Swimming in the Complex

Every now and then, you are reading a book or article, and a phrase jumps out and grabs you.  It happened last night on page 198 of David Weinberger‘s delightful Everything is Miscellaneous.

“The task of knowing is no longer to see the simple.  It is to swim in the complex.”


David’s book is an interesting look at how our attempts to categorize knowledge by systems such as the Dewey Decimal System worked for books but fails in the messy interconnected web world…and that is not bad!  In essence, the web allows every person to have a customized library of knowledge built around what makes sense to that individual.

Teachers and educators are in the “knowing” business.  When I work with faculty and suggest 21st Century solutions to their problems, I am generally met with resistance.  It is easy to understand why.   With the exception of a few early adopters, faculty generally have an established concept of how to do research.  They correctly note that they gained their success and became tenured professors through a time-honored process that did not involve the web.  Social networking has not been part of that process.

Tomorrow, Jeff Nugent and I will be working with operational research faculty at the INFORMS Teaching Effectiveness Colloquium. We are going to discuss what the research suggests about how people learn, how students have incorporated the web into their lives, and how technology can transform teaching and learning. We have a full day with them, so it should be interesting.  I am looking forward to seeing how open they are to ideas of messiness in teaching and learning!

Two nights ago, Jeff was a member of a panel discussing the Millennial Generation to Mass Communications students and faculty. One panel member stated that FaceBook did not have a place in education. Jeff countered that social networking was vital to education today. He noted how Twitter was typically the first means by which he learned of breaking news, and tried to describe how following in Twitter was akin to friending in FaceBook. He realized that the older members listening to him had no idea what he was describing. They did not get it.

I am starting to realize that one reason I do get it is that I swim in the complex every day. My normal routine every morning  and routinely during the day (7 days a week) is to first check emails, then Twitter, and then Google Reader, where I subscribe to over fifty blogs, a dozen news feeds, and some that are difficult to classify but definitely form part of my personal learning environment. I now assume that I will be part of a backchannel conversation in any meeting or conference I attend. This did not happen overnight, but it did happen in less than two years, and I now cannot conceive of returning to the old “manual” way of learning and knowing. It certainly is not simple, but it is right in line with David Weinberger’s reasoning.

Back in June, I used the stream analogy to reflect my emersion into Web 2.0.  It still fits, which is why David’s words resonated so powerfully with me. So, my advice to my colleagues is simple – the longer you try to keep your life simple and organized, the less you will know and the less you will be relevant.

Strong words or on target? Be interested in your thought!

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3 thoughts on “Swimming in the Complex

  1. Hello, Britt!

    Astute and accurate observation:”The longer you try to keep your life simple and organized, the less you will know and the less you will be relevant.” This is an important observation and it was not lost on me!

    It is impossible to remain relevant in education without engaging in the online learning revolution. It is simply amazing how much one’s vision changes when the world of Web 2.0 learning becomes personal and real in one’s own learning experience.

    It is hard – if not impossible – to explain the culture and nuances of a “new frontier.” It is like trying to communicate the beauty and charm of a foreign land to one who has never traveled. I am finding that words are insufficient. What does seem to be helpful is to share and model the knowledge learned in my “new world.” Educators are knowledge seekers. They often ask, “How did you know that?” This question, I find, is the teachable moment.

    I’ll use your quote far and wide: “The longer you try to keep your life simple and organized, the less you will know and the less you will be relevant.” When others ask “How do you know Britt Watwood?” I’ll point to the “new frontier” … the place I met you and the place where they can meet you too!

    Thank you for a thoughtful post!

  2. Kia ora Britt!

    Now you’ve got me thinking. That’s not always a good thing 🙂

    I’d be interested to see how the academic scientists fare with this idea. The reason I broach this is because Science has been built upon a set of models.

    These models have always started off fairly simple – Occam’s Razor played a large part in all of that. But (even without the Net and Web2.0) things quickly got a bit complex in Science.

    Newton’s bones were shaken when Einstein came along. The model of the atom has never rested since Dalton invented his one. The Universe, once so simple, is now too vast to take in at a billion glances, let alone a glance. The theory of matter has gotten all tied up with string. And the singularity called the black hole, isn’t so black any more.

    Science has always been aware of the capriciousness of simplicity. Yet scientists have always tried to look for the simplest explanations.

    A Scottish adage goes, “naethin’ cams itsel.” There are various renditions of this. They all mean the same. Things are never as simple as they seem. Just when you think you’ve got it sussed, someone comes along with an idea that rocks the boat and bamboozles everyone.

    I guess we could have predicted it would turn out that way. So what’s new?

    Ka kite

  3. I hadn’t heard of Weinberger’s book before; sounds intriguing. I don’t have much experience with academia, having worked in a less structured commercial environment for the past 17 years, but I have an information “swimming” method that’s somewhat similar to what you describe.

    Louis Gray wrote a similar blog post where he describes his information consumption methods (he doesn’t just swim; he dives deep and long):




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