Sunday, 20 January 2013

Technology, Abstraction and Experience

There is a problem with my thinking. Like all academics, I like to think in abstractions. I look at the world, think about my experiences, and look for neat explanations of things. It's a kind of therapy and of course, I enjoy doing this (some people are rude about this kind of thing and call it 'intellectual masturbation' - it's unkind, but not entirely untrue!)

But abstraction is always problematic for a number of reasons.

  1. Real experience is lived in time; abstraction compartmentalises time (if it acknowledges it at all) as a kind of divine mechanical clock, where successionism rules (b follows a..)
  2. Abstractions are an individual's ideas which form from the individual's experiences, habits and history; they are not merely rational creations, nor is their form purely the result of their internal logic.
  3. Abstractions must be taught if they are to have any effect in the world (there is no point in having a new theory if you can't teach it!); the teaching of abstractions is typically a situation where learners are indoctrinated with the categories of the abstraction: it can tend to exhibit sage-on-the-stageness...
  4. To be taught an abstraction is a lived experience for the learner. This experience is fundamentally different from the experiences which led to the formation of the abstraction in the first place. 
  5. Were one to formulate an abstraction of the learning experience of an abstraction, it would be a very different kind of abstraction!
  6. Then there are socialisation problems associated with abstractions, and the institutional, corporate, political and legal frameworks which form the context within which abstractions are generated and within which they are taught.
  7. The fundamental changes underway in HE (the process of marketisation) has a powerful bearing on these processes of abstraction, teaching, learning and the necessity for critique for the advancement of knowledge.

I think that from the Enlightenment to the decline of manufacturing industry in the 1980s, it was possible to overlook these problems with abstraction. Now, I think not.

The deep problem with abstraction is "time" and successionism. It's as if we have convinced ourselves of the ontological status of clocks. Computers haven't helped - they epitomise causal successionism in their internal operations. But they epitomise the fallacy of causal successionism in their social effects.

My deep concern for this is that I feel the need for something more than abstraction. There are I think two things which we should consider much more seriously if we are to escape our enlightenment chains. They are:

  1. Technology
  2. Play

Technology, of course, is the product of abstraction. But technology also provides experience in time. Technologies used to teach with can provide rich experiences of simulated problems from which abstractions emerge. The best example of this is Lovelock's DaisyWorld simulation. There Lovelock used technology as a way of allowing people to explore the problem situation he was considering and play with the parameters.

This process of play avoided the need for sage-on-the-stage. Instead, the abstraction of Gaia was presented in a way that invited participation. This leads me to the conclusion that Technology is a "solvent": the problem of the abstraction of time dissolves in effective use of technology through play.

This overcomes some of the other problems with abstraction. Considering that an abstraction is an individual's ideas,  what is it that a learner of the abstraction learns? I think they learn about the originator of the abstraction: how do they think? how did they reach that conclusion? Learners also learn about each other as they all learn about the teacher of the abstraction. Technology gives us not only play, but convivial play. Playing together around complex ideas affords powerful opportunities for the social impact of learning.

Most importantly, perhaps, playing together with powerful ideas can help us to come together, to unite, to organise ourselves. If we are to really address the challenges that face us in this current crisis, then new ways of finding togetherness and purpose must be created. For that we will need to use our "solvent" wisely!

8 comments:

Scott said...

Play and humour are also two excellent ways of performing an escape from unhelpful abstraction (or conventional myths)

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