Uncertainty as openness to decision

I have being doing a bit of fishing and thinking about uncertainty – specifically in relation to technology use in education. One of the recurrent narratives that one can find is that education is still lagging behind when it comes to what is called “technology integration”. So, essentially, there are so many tools out there, and yet we have not seen change happening.

One the reason is that is often brought out is teachers’ resistance. Basically, teachers tend to resist to change, as they stick to their habits. There are reasons to call this into doubt. My take is that we are simply misrepresenting the actual problem. To cut the long story short, we simply take for granted that the integration of new technologies (mostly, digital) into the educational system is inevitable (it must happen) and that it proceeds in a linear fashion. Conversely, my take is that technology use in education is riddled with uncertainties. And that’s the issue we should address.

But what is exactly uncertainty (of technology use in education)?

We tend to mistake uncertainty for what uncertainty is often accompanied by: fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, ignorance, avoidance, etc.. But uncertainty is none of those “things”. This is important to state, because I have seen that the sort of solution that is often proposed is to simply help people reduce their uncertainty. That’s a mistake.

Von Mises in his Human Action makes a fundamental step towards defining uncertainty by connecting it to acting. In Chapter VI he writes:

The uncertainty of the future is already implied in the very notion of action. That man acts and that the future is uncertain are by no means two independent matters. They are only two different modes of establishing one thing.

Then he adds:

If man knew the future, he would not have to choose and would not act. He would be like an automaton.

We may say that what von Mises is pointing at is that, ontological speaking, uncertainty means that things are not yet settled. They are not already determined, fixed, set in stone already. In other words, uncertainty pretty much overlaps with the idea of indeterminateness. As Von Mises argued, if things were settled already, we would not need to act. We would be just like automata.

Interestingly, this is very close to what Sartre writes in his Existentialism is a humanism:

To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen.

What does that mean? In a way we may say that we ourselves are called to settle things by deciding, choosing and acting – all these are in the end synonyms. In other words, we resolve uncertainty by acting and deciding. The reason why we experience anxiety, fear, dread, anguish, avoidance, lack of confidence is that decision is essentially groundless. We make decision and we bring things into being.

That things are or can be uncertain essentially means that they are not set in stone once and for all. They are changeable, because there is no user guide to rely upon. Indeed, from time to time things are somehow settled. Negotiations, agreements, and expectations slowly appear in the horizon. There are things that become certain. However, that is the case but only temporarily. As time goes by, new happenings inevitably come to disrupt the precarious equilibrium of our own habits, which derive from decisions that we had made in the past and that we keep “endorsing”. Stafford Beer refers to the notion of relaxation time to describe the amount of time that is necessary before we reach stability once again. During such periods, uncertainty kicks in.

I should probably now provide an account of why technological change seems to be so related to instability and uncertainty. Again, the short answer is that the field of technology is where we basically mess around with the world, as it is rooted in making as well as affecting what we can do. So, multiple ways of relating to the world are continuously created. This is where I see the connection with variety, which I have tried to clarify in a previous post. Uncertainty is there because, to put it simply, the variety of the system in which we live is always greater than the variety we can handle.

We are certainly living in a time in which the pace of technological change – how much we mess around with the world – is frantic. This does not lead, though, to progress, as some think. It makes things more unstable. That is, more uncertain. We actually see that it’s not settled that using digital technologies in the classroom improves learning or teaching. New toys and gadgets keep coming. Research cannot keep up with such a frantic pace and often researchers themselves prefer to play the game following hypes and fads. Teachers may adopt new tools, but they often end up using them to do the same very things they were used to. Students may carry a smartphone in their pocket all the time, but that does not mean that they actually know what to use it for when it comes to their learning – especially, when learning-to-the-test and performing well in standardized tests is the only game in town.

If this is a correct diagnosis of the present situation, it follows that technology use in education is (and will increasingly be) more and more uncertain. In other words, there are more and more issues that cannot be treated as black&white kind of issues. In other words, more and more issues are essentially open. Open to decision. That’s what we should acknowledge.

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Uncertainty, casualisation and the institutional level of handling uncertainty

Maximilian Fochler and Lisa Sigl in an article entitled Anticipatory Uncertainty: How Academic and Industry Researchers in the Life Sciences Experience and Manage the Uncertainties of the Research Process Differently  published in Science as Culture introduced the notion of anticipatory uncertainty, which they define as follows:

We define anticipatory uncertainty as the state of being uncertain of whether research processes will be productive in a specific timeframe and of how a specific institutional context defines performance and the quality of research work.

Anticipatory uncertainty thus refers to the epistemic processes in which knowledge is produced and to the anticipated productivity in a specific context of research organization. Rather than being concerned with uncertainties of the knowledge itself (Hollin, 2017; Knorr-Cetina, 1999; Star, 1985), it captures the entanglement of epistemic uncertainties and social uncertainties related to funding and careers.

I have found the notion particularly interesting, as it points at a fundamental ambiguity characterizing the notion of uncertainty. Besides, it also shows that studying uncertainty requires cutting across different domains. We cannot address epistemic uncertainty without addressing social uncertainty.

Having said that, the idea that I had started entertaining, as I was reading the paper, is that we should make a crucial distinction between uncertainty and casualisation. I am saying this, because anticipatory uncertainty seems to be more related to casualisation than uncertainty itself. More specifically, casualisation can be viewed as a direct consequence of a class of people establishing power over others as a strategy to suppress (their own) uncertainty.

Now, what is fundamental to stress is that it’s the type of institution within which we operate that is conducive to such a strategy (and related ones). Which is one way in which “uncertainty is distributed”, as Engelbert Stockhammer  put it. So, institutional arrangements (like the ones described by Maximilian Fochler and Lisa Sigl ) become conducive to societal ills, which are now viewed as a product of the mishandling of social uncertainty.




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Requisite variety and the handling of uncertainty as an invitation to dance with the world

As I wrote in my previous post, I am currently working on designing a series of interventions that should support learners in developing openness. For quite some time I have done a bit of thinking in order to understand how to approach this task, which in the end is eminently practical.

One big issue that I have encountered is that we have ambiguous feelings towards uncertainty. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we hate it. So, I started thinking, if there is, say, “bad” uncertainty, which is clearly distinct from “good” uncertainty. For example, I would like to have a stable job. In that department of my life I prefer certainty. But in other departments, I’d prefer uncertainty. For example, I can hardly submit myself to situations in which everything is already decided. No freedom, no room for exploration. So, what’s the deal?

As I started reflecting on uncertainty, I came up, though, with a different perspective. Or, better, I started entertaining the idea that perhaps the problem lies in the fact that we simply lack the proper “tools” to face uncertainty. And that causes us to withdraw or refrain from facing uncertainty. In other words, we may see uncertainty as something “bad”, simply because we lack the possibility to leverage on it. (Interestingly, Taleb stressed that it’s the way in which we are exposed to uncertainty that can be said to be good or bad.)

The example I came up with in my previous post is the following: imagine that you are told to write down your thoughts regarding the film that you watched yesterday. But then you are told that you cannot delete anything that you have written down. So, everything will stay. You cannot delete words, you cannot rearrange paragraphs, you cannot edit your text, etc.. Now, imagine that this is part of an assignment. So, your text will be actually assessed by somebody else. Starting to feel anxious?

Imagine now that you are told that this is all a prank. You can actually edit your text and take the time you need to do so. Imagine also that you are told that you are not going to be assessed. Most likely, the pressure you have previously experience will simply go off. What a relief! Now you can focus on sharing thoughts and impressions about the film.

What I want to point out with this example is that the way we react to uncertainty might be related, as I noted before, to the “tools” that we have to handle it. I use the word “tools” in a loosely sense. This, though, is not enough. It’s not enough to say that we need proper tools to deal with uncertainty. We need to characterize them.

One way to do that is to turn to the cybernetic concept of variety. Variety can de defined in relation to the number of possible states of a system. When we look at this definition heuristically, we may say that variety has to deal with, say, the number of possibilities that we may need to entertain before we can make up our mind. Typically, when we write a text, we have to deal with a series of decisions: which words to use, how to organize the text, the kind of plot we would like to present, etc.. If you are not a native speaker, that also means that you have to face the uncertainty related to possible language mistakes. Should I use “on” or “of” here? I am not sure. These sorts of things.

Now, lucky us, when we compose a text, we can actually edit the text, as we write it. And it’s not just about the words to use. Interestingly enough, writing helps us clarify our thoughts. So, as we write, our thoughts get materialized externally. Once we have them literally before our eyes, we may have the chance to further them and /or amend them.

The important to point to make now is this:  we are in the position to decide over the different options and then leverage on uncertainty, precisely because we have a “tool” that allows us – and this is the crucial insight – to entertain the different possibilities that are cropping up. In other words, we don’t need to pick up the first words that come to our mind. And we just don’t need to transfer our thoughts onto paper without any roundabout or turnaround.

We may say that the sort of “approach” or “system” that we are using has, to go back to cybernetics, requisite variety. What does that mean? That means that the “system” or “approach” we are deploying allows us to contemplate or entertain the possibilities that are cropping up before our eyes. Incidentally, the number of possibilities become a “measure” of the complexity of the activity we are involved in. The more complex an activity is, the more possibilities we may need to contemplate before we make up our mind. Requisite variety is predicated on the “approach” or “system” that we use to handle uncertainty.  Also, requisite variety characterizes a “system” that is basically able to match the amount of variety of the situation we are in. In other words, the system we are using allows us to absorb variety. In plain English that means that we can face uncertainty.

Another term that we can use in relation to facing uncertainty is amplification. The tool that we are using to absorb variety amplifies our ability to face uncertainty. Interestingly, we can also turn the whole thing upside down by saying that, if we make use of tools that amplify our ability to absorb variety, then we will be able to leverage uncertainty* (this deals with research and science. I will come back to this point in the future). And this leads us to the last point.

Implicitly, what I have been arguing all along this post is that we withdraw from uncertainty – we don’t want to face it – when we basically lack the proper “tools” to contemplate the different possibilities that are cropping up. And that is responsible for the  uneasiness we feel in those circumstances. That is, we lack tools that would amplify our ability to absorb the variety generated by having different options.

Now, what can we say about our thirst for uncertainty? Why is it that uncertainty is good? Or, better, why is it better to face uncertainty?

One way to put it is that uncertainty exposes us to the world. Or, better, uncertainty can be compared to an invitation to dance with the world. It implies, in other words, entering in a dialogue with something that is larger than us and that therefore can bring us to another level of existence.

*I screenrecorded the whole process of composing this blogpost. The whole video was more than 1 hour long. So, I had to shorten it by speeding it up.



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Uncertainty and variety: And how to intervene to support openness

I am currently working on the design of a number of interventions that should (in theory) help learners face uncertainty and develop openness. Specifically, the interventions are meant to help two categories of learners, namely, high school students and adult learners, which basically include anybody.

One crucial insight that I am trying to operationalize is that there is some kind of isomorphism between uncertainty and variety. In other words, they map onto each other. Let’s make an example.

Now I am writing this text. But the text that you are reading now is not the same as the one that I have been actually writing. The text that you are reading is basically the final outcome of a process, in which I sorted out a number of things. Essentially, I made a number of decisions concerning how to express my thoughts in written language. Such decisions were not obvious. I had to make up my mind. Besides, this remained all hidden to you. Here is a snapshot of that process captured by a screen recording application (I have speeded it up):


While there are good reasons to spare the reader from showing the whole process , deleting words or even an entire paragraph, rearranging the text or editing part of it, etc. are all fundamental tools for the writer to handle the uncertainties concerning what to write and how to write it.

Now, why is it that the uncertainties are resolved (or potentially so)?

This is where variety comes into place. The idea is that, when we start writing, we are facing a number of options. We have the thoughts that we want to express. We have different ways to express them in written form. And we also have the recombinatorial effect due to the fact that, when some thoughts get captured in written form, they may generate new thoughts, which, in turn, should be captured in written form. And so on and on. The process can go on endlessly. A lot of variety!

As variety goes up, uncertainty increases. Should I go for this or that? Should I choose this or that?

One crucial insight coming from Cybernetics, chiefly, from W. Ross Ashby, is that variety can be either repressed (attenuated) or absorbed. If we repress it, we are losing something, which might be relevant or useful. If we don’t repress it, we need to absorb it somehow. The same happens with uncertainty. To simplify, if we are not sure whether we should do this or that, we either repress uncertainty ignoring that there are two options. Or we face it. In the first case we are not really dealing with uncertainty. We are just sweeping it under the carpet. It will come back soon. Conversely, facing uncertainty implies that we have some sort of “device” or “method” that allows us to absorb the different options and then resolve our uncertainties.

If we go back to the example, the fact that I can delete words, edit the text, rearrange paragraphs, and so on and on, allows me to face uncertainty. Which means we mop up uncertainty. We have some sort of “device” that eventually allows us to absorb the variety of choices we are facing.  I try this, then I try that, etc. I tinker with this and tinker with that. In the end a conversation. We compare what is written over there and what we would like to express. Subsequently, by sensing differences and similarities and then operating on them we get to the final text, that is, when we have made up our mind. At least temporarily. (No text is really finished).

So, if uncertainty is isomorphic to variety, intervening to help learners deal with their uncertainties means that the intervention should provide some kind of tools that would then amplify learners’ ability to absorb variety.



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Affordance and why the use of tools is rooted in perception

During the last week I had the chance to discuss a few interesting issues with my colleague Wilson Otchie, who is doing his PhD with my other colleague Margus Pedaste here at the University of Tartu. The topic is use of social media in high school.

The conversations revolved around technology use and the notion of affordance, and they helped me clarify a few important issues and brought me back to one big passion of mine, which is the notion of affordance and ecological psychology. Affordance is a very delicate issue. So delicate that I’ve often felt that I just have to give up on any attempt to employ it in my research.

The notion of affordance is a neologism that was introduced by James Gibson. And originally it was meant to stress the mutuality between an organism – any organism – and its environment. it is, in other words, an ecological perspective on the way in which cognition works. To me the notion of affordance is of great help in understanding how we form partnerships with our tools. Let me try to develop this.

Essentially, any activity that we undertake is always mediated by the use of something that is over there in our environment. In educational technology we focus on teaching and learning. So, the tools are used in that kind of context. Now, when we use a tool either for teaching or learning something, we enter in a relationship with that tool so that it becomes something fully integrated into what I am doing or trying to do. Polanyi calls this process “transposition of meaning“. This is fundamental, because, once we have started using a tool, the tool itself contributes to the process of meaning making as much as our knowledge, experience and, most of all, intentions. And it does that tacitly. Which also means that it becomes part of our tacit knowledge. It’s a little bit like lighting up a lamp. We don’t see the lamp. We see what the lamp allows us to see. So, once we have started using a piece of technology, we become blind to it. Precisely like with the lamp. I repeat it once again: we don’t see the lamp. We see what the lamp enlights

Now, because of this tacit dimension, we can’t just check how the tool works hoping to get some kind of insight. If we tried to do that, we would just see how we should operate it, which is something that should not be mistaken for its use (see my previous post and video on this). The only thing to do is to investigate how the partnership is formed. That is, how we enter in a relationship with our tool. That’s the fundamental step to take. At least theoretically.

Affordance helps us here. When we are using a tool (and not merely operating it), depending on our intentions, knowledge, experience, as well as the situation we are in, some affordances pop out. The process whereby we detect affordances is rooted into perception. We see them. We have, in other words, direct access. Here affordances are enablers. They enable us to realize certain values rather than other in the very situation we are in. It is worth noting, though that affordances are not to be mistaken for functionalities or properties of the tool we are using. That belongs to the operational level. Affordances are action-possibilities that emerge, when, to stick to Polanyi’s terminology, the transposition of meaning takes place. In the analogy with the lamp, affordances emerge when the light is turned on – when the partnership with the tool has formed. When we have started using it as an extension of our body, Polanyi would add.

I think that clarifying all this is important to avoid some sort of naive conceptions of the relationship with our tools. First, that our tools are merely instruments that externally interact with ourselves. No, they interact internally and consequently shaping our actions from the inside. Secondly, that the meaningful use of tools is something that we primarily tell or declare and that therefore can be found, say, in theory. No, meaningful use is rooted in our perception. It is something that we accomplish through doing.




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A few terminological issues concerning educational technology

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Technology education, educational technology and the education system

In the second part of August I have been involved in two major events here at the University of Tartu. One was the on-site session of our Master’s programme in Educational Technology – two weeks of intense study with our new master students. And the other was our summer school on “Educational change in times of rapid technological innovation”. Eventually, there were roughly 40 people involved – teaching staff members included, and some 20 countries represented. These were two weeks where we had the chance to converse about education and technology, and try out a few gadgets in a rather convivial way. I will write more extensively about these 15 days. As for now I’d just like to point out a few bunch of ideas that came to my mind during this period.

It seems to me that, when we are dealing with the issue of technology in education, there are at least four levels of analysis that we should take into consideration. I list them here:

  • understanding how different technologies work;
  • operating them;
  • using them;
  • the role of institutional arrangements as another type of tool.

The first level covers everything that concerns what we may call “technology education”. This level contains, in other words, all “how” questions related to the very technologies we are using – our tools. Questions such as “how does a computer work?” or “how fiber optic cables transport information?”, etc.. , go into this category.

The second level of analysis pertains to how we operate our tools. The main difference is that operating a tool already involves interaction. So, at the very basic level, operating a tool means essentially being able to turn on and off a device. But it may also mean that we are familiar with the features of an application. For example, being able to use a webcam during a video call. Or record a video call and save it to one’s computer.

Operating a tool tells us how we should interact with a tool, but it does not tell us how we should use it. I believe that the distinction between using something and operating something is fundamental here. And the reason is that using a device is something more than merely operating it. So, I may be able to know how to post an article to facebook, but I may not know how to use a facebook post in one of my sociology classes where I talk about Max Weber. What is then the difference between operating something and using it? The short answer is that the difference lies in the fact that the use of something is always given in a certain context. Our tools don’t fall from above, but they are already involved in a dense network of meanings – culture, in other words. For example, when the television came about, it seemed to be natural to record a teacher speaking and send the recording to those schools that could not always have a teacher coming over because of their location (see the case of Samoa Islands).  More in general, what usually happens is that a piece of technology does not change the way we practice something (e.g. teaching or learning). It is simply recruited to do the same very things that people are used to. We saw this phenomenon in more recent times with Moocs.

So, at a general level of abstraction, we may say that using a tool always happens in a specific context. In other words, it is situated. Therefore, we cannot talk about the use of a tool in abstraction, that is, without making an explicit reference to the context of a practice (what a practice is, I’d leave it to another post). So, for example, the so-called “features” of an application are something that we operate, but their actual meaning only becomes clear in their actual use. Yes, Facebook allows me to post an article or a learning material. But what is the actual meaning of posting an article in the very context of my practice as a teacher? That’s the sort of question that educational technology should care about.

I am now coming to the last point. If we understand that the use of a tool always happens in a specific context, then we should also turn our attention to another type of tool – a tool sui generis – which are our institutional arrangements – the education system, in short. That’s also part of educational technology. How can we talk about innovation in education without discussing merit and demerit of the broader institutional system with all its components (the curriculum, etc.). This is also part of the context I am talking about. Very often the main barrier to innovation in education is..the education system itself, how it is structured, the very goals that we have set, etc… So, what we see is that it might be the case that technology simply allows us to do more efficiently what should not do in the first place.


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Puzzlement, understanding, conversations and (re-)contextualizing

What has become clearer and clear is the idea that understanding is an activity in which we do one thing: (re-)contextualizing. In other words, understanding means putting something into context. And that is essentially conversational. We need to be in dialogue with something or somebody.

During a talk about educational data (I talked about here), I showed this image asking what it was:

Screenshot (119).png

Indeed, people recognized that there was a carpet (on the left). And there was a footprint of a shoe. But in general they were just puzzled.

Next, I showed this picture asking again the same question:

Screenshot (120).png

This time the people in audience were able to understand that the first picture was a picture of a gym. And that the blue thingy next to the carpet was a mattress. And yet they were still puzzled. What did I want to know from them?

After that I showed a third picture with a small animation, in which the image of a guy was popping out:

Screenshot (121).png

Only then, things started getting a bit clearer. There is a gym. On the floor there are mattresses, which people, when passing by, are not supposed to step on. They should walk along this narrow black carpet. Bingo!

One way of describing this sort of experiment of mine is this: essentially, my audience was puzzled, because they were not able to contextualize the information provided in the first picture. Or, to be more precise:  they were not able to select an interpretative frame in the light of which to describe the first picture. 

What I did afterwards was essentially to cue them. To cue means essentially to suggest or hint at something. But what is that I suggested? And how did that happen?

One way to put it is to say that I was hinting at the interpretative frame, which would allow them to contextualize the picture. It is important to stress that I was, as I said, hinting, alluding, suggesting. In other words, I was not telling them directly “use this frame”. That would have been giving them the answer. What I was doing was to progressively giving off some pieces of information – clues, which I assumed they would be able to account for by using the right frame. I was in other words helping them put the picture into context. At least, a possible context. Or, to put it another way (pun intended), I was enabling them to select/identify an interpretative frame. It is important to stress this, because very often we tend to think that problems are solved by simply adding “data” or “information”, when in fact data is useless, if we are not able to connect it to an interpretative frame. Such connection is vital.

As I mentioned before, the idea is that the identification, selection or even the creation of an interpretative frame is the product of a conversational situation. That is, a situation in which one is in dialogue with something or somebody else. In the example presented above, what I was doing was precisely to engage my audience in a conversation. In the conversation, it is worth noting, the two partners (my audience and myself) are essentially exchanging something that gets modified every time that it goes from one end to the other. So, I asked a question, I got back a few answers, which then triggered a response from my side, which, in turn, triggered a reaction from the other side, and so on and on.  In doing so we were building on each other’s response. This can be described precisely as an activity in which contextualization and re-contextualization naturally occur.

I said that I was cuing the audience of my talk. But they also were cuing me. Meaning that the responses that they were giving me were clues as to what they had understood so far. I wanted to walk them to a particular place. And I needed to know where they were at every passage – are you following me?. 

Admittedly, the whole thing was not open-ended. I wanted the example to have a specific meaning. It had to serve a certain purpose. Yet, the whole conversation – like any other conversation – was characterized by a certain degree of uncertainty, which is constitutive of this contextualizing and re-contextualizing I have just mentioned. While I knew what I wanted them to get to, I could only guess from the clues they gave off whether they were following me or not. As I said before, I could only assume what kind of clues would work. The guessing is a product of contextualization. The uncertainty here is vital, because when contextualizing I am going beyond what I know. In other words, it’s generative and therefore it can be otherwise.

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Conversations, distributing cognition, tinkering and convivial learning

I’d like to spend a few more words on a couple of passages that one can find in David Bohm’s book On Dialogue.  At the very beginning of the book he clarifies the nature of the matter. In a dialogue,

when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical.

Then, he concludes,

when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood.

Seeing this “difference” is key to conversation. It is precisely what allows us to move forward.

This point is clarified, when Bohm extends the idea of conversing to inanimate objects. In doing so he asks a simple question about the work of artists.

Can it properly be said that the artist is expressing himself, i.e., literally “pushing
outward” something that is already formed inside of him?

To Bohm it cannot be the case that the artist simply implements an idea that is already formed inside of him. And he explains why.

what usually happens is that the first thing the artist does is only similar in certain ways to what he may have in mind. As in a conversation between two people, he sees the similarity and the difference, and from this perception something further emerges in his next action.

Bohm stresses that, as the artist pushes something outward, something else comes about outside of him, which then gets back to him in a different form. The crucial insight that Bohm provides is that the artist perceives a difference between what is yet to be articulated inside of him and what has been already taking shape outside of him, which offers now some kind of scaffolding structure. Interestingly, such scaffolding structure is temporary. It will last until the next move, which, in turn, will pull it down to erect a new one. And so on and on.

A wonderful example is provided by this video documenting the making of One vision, one the greatest hits of a certain band called Queen.


In this segment we have a perfect representation of what conversing means:

One says something, the other objects, which forces the other to put forward an alternative. In some other cases, they finish each other’s line.

This back and forth has something in common with tinkering, which can be described precisely as perceiving the differences that in subsequent iterations become generative of something new (a song or a lyric).  It is capable of generating something new, precisely because we tinker with the perceived difference(s) – something that kind of stands out, that even may confuse or irritate us. As I explained in this blog, there is always a chance element, which is nothing but this something that gets back to us over which we literally have no control, that may may even surprise us. If we had it, we would not need to act. We would simply be content with what we have.

The example that Bohm makes is about the kind of work done by artists. But essentially this is a universal feature that holds water for any kind of medium that we are using, any kind of “tool”, be it pen&paper, technologies (including AI) and even language itself, etc. As soon as we start using a tool – any kind of tool, this very dynamic is potentially there. Incidentally, this means that the very act of distributing cognition is a conversational one, because what is established is precisely a conversation between us and the tool(s), which only then acquires a meaning. The conversing and the distributing are coupled together.

This that I am describing has very important consequences for learning (and education). Learning shares something crucial with the case that Bohm describes. To develop understanding – be that on nature, our machines, languages, society, culture or the human being, the learner is precisely like the artist who pushes outwards something in the hope that something will happen as a result – in the case of learning, I believe, it’s understanding. What is crucial then – what enables learning – is that the learner senses or perceives differences and similarities between what is out there and what is growing, say, “within himself” this understanding. That can only happen, when the learner participates in a conversational situation, which can involve a teacher, peers, teacher and peers, or/and all the above plus the tools. Sometimes the conversation can actually take place between the learner and a tool,which may come in the form of a book, a blog post, a search on the net, a discussion on social media, a podcast, etc.. The list is potentially as endless as our ability to establish conversational situations out of our will to learn. Indeed, in conversational situations the teacher may be at the same time the partner in a conversation. Or the person who actually helps the learner sense or perceive differences in the exchange. I would qualify that as a pedagogical act.

It is worth stressing that, if differences cannot be perceived and therefore used as a springboard for furthering the back-and-forth that I described above, then learning becomes some kind of indoctrination (for lack of a better term). This does not mean, though, that conversing implies giving up on what one thinks. This misconception has pressed us to think that, lecturers should not lecture any more. That would be imposing their own view. Actually, it’s the other way around: we can truly converse, if we share our opinions – no matter how incomplete or groundless they are, precisely because in a conversational situation they just provide the temporary scaffold to manipulate this sort of “prima materia”. For example, what the lecturer says can be used by the student(s) as a springboard rather than as a piece of content to be poured into his mind.

So, more in general, when conversational situations are established, learning can become convivial, which I define in opposition and opposite to learning as indoctrination. 



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The educational technologist as a variety-handler

I wrote in a previous post, that I was working on a paper with Tony Tonni – educational technologist at Eller Music College here in Tartu. The text is supposed to provide a case study, in which we illustrate how a few ideas coming from cybernetics (notably, from Stafford Beer’s work) can be used to understand the role of a educational technologist in an educational institution at different levels of abstraction – that is, practically and theoretically.

Later on my colleague Irene-Angelica Chounta joined in. The paper is now completed and has been submitted to a journal in the field of educational technology. The draft can be found here.

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Proprioception, control, learning and conversations

Proprioception can be viewed as some kind of self-reference mechanism that is built into the whole system to give the system itself a sense of self-awareness. Our body does have proprioception. Thanks to that, we know when we are moving a part of our body. Oliver Sacks in an essay in his well-known The man who mistook his wife for a hat describes a woman who had lost the awareness of her body. So, she could move her hand, but she didn’t know she was moving it. Our brain, conversely, lacks it. So, for example, a person suffering from Alzheimer does not have any “feeling” of that, simply because the brain can be aware that there is something wrong in other organs (e.g., the liver), but cannot be aware of its own problems. In several publications (notably, On dialogue and Thought as a System) David Bohm extends the absence of proprioception to thought. Thought too cannot be aware of its own shortcomings.

Michael Polanyi introduced in the 50s the idea that any act of cognition has a tacit component, which, while being a condition for that act, can never be made explicit. He makes a crucial distinction between focal awareness, which is what we are aware of, and subsidiary awareness, which is what allows us to perform various things without, though, being aware of the underlying mechanism. That remains tacit or unconscious – one’s tacit knowledge. For example, if you start paying attention to what you are saying during a public speech, you may easily get into troubles. While there is a system that takes care that your speech is going well, when you try to do that consciously, the whole system collapses. According to Polanyi, that is due to a switch of our subsidiary attention. If we want to gain conscious control over ourselves, the system “self” crashes, precisely because of the absence of proprioception: the controlling is the controlled. And vice-versa.

We may say that the whole system has a hole right in the middle.

It is worth noting that the absence of proprioception does not mean that any system is doomed to fail. A system may be working fairly well. The thing is that the whole notion of control needs to be drastically revised. Control is seen as something that requires to be outside of the system being control, when in fact there is no such a place. That would be the deus ex machina.

One interesting thing we can look at in search for a different conception of “control” (or steering, to use the cybernetic vocabulary) is conversation. Conversation is the way in which we control a process without, though, deploying any kind of control other than the one emerging out of the ping-pong two or more parties are involved in, which is the trademark of a conversation. This is an example of what I am talking about:


In David Bohm’s own words:

Can it properly be said that the artist is expressing himself, i.e., literally “pushing outward” something that is already formed inside of him? Such a description is not in fact generally accurate or adequate. Rather, what usually happens is that the first thing the artist does is only similar in certain ways to what he may have in mind. As in a conversation between two people, he sees the similarity and the difference, and from this perception something further emerges in his next action. Thus, something new is continually created that is common to the artist and the material on which he is working. (On Dialogue, p. 3)

One way to put it is that systems lacking proprioception are essentially open systems, as they are continuously involved in a conversation with their surroundings. Conversation might be seen here as a synonym of learning, which can actually be seen as the proprioceptive structure for cognition.

The problem here is that we hold the view that learning is synonym to “being instructed”. Which is in a way the attempt to create proprioception for cognition by deploying the traditional notion of control. The teacher has full control over the learner, who is supposed to blindly execute the instructions. Here the teacher becomes the proprioceptive structure for the learner.

However, another way of looking at this is to think that the proprioceptive work – so to say – is actually done in a dialogical way, by means of conversation, for example, between learner and teacher. The control here is not exerted by a centralized entity, but in the interaction between the parties, which would provide the kind of feedback mechanism that is fundamental to transform if not create oneself. This is exactly what Bohm pointed out in the quote I have just referred to:

As in a conversation between two people, he sees the similarity and the difference, and from this perception something further emerges in his next action. Thus, something new is continually created.


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The map and the territory. And AI

Some weeks ago I went to the IKEA store in Riga, the capital of Latvia. I had my wife sitting next to me and my faithful mini tablet with the GPS  on to guide us to our destination. On that day we were actually coming from Riga city center, where we had previously had a quick lunch with friends.

When I am using the GPS app, I usually try to visualize the route right before the start. I don’t try to visualize the details. On that day, a brief look at the route on my tablet allowed me to understand that to get to our destination, I would simply drive along Tartu road and then turn right after some 10k. Easy.

When we were about to reach the destination, I saw the big IKEA buildings some 100 metres away from us. There was a big roundabout and I decided that it was time to  stop following the GPS. Indeed, I could have continued relying on the GPS. But I did not.

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What was it that made me avoid that?

Essentially, as soon as the IKEA buildings came in sight, I could extract the information that I needed from the immediate environment, that is, when to turn, where to turn, etc.. In a rather interesting sense, what I was doing was to resort to the territory as the map of the territory itself. The IKEA buildings were there. And, in spite of the fact that there was nothing like a straight road to there, I could decide whether to turn right or left, or go straight, because I could fairly assess each option at every junction.

More in general, we may say that we turn to the GPS (pun intended), when we are not able to extract all the information we need from our immediate environment. I say “all the information we need”, because actually we can never completely obliterate our immediate environment. Why is it so? It is so because the GPS is sort of a map, which is supposed to help us precisely when the IKEA buildings – to use my example, is not in sight.

However, the GPS is not the territory. This precisely means that the GPS does not contain all other information that we are in need of in order to actually navigate all the way through to our destination (e.g., other cars, pedestrians crossing the road, traffic lights, the road itself, etc.). There are actually tragicomic stories of people who actually drove their car into the water, precisely because they simply stopped paying attention to what was going on in their immediate environment.

I think that the GPS story is sort of allegorical of many other things that are happening around Artificial Intelligence, and that is not just related to self-driving cars. Let’s see why.

Our cognition tends to act ecologically. Which is another way to say what I noted above: we tend to use the territory as a map of the territory itself. And we try to do that as much as we can. Why so? One of the reasons is that ta panta rhei kai ouden menei. Everything flows, and nothing stays. Even when we could in theory have a complete representation mapping everything of the territory, that would just be the analogous of a photo taken at a certain point in time: obsolete as soon as it is taken.

That our cognition is ecological means also that it has to massively rely on perception, which is defined as the capacity to extract information directly from our immediate environment – what is going on around us. Perception, as James Gibson noted, does not necessarily contain “pictures”, but also actions that we perceive as “allowed” – what he termed “affordances”. Perception, in turn, feeds into judgment (or discretion). That is, the ability to decide what to do in the here and now.

Now, Artificial Intelligence is a very powerful tool, which is to some extent analogous to the GPS, as I pointed out. AI can help us decide. It can supplement our ecological cognition by providing maps or representations of the world in which we are called to act. However, as we saw with the GPS, there is an essential tension between the kind of supporting maps, which AI can provide and the actual territory in which we operate as decision-makers. Being aware of that tension is the very first step towards sensible use.


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Note: Videos as a tool for study and research

One “tool” for study that I have adopted are videos (mostly from youtube). I am not using these videos for finding a specific piece of information on this or that topic. E.g. a mini lecture explaining this or that. I am mostly listening to authors (e.g. Noam Chomsky or David Bohm), which have touched upon topics of my interest (e.g. A.I. or dialogue). On several occasions videos have constituted a complement to readings – past or ongoing. So, I have listened to Bohm’s seminars while reading his book on creativity and the one on dialogue.

In a video you may find something that you don’t usually find in books, which represent more like a final product. Whereas in a talk or, even better, in a conversation or interview, an author has more time to elaborate. So, it’s kind of less regimented. However, I kind of feel that reading a book is still the best way for me, especially if I want to ponder on a certain idea of concept. It’s basically when I keep going back over and over again on something in particular. That’s why, after I watched a video, I’d like to have, for example, the transcript of those passages that captured my imagination. Or that I would like to ponder. In some cases YouTube provides that, but the problem is that the way in which the transcript is visualized is not the best. It’s just this text that keeps rolling as the video unfolds.

One thing that I have been experimenting with is to watch the video (or those that are theoretically “dense” of meaning) using a video editor, which basically allows me not only to pause the video, but also – and more importantly – to edit it so that I can cut out the segment(s) of interest. For some reasons, this helps a lot. I may watch a single segment for 5 times. Sometimes I also create my own little video only with the parts that I want to focus on and share it afterwards on youtube, facebook or instagram. But that is, say, the final product and it’s in a way already “processed”. Which means I may cut off those parts that would be helpful for making another person understand the concept or the idea.

Indeed, the whole thing is time consuming. The interesting thing is that it seems that reading can be very selective the way a video cannot be. I can skip parts of a video, but not as efficiently and efficaciously as I do with a text.  The best thing is to find the transcript on a website. This happens with some of the big names (the video below is an example).


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Note: Uncertainty and ignorance

I’ve been recently thinking that uncertainty is in a way a more interesting category that ignorance (although they are indeed closely tied to each other).

When we say “I don’t know”, what this may mean is not that we lack knowledge. What we lack or might lack is certitude. In other words, we are not sure of something (which we might know). This is a very interesting statement, because uncertainty – unlike ignorance – cannot be overcome by getting to know that which we ignore. That’s an illusion.

Uncertainty is primarily ontological. It’s about how reality is “structured”. So, we cannot overcome it. That’s what neurosis does. But that’s the interesting part of it. Because what uncertainty requires is not an epistemological act (I try to know what I ignore), but ontological. Or, better, existential. It concerns our existence, the very fact that we exist and live in this very world.

So, we can in a way still think that we “overcome” uncertainty, but that comes as a resolution. We resolve to act in spite of the fact that we lack certitude, that we cannot be sure as to where we are heading to.

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Research as sharing the very thinking process

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In his Uncertain education Mark Johnson argues that technology – among other things –  increases the availability of options and consequently it makes it harder to choose which one to select.  Which implies that uncertainty increases.

As a researcher, this is what I feel I am currently facing: what should and could I use to share my research? Which option?

Very often the constraints of the medium that we use to share our idea affect the very way in which we can share. For example, until the advent of the web, two options were basically available: writing a book or an article. Indeed, other options were available too, but only to a restricted minority, essentially those who would be featured, for example, in educational documentaries or films. Sometimes lectures were video-recorded, but these did not really have large circulation.  And indeed, the publishing was mediated by institutional arrangements, which often reflected power relations within the academic institutions themselves.

In 2019 the options of sharing go well beyond those granted, say, 30 years ago. There are different media that a researcher can exploit. There are podcasts. One can have a YouTube channel, a blog, a twitter account.  Or facebook (I am one of those who shamelessly use it). We can record our lectures, the conversations with colleagues, etc.. Along with the different media, there is, though, another option, which brings the discourse about technology and research to a totally different planet. I am talking about sharing the very process of researching along with its chances, uncertainties and the rest of it.

When we talk about sharing one’s research, we immediately think of sharing the results of this or that study. And this can happen via different media. Now, very often sharing the results of a study implies to ignore, if not suppress, the process behind it. Especially when publishing in the so-called scientific journals, what we are kind of forced to do is to create a sort of fictional story, which re-describes the whole process that led us to the results being presented. We essentially sanitize the research process and we end up presenting only those elements that would fit in with what is prescribed, that is, some kind of version of the so-called scientific method. So, we pretend that we have begun with finding a gap in the literature, which led us to the formulation of a research question. Then we say that we have moved on to designing the study – how we decided to conduct our experiment or the data collection. And finally we present the results answering to the research question that we posed at the very beginning. No roundabouts events, No surprise. Just rigorous and methodical if not algorithmic application of scientific rationality. Indeed, we all know that this is never the case. Especially when we don’t consider normal science, which is essentially that part of research devoted to puzzling solving that simply builds on top of what has been already researched.

Now, suppressing the very process of researching implies that we simply misrepresent the scientific enterprise, because the retrospective look that we inevitably cast upon what we have done deforms it. But even more importantly, by sharing and communicating only the end-product of research, we lose the chance to share with others the very engine setting in motion the world of science and research, which is research as a thinking process that happens in a dia-logical way.

So, coming back to our publishing tools and to make a trivial example, we can indeed make a video where we present the results of our research, how they are relevant for the survival of our species and other blah blah. But we can also share our research while we are still researching. This goes well beyond the mere popularization, which, sadly, implies that there are experts, on the one side, and the rest of us, on the others. Opening up the process of thinking implies sharing via dialogue and conversation. Which is a powerful tool for the democratization of science and research.

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