Perhaps the most salient fallacy of the modern day is to substitute a limited piece of a system for a system. In the era of networked stuff, everyone everywhere is discovering that everything is a complex dynamic system. Networks of multiple, self-organizing nodes which inform each other and improve each other and through which changes percolate in unpredictable ways. Yet it seems we still like to latch on, through laziness or despair or impatience or I don’t know what, to metaphors, concepts, ideas that are linear and limited in scope, and they lead us to wipe out the beauty of a wonderfully inclusive and democratic and healthy ecosystem and set up in its place a comparatively barren and mechanical causal power relationship.
The classroom, for instance. It’s turning out to be a complex social network where you need to spend careful time including the students as nodes and contributors to and creators of the verdant learning, rather than a sterile operating room in which a hyper-tuned cause (teacher) has a surgical effect (knowledge insertion) on an inert thing (student). Because otherwise you won’t help students figure out how to engage in the world, where it seems they have actually always been and will continue always to be nodes in a complex social learning network. But the idea coheres in many other domains. The Environment. Healthcare. Politics.
I call it thinking about the teeth when what you need to encourage, say, is a mouth. You focus on the teeth and you ignore the gums. Why? Because it’s easy to conceive of a nice, hard, concrete, discrete tooth, which acts in a very direct and visceral way upon a piece of inert matter. Also a tooth is pretty. But gums, what the heck are these? Mushy, touchy, grabby, complex geometries poking up over here and tapering off over there, requiring the regular painstaking care of flossing, doing the invisible and unflattering work of connecting teeth and protecting their vulnerable parts 24/7.
The image works for the college campus, too, where the teeth–visible, conceivable, powerful, discrete entities–are the easily known, papable things–say, faculty as John Housman in The Paper Chase, or pillared buildings, or capstone courses, or research grants, but the gums are all over the place, complex, sometimes visible and sometimes not, unobserved, toiling away. What are they? Probably not on the tour. Various support services. Work groups. Meetings. Co-curricular exercises. Faculty as advisors, mentors, friends, late-night graders, vulnerable learners. Places people take a step back and look around them. Two people sharing an idea over lunch. Things that connect. Things that protect. Things that sense trouble. People.
When you think about a complex system and its health and happiness and nodiness (if you will), you probably end up spending more energy on things like gums and making sure they work. Otherwise there’s no system. What does this mean for us in Libraries and IT and Higher Education? I’m not sure. Maybe it means we should set aside our fancy plans, and strategies, and programs, and get gummy, bust out our feelers and start moving around like crabs, meeting people, touching stuff, making connections, looking for trouble, sniffing out ideas, looking back at ourselves, connecting trouble to trouble-fixers, connecting ideas to idea-doers, protecting the teeth we’ve got, looking for missing teeth to replace. Who knows? If it works, it could mark the beginning of something great. Like the Age of the Gums.