Re: [xmca] Copernicus 2.0 [toolforthoughts]

From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke who-is-at>
Date: Fri Jun 22 2007 - 11:04:39 PDT

Mike takes us to an important issue, for
education and for theory, when he asks whether
it's really wise or safe to rely on, call them
thinking-support-systems, that we don't know how
to build up from earlier technologies, like
algebra or writing.

I wrote:

>Algebra is becoming obsolete as a tool for the
>purposes for which it was invented. And so, quite
>possibly, is writing. Education which takes
>traditional literacy and numeracy as its
>fundamental goals is worse than obsolete. It is
>obstructionist, an obstacle to the efforts of a
>new generation to prepare itself for a new world, a new reality.
>Yes, there's a bit of hyperbole in what I just
>wrote. But less than you may wish. I hope we can
>talk about the fine points here on xmca.

So, yes, I was making the point in an extreme
form. But if we take Mike's concern seriously,
then we have, first of all, the question of what
knowledge for everyone? Does everyone have to
know how to fall back on algebra or differential
equations if their simulator goes down? do we all
have to know how to repair the cars we drive or
the computers we use? or how their operating
systems are programmed, or even how a programming
language talks to a chip?

Or only some of us? Distributed cognition is,
after all, not just distributed between people
and things, it's distributed among people,
according to the division of labor, which is as
basic a principle of social organization as I
know. (In fact, I think we are more united as a
society by our interdependence on each others'
skills and knowledge than we are by what we all

So, no, not every educated person needs to know
how to factor a polynomial, not even in
emergencies! Beyond this level, ship navigators
can realistically (sometimes?) do by hand the
math to keep the ship from cracking up, but I
doubt the same could be said for calculating a
re-entry orbit from space, or a hyperspace jump
(if we get to that), and depending on the
timescales involved, probably not even
replicating a simulation of a global weather
model, an ecosystem management model, or, god
help us, Microsoft Vista! it takes a big village
of diverse specialists a LONG time to link the
by-hand skills into the complex simulation
environment. (Michael Roth has argued similarly
that 'science literacy' has to be defined as a
collective, not an individual, achievement and

Latour has an interesting analysis in his book
Aramis, where he considers just how complex the
technology of an automated train system, or a
next generation passenger jet, really is, and
what it really means to "design" or "understand"
such a system. It a good example of how we pass
the threshold of complexity to systems in which
it just no longer makes sense to imagine
individual minds or even small groups of people
playing any privileged role as cognizers. Many
people today have the intuitive feeling that our
technologies are not 'ours' anymore, that they
are beyond our ability to understand and control,
and that not only our computers and planes are
like this, but our economies and our global
environment. Yes, it's scary and uncomfortable.
It's also the objective material condition of our
lives today.

So what to do? Smash the machine? Return to
low-tech? Augment our brains so they can cope?
All are, I think, old-fashioned romantic
fantasies. We need to reconceptualize our place
in the universe once more, as Copernicus
non-geocentric model forced us to do (very
slowly!) a few centuries ago. Only now it's not
our place in space, in the physical universe, but
in a more metaphorical 'universe' of
people-with-things. We are no longer the
designer-gods of humanism. We are at best the
stakeholder partners (and maybe before long the
junior partners) in the systems we, collectively,
participate in.

So how then to re-imagine? what are the new
literacies and numeracies of the Age of
Complexity? I think that Shaffer and Clinton are
trying to reach out towards possible answers, as
is Latour. More Foundationally (and Asimov was
very much a romantic, look at his robots!), we do
need to get beyond humanistic ontologies (what we
humans see), epistemologies (ditto know), and
theories of mind. Post-Cartesian views of
knowing-as-embodiment-in-systems are a good step,
The next step has to be what Latour calls
'symmetrizing', i.e. removing the vestiges of a
privileged human point of view, not just by
moving up to the collective point of view, but to
the system (the village?) multi-view.

What I think Shaffer and Clinton are arguing is
that we can't get very far with this next step
unless we re-imagine systems as more active,
autonomous, meaning-generating, emergent,
initiating ... and not just as the stage props
for our divine Agency. Since my current interest
is in re-integrating feeling and emotion into our
view of meaning-making, I'd want to go perhaps a
step beyond their proposal, to include a notion
that our feelings as well are distributed


>Thanks for the economical parsing of David and Katherine's paper, Jay.
>Let me pick up on just one of the issues. Perhaps others can contribute
>on this or other parts of the complex puzzle.
>You wrote:
>Algebra is becoming obsolete as a tool for the
>purposes for which it was invented. And so, quite
>possibly, is writing. Education which takes
>traditional literacy and numeracy as its
>fundamental goals is worse than obsolete. It is
>obstructionist, an obstacle to the efforts of a
>new generation to prepare itself for a new world, a new reality.
>You know the book, Foundation? A post apocolyptic world where all the
>technologies are still working, but the knowledge of HOW they work has been
>or is to be found only in one place and the superstructure of civilization
>is crumbling
>while its core is hidden away. and etc........ in later Asimov novels.
>You know the scene on Ed Hutchin's ship coming into San Diego harbor. The
>equipment breaks and the navigators have to fall back on algebra that they
>had to
>painfully reconstruct from years of disuse. But they did so (in a
>distributed, collaborative fashion, of course). The ship did not crash.
>So without writing, without 2+2, what would it means to have education in
>literacy (old fashioned defintion) and numeracy (old fashion defintion) were
>to no one? I am TOTALLY in favor of the use of complex computational
>simulation models as a basic (dare i use the word?) tool for education. I
>think David's work on creating
>simulations of professional practices is terrific. But the use of such tools
>needs, I believe,
>to be combined with an understanding of the principles upon which they are
>We often say that development requires top down and bottom up processes to
>work in
>synergy with each other (a version of the dialectic of everyday and
>scientific concepts in
>Vygotsky). Complex simulations can be a terrific medium for accomplishing
>this purpose.
>But to advocate a form of enculturation that depents upon technologies which
>no one knows how to regenerate strikes me as, minimally, risky as a general
>strategy for human survival.
>None of the above negates the importance of the point that we cannot fully
>understand a system we are inside of, nor can we get a view from nowhere.
>Its mediation all the
>way down. But the constituents of the human system of life are not all made
>of the same stuff except at a level sufficiently micro that it is difficult
>to see how to reason about human life in such terms.
>On 6/21/07, Jay Lemke <> wrote:
>>Herewith some notes on the Chosen Article:
>>Shaffer and Clinton offer us an awkward term
>>"toolforthoughts" and a profound challenge to
>>find more intelligent ways of participating in
>>the new world of pervasive computationally active systems.
>>I suspect that some readers of their proposal
>>will balk at its moral or humanistic revisionism,
>>and others at its radical ontological and
>>epistemological perspectives. I have things to
>>say about both, but I think the most important
>>pragmatic implication of what they are saying
>>comes in their challenge to our notions of
>>literacy and numeracy, and to our hopelessly outdated goals for education..
>>Knowing something of the history of their
>>thinking from personal contacts, I believe it
>>makes sense to see the issues of new literacies
>>and numeracies as the impetus that pushes their
>>thinking toward its revisionist ontology, and the consequent moral
>>So let me start from the concrete and back my way down to the abstract.
>>Imagine a world, already half-way here, of
>>pervasive computationally-active systems in which
>>we all live. Systems we may still call houses,
>>schools, offices, but much of which will be
>>"virtual" Š i.e. will be immersive participatory
>>simulation environments in which are embedded
>>computations 'tools' and computationally active
>>'partners': artificial intelligences, of lesser
>>and greater capacity, that will talk to us,
>>suggest directions and options, carry out tasks,
>>take initiatives, and immerse us in simulated
>>spaces and places filled with perceptual
>>information and motor affordances. Nor will the
>>there remain clear lines between the virtual and
>>the rest of the material infrastructure; they
>>will blend more and more seamlessly in our experience and activity.
>>If you play an immersive, interactive computer
>>game at the frontiers of current technology (or
>>get military training in such a simulated
>>reality), you get a glimpse of what's coming. If
>>you participate in a non-game virtual world like
>>SecondLife, you can pretty easily imagine it as a
>>prototype for a new kind of "school", or artists'
>>collaborative, or bordello. If you talk with
>>traditional mathematicians about why they hate
>>computational modes of "proof", despite the fact
>>that some significant results can only be
>>obtained by such methods, you begin to understand
>>how deep the challenge to "numeracy" runs. If you
>>try to understand what kinds of "literacy" enable
>>young people to make meanings across films,
>>books, websites, interactive games, and active
>>play with toys throughout a transmedia franchise
>>like Star Wars or Harry Potter, you see how
>>hopeless the old notions of literacy are.
>>Algebra is becoming obsolete as a tool for the
>>purposes for which it was invented. And so, quite
>>possibly, is writing. Education which takes
>>traditional literacy and numeracy as its
>>fundamental goals is worse than obsolete. It is
>>obstructionist, an obstacle to the efforts of a
>>new generation to prepare itself for a new world, a new reality.
>>Yes, there's a bit of hyperbole in what I just
>>wrote. But less than you may wish. I hope we can
>>talk about the fine points here on xmca.
>>So what is replacing the older tools of literacy
>>and numeracy? Shaffer and Clinton give a bit of a
>>description, and much more could be said. I don't
>>think we know just what this future will look
>>like yet, but it's certainly well along in its development.
>>What about the ontology? While not well-known,
>>the notion of causality has largely dropped out
>>of its central place in the physical sciences,
>>from quantum theory to nonlinear complex system
>>dynamics in chemistry and even biology. Causality
>>is the core of our intuitions about agency, and
>>the lesson from natural science (perhaps inspired
>>in a roundabout way by our consciousness of
>>complex computational-and-human systems) is that
>>we are always in systems (and so is everything
>>else), and in systems, everything is mediating
>>(in various ways) the behavior of everything
>>else. There are no prime movers. The implications
>>for epistemology have occupied Latour and his
>>critics for some time. The short answer: every
>>view is a view from inside, and more complete
>>views require articulations among different
>>insider perspectives (from which Latour derives his version of democracy)..
>>And the morality? What should we really think of
>>a morality grounded in humanism? i.e. in the
>>notion that it is what makes humans different
>>from all other systems (souls, intentions) that
>>allows us to hold ourselves and others
>>'responsible' for actions? I don't think it's a
>>logic that can command much respect once we
>>subject it to rigorous critique. Shaffer and
>>Clinton don't mention Bakhtin and his notion of
>>'answerability' in this connection, but I think
>>it holds promise for getting to something better,
>>something more consistent with a mutual-agency view of active systems.
>>So what do other people think??
>>Jay Lemke
>>University of Michigan
>>School of Education
>>610 East University
>>Ann Arbor, MI 48109
>>Tel. 734-763-9276
>>Website. <>
>>xmca mailing list
>xmca mailing list

Educational Studies
University of Michigan
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
Ph: 734-763-9276
Fax: 734-936-1606
xmca mailing list
Received on Fri Jun 22 11:09 PDT 2007

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