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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Google and the Rhizome

The viral quality of knowledge, its acquisition, and its existence is the crux of two very scholarly and timely documents by Nicolas Carr and Dave Cormier. They speak about the effects of knowledge acquisition on our brain development and on education.


If "we are what we eat" as some have purported in the past and as Gillian McKeith suggests today, then Nicolas Carr is suggesting our brain is the product of how we read, in his article, "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" in the July/August, 2008 issue of The Atlantic. The title of the article is a provocative and sensationalistic statement about the knowledge society. The article provides an image of the humanistic HAL being shut down by the human automatons in Kubrick's 2001 "I feel it, I'm scared" as a bizarre irony and useful metaphor for this article. Carr does, remind me of Cliff Stoll. He reaches back appropriately to initial reactions by Socrates to writing and to the critics of Gutenberg and the printing press, only to realize these worries were unfounded because Man is incapable of imagining what will happen. It is like inattentional blindness, as spoken about in "Distracting Miss Daisy." I'm not sure I agree with Carr's assessment of deteriorating reading skills as he explains them, using friends and a rather interesting University College London scholarly study of research. My problem with the research study is that we don't have a similar study done pre computer logs. I know when I did research, I collected lots of books and journals and skimmed them quickly and accepted or rejected them. Secondly, when I'm reading online, sometimes I follow the hyperlinks in a page I'm reading. I follow links for information I have no knowledge and need that knowledge to continue reading the original page. Sometimes I go to a hyperlink for a small piece of info and don't stay long since I find and get what I need. Other times I merely go to a site and realize I know this information and leave. So in many cases these quick hits and quick exits may be what the research shows but have misinterpreted them. Then too, someone could be on a site, and then use open another tab feature, so while on another site the original site remains open. Another scenario is that the user gets a phone call or someone rings the doorbell and the site stays open while the user is doing something else. Computer logs can be flawed. In addition, in the same issue, the article Mr. Murdoch Goes to War by Mark Bowden, makes a reference to reading:
In interviews before and after he bought Dow Jones, Murdoch complained about the length of Journal articles, and said he was not enamored of its a-heds and leders. Robert Thomson reiterated those points in his initial conference calls and meetings with the newspaper’s far-flung staff, insisting that the fierce competition for these page-one slots would no longer be the only mark of excellence at the paper. He has echoed his boss’s call for shorter stories and a more aggressively competitive approach, even as he has reassured staffers that he and Murdoch both respect and admire The Journal’s traditions—positions that appear contradictory.
Finally, consider that the piece being read is of no interest, doesn't grab the reader, is boring. How many books, articles, stories, have I begun that I didn't finish probably numbers more than those I did begin and finish. That's not a deteriorating reading habit, it may be a selective reading habit.

I'm also suspect of the neat Nietzsche example.
“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”
Couldn't this simply be that Nietzsche grew as a writer? We do see writer's style changing over a lifetime whether tools are changed or remain the same.

What I did find most fascinating was what Carr said about reading not being an instinctive skill or etched in our genes. This is an important point. He also explored the differences in the Chinese ideograms and the Arabic alphabet. This is important. He reports that the brain is mallable according to: "James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.” Reading is a learned skill and the brain continues to learn over our life. This is crucial information for mus as teachers and learners.It may help dispel that old adage, "old can't learn new tricks." Teachers can learn the new technology.

The key element in this article for me was the concept of knowledge acquisition by us. Google is studying this brain function in a typical mathematical way, algorithms. What some would call the efficiency of the brain or of the individual, Google has made a science out of it. I know that when I do searches, I am always amazed at the stuff I didn't expect to find. Sure, I expect to find the answer to my search and that satiates me, but what I didn't expect can't be anticipated nor put into any algorithm, that really stuns and impresses me.


I know I'm not as worried about Google and the Internet as Carr seems to be and as Stoll was about the Internet in schools in the 90's. I'm thinking more along the lines with Dave Cormier in his article, Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum in Innovate that provides a thoughtful analysis of knowledge acquisti0n using a rhizome metaphor. Knowledge has become a negotiation, according to Cormier, as a result of the ephemeral nature of the web as contrasted with the expert-centered pedagogical practices that are static and prescribed. Cormier suggests that the rhizome is a better metaphor in explaining the actual collection of knowledge in this new educational environment of web 2.0. Knowledge is fluid. We learn something and then later on discover something else and bam, prior knowledge is supplanted or augmented.

I'm reminded of a scene in MIB when K asks J:
1500 years ago everyone knew the Earth was the center of the Universe.
500 years ago everyone knew the Earth was flat.
15 minutes ago you knew people were alone on this planet.
Imagine what you will know tomorrow.
K, MIB
I love this quote because it is so relevant and obvious. It speaks to us all of the time, and especially applies to the Carr essay as he contemplates the new reading observations.


The Internet has changed how information becomes knowledge. The peer review process has been turned on its head and knowledge is very mallable and democratic. The rhizome metaphor is apt because in the new learning community, learners are actually involved in the construction of knowledge. The learning community is the rhizomic web Cormier suggests. We see this in Wikipedia, blogs, wikis, and other web 2.0 applications. The shift in knowledge expert is shifting. Knowledge is becoming organic.

This is all very significant in education. Considering the concept of Pedagogy 2.0 from yesterday's blog and how teachers must become more tech savvy to the actual transformation of how information becomes knowledge. We are indeed in for some sweeping changes in education. Knowledge is ever changing as new information is presented and it is negotiated, Wikipedia is a great example of this negotiation process , not by a few scholars, but by the many engaged scholars, the learners. Knowledge acquisition isn't vertical anymore, it is now horizontal. Knowledge is no longer the property of a few, but is now the property of everyone and created by everyone. It may be scary, as HAL, expresses and it may be chaotic as Cormier's rhizome metaphor suggests, but since it is of the people by the people it is now democratic and universal. Education is adapting as it should, now it is our turn to adapt.

Another exploration will be of Student 2.0 which is already here.

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