Complexity, Computing, Contemplation, Learning?

Beyond conscious rationality

All of my work has been around harnessing the digital world to get us to go beyond the surface and think more deeply. Up till now this has been largely focused on rational modes of thinking, inquiry and sensemaking — hence all the stuff on argumentation, dialogue/debate mapping and hypermedia.

However, we are more than rational beings, and we know an increasing amount about the central role of the unconscious in dealing creatively with complex dilemmas that seem not to yield to conscious effort. I’ve touched on this a bit but it’s certainly been second fiddle adding harmonies to the primary melody. For instance, having been profoundly impressed, and moved, by Adam Kahane’s conflict resolution work (Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities), I concluded a 2008 chapter (Knowledge Cartography for Controversies: The Iraq Debate) as follows:

Finally, while we are certainly interested in improving information management, sharpening critical thinking and promoting sound argumentation, at the same time, these are only part of the story if knowledge mapping tools are to go beyond fostering critical analysis (albeit a worthy end in its own right), and provide support for shaping, not just analysing, the hardest kinds of policy deliberations. Those who are engaged in conflict resolution in the most strife-ridden communities and countries (not to mention the less extreme dynamics within our organisations), remind us that the key to making true progress is to establish the context for open dialogue in which stakeholders learn to listen to each other properly, and co- construct new realities (Isaacs, 1999; Kahane, 2004).

Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. Doubleday: New York
Kahane, A. (2004). Solving Tough Problems. Berrett-Koehler: San Francisco

However, this was still focused on dialogue, albeit the deeper listening aspects so important in reconciliation, rather than the critical thinking/rational discourse I had focused on. But 2008 was clearly something of a watershed for me, since I also began to think about bringing in research on completely different modes of being and engagement — namely the contemplative and the spiritual — and wrote a series of posts on the intersection of learning, creativity, computing — and critically — the contemplative mind.

A lot has happened in the intervening years, and sparked by some recent tweets and ensuing links around sensemaking and complexity, I’ve been drawn back to this work, and can sense a new matrix of connections beckoning.

The drivers

We are confronting unprecedented turbulence and upheaval in formerly established, stable sectors of society, driven by a whole perfect storm of factors. For instance, Deloitte’s Shift Index is one set of strategic analytics on the impact of the new digital infrastructure and associated innovation economy on US business, leading the authors to the conclusion that knowledge flows and social learning are now the factors of first order importance, themes eloquently developed by John Seely Brown and colleagues in The Power of Pull and A New Culture of Learning. Here’s a fragment of argument map I used in a talk to interpret some of their case:

Power of Pull: Argument Map

Moreover, depending on who else you read, our times are also afflicted by political, intellectual, environmental and existential crises… [did I miss one?]

Learning Power

Meanwhile, since the 2008 blog posts, as both a researcher and chair of school governors, I have been engaging firstly with the work of Guy Claxton [see my blog posts], and then increasingly with this network’s co-founder, Ruth Deakin Crick [blog posts], both of whom developed tools based on the original Learning Power project they ran. This has been hugely productive, enabling me to see how the capacities which are so clearly needed for the 21st century can, through good teacher development, be fostered in young people (including my own children), and in adults.

Complexity and organisations

In a second strand, I’ve gained much from the work of Dave Snowden, who has been on a fascinating journey from “knowledge management” in IBM, to making progress with the Cynefin framework and Cognitive Edge services in turning the emerging science of complexity into practical tools to help our institutions address these new challenges.

Complexity science, organisational learning, learning-to-learn, and ecological resilience thinking, has started to come together in talks such as this, and this.

Facilitator/practitioner experience

A third strand of work has been the doctoral research by Al Selvin, who has been developing an empirically grounded framework which gives voice to the experience of expert practitioners using participatory, visual media (especially hypermedia) to scaffold real-time team sensemaking. Al’s work brings together many of conceptual strands that have long intruiged me – and some new ones outside my experience – in a powerful new configuration: sensemaking, narrative, aesthetics, ethics, and improvisation.

Contemplative computing

And so we come to contemplative computing. It’s a phrase I’ve used informally in a few conversations, and associated with the line of work described by David Levy, blogged earlier:

David M. Levy, “To Grow in Wisdom: Vannevar Bush, Information Overload, and the Life of LeisureProceedings of the 5th ACM/IEEE-CS joint conference on Digital Libraries, (New York: ACM, 2005), 281-286.
David M. Levy, “Information, silence, and sanctuary“, Ethics and Information Technology, 9 (2007), 233–236.
David M. Levy, “No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship“, Ethics and Information Technology, 9 (2007), 237–249.

But it wasn’t until last week that I came across Alex Pang, who’s published a draft paper on the topic following a sabbatical at Microsoft Research Cambridge. I spent the weekend building wardrobes and listening to it read to me from my laptop by a speech-to-text tool, which (apart from reminding me of what  machines don’t do well…) gave me an initial feel for what he’s doing, and some time to contemplate it while doing something manual (!).

From the introduction:

“Contemplation offers a variety of benefits. A contemplative stance can help people be more creative; deal with complex problems that require months or years to solve; and is essential to long-term happiness. Contemplation promotes both self-sufficiency and close, questioning observation of the world, and both are particularly valuable in this moment in the history of technology.”

This was a hugely enjoyable read. What if we were able to teach our children and ourselves:

“…to recognize the psychic value of disciplined attention, of learning how to set aside the self when facing challenges, and to know how to be focused and in the moment.” (p.9)

Section 2, where Pang defines his terms, is short enough to reproduce:

“2. On Contemplation

Contemplation is an ancient word describing a vast set of practices for deepening one’s spiritual awareness, connecting with the divine, or reaching enlightenment, that have been refined over thousands of years. While I believe we can draw on that tradition, it’s also necessary to abstract and simplify it. Here, I define contemplation to be a form of detached, calm engagement. Each of these terms has layers worth exploring.

By detached I mean an effort to see without preconditions. Detachment allows one to avoid being surprised by novelty, to be blindsided, or to miss unexpected events because of limits caused by over-reliance on familiar routines and perspective. [Langer and Moldoveau, 2000] Detachment also allows a person to observe themselves, to evaluate their reactions to a situation in real time, and to more quickly and purposefully alter those reactions: to ignore hunger or pain or suspend judgment, for example. By calm I mean the ability of users to mobilize their skill and self-control, to avoid excitement, and thus maintain detachment and engagement. Engagement is the ability to focus attention on a subject, to keep the mind from wandering off on its own. It also requires paying attention to yourself. If the external world or your task is the center of your attention, your own senses and reactions are at the periphery: you monitor and observe them in order to be aware of their influence, not because there are worth your attention on their own.

One might think that detachment and engagement are opposites, but they are not. Detachment of one’s emotions or ego doesn’t prevent immersion in the moment; it’s a precondition for it. As Mihaly Csikszentmihaly puts it, “The absence of the self from consciousness does not mean that a person in flow has given up the control of his psychic energy, or that she is unaware of what happens in her body or in her mind. In fact the opposite is true,‖ he says. The loss of self-consciousness ―does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self…. When not preoccupied with our selves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are.” [Csikszentmihaly 1991, 64]”

Pang goes on to make the case that far from being a solo phenomenon locked in the mind, “contemplation” is skillful, embodied, solitary and social, and spatial. He then proposes a number of design principles (see below), which I’m still processing.

Given my 2008 brush with these ideas, it’s exciting to see this line of work unfolding, and it sparks the following set of questions, to which I currently have fragmented possible responses.

We know that contemplation, or the contemplative mind/stance, can help us think and learn more deeply. How do we design technology to augment this?

  • Pang puts forward some design principles:
    • Build awareness through DIY and self-experimentation
    • Recognize that we are cyborgs, and humans
    • Create rewarding challenges
    • Support mind-wandering
    • Treat flow as a means, not an end
  • On the last one in particular, he critiques game designers who have excelled at creating “flow” experiences as their own end, rather than Csikszentmihaly’s intention:

“as a means to a larger end — a more contemplative attitude, a deeper engagement with work, a better life — not as an end in itself.”

  • I don’t yet have any generic design principles to suggest, but am drawn — doubtless shaped by my previous work — to the importance of connection, and sparking associations that might not otherwise have been made. Work with Clara Mancini on Cognitive Coherence Relations theory and hypermedia may be a source to return to here, since it deals with fundamental, almost primitive associative building blocks that we seem to use as humans, such as co-occurrence and causality [1,2].

Does the contemplative mind have something distinctive to offer particularly with respect to making sense of complex dilemmas and systems? (in contrast to ‘merely’ complicated problems)

  • Complex systems defy our rational capacities to grasp in their entirety, but could it be that our unconscious minds, nurtured through the disciplines of contemplation, and augmented through technology (e.g. visualization and network science) holds a key? Can contemplative computing serve as a way of expanding one’s sense of the bigger picture, seeing new connections and patterns?
  • Much of my work inspired by the challenges of Rittel’s wicked problems has explored computer-supported discourse and visualization as one approach, but requiring users to make their thinking explicit and visible as these approaches do, this does not seem in the same vein as contemplation.
  • In A New Culture of Learning, Doug Thomas & John Seely Brown draw attention to play, questioning and imagination as keys to a new culture of learning capable of coping with unprecedented complexity. It feels like these have important relationships to contemplation, sharing an emphasis on mindset, letting go, being in the flow, exploring and querying possible worlds, and non-verbal modalities…

How does narrative relate to contemplation? Are they cousins?

  • Snowden, Weick, Gabriel, Orr and many others place significant emphasis on narrative as a distinctive and important way of knowing, particularly in complex, turbulent times. Browning & Boudès provide an interesting synthesis of Karl Weick’s and Dave Snowden’s work on managing complexity, with respect to narrative.
  • My student Joanna Kwiat reviewed the literature on narratological models, and why story is a powerful mode of professional knowledge-sharing.
  • Pang points to the narratives that digital media lead us to construct about ourselves.

What is the relationship between Learning Power, the unconscious, and the contemplative mind?

  • There are already some good answers to this, since Claxton has thought extensively about both
  • Two of the Learning Power dimensions in Ruth Deakin Crick’s ELLI tool highlight creativity and strategic awareness. I’ve already discussed how the dimension of resilience connects to the dynamics of creativity and inhabiting the discomfort of liminal space.

How can contemplative computing promote mindful presence and selfless attention to the task in hand?

  • This was the focus of Al Selvin’s research (see above) who reviews the extensive research into the professional practices of those for whom this is crucial, such as facilitators/conflict resolution, and other forms of professional practice.
  • Pang reviews some literature on professions bring contemplation into their practices, but I don’t know whether anyone else has answered this question with respect to contemplative computing.

Is there an important relationship between contemplation, computing, and the new kinds of pedagogies and curricula needed for today?

  • Again, I have poorly developed thoughts on this. I found Helen Jelfs‘ doctoral research with Ruth one stimulating source, which reviews the shift in worldviews we have witnessed though classical, modern, postmodern and now relational — shifts which may come to be reflected our educational paradigms.
  • Another line of inquiry is to go back to one of the distinctive features of contemplative practices from all of the major traditions: that one comes to a truer sense of oneself, and one’s relationship with “the bigger picture” — however you choose to name this. So, this is pointing to the construction of narrative about one’s identity, which Ruth Deakin Crick has argued sits at the heart of authentic, deep learning which connects with our life stories. Contemplative Computing in action should, arguably, foster such qualities.

I hope that I’ll make some progress on these issues with the very eclectic and expansive thinkers who make up the new Learning Emergence network, but feedback very much welcomed on these nascent thoughts from anyone who comes across this. One thing I do know is that others will have thought longer and more deeply on this — let’s connect…

About the author

Simon Buckingham Shum

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