#change11 Lower layers of connectivism?

I am confused. In the beginning, connectivism was considered on three layers: neural, conceptual, and social/ external. While the latter, topmost, layer has become increasingly popular, the lower layers seem to fade away from researchers’ interest. Recently even Stephen seemed to focus on just the social layer: “the central claim of connectivism, that the knowledge is found in the connections between people with each other”. What has become of the other two layers?

One quick answer would be that knowledge is identical on all three layers, but this is exactly what I cannot wrap my head around.

OK I can accept that the borders between the layers may sometimes blur. The connections between concepts are so similar to neural connections that, for example, the concept of “grandmother” seems just as if it was located in a single grandmother neuron. And when thinking of her cookies recipe, this external resource (layer 3) might sloppily be equated with the concept/ idea of her cookies (layer 2), and I (layer 3) “connect to the idea” (layer 2). But I cannot similarly equate some knowledge in a society with the knowledge in a person. And therefore I cannot picture the social knowledge as residing in the connections between people, in the same way as individual knowledge clearly is located in the connections between the concepts, or finally, between the neurons. The very word “knowledge” simply sounds different to me in the different contexts. (Perhaps this due to my ESL limitations and the different usage in German.)

The most striking difference shows when the social knowledge grows, i. e., when “learning” by the society occurs: Saying to “learn” something that nobody yet knows, sounds for me as a stretched, alien usage of the word where everybody would normally speak of research, or scientific or scholarly progress. And the resulting knowledge appears different, too.

In the sense of research, “learning” of the entire society would involve a shared goal, i. e. it would be collaborative while normal learning together may be cooperative. And of course, the obvious connotations of societal knowledge are much different, as well: The body of human knowledge is usually thought of as the stock of many libraries, artefacts, external resources — even though I am aware how much important knowledge does not fit to this simplistic view, is not codified and explicit but implicit and distributed: It takes the combined tacit knowledge of many people to build an airplane; Trusting the experiential knowledge of many generations is foundational for our world view; I acknowledge the importance of online resonance between persons, and I even understand how discussions [broken Google+ link reconstructed, 2019-12-22] can literally reside between people. But I cannot grasp societal knowledge as lying between people in the same way as individual knowledge resides in the connections between concepts or neurons. Using the same word “knowledge” for both phenomena, appears to me as too stretched, or as a lifeless abstraction, while the common neuronal metaphor can be much easier understood.

Any hint or reference is welcome.

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12 Responses to #change11 Lower layers of connectivism?

  1. roy williams says:

    First off,current writing on the ‘neuronal’ layer (e.g. McGilchrist and Greenfield:see recent posts in: http://roys-discourse-typologies.blogspot.com/)confirm yet again the brain’s plasticity, as well as its holographic rather than digital nature (if you must have a technical metaphor for the way it works). So no ‘grandmother neurons’!

    Second,the connections are merely necessary conditions for communication, not knowledge. Knowledge can most usefully be seen in Barthes words (‘every use becomes a sign of itself) or Wittgenstein’s words (‘meaning is use’) and in both cases knowledge and meaning is social in the sense that it is created, located, maintained, defended, and contested in the interactions between users, NOT in the connections, which are merely technical means.

    So to paraphrase the problem: knowledge lies in the (paradoxically) arbitrary-and-conventional USE of signs, metaphors, ideas, algorithsm, and it is located in the artefacts (signs) AS WELL AS in the conventions, which are maintained in communities (discourse communities, communities of practice, etc).


  2. Ken Anderson says:

    Does the statement:

    “Knowledge is in the connections”

    have any utility?

    Does knowledge ’emerge’ from connecting? i.e. is knowledge an emergent property of connecting?


  3. x28 says:

    Thanks, Ken, for the contribution. Unfortunately, I have to leave it to native speakers to respond to the subtleties of language.

    Roy, thank you for adding more illustrations of social knowledge which will gradually complete my picture of it. Your localisation of knowledge “in the interaction” and in “conventional use” makes me think if there is indeed knowledge somewhere “between” people which I missed, and if I should understand that knowledge MAY also reside in external relationships, similarly as it may also be temporarily offloaded to external “outboard brain” devices.
    However, I fear another problem arising because these signs and conventions seem to suggest that the “public” brain operates predominantly with languages and sentences, while Stephen has plausibly argued that the individual brain is NOT filled with propositions (and McGilchrist, too, shows the very restricted role of language for thought and ideas). So the top layer would still be different from those below.


  4. First, it is probably more accurate to speak of ‘domains’ of connectivity rather than layers. The use of ‘layers’ suggests some sort of ordering (from, eg., small to large) that isn’t really a defining characteristic. Using ‘domains’ allows us to recognize that *any* network, appropriately constituted, can be a learning and knowing system.

    Second, this usage, “knowledge is found in the connections between people with each other,” was a bit loose. I should have said ‘entities’ instead of ‘people’, where ‘entities’ refers to *any* set of entities in a connective network, not just people in a social network. I used ‘people’ because it’s more concrete, but it was a loose usage.

    That said, there are two major issues raised in this post. First, how is the sense of ‘knowledge’ equivalent in one domain and another. And second, how does knowledge cross between domains.

    The first raises a really interesting question: does knowledge have a phenomenal quality? And is the nature of this quality based in the physical properties of the network in which it is instantiated? I can easily imagine someone like Thomas Nagel (‘What is it like to be a bat?’) saying yes, that there is something that it ‘feels like’ for a neural network to ‘know’ something that (say) a computer network or a social network does not.

    Related to this is the question of whether such a phenomenal ‘feel’ would be epipehenomenal or whether it would have a causal efficacy. Does what it feels like to ‘know’ have any influence on our (other) knowledge states? Of is the ‘feel’ of knowing something merely incidental to knowing?

    What I want to say is that there is something in common in the ‘knowing’ experienced by a neural network and the ‘knowing’ experienced by a social network, that this something is described by the configuration of connections between entities, so that we can say that ‘knowing’ for each of these systems is the same ‘kind’ of thing in important respects, without also having to say that they are the ‘same’ thing.

    Different mechanisms create connections between people with each other and between neurons with each other (and between crows with each other in a crown network, etc). People use artifacts – words, images, gestures, etc. – to communicate with each other, while neurons use electro-chemical signals to communicate with each other. Though the patterns of connectivity between the two systems may be the same, the physical constitution of that pattern is different. It’s like a contrail in the sky and a ski trail in the snow – we can observe the sameness of the parallel lines, and make inferences about them (that they never meet, say), while at the same time observe that they have different causes, and that it ‘feels’ different to create a contrail than it does to create a ski trail.

    The same is true of knowledge. We can make observations about the set of connections that constitutes ‘knowing’ (that it is a mesh, that it embodies a long tail, that a concept is distributed across nodes, etc) independently of reference to the physical nature of that network. And yet, ‘knowing’ will ‘feel’ differently to a bunch of neurons than to a bunch of people (indeed, we can hardly say we know how a society ‘feels’ at all, except by analogy with how a human feels, which may not be a very accurate metaphor).

    The second comment concerns how knowledge is transferred between networks (to put the point *very* loosely). There are different senses to this point – how someone comes to know what society knows, how someone comes to know what someone else knows, how somebody comes to know what nobody knows.

    In the first instance – and I think this is really key to the whole theory of connectivism – there is no sense in which knowledge is *transferred* between any of these entities.

    This is most obvious in the latter case. Learning something nobody knows *cannot* be a case of knowledge transfer. The knowledge must therefore develop spontaneously as a result of input phenomena (ie., experience) and the self-organizing nature of appropriately designed networks.

    The organization that results from these conditions *is* the knowledge. The process of self-organizing *is* the process of learning. There are three major factors involved: the input phenomena, the learning mechanism, and the prior state of the network. There is a huge literature describing how such processes can occur.

    In the case of one person learning from another, the major different is that the phenomena being experience consist not just of objects and events in nature, but of the deliberate actions of another person. These actions are typically designed in such a way as to induce an appropriate form of self-organization (and there is a supposition that it encourages a certain amount self-organization that one could not obtain by experience alone – the ‘zone of proximal development’).

    What’s important to recognize is that the learning is still taking place in the individual, that the other person is merely presenting a set of phenomena (typically a stream of artifacts) to be experienced, and that one’s one learning mechanisms and prior state are crucial to any description of how that person learns.

    One of the key elements I’d like to point to here is ‘recognition’. This is a phenomenon whereby a partial pattern is presented as part of the phenomena, and where, through prior experience, the network behaves as though the full pattern were present. When we see half the letter ‘E’, for example, we read it as though the full letter ‘E’ were present.

    To ‘know’ that ‘A is B’ is to ‘recognize’ that ‘A is B’, that is, when presented with ‘A’, one reacts as though being presented with a ‘B’. Recognition lies at the core of communication, as it allows (for example) a symbol ‘tiger’ to suggest a phenomenon (a tiger).

    What is important to understand here is that the recognition is something the *recipient* brings to the table. It is not inherent in the presentation of the phenomenon, and may not even be intended by the presenter (indeed, as likely as not, the presenter had something different in mind).

    This also tells us how a piece of knowledge (so-called; there probably aren’t really ‘pieces’ of knowledge) travels from one network to another network. Observe, for example, a murmuration of blackbirds. We humans (the neural networks) observe a flowing dynamic shape in the sky, like a big blob of liquid. We perceive the other network as a whole, and perceive it *as* something. We &recognize* a pattern in the other network.

    When a human observes the behaviour of a social network, the human (ie, the neural network) can recognize and respond to patterns in that social network. The patterns are not actually ‘created by’ or even ‘intended’ by the social network; they are what we would call ’emergent properties’ of the network, supervenient on the network.

    So: a person watches 14 other people use the word ‘grue’ in such and such a context; when the person sees artifacts corresponding to ‘grue’ he *recognizes* it as an instance of that context. That is to say, on presentation of the artifact representing ‘grue’, he assumes an active set of connections similar to what he would assume if presented with that particular context.

    As a postscript, it’s worth mentioning that there’s no sense of ‘collaboration’ or ‘shared goal’ inherent in any of this. Indeed, I would argue that the use of such terminology makes assumptions that cannot really be justified.

    When we say that ‘society knows P’, what do we mean? *Not* that a certain number of individuals in society know P. There is no apriori reason to assume that social knowledge is the same as individual knowledge, and indeed, it is arguable, and in some senses demonstrable, that what society knows is *different* from what an individual knows. Why? Because the prior state is different, because the learning mechanisms are different, and most importantly, the input phenomena are different.

    A society does not, for example, perceive a forest in the same way a human does. A society cannot perceive a forest directly. A human perceives a forest by looking at it, smelling it, walking through it. A society has no such sensations.

    A human does not, for example, perceive a neural activation in the same way a neuron does. A neuron receives a series of tiny electro-chemical signals. A human has no such sensations.

    A human can only recognize a neural activation *as* something – a forest, say. A society can only recognize a perception *as* something – en economic unit, say, a tract, or something we don’t even have a word for.

    A human can experience neural activations only in the aggregate – only as a network – in which it may recognize various emergent properties. This set of network activations (this ‘sensation’) is associated with ‘that’ set of network activations (that ‘knowledge’). The same with a society. It can never experience the forest through the perspective of only one individual – it can only experience the forest through the aggregate of individual perspectives.

    The whole dialogue of ‘collaboration’ presumes that a set of humans can create a fictitious entity, and by each human obtaining the same knowledge (neural state, opinions and beliefs, etc), can imbue this fictitious entity with that state. And by virtue of this action, the fictitious entity can then be assigned some semblance of agency analogous (but magnified) to a human agency.

    Assuming that it makes sense to imagine such a creation (and there are many difficulties with it) such a construct does not have independent cognitive properties; it cannot ‘learn’ on its own, and it cannot ‘know’ more (or anything different) than any of its constituent human members.


  5. Ken Anderson says:

    >Learning something nobody knows *cannot* be a case of knowledge transfer.

    Why not? Can’t knowledge be transferred from non-human entities? Are you only considering human artifact-ual knowledge?


  6. By ‘nobody’ I mean ‘no knowing entity’, which leaves us only with rocks and sticks and such, which do not have the knowledge in the first place to be able to transfer it.


  7. Bill Gough says:

    Quick response to: “A neuron receives a series of tiny electro-chemical signals. A human has no such sensations. ..”
    Hmmm – first time I ever used an electric blanket – there was a brand-new sensation for me; as if my body were disintegrating (no, I hadn’t ingested anything special!) As soon as the blanket’s dial was lowered, the sensation went away. When it clicked on, the sensation went away. However, a ‘something’ remained even when it was idle. Anytime I’ve been in range of even the modern blankets, I ‘feel’ this. I had absolutely no expectation that this would happen, my senses transmitted the electo-sensations – via electro-chemical pulsings, I suspect,directly to my body & my responses. Once I perceived this sensation connected to the blanket, and others I tried, I was able to perceive the same sensation near other fields. Now, of course, I have the words to respond & describe – but prior to this I had NO expectations, nor had anyone in my circles, ‘prepped’ me for such responses. My mother praised up the very blanket that felt to me as if it were unraveling my perceptual zone. I began asking people about this feature of the ‘toasty blanket’ and discovered that in my circle of friends & family, a few others had felt the same thing. So…perhaps we may be so word-&-reason-trained that we filter out what appears to me, to be a direct kinetic response to a very low-level activity. A small point, but I thought it would be worth passing along.


  8. Ken Anderson says:

    I am curious to understand more about your concept of ‘knowing entity’. On what properties do you base your dichotomy? Composition? Inanimation? Others?


  9. glen says:

    Great read. Perhaps there’s something about consciousness in here. When you talk about the connection between your grandmother and the concept of her recipe or cookies, this is just one example of a connected knowledge in a person…with any number of other connected instances lying sub-consciously somewhere in your mind, which you may or may not realize at some point. Similarly, a societal sub-conscious is knowledge and meaning that exists among the connections and actions of that community, awaiting discovery. This would be a similarity.

    I might agree with you, that there is an important distinction between the two types of knowledge. Compared to an individual (or, brain) made up of cells and neurons, a Society is made up of much more autonomous distinctions, with a greater potential of differing individual intentions. This is the collaborative vs cooperative tension that you bring up; often at direct odds with each other in a society, and thus in need of strategies to construct suitable networks for intentional purposes. I agree that it is too stretched for Connectivism, which I’ve mentioned before.


  10. roy says:

    Hi Matthias, love your ‘outboard brain’ – this is so much more ‘alive’ and dynamic than ‘commoditised knowledge’ (as in propositional logic). To be brief: we can distinguish between executive (a stronger form of the linguistic term, ‘performative’)knowledge as ‘capacity of effective action’, and that can ‘reside in’ a person, or a group or network of persons, or an institution, on the one hand,and procedural knowledge on the other hand, which is captured in ‘traces’ – in the brain, and/or in artefacts in various ‘outboard brains’, etc.

    Also love your metaphor of ‘ports’ and the connection between ports (elsewhere), as in: stations in rail networks – coming into London, or coming into Paris) – if you arrive at a different ‘port’, that gives you a different ‘take’ and perspective on the city.

    Mayby ‘portalism’ rather than ‘connectivism’?


  11. x28 says:

    Stephen, many many thanks for the rich explanation. It is still a very difficult topic, but no longer the stretched lifeless abstraction of “knowledge” of the society, but a much more vivid analogy that I can relate to when I imagine, for example, the “knowing” in the network of the 14 grue-ologists, or in the connections between connectivists and their constructivist, cognitivist and behaviorist predecessors.

    Regarding collaboration, I simply assumed this if I was forced to think of some abstract society “whole” who decides to learn.

    Thanks Bill and Glen and Roy for the added coloring of the difficult topic.


  12. admin says:

    Hi Matthias – thank you very much for allowing sharing of your post via your creative commons licence, we have posted on the one change a day blog calendar


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