the back of that, the strength of global corporations, and their ability to hold individuals to ransom (like the banks, the utility companies, the insurance companies) will only increase and invade the realm of certified academic achievement and individual merit.

I have argued previously that this corporatisation of education, and the exploitation of individual anxiety about future career prospects may be economically necessary in the current climate. Global education organisations will, after all, create employment (although with vastly inferior terms and conditions to the present!). But necessary or not, it is also potentially horrible. It's emergence we can do little about. But its reality should at the very least challenge us to think very deeply about what we really want education to do beyond the shallow aims of the new global education industry who will only really care about their shareholders.

But more than that, I believe the education problem is the opportunity to think more broadly about what 'public service' really means.

Here I can only offer some early thoughts (I may change my mind on this). But I would echo Geoff Mulgan here:

and say that capitalism has been very good at some things (compare Western Europe and the US with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s), and very bad at other things. Why?

I think the people who benefited most from capitalism were people who wanted to become very rich. If you didn't want to become rich then often 'quieter' jobs related to government were the route that you took. Teachers, nurses, social workers, community group leaders and many others fall into this category. The reward for these people (at least the reward that they hoped for) was to do something meaningful in society which benefited others. Often this work involved 'care' in some form or another. It is interesting that it is precisely these people who have borne the brunt of government cuts in the last year or so, and even before that, for many years, workers in public services felt under-valued, always the object of politicians' ire as they sought to show their metal in trying to deliver 'public services' which would (in the end) result in votes.

It would be useful to know what proportion of the population want to become rich. My guess is that it isn't the majority. Most people know that wealth brings misery with its power. But capitalism, the system for rewarding material innovation and exploitation, is the only show in town. And it creates its pathologies which impact on those other fundamental aspects of human experience which directly involve care and communities. Amongst those pathologies is the deep-seated alienation experienced by those who are simply not wired-up for capitalist gain. Even the kick-back from the alienation in the form of crazy ill-thought-through radical pseudo-Marxist revolutionary dreams feeds the dynamic of capitalism (Marx wouldn't have approved of any of that!).

I have argued before that I think the driver behind this mono-culture of capitalist innovation is the atomisation of the individual, and that technology has played an important role in this. The net profits of the giant tech companies who sold us Walkmans, iPods, Personal computers, laptops all the way through to Facebook and Twitter have all depended on complicity in the atomisation process. Nobody has created technology for communities. Only technology for individual users... and worse... the virtualisation of 'communities' which aren't communities! ....

I think we need to understand the relationship between public services and real communities. We need to re-balance the relationship between communities and global services. And we need new technologies to help us which will cut against the atomisation process.

Those technologies, the practices around them and the theories that underpin them are all the products of social innovation. But social innovation is not like the material innovation of Apple or Microsoft. Those who engage in social innovation are not out to get rich. They want to do something meaningful.

The problems of education are an ideal breeding ground for this kind of work, because education is fundamentally about community. Classrooms are communities. Successful innovations in classrooms should translate to the outside world. Technologies of the classroom are the technologies of social innovation.

But most fundamentally, the public services need to be recast. In a world dominated by global corporations, the role of government should be to strengthen communities which have suffered in the alienating march of capitalism and the atomisation of the individual. The best way government can do this is to supplement the rewards of capitalism (which are governed by the market) with new mechanisms for rewarding social innovation. Those must be mechanisms which measure success by looking at the deep impact on the lives of others. Of course, there lies a whole new set of problems: how do you measure deep impact? How do you make a decision as to what sort of innovation to support? Will the voters see the link between supporting innovation and voting for a government?

But these questions are the nub of the issue. One final thought...a crisis in public services is better than a crisis in world peace - but their inter-connection is rather more substantive that governments might imagine.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Fragmented world

Forget global warming

We must heal our fragmented world.  This is a world of disjointed meanings.
We move...
      from the office
          to the art gallery
              to the shopping centre,
                  the car,
                      the mobile phone,
                           Surfing and Tweeting
                               the concert on the radio,
                                   the poetry book. 

But however poetic this may sound, it can only gloss over what is fundamentally broken with a cloud of incense. But we don't need hazy incense - we need clarity.

What does it all MEAN?

What we live through is the sense-data of experience.
                                                                     The information on the screen,
                                                                the advertising billboard,
                                                         the free Metro newspaper,
                                                   the voice on the radio,
                                              the buttons on the phone,
                                         the icons on the screen
                                  and the buzzer on the door.
But each of these carries an imprint of something it must have meant to someone at some time. Each of them register with each of us some kind of meaning. But mostly the meanings don't match. The meaning of my daughter's piano playing and my wife's kiss and my brother's birthday seem at one level, which is different from the meaning of the advertising billboard, the voice on the radio and the icons on the screen. In fact, they conflict. The icons on the screen and the buttons on the phone mean nothing compared my dad's death or the love of my family.

People will say "yes .. but on another level, it's all meaningful". I disagree. I don't think there's a level where it's all meaningful any more. There's a hazy cloud of 'benumbed conceiving' (see where we give up thinking clearly: that to me is why there are so many crack-pot 'spiritual movements' out there. What happened to good old solid theology?!

But that's precisely the question. It's the theology we've lost, and we don't know how to replace it. And with it gone, the scope for a rational coherent existence goes with it.

I like old-fashioned theology. I also like cybernetics. I find the two highly compatible. If I feel slightly less fragmented with my own meaningful existences it is because of both theology and cybernetics. But fundamentally the journey towards healing the fractures is educational. That's because the search for an answer is just another symptom of the meaning problem. It's not the answer that we need. We need to get our processes working better!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Wireless JeeNode working as an activity coordinator

I've been playing with JeeNodes recently, soldering stuff together, getting wireless connections working... and then tying it into the implementation of the real-time web. The idea is to create super-cheap controllers which can be used as interactive voting tools, RFID readers, etc... but all of which can talk to each other and change things that happen on the web.

Here's a (slightly wobbly) video demonstration I gave to a colleague in the cafe in Bolton:

The beauty of this solution is that it will work anywhere with very little setup. The controller application can be 'widgetised' and stuck in an AppStore, which means that it can be instantiated anywhere in any learning context with little difficulty. The only thing that needs to be set up is the teacher's machine (which can just be a laptop which is plugged into the network), or a little bit of extra configuration on the 'Whiteboard machine' would do the trick.

That machine also runs and NodeJS, and bounces messages from the internet (where the controller widget is) and the local machine. That means that the teacher can control the activity of all the learners, enabling and disabling controls, sequencing activities, etc. What I've done here is design a simple sequence of activities which are coordinated by the teacher through clicking the wireless Node device.

Because it's, it pretty much works everywhere, although with varying latency: with Chrome, it uses a WebSocket connection which is pretty much instantaneous. On my mobile phone, there is a latency of no more than about 1 second (usually less).

The JeeNode device is particularly responsive because it talks directly to the local machine (laptop, whiteboard machine) running, and that has a direct WebSocket connection to the internet machine. So things happen very quickly.

The bell sounds are generated by PD, which responds to a UDP signal sent out by the local machine in response to controller signals sent by the Web controller widget.

It's all a bit 'Blue-tac and sticky tape' but it works! The most interesting thing is the reaction of surprise on peoples' faces when they click on buttons on their phones... particularly when they do it together.

What I'm most passionate about is that they don't look at their screens. They look at each other.

Of course, one other thought occurred to me when I was putting my activity sequence together. "I really could do with some sort of XML specification to define how the activities flow into one another.".. hmmmm :-)

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Communities and the Giving of Education

Following on from yesterday's post, and a few others where I have been developing ideas around meaning, I'm thinking more about the economic role of 'disconnected relics' (Bach Passions, Picassos, Beethoven manuscripts, etc), for whilst the inherent meaning of these relics is lost in time, they still play an important function in economic life. I alluded to this yesterday when I said that the risk society can exploit the fractured meanings in our lives by presenting these relics as cyphers of integrity and meaningfulness (for which money is exchanged), but actually they exacerbate the fractured meaning problem (and consequently drive further process of economic behaviour).

If education can be seen to be such a relic, then I think it is obvious how an education industry can function, and moreover can function well, divorced from any demonstrable benefit to skills or cormpetencies (and indeed the 'skills and competency' discourse is itself disconnected). But none of that matters, because economically, this works. My guess is that the world economy will pull itself out of its current crisis when it realises this.

But that's not to say it's a good thing: it's actually quite horrible. Universities will have students over a barrel in the same way that banks do at the moment:
"So Mr. Johnson, I can see looking at your academic records that you have some educational deficit, but a few credits. I have a great offer for you - but you have to agree today - a discount top-up degree course that would clear your deficit and give you a degree certificate in 'Reflective practice in Electronic Engineering'. Yes - yes - it should help you to get a job, although you would have to top up further to get your professional accreditation. But I can offer you that today (and today only) for £5500 per anum for 2 years of study plus administration fees and Accreditation of Prior Learning fees to carry over your existing credit. There is a failure penalty too. I don't think you'll do better than that. Oh.. the professional accreditation...? er.. hang on.. that's another year at £10,000. But you may not need it..."
I don't think that's a million miles from where we're heading. It will work, it will be economically successful because it is a model of risk creation that has already worked well in Banking, Insurance and increasingly Health. I find it very frightening.

The question for us is in the face of this (I think inevitable) development of education is "what do we do?" How do we help students who are going to be the victims of this? How do we ensure the educational equivalents of Bernard Madoff and Fred Goodwin don't simply run off with the students' cash, leaving the students high-and-dry? This is already happening amongst the less scrupulous private education providers right now. And in difficult times, everyone become less scrupulous.

The important thing here is that it is an aspect of the atomisation of the individual, without which the risk society couldn't operate. Collectives and communities share risks, they help people make balanced judgements, and they are powerful enough to set their own timescales and not be bullied or rushed into decisions which are not in their interests.

Our technology is completely geared around atomisation. I want technology for communities (and not 'online coommunities' because they are not communities! - that's a big con of the global tech companies)

There may be a way of putting this together which harnesses the emergence of the global education industry (and other global services) to empower real face-to-face communities. At the heart of it, I believe, lies the principle of 'giving'.

When we give we do something extraordinary to others to the material detriment of ourselves. 'Disconnected relics' often lie at the heart of giving rituals: sacred objects, Picassos, etc. But why not education? But giving education to a community is not the same as giving it to an individual (we have always done that with our children). Education is difficult to give to a group. But maybe an educational 'activity' or 'performance', like any performance, can be given to a community, or at least to a group (an audience). The trick then is to give a performance where the meaningfulness of the gift can be genuinely shared, rather than just available to 'those who know': i.e. the audience becomes a community. I think technologies can do this - particularly physical technologies which can disrupt and invite a community into a meaningful experience.

Why does this matter?

  • I think it matters because we need to think of a way of dealing with where Universities are going (and there's no stopping them, I fear). 
  • It matters because the fundamental problem of education is one of disconnected meanings. 
  • It matters because the only way of dealing with disconnectedness is to deal with the fracturing and atomisation of individual experience, and the only way to do that is to rebuild communities. 
  • It matters because 'giving' lies at the heart of community life
  • It matters because technologies can give us new ways to give less tangible 'disconnected relics' like education in ways that the giving of them to a community can genuinely address the fracturedness of meaning that is the curse of modernity.
  • It matters because conviviality matters above everything else.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Is education a 'disconnected relic'?

I had a strange experience at a concert performance of the St. Matthew Passion last night. Performed by the Thomas Kirche choir (celebrating its 800 year anniversary), it was deeply affecting. But all the more so, not because of the intrinsic beauty of the music, but also I found the experience moving because of what it meant to me. So after three and a half hours, the music closed, tired singers, rapturous applause (too soon) and we made our way back into the world. And there then followed an absurd situation with a car park ticket machine. I managed to lose my ticket between paying for it and reaching the car door. The equisite beauty of the music was lost in my vexatious rage at my predicament!

On reflection (and being slightly calmer) I am wondering about the collision of meaningfulness of the music as compared to the meaningfulness of my anxiety at not being able to leave the car park. I certainly felt more vexed partly because of the contrast between these experiences: I was tired, and experienced a certain unwillingness to re-enter the dirty, messy world again after being seduced and moved so much by the music.

How would church goers in Bach's time have reacted after a liturgical performance of the piece? What was the re-entry into their dirty world like? Might they too have had an unpleasant experience as they stepped out of the church into the smelly and grotesque world around them? I might be wrong, but I think it was different for them because they were immersed in the context that the music itself was the expression of. They understood it in those terms (in the same way that Shostakovitch's Leningrad Symphony was understood by the people of that war-torn city)

Here, I think there is an important difference. For the performance we heard for all its technical mastery (and sheer power of endurance) wasn't liturgical. It was divorced from the world within which it acquired meaning. It is a disconnected relic.

I'm beginning to think that we live amongst so many 'disconnected relics'. In the same way as the St Matthew passion behaves as an object of apparent meaning to us, it sits at odds with everyday life. And the modern human condition of anxiety and risk is somehow related to the disconnectedness of meaning. As human beings we seek to connect meanings: to relate the meaning of our children being born, falling in love, going to work, grieving for relatives, and so on. But in a world of disconnected relics, there are no connections that can be made, because the ground of meaning disappeared long ago, leaving the relic behind.

I think the risk society can exploit this to drive the generation of wealth. Put out disconnected relics like a "special once-in-a-lifetime performance of a Dufay mass" (for example), or a undiscovered Beethoven manuscript, or Leonardo drawings, or a Picasso and the disconnectedness serves to drive the need in already fractured lives which strive towards something that promises some secret balm to the fractures. But it can't.

I believe the path to healing the fractured meaning in our lives lies in our deep love and knowledge of each other. And the risk society needs nothing else than to atomise individuals - with technology, mortgages, semi-detached houses and cars - to keep us away from that knowledge.

But what then of education - that means by which surely meanings might be consolidated? That may have been what education meant at some point in history, in some place. But like the Picasso and the St. Matthew Passion, education may have become a disconnected relic, there only to promise the hope of something which  has long gone. And in the process, drive deeper the fears and anxieties that will keep us paying for it, for our mortgages, and keep us driving our cars.

Maybe this isn't new. I'm reminded of Louis MacNeice's bleak assessment of the British Library Reading Room:
Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge -
Honey and wax, the accumulation of years -
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Musical Climax and Musical Essentialism

The Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan is the most remarkable music. For those first audiences, it must have felt as if music, which had always hinted at orgasm but never fully revealed it, finally revealed what had been veiled for so long. Perhaps the more explicit verbal expression of the subject through Freud was inevitable afterwards.

But it is the nature of the climax itself in Tristan which is interesting me - particularly how it might be interpreted biologically. In my musical studies, I often encountered an anti-essentialist tendency in musical analysis which saw music as a culturally conditioned phenomenon where the mannerisms of high romanticism (for example) were regarded as normative, not ontological. I have always felt ill-at-ease with this position. Sonata form may have been codified and taught in the conservatoires, but that doesn't mean that there isn't something essential about it.

But musical essentialism is a slippery slope. It either leads to a kind of physicalism which privileged physics and denies the power of the human mind and society, or it falls prey to mentalism, which over-emphasises the causality of individual psychological mechanisms in musical affect and appreciation at the expense of obvious physical qualities or indeed, palpable shared experience.

The problem stems from different models of the human being. The psychological model produces a somewhat isolated organism, rather like a computer, obeying the rules of the programming prescribed in their mind, and picking up signals from other individuals programmed on a similar basis (although having specific differences in personality, etc). The 'physical' model on the other hand tends to be a puppet of their environment, with mental mechanisms always subject to the rule of physical nature (harmonic series, etc).

I prefer to think about the 'convivial model': The Convivial human always lives with others in the world. Partly, my reason for thinking this is that the pure psychological model or the pure physical model isn't (actually) thinkable: we do not know a world of no other people. The social world pre-exists us. Consequently, we do not know of a world without our own and other peoples' bodies, or without our own or other peoples' communications. And this leads to the strange paradox of the convivial model - that it is impossible to say where the individual ends and the world begins. Indeed, the very concept of boundaries is tied up in the human-world relationship: to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, the world, its boundaries and distinctions, is as much of my flesh as my little finger.

How does this help in thinking about musical essentialism, or the musical climax? What I believe we can do is to talk in a common-sense way about experience. The remarkable thing of Tristan is that the experience is immediately recognised: we all know about the climax; we know what it means, because it is such a fundamental part of experience. What it means is letting go at the point at which nothing can be held on to any longer.

I think that raises a number of questions:

  • What is in nature that we seek to 'hold on' to things in the first place?
  • What is in nature that we eventually have to let things go?
  • What is in nature that drives us through holding on and letting go?
  • What are the different forms of 'letting go'?
  • What are we holding on to in music that we then let go?

I think this question can be addressed through thinking about the continually shifting relation between ourselves and the world... or rather the shifting organisational relationship within the self-world system. I think this relationship might be expressed as a mechanism of 'attachment'.

I think that identity and meaning are the things which we seek to hold on to.

I think that identity and meaning is established through managing relationships with the world... through managing attachments.

I think that our relationships with the world, and ultimately our identities and effort to establish meaning, are ultimately unstable.

I think that the climax occurs when we can no longer manage our attachments.

I think that at the point at which attachment can no longer be maintained, the only thing the individual system can do to preserve itself is to divest attachments, to give up trying to manage what it can't manage - and this is usually done with some explosive force.

This is when the climax occurs.

But there is one question which remains, and which I will have to deal with in a future post. Because given this struggle, Camus is right when he says at the beginning of the Myth of Sisyphus that:
"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide"

Friday, 2 March 2012

JeeNode, Raspberry Pi, NodeJS and "conduits of meaning"

Something is happening in the world of physical computing. In the last week or two I've been soldering components onto PCBs, uploading software, programming behaviours, etc, etc. That's with JeeNode - a wireless Arduino microcontroller clone which promises very portable and adaptable connected sensors in the environment. JeeNodes are cheap (about £15). But then so is Raspberry Pi - which is a whole computer on tiny board with all the inputs and outputs you need to boot into Linux. You plug it into your telly and stare at the Linux bootloader (I have to say that bit filled me with less enthusiasm). But it has lots of IO capabilities apart from booting into Linux, and it's small enough for someone to put a battery on it, and a cool array of sensors, wireless comms, etc... and then (for a very small price), once again there is something pretty cool. And very cheap.

Why is this stuff important?

My JeeNode experiments have been driven by a desire for devices that 'just work'  within an educational context where people are together and don't want to be bothered browsing to web pages, downloading apps, or anything else in order to do anything that gets online. But it's not just JeeNode that makes things exciting. It's the organisational transformation of web technology which is surrounding it.

We've always been able to do cool stuff. But it has often taken a long time to set up, administrator rights overcome, usernames created, software installed, hair torn out, etc. The AppStore metaphor has removed some of the pain of installing software (admittedly at the expense of openness and flexibility). Wookie and W3C widgets are probably the best open attempt to create an appstore type architecture. That means that stuff can be downloaded and installed easily (and with wookie, embedded in a users learning environment).

But to do control stuff, you need speed of communications. And there, until recently, we've only had AJAX polling. But both the emerging Real Time Web standard and the WebSockets protocol are changing things. And supported by super-fast javascript compilation engines like the V8 in NodeJS, we are increasingly able to harness the real-time speed of the web with physical devices.

All this means is that real-time controllers and sensors can be built in hardware with instant effects on the environment without complex set-up, negotiating protocols, firewalls, administrator rights, etc. That means anyone can do it. Easily.

Interestingly, the things that learners do with each other in the physical space of the classroom has been somewhat overlooked in the e-learning world as we were all seduced by Social Software. The move was to integrate social software with the classroom. I have argued this is a mistake ( The ability to do cool things with devices that do not demand learners are sucked into online worlds in the classroom in preference to looking at each other presents new options for teachers for coordinating new types of learning activity where the technology is in the background.

But because the technology is in the background, something can be transferred from the convivial situation of the classroom to the online space. It is in this way that I think a 'conduit' between the meaningfulness of the classroom activity and the online (and ultimately personal) world may be established.

But more on these experiments later!