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.

Image result for I am not sure

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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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