Accruing Associations

Today I find this story on my Twitter Feed. A government nuclear facility accidentally sent out some “excess” nuclear material. Whoops!


The name of the facility rings a bell though. Haven’t I heard of government installation “Y-12” before? I’m pretty sure there’s been problems there before.

I search my personal wiki:


Aha! That’s right. I’d come across a different Y-12 incident about a month ago, and it seemed a perfect example of Alarm Fatigue. Here’s that page:


Notice how we put some general associations at the bottom and use the text to highlight the realationship to the current page in a very direct way.

I don’t really know where this new incident fits in, but I’d like to log it. So I go to the bottom of the Alarm Fatigue at Y-12 page and add another link.


And that’s it, at least for now. It may be that later I come by and build a new wiki page that can replace that external link, or perhaps I create a new page on Y-12 in general and move this link over there.

But what’s neat is watching your network of knowledge become more useful over time. Looking back at these pages I find the Normal Accident Theory page was added in November 2014. Alarm Fatigue (the general page) was added in January 2015, partially because of the way it resonated with and informed elements of Normal Accident Theory. The Alarm Fatigue at Y-12 page was added based on something seen last month, which ended up being a perfect example of alarm fatigue. Now this link updates the page an suggests in time we might compile more information on Y-12, a seeming case study in how things go wrong.

More amazingly. if you click through those links you’ll find we’re slowly developing a densely linked set of pages on the nature of error. Sensitivity vs. Specificity links to Safety and Reliability (which are opposed BTW) which links to Always-Never which links to One Point Safe which links to Command and Control. On a related vector, Alarm Fatigue deals with issues of signal-to-noise, bringing you to pages on Tea Kettle Tech (an Amber Case idea) and Techno-pastoralism. From there you can get to cybernetics and a dozen other things.

I didn’t sit down one day and say let’s make a site on the nature of error and digital noise. This subject emerged organically, as new stuff came in.

And therein lies a story. What I find my mind doing these days is letting go of the question “What do I think of that?” which is the primary question of the Self-Assertive Web. The Twitter response to nuclear error is “Nice! Keeping us safe!” or “Maybe Iran needs to inpect us. haha.” On the self-assertive web we don’t get past paragraph two without thinking “What is my take on this?” and constructing rhetoric in our head about it. And while that’s useful it dramatically limits what we can take away from new knowledge.

With wiki journalling, on the other hand, my first question on seeing something is “What does that connect to?” Judgement comes, but is postponed while we make connections, link up examples, and find patterns. It’s the Integrative Web and I think we need more of it.

Toward a Less Self-Assertive Web

Working on my 83rd idea for my dLRN keynote, because that’s “how I do”. (I’ve also been watching The Wire a lot).

Today via David Jones this beautiful piece on systems theory comes to me. It’s from a new book by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi:

In our brief summary of the emerging systems view of life in the Preface, we have emphasized shifts in perceptions and ways of thinking. However, the broader paradigm shift also involves corresponding changes of values. And here it is interesting to note a striking connection between the changes of thinking and of values. Both of them may be seen as shifts from self-assertion to integration. These two tendencies — the self-assertive and the integrative — are both essential aspects of all living systems, as we discuss in Chapter 4 (Section 4.1.2). Neither of them is intrinsically good or bad. What is good, or healthy, is a dynamic balance; what is bad, or unhealthy, is imbalance — overemphasis on one tendency and neglect of the other. When we look at our modem industrial culture, we see that we have overemphasized the self-assertive and neglected the integrative tendencies. This is apparent both in our thinking and in our values. It is very instructive to put these opposite tendencies side by side.

They chart out these tendencies in terms of thinking and values:


And here’s the thing. The initial vision of hypertext was profoundly integrative (Bush, Nelson, etc). Read As We May Think again and you’ll see the idea in those last bits of the article is to make connection as valued as assertion, to capture intuition and synthesis via links (or “trails” in his case). Non-linearity is valued, and the holistic viewpoint — where a single node can simultaneously support radically opposing views — is privileged over the clean and linear trajectory of making a point.


That — through the vision of a number of intermediaries — was one possible future for the early web.

But in the early days of the web people fleeing the self-assertive worlds of Usenet, mailing lists and the like came to the web and built something that was more integrative than those conversational forms but less integrative than the Bush version. From them we got The Stream — the hybrid of hypertext with the self-assertive culture of forums, lists, and Usenet groups. The Stream is blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook feeds, YouTube channels, etc. It made conversation better. The Stream turned out to be the web’s killer app.

But as The Stream became the dominant mode of hypertext, it also pulled the web as a whole toward the self-assertive end of the spectrum. In many ways it kept drifting back even more towards self-assertion. Early linklogs gave way to analytical blogs which gave way to persuasive writing as the norm. The follow-me-as-I-think-through-this political blogging of Josh Marshall gave way to the this-is-the-one-true-truthism of Huffington Post and Breitbart. Comments were added at some point, bringing back the group domination dynamics early bloggers were trying to escape.

In the world of the Memex your space houses things useful to you, and the space of a literate person includes many things one disagrees with but finds useful to think with. The Stream, on the other hand, is seen as an assertion of one’s self, where every post must zoom as quickly as possible to This is What I Believe. The fact people must insist that retweets are not endorsements shows the direction we have drifted. To post is to assert.

And the point is that that’s good in the right amount. Self-assertion is important. I certainly want a space to express who I am, and to a large extent that is what I do on this blog. I provide a nice linear, rational, reductionist view of current issues in order win ongoing arguments and persuade you to join my cause. A Memex would be a lousy tool for that. Don’t take my blog away!

But it is *one* side of the equation. As Capra and Luigi Luisi insist, it needs balance. We seem to have nailed tools for self-assertion over the past 20 years. Perhaps we could work on tools for integration now as well?

This Is My Point About the Stream

From Times Higher Education today:

Moreover, the thesis statement can actually be the enemy of critical enquiry because it straitjackets the writer into a line of argument that has to be defended to the death, blithely bulldozing – or simply ignoring – any tentative “yes, but…” that might get in the way. This is not a trivial issue. The tyranny of being forced to declare one’s position pervades our culture, from the school debating societies to our adversarial parliamentary system, where admitting that the opposing side may have a point is political anathema. This approach is potentially anti-intellectual – for when critical thinking is applied to most issues, it becomes apparent that there are multiple viable perspectives, which can both diverge and converge.

This is my point about the Stream. We want to promote inquiry and multiple perspectives, yet we choose formats (blogging, forums, and the like) that favor personal rhetoric, argument, and expression.

Luckily, there *is* a format that favors composing documents that present multiple perspectives, promotes not rushing to conclusions, and encourages students to embrace complexity instead of sweeping it under the rug to make a point. It’s called HYPERTEXT. We should use it.