Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Connectivism and Complexity

Well, I look around, and it's been a month since I've written. How does that happen? I could list the details, but they aren't that interesting – family, work, and medical appointments mostly. Fortunately, all is well with my world.

The sad part for my blog is that I've lost my train of thought. As I recall, I was thinking about networking as part of the DNA of connectivism, and the DNA comment elicited a comment from Stephen Downes about my confused attempt to reconcile connectivism and essentialism. My last post was an attempt to figure out why Downes thought I was trying to reconcile the two concepts when actually I was trying to establish that DNA did not imply an essentialist approach. Was it poor writing, poor reading, or a mix of both? And did connectivism have an explanation for that kind of communication failure?

Those are good questions, and I will attempt to come back to them and to the general issue of networking as one of the generative concepts of connectivism sometime in the future, but today (July 4th, as I start this post with a free morning. Happy Birthday, USA) I want to talk about a second bit of DNA in connectivism: complexity. I've just finished reading Melanie Mitchell's Complexity: A Guided Tour, and the topic is on my mind.

To my mind, complexity is concomitant to networking. We can think of networks as static, fixed entities, much like the pictures in our books, as shown to the right (thanks to Scott Weingart's Demystifying Networks, Parts I & II in the Journal of Digital Humanities for this pic and lots of other ideas about networks that I intend to explore later):

This is a helpful abstraction of networking, but it misses much that is interesting about networking: the dynamism which results from the nodes of the network engaging each other and the larger eco-system. This dynamic engagement is complexity. Rather, this is what I mean by complexity, and I think that complexity is one of the amino acids in the DNA of connectivism. As with the concept of networking, complexity is not unique to connectivism. A scholar can follow a constructivist or behaviorist agenda, for instance, and incorporate both networking and complexity. However, I think a scholar can still be a constructivist or behaviorist without accounting for networking and complexity. I don't think that a connectivist can do so. These two concepts are part of the DNA.

If Mitchell is correct, then complexity is not a settled scientific term. As she says: "There is not yet a single science of complexity but rather several different sciences of complexity with different notions of what complexity means" (95). This provides me with some wiggle room to decide what I mean by complexity, but I do not stray far from Mitchell's own use of the term in her discussions of information, computation, analogies, and information processing in living systems. It seems to me that complexity is the amount and/or degree of engagement of an entity with its ecosystem – or to put it in terms of networking: the amount of engagement among the nodes of a network and between that network and other networks.

This definition lands me squarely in the issue of information and information processing, of which my own discipline, writing, is a subset. So I really like this definition, and for the moment it is the one I will use. For me, then, complexity is the degree to which any node in a network can recognize, process, and respond to information from the other nodes in its network and from other networks at different scales. This information processing appears to extend throughout reality from simple, almost mechanical physical and chemical reactions through the ideas and societies of humanity and beyond to God, Gaia, or whatever you may believe exists at some network scale beyond us. Information processing stitches the universe together and drives it through its unfolding expressions, including us humans and our societies and languages. It may be, as Mitchell suggests, that we humans may someday consider information as one of the fundamental aspects of the Universe along with mass and energy, but … I'm getting way beyond my level of competence. That is sheer fantasy for me; still, it's of vital interest to me that information processing seems to be such a core function of life.

Mitchell describes several ways that this information processing occurs in different systems from immune systems, neural networks, and ant colonies to genetic and metabolic networks. In all of these systems, if I understand her argument correctly, the individual nodes (neurons, ants, lymphocytes, etc.) are able to recognize patterns in their own network and in their ecosystems (some nodes work locally in their own networks and some globally beyond their local networks). These patterns are the information that each node can process, or understand, and can then respond to. This seems to me to match quite nicely with Stephen Downes' contention that human knowledge has much to do with pattern recognition and with negotiating our way through networks. While human thought may work at a different scale of complexity than, say, a lymphocyte binding to an antigen, the concept is similar, or fractal: the same pattern at a different scale.

To some degree, each network node (from bacteria, to slugs, to Senators in the US Congress – though those scales may not be that different) is able to process and to respond to the information it gleans from its environment. It then can realign itself with its network, which changes the network, which leads to further changes in the node, which leads to further changes in the network. This dynamism in the network, or organism, is complexity. While this dynamism is usually regular, it is probabilistic rather than deterministic, even at the most elementary physical and chemical scales, and it is this element of chance that probably lead to the emergence of COMPLEXITY as the term of choice for naming it. It is also self-organizing, so that the few possible actions of any one ant can lead to quite sophisticated  behaviors of the ant colony. Such dynamic information processing can also lead to a sonnet, or a blog post.

Okay, this is what I mean by complexity, and I insist that it is at the heart of connectivism along with networking. I'll explore both concepts more in future posts.
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