To Err is Necessary

8 December 2008

The Importance of Getting it Wrong

Lonesome, by laurinkofler, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Error is liberation in disguise, a chance to think again in another way, to be freed of old thoughts. Yet all too often we consider only its inconvenience. We might blithely insist that to err is human, but we all baulk at the imposed changes that come with being wrong and being seen to be wrong. In seeking to be superhuman, to move beyond the biological limits placed on our ability to know, we ignore our need to learn.

Neuroscientists have a name for what we do as we bumble our way towards knowledge – they point to a process featuring “reward-prediction error“, wherein experience, aided by dopamine,  allows us to narrow the gap between prediction and outcome until we can predict what we are likely to get. Most of us call this sort of thing trial and error, which is neither an abstract investigative technique nor a luxury bestowed on those with the time to experiment, but a necessity. It is error – comprising the many small but ultimately encouraging discontinuities of experience – that ushers in new understanding.

Now this is not merely an abstract way of saying we’re all wrong and we should just live with it. Error has social implications well beyond merely being incorrect. I work in a profession – writing and editing – in which error can be brutal; it can force away clients and, at worst, cost someone their job. But very early on I read a small piece of wisdom that I’ve carried with me ever since: if you make mistakes, admit them, and never be afraid to apologise. The openness disarms people; it Lattice, by Todd Huffman, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)shows them that you’re willing to learn, and learn again. In your error people recognise how they, too, take account of experience.

And to move this onto a larger stage, it’s most heartening to hear someone who seems to know next to everything about a topic admit that, yes, they have erred. Presenting a lecture on globalisation and welfare to the London School of Economics last year, 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics winner Paul Krugman mentioned he had been wrong about the outlook for growth in developing countries. His enthusiastic predictions were “not as defensible” as he had thought. This wasn’t a major revelation, just one of two “chastenings” he levelled at himself. But it was enough to suggest that the man who pulled together the threads of new trade theory and made his name explicating the economic interconnections between and within countries could learn from his own mistakes.

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The Teacher as Token

12 November 2008

A Lesson in Communication

Sms, by Pixel Action, with Creative Commons licenceCommunication is an abstraction, regardless of how we look at it. Writing, reading, talking, listening, waving, frowning – these are all immediate actions that convey information. Communication is but the rubric under which we usually group them, the point at which hindsight dwells on their similarities rather than their differences, considers the sum rather than the parts. A teacher, for instance, communicates in a number of different ways: pointing, talking, pausing, walking. Together these actions constitute not only the lesson in action, but also the way in which meaning shifts from one mind to many. There is a certain symbolism in them all and the teacher becomes a token, at once surface alone and substance entirely, imposing order and challenging the structure of existing thought.

Having spent time lecturing honours students about academic writing at a Hong Kong university recently I’ve had time to ponder the multiple meanings of the token as a concept rather than an artefact. At the most obvious level a token is a souvenir, a small reminder of something. In that sense I’ve been nothing but a presence, reminding 70 students that their classes are compulsory, that something must be said between the start and finish of each lesson. This is the teacher’s role as an authority figure, and with students in their third year as undergraduates the figure is a little more obvious than the authority.

We begin, then, with a sort of restrained communication, which is really closer to tokenism.

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A Confusion of Categories

2 November 2008

The Avoidance of Understanding in Human Affairs

Categories are the comfort blanket of human thought. Rather than segmenting information, as we imagine they do, they often create commonality where none should really exist. They allow us to believe what we’ve wanted to believe all along, and give us ‘proof’ that we are, of course, correct. Consider the following sequence, variations of which I’ve discussed before: Hispanic, Black, Asian. It’s a curious list, and is most often aligned with ethnic profiling or discussions of racism. This week I encountered it in an academic paper. For some people it simply describes three types of other people – a ‘natural’ categorisation of ethnic or racial groups.

But that matter-of-fact acceptance should be an indication that something is amiss. Reading Robert Shiller’s superb explanation of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the United States, I was recently struck by the fact that he easily tossed out the comment that home ownership rates had recently increased for “Hispanics and blacks”. These categories, where, or course, meant merely to indicate two minority groups in the United States, and carried no untoward racial overtones. Add ‘Asians’ to the list and you would merely have three easily recognised categories. Who, I wonder, stops to think that these lazy categories simply don’t belong together?

Let’s look at the categorisation from a slightly different angle. What do the three designations describe? Well, people, but how are those people shaped into distinct groups? They all seem to be in mutually reinforcing categories. But they’re not. The ‘Hispanic’ grouping is based on language use, the ‘Black’ grouping on skin colour and the ‘Asian’ grouping on geography. Not all Hispanics have the same skin colour or culture, and neither do they all speak Spanish in the same way. From an historical perspective, some of the early Filipino settlers in Hawaii would have been Spanish speakers, but we would hardly consider them Hispanic today.

Asians, too, are anything but homogenous – they differ in skin colour, culture, language and much else besides. Asia covers an enormous distance and encapsulates a multitude of peoples.  ‘Black’ is also a curious category, which may or may not refer to African Americans, or Africans living in America or darker skinned people from somewhere else altogether. Taken as a whole, the three categories simply fail to develop a coherent system of ethnic description.

The usage might not be exactly the same in your country, but it will probably be similar. Add to it ‘White’ or ‘Western’ where appropriate and you have another category that singularly fails to describe anything of value. So why do we feel compelled to use these distinctions that distinguish very little? The simple answer is not very satisfying but resonates with the sort of brutish practicality at which humans excel. We use the categories precisely because they’re ambiguous, because they tell us very little on closer inspection.

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Knowledge Management Revisited

3 April 2008

In Reply to Patrick Lambe

I got trouble, by ndemi, with Creative Commons licenceIt seems I caused a stir with my comments on knowledge management a few days ago. Patrick Lambe, who featured on the second YouTube video in my post, took exception to my position in general and use of ‘snake-oil’ to describe his field in particular. Patrick’s response is over at Green Chameleon, and raises a number of issues beyond the scope of my initial concern, but equally valid.

I’m republishing my counter-comments here largely verbatim, with a few links added, so the debate can be taken to as wide an audience as possible.

Still questions to answer

Patrick, let me begin by saying that I very much appreciate you taking the time to respond in detail to my post on your own blog. But before I reply in kind I just want to clarify one small matter there was no ire to be raised in my post. Not everyone needs an agenda to be critical.

In framing my initial comments on knowledge management under the snake-oil rubric I merely meant to challenge what I see as a poorly defined field, to highlight one important challenge to it, and to say something about photocopier salesmen posing as anything but just that. I notice that you barely touch upon this final point, although I am glad to see that you acknowledge the charlatans on the edges of your field. Given my comments to come, you’ll have to forgive me for continuing to think that they are in the public eye far more than you might imagine.

In any case, therein lies the reasoning that you failed to detect in my post: knowledge management is not a field that shouldn’t have questions asked of it by outsiders.

2008 #50 Getting Clarity, by Jeroen Latour, with Creative Commons licenceInterestingly enough, your response passes over the variety of knowledge management definitions Ray Sims mentioned without giving any proof that they are “not as varied as the sheer number” suggests. Why not? How many definitions would you support?

I acknowledge that your field could well be grappling with problems of classification many are but failing to recognise a lack of clarity as a significant problem seems to me short sighted.

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Who Knows?

19 March 2008

Copyright, Creative Commons and the Limits of Knowledge

Maybe I am Crazy, by I’m Your Pusher, with Creative Commons licenceShare and share alike we’re told as kids, and it’s a pity we don’t always do so as adults. One of the more dubious, and most challenging, features of the Cyber Age is the promotion of intellectual property rights to the commercial extreme. Knowledge has become a commodity, and were it not for projects like Wikipedia and – let’s face it – rampant piracy, few would share the bounty of the times. But we can change that in our own small ways.

Yesterday I licensed the content of this blog under the auspices of the Creative Commons project. The details are at the bottom of the sidebar if you’re interested, and I hope you are.

Creative Commons Licence NotificationI’ve included the notification button here again – just click on it to see the exact conditions of my Attribution Share-Alike licence. Horrible name, I know, but it means that you can use what I write any way you like as long as you state that I created it in the first place. And I’m also asking you to offer the results of any changes under the same licence.

I’m not expecting a general sigh of relief and a rush to quote my material – Heaven forbid! What I’m doing is lending my modest support to a worthy cause.

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Time Enough to Loathe?

3 March 2008

A Three Minute Rule for the Cyber Age

Fed Up, by furryscalyCommunication is a delicate process; we assume much of it, but understand relatively little. Sure, the social sciences have given us an appreciation of the gap between words and thought, between the labels we give things and the nature of those things. But in our sophistication we insist on more, assuming that what we hear or read is the intended message, even when we know it might not be. Disappointment soon follows. Take the phrase ‘three-minute installation’, for instance. In my opinion it’s a malicious little lie.

Stephen Kosslyn’s Image and Brain

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We Shall Overcome

24 February 2008

In Praise of Knowledge Reworked

BrainIt’s impossible to discuss complex ideas without clarity, but don’t search for deeper meaning in Wikipedia or a dictionary. That was the message over at the Scatterplot blog last week. With a focus on academic submissions to a sociological journal it seems a valid point, but it also tells us something about hands-off commentary.

As passing quips, the posts on using Wikipedia for background information and appealing to dictionaries in defining complex ideas read very much like on-the-run, exasperated commentary. And they should be – journal editors have a responsibility to act as gatekeepers, screening out submissions not fully engaged in the world of ideas.

This isn’t as abstract as it might seem; a journal article is, or at least should be, a small contribution to how we understand the world, regardless of the discipline in which it was written. But look at the problem from a slightly different perspective. How can we ensure that cut-price sources become top-rate reference material?

definitionsLeaving dictionaries aside because they still involve a long process of submission, consideration and acceptance – not to mention the need for sometimes crippling brevity – what can we do about Wikipedia? From a blogger’s perspective, John Quiggin has provided a very simple answer.

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