do you know networks? on leaving the Garden of Eden

Today, class, we’re going to talk about networks. And education. And power relations. Yes, again. I KNOW. You poor lambs.

I fear becoming a proselytizer. The good people who show up at my door asking if I know Jesus are not my people. I like doubters, complications, ideas that break down assumptions and build toward further questions, not answers.

And yet every time I introduce the topic of networks I feel as if I inch a little closer to preaching to the self-selected network choir and ONLY the network choir and I worry. Preaching is not the work I set out to do. Rather, I want to dig, to lay out ideas, to build new ideas. I am ever-tempted by the Tree of Knowledge. But – and this is my problem, perhaps, a problem shared by my entire household…or at least its members over four feet tall – I no longer think it is a tree.

I have thought, for ten years since I first read Deleuze and Guattari and mentioned them in passing to Dave Cormier in a long-distance phone booth call from Switzerland to Korea, that it is a rhizome. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is not an apple, in my belief systems.

It is a weed.

Yet I was raised by the tidy gardeners and the pesticide companies and the folks who built enclosures for weedy ideas, locking them in like dandelions under glass. And likely, dear reader, so were you.

I talk about networks not to try to convert you…but to try to understand the limits of the systems we were raised in. To understand what is happening now that structure of those systems and their institutions no longer describes the structure of information flow in our society. To understand how and why the powers-that-be still rely, structurally, on those systems’ totalizing capacity. To ask how it has come to be that participatory networked practices are more likely to be framed as threats than opportunities for education in the 21st century. And to wonder who benefits from that framing.

(Okay, maybe I am trying to convert you, a little. Only because the Eden we thought we grew up in is gone.)

I chose a profession I initially understood in terms of tidy gardener and encloser roles: I became a teacher. I wanted to get as close to the Tree of Knowledge as I could, and to bring others into that garden. But teaching is messy: it bears little resemblance to distributing apples in Eden. I taught Inuit high school students from a social studies curriculum in which their people and their history did not appear at all; I taught GED adult learners in a back room in a tiny rural schoolhouse where many of them had learned, as children, that they were not made to succeed in school. The desks were too small for all of us. The metaphorical apples clunked on the floor. My students had long ago learned to distrust apples.

It was through weeds that I reached them, any of them, to whatever extent I reached them: informal threads snaking from one human to another. They were not Eves waiting to eat. Our learning happened underground, snaking underneath the formal level of the curriculum. Tentative connections, in multiple directions. I tried to design learning experiences, but I did not control them. Most often it was me who learned: variations on How Not To Fail The Same Way Twice.

I began to understand that my concepts of success and failure were stacked around a very narrow stream of life options and legitimacy. I began to sense the edges of what Knobel & Lankshear (2006) call “the deep grammar of schooling,” the institutionalization of my own thoughts and conceptual tools. I began to think of print as an educational problem for my students, not a solution.

My issue was not with the technology of letters per se. I love print as text, the ways its technology of letters allows for skimming and floating and starting in the middle.

My critique was for the culture of print: the Truths we use it to reinforce and regulate and reify.

My Masters thesis (2000) led me to think about the ways print works, about the ways in which the technologies of a given time shape what it means to know in that time. Things written in print are either finished or not. They do not blend into each other; they do not create webs. They create canons, privileging some over others and erasing the steps of their logic so as to make it all appear natural. They encourage us to see knowledge as finite and discrete; truth as singular, sanctioned. Our cultural attachment to the idea of knowledge as arboreal, tree-like, apple-whole: this is based in print, in The Good Book itself and moreso, in the very idea of The Good Book. Yet this Eden of high print culture, so deeply embedded in Enlightenment ideals of binaries and taxonomies, has never really had apples for everybody.

Dave Cormier’s #rhizo14 course this week is taking on the limitations of print in a Nicholas Carr parody titled “Is books making us stupid?” Risky, that. Even those of us who have spent years unpacking all the ways that print as a medium hardens and solidifies knowledge are still culturally conditioned to love books. *I* love books. When Dave announced the title for this week’s theme, I laughed and winced and hoped no offended book enthusiasts would feel it necessary to beat him about the head with a dictionary.

I don’t think books make us any stupider currently than we always have been. But even as we cling to our bookshelves of beloved companions with their dusty pages and their old-book smell, it behooves us to consider the ways in which print has shaped us societally towards institutionalization and compliance, the ways in which the deep grammar of schooling is written in print.

Because we are conditioned think of books not as technologies of paper, with particular affordances, but as representations of human good.

It’s true that until the last generation, books stood as the epitome of human capacity to share knowledge. Books were bastions against ignorance…symbols of freedom of thought against repression and enclosure. But…and this is important…it was the free exchange of ideas and communications we valorized in that Enlightenment ideal. Not actually the small yet increasingly commodified paper packet. Yet we conflated the two. And in the process, we allowed the grammar of schooling to reinforce a Romantic identification of books, in particular, with all things noble about humanity.

And that’s a mistake, because for all that good and that beautiful, undeniable history, books and their affordances – their action possibilities – are part of a complex economic system just as digital technologies are, and create mindsets that can be as limiting as they are freeing.

Books teach us implicitly that the culmination of writing as an act of communications is a product, not a conversation; a finite rather than a fluid thing. Books teach us that the one speaks to the many, but the many cannot speak back and be heard.

Education as a system is built upon and relies on the taxonomic, hierarchic structures print reinforces. It relies on people learning their places within those structures. Education is historically both a product and a producer of a deeply-embedded command and control society, as Matt Reed pointed out in Inside Higher Ed earlier this week. Now, networks have power relations too…networks can amplify inequality just as they amplify everything else. But their power relations are less fixed, more quixotic. They can cause harm, absolutely. But our conversations about that harm and about throwing one’s life away with a tweet seldom take up the harm that institutionalized power relations of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and classism enact upon people every day. Those are the power relations naturalized by The Book and the deep grammar of schooling it is embedded in.

And here’s the thing. Perhaps that was, arguably, the best we could do. At least until knowledge and information exceeded the scarce and weighty bonds of paper and the distribution structures of shipping through time and space. It is no longer the best we can do. It is no longer WHAT most of us do, in our day to day lives. Yet the institutions and gatekeepers of the old Eden struggle to adapt and maintain the familiar balance of power by convincing us we are still better off relying, passive and trusting, on their noblesse oblige than on each other.

I do not think we should throw out our books. I am not such a network evangelist that I want what books have stood for to fall away from us, as humans. But nor do I want that to remain the limit of our vision.

Because in a world of information abundance, the walled Garden of Eden it reified is…gone. It cannot be brought back. Those who sell us a simulacra of its glories are only propping up the power relations of the past.

That Eden of *real* print culture is only a Potemkin village now, no matter how the gardeners and the pesticide companies would like to gain control back over the weeds. Let us leave the apples behind, and see what those weeds can reap.

27 Comments do you know networks? on leaving the Garden of Eden

  1. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

    This probably deserves 3 or 4 or 12 more reads before replying, but as usual here, your words pop electric impulses in my head that don’t want to stay there.

    To push back; is the metaphorical Garden of Eden we are leaving a bit of an illusion? If so, then all ym school consisted of a cloistered experience where we were exposed to the power and radiation of books; we had no discussion, no generating responses to books, no attempting to aborb, reject, assimilate what books provided.

    Almost Books are a pure body of knowledge? I don’t recall any education experience that was that.

    And not that I know it well, but wasn’t the Talmud a bit of writing with a whole bunch of conversational scribbling in the margins?

    I think you write it, but it has always been conversational; the book(s) as reference, absolute ones, is what we are looking maybe to replace, not wholly, but in part?

    Yes, education today is different in form as it was in my day, and in turn my parents day though I know my father got his occupational training from a correspondence program that was from a school that began that mode in like 1915.

    What exactly is this Eden then we are leaving? Was it really there?

    1. bon

      Cmon, Alan. Your response practically raises print culture proclivities to their nth degree…a parody of tendencies towards fixing ideas and making them binary rather than complex? :)

      I said “Books teach us the one can speak to the many” (provided they get the right book contract) “but the many cannot speak back and be heard.” That is not the same as saying there’s no chance not to assimilate – but it comes from whatever other cultural conversations kids have access to and they’re wise to show the proper assimilation on the test, at the very least. So sure, we discuss books in school. We talk to our classmates and write little responses (sometimes deeply-felt, sometimes entirely regurgitated) for our teachers, often about the characters of long-dead authors. That, for me – as explored here last month – is just not the same in terms of experience OR power relations as peer-to-peer engagement with people about what they or I write. They may both be conversations, but if you are in a conversation and no one hears you, or most of what gets taken up is how you’re failing to do it right, those are not the same things. The experience of my students when I stuck to the rubric and the tacit print taxonomies of what views count was NOT one of being in a conversation, but of being discounted, devalued. I had to teach the rubric itself and the assumptions underpinning it and unpack it with them to even get them to dare trust entering the conversation at all.

      I don’t think we’re talking about a pure body of knowledge but something that has indeed been used as if it were, not least by the door-to-door Jesus people of The Book.

      The Talmud absolutely is different. But it comes out of a long and complex history of scholarship, outsidership, and belief in The Book that did not entirely match what got reified by the Enlightenment and morphed through a variety of insider power structures. Early mass print culture – as the link to my thesis post notes – could have gone a different way too…Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy from the 1700s is practically post-modern in how it deals with multiplicity of voice. But then we steered away from that perspective and didn’t come back for two hundred years.

      So did this Eden ever exist? The ideals by which an ethos defines itself never really exist, I don’t think…and yet they do. They are enacted and imposed on the powerless within society all the time. In a true print culture society, the good came with the bad…our concepts of public education grew out of imperialist and robber baron histories, but they were eventually extended to all in the space. Networks don’t do that so well, because we can’t see the limits of the room. So if we move to the new commercial space where mass media are “networked” but we are primarily consumers of those networked broadcasts…that’s even worse. There’s less responsibility there.

      So I’m not saying Eden was as you take it up…I’m not making deterministic claims about books, but saying their affordances are nonetheless closed and built on complex gatekeeping systems the “noble freedom of human history” narrative works to hide and make invisible. And we need to unpack that just like we need to unpack the limitations and power relations of networks, but networks do not have the weight of money, power and history working to prop them up as natural and trustworthy. Or sure, looking to replace books as the absolute reference. ;)

  2. Dr M. Funes

    “Our task here, if you will, is de-reifying: loosening the grip of literalism. Bateson was fond of the slogan “Help Stamp Out Nouns,”
    and much of his work was aimed toward that challenge, aimed toward de-reifying our way of thinking. Almost any noun can become a dormitive principle: “instinct,” “courage,” “romanticism”—and, dare we add, “creativity” and “play”? We do so love to nail things down. ” Nachmanovitch (2009)

    And dare I add ‘networks’ and ‘rhizomes’ ‘power relations’?

    1. bon

      Absolutely, networks and rhizomes power relations need to be explored just as much…or almost as much, as I said at the bottom of the looooong comment to Alan above. ;)

      My preference would be to lay them all out and try to unpack and visualize the ways they work, what they privilege, who they benefit intentionally and unintentionally. But our attachment to books as goods in themselves – as artifacts of our own goodness – is so powerful that it gets in the way.

      Note to self: this is the second reminder in, oh, about a week that I need to read Bateson. Thank you!

  3. jollyroger

    Hi Bonnie, this comment does not even scratch the surface of your post, but I’d like to express (and make clearer to myself, actually) one point that has been in the back of my head all week, reading through the discussion on books in #rhizo14.

    So please allow me to use your space to make a naive comment, and get the benefit of your very insightful feedback… : )

    Well, I see the point of the critique of power structures that you make (although I’m still struggling to understand all the complexities involved), and it resonates with my own thoughts and feelings, which claim everyday for “more freedom!”

    But the thing is, I want to have books around, because I think some modes of knowledge they incorporate are useful. (I am not sure to what extent you are denying this, if at all.)

    Surely, we have to change our ordinary relationships to them, and the existing print culture has to be modified, for all the reasons you present.

    But I feel we would be losing a precious thing if people suddenly stopped writing books… Maybe it’s the same feeling people had when culture changed from oral to written mode, I don’t know…

    But isn’t it relevant to consider a “both/and” model instead of an “either/or” one? Or am I totally missing the point of your discussion, in considering that it seems to be more on the “either/or” side?

    1. jollyroger

      Ok, just to be more specific, I saw you addressed this questions in the post, and that you do not “want what books have stood for to fall away from us, as humans. But nor do I want that to remain the limit of our vision.”

      But still… my point is, isn’t it the case that sometimes it is useful to have “the one talking to the many”? And that maybe this possibility shouldn’t be simply excluded completely…

      1. bon

        JollyRoger…thanks for the honest questions. I think in a sense you note in your second one, though, that you know I’m not making “let us ban books forever” statements. Do you think we’re in danger of either books OR the one to many format of broadcast communications (using other media) ACTUALLY disappearing? Given the amount of money and power invested there?

        This perceived threat seems to compel people to pop up and say “but should we get rid of this entirely?” when there’s been no suggestion of anything absolute or entire happening at all. I don’t think networks even COULD take over entirely, nor have I seen anyone suggest they should.

        So honest question in return…where does that need come from? To reassure ourselves that any call for destabilization of the status quo isn’t absolute? Which then effectively blocks any discussion of the often more complex or partial positions proposed?

        Now, the lack of complexity or partiality here may be my fault…but I’m still curious about the tendency for “x has many negative effects” statements to be taken up as “but is x TOTALLY bad?” rather than “let’s look at x’s effects and consider them.” I read this, in the way Foucault uses the term power, as a means of shutting down the discourse of change. Do you mean it as something else? Or when – and again, I’m really trying to have a civil discussion here and don’t want you to read this as hostile in any way – you read “print has x effects” is your first response really not to think about those effects but to rally in defense of the unlikely obliteration of print?

        I’m trying to figure out how to be a better proseltyizer, basically. ;)

  4. Simon

    Thanks Bonnie for this.

    I have just been looking at internet connection statistics

    provided by the World Bank who announce on their website (that I am able to view in the relative comfort of a French university learning space) that they are working for a world free of poverty.

    I am of the opinion that working for a world free of poverty is jolly good. I am not convinced that the World Bank are working for free…Strangely neither am I.

    I am not sure what poverty is (as I have never been really poor long enough).

    In your post there are a number of pronouns – “we, us” I am never quite sure who “we and us” refer to.

    “I want to dig, to lay out ideas, to build new ideas.”

    I enjoy digging ideas often more than digging the garden (particularly weeding) but I am sure that it is not always very useful to others. Whose digging is defended?

    Having worked with unprivileged people who will never be able to care, nor understand the benefit of metaphorical weeds, I ask myself about my privilege, my responsibility.

    I am often uncomfortable with this thought and quickly move onto more manageable questions.

    If, I enjoy digging around in my fertile imagination, I do get bored.

    I ask myself the question of real building, of building community, of parenting, of teaching, of values which are not submerged in the comforting cacophony of the noise of a network.

    I come back to network pictures shown by Stephen Downes

    and I think about Massive in MOOC, I think about noise in networks and I think about Community.

    I can’t get away from values which are not shared by all but which move me.

    Tolerance, openness, love, honesty, trust, non-violence, belief in the importance of faithfulness and others.

    I don’t want to be a tidy gardener, but perhaps I care about defending freedom from those I perceive to be wolves.

    What we can do together depends on our willingness to defend certain values. Unfortunately those values are not universal. Whether I like it or not I feel that I must stand for my ideas and not be a weed…

    If one stands for ideas, perhaps one fights for beliefs.

    I am fighting for my right to doubt, my right to express my deep-dug ideas, an idea that the network of knowledge belongs not to a few but to all. Preacher no, unrepentant atheist heretic perhaps.

    Missionaries, even unconscious missionaries need to think long and hard about the cost of the ‘freedom’ of ‘their’ ‘commons’.

    1. bon

      Thanks, Simon. Trying to understand the places our thinking weaves together here, and whether the gaps are as much language/positioning as actual disagreement.

      I think we’re using the word “weed” very differently here, Simon…you as a negative and something to avoid, whereas I think of rhizomes in TERMS of weeds…and for myself, I like them that way. I am happy to work with weeds against the dominance of arboreal concepts. Doesn’t mean I don’t like apples too. But I’m not worried about apples failing to be valued against the current backdrop of cultural values and power relations.

      I AM worried about people who aren’t represented and valued therein. People whose knowledge or ways of thinking or status in the hierarchy gets them dismissed as weeds. But I fully agree, anytime the word “we” is deployed the questions of who gets included and who is being spoken for need to be asked. So I intentionally did not speak for the aspects of people’s identity that get marginalized by high print culture (for some of my former students it was a great proportion of their facets of self, for me, less…your mileage may vary). ”

      “We” here, instead, is used to include and implicate me myself (or facets of me, and facets of the great majority of my readership) in the very problems of print I’m trying to identify and unpack. Because I am, and likely will be, as long as I live, at least in part a creature of print, much as I work to unlearn those habits of mindset, especially in my teaching. Still, the culturally-dominant inculcation of relatively-privileged, educated citizens into Enlightenment identities, in and through whom Knobel and Lankshear’s “deep grammar of schooling” is manifested and replicated, was a process that I once fully believed in, until I taught people it excluded or dismissed. And it would be disingenuous, therefore, to leave myself out of that problem…to write this from a soapbox where “you” have a problem I am magically exempt from.

      Like you, I believe the network of knowledge belongs to all. Did that piece not come through?Increasingly, in the current cultural climate, I feel that even to say so makes me a proselytizer or missionary, however reluctant.

  5. Simon Ensor

    Hi Bonnie.
    We agree pretty much. I don’t consider weeds as negative except in gardening and when writing academically as I see it as unfeasible to keep weeds out…
    I am concerned in mapping out a space for action to build community in which I want to live. I am aware that this may mean boundary.
    I am of the opinion that my freedom is paid for by the slavery of others. I would like to see what I can do as regards that.
    My insistence on ‘we’ ‘us’ comes from my reading of edtech lit which ignores large parts of the world – Africa in particular.
    I feel that research needs to engage with doing more than self-perpetuating of an elite guild so I am a wolf/weed in sheep’s clothing.
    The spread of internet is like the reverse of what happened during colonialisation, missionaries will not be the vanguard – business is but maybe we will be able to use networks to build somewhere worth living in by understanding our individual freedom depends on co-created fluid limits.

    Not sure if sense in this – no matter I like leaping and learning :-)

  6. Frances Bell

    Very rich discussion here.
    I am interested in what you have to say about digital divides. In the commercial exploitation of ‘new markets’ for educational commodities, will books be a key commodity, an important determiner of curriculum, what counts as truth? I don’t know but I am wondering about MOOCs, ‘branded’ OERs, they look like better bets to me as agents of oppression. And don’t even get me started on the Facebooks, etc.

    1. bon

      Touche, Frances. Books as paper packets the key commodity? Likely no. But the issue with commercial exploitation of “new markets” for educational commodities is precisely that it represents the status quo power interests that high print culture and the affiliated “deep grammar of schooling” have acculturated us to see as natural power relations for exchange. That thrust towards marketization relies heavily on tech but without building in any of the “new ethos” or mindset of new, peer-to-peer literacies: it keeps the pedagogy and the power relations of print culture effectively stable.

      My issue isn’t with books, it’s with that reified culture of print as a morphing agent of oppression now that its interests are threatened by the possibilities of networks. Books are only an issue because of how our cultivated societal romanticism about them and perceived threats to them seems to lead us to defend the whole. I want to unpack it all and look at how print culture is still deeply tied to power and our concepts of knowledge and learning legitimacy.

      I think *we* (as a society) accept commodification and the new agents of oppression because they replicate our comfortable (or at least familiar) roles in relation to broadcast one-to-many communications and relieve us of the need to filter and engage in the ways peer-to-peer models do. I’m using “network” (fraught term, like all terms) really as a stand-in for peer-to-peer here. Corporations (which operate and communicate within institutional org structure models) and the old prestige economy of knowledge institutions seem to me to come together in the early xMOOCs to try to consolidate/preserve their own power over a changing landscape. They invoke narratives of emancipation but enact relatively colonial defenses of Enlightenment knowledge and pedagogy.

      1. bon

        Forgot to address digital divides. I’m wary of the term b/c it so often means “lacking a gadget.” Obviously, gadgets are a key point of access and the conditions of their production are inherently both inhumane (ie blood minerals & indentured labour) and largely erased from view, so I don’t want to dismiss/diminish that conversation. But. I also am uncomfortable with the fact that it is deployed primarily in a cultural discourse that appears to draw attention AWAY from how we use gadgets. As I discovered last month with the Swedish teachers I mentioned in my last post, you *can* have one to one gadgets and still have no idea how to utilize them in the service of learning or any concept of knowledge that actually builds digital literacies.

        In the end, then, I have no answers for questions about digital divides, though I think continuing to consider both who gets to engage and how are important discussions.

        1. Frances Bell

          I share your concerns about that view of digital divides – looking back you don’t mention it ;) so I am sorry that I did. I was contrasting in my mind (unfortunately not evident to the reader) the, in my opinion, flawed popular digital divide rhetoric with your acknowledging the social, cultural and historical conditions of learners in your experience.
          Lynette Kvasny is my goto girl on conceptualising DD.
          Been thinking too much about #emoocs2014 and colonialism ;(

      2. Frances Bell

        I think it is more than that but promise to blog it. I found that DLG ideas had been applied to ‘different knowledges’ in a promising way – see link in this post towards end.

  7. Keith Hamon

    Thanks, Bon. What a great perspective to bring to this conversation, and in such good voice. I think that you are right that proselytizing is hardly required, though a voice crying in the wilderness is a wonderful metaphor. Proselytizing suggests that local causality, or individual choice, is the deciding factor, but I’m not so sure. I think that the global causality, the pull of the ecosystem toward some newly emerging pattern, is proving to be the far greater force in our shift away from the culture of print and toward an electronic culture. Maybe all we can do is call people to awareness of the tsunami that is already on the shore.

    I read just this morning a post by Marni Baker Stein, Chief Innovation Officer (??) for the University of Texas, in which she notes that <blockquote cite="today’s students arrive at our universities with a new set of expectations. Not resigned to the passive receipt of knowledge, many are eager to interact with and utilize the world of content and experience around them. They have a firm belief in their own power to leverage networks of peers that will help them manage the ins and outs of their everyday challenges. For these learners, the value proposition of traditional education as we’ve known it is unclear at best." So today’s students are eager to interact with and utilize the world of content and experience around them. They have a firm belief in their own power to leverage networks of peers that will help them manage the ins and outs of their everyday challenges. Sounds like rhizomatic learning to me: learning that finds more value in the affordances of electronic texts and culture than it finds in print culture. And I don’t think this shift is avoidable, though I believe just enough in human agency to think that we might yet shape it in positive or negative ways.

    To use a metaphor I’ve used elsewhere in the Rhizo14 conversation, it’s as if the soccer ball has been kicked into a new, open part of the field, and while a few players are moving in that direction, most are still standing around on the far side of the field. Maybe the best we can do is to shout over our shoulders as we are running after the ball, “Hey, guys! The game’s over here now.” The important thing, to my mind, is to continue playing the game where the ball is now. I’m confident that some others will eventually join in and that some won’t.

    This could all sound very self-congratulatory on being smart enough to be an early-adopter, but I don’t think so. Education is really so late coming to this new game, including me. I think the ball has been in a new part of the field for some time now, and I have been almost too late in recognizing it. Your post is a fine clarion call to the rest of us to get into the game.

    1. bon

      Thanks, Keith. The analogy to soccer is interesting…my soccer frames of reference are limited to games played by six-year-olds, where half the time the ball gets away on them without them even noticing…but once I thought about I like the way this positions the opening up of the field in a relatively fluid, non-binary way. Though I’m not sure whether the ball will meander back to more familiar territority, at least without enclosure of the field (which is the corporate side of turning peer-to-peer networks to consumer networks that makes me wary).

      Appreciate the link to Stein. :)

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  10. Andrea

    Hello. Non-choir member here. I’ll ramble for a bit.

    I don’t know, Bon. Your argument is interesting, but it doesn’t convince me.

    Books have been used as tools of disseminating revoloutionary and rebellious ideas, as well as the status quo. They aren’t inherently totalitarian, any more than any tool is inherently totalitarian. Furthermore, all of those ugly -isms existed and were reinforced through education long before books were common, or even in existence. All of the existing anthropological evidence points to the the size of the society in question as the source of hierarchy and domination, and plenty of institutions were capable of reinforcing and reinscribing them before books came on the scene. Unless we are supposing that slaves in ancient Egypt stayed in their place due to the deep respect they bore to the books the priests read, rather than the whips their owners held. Or going back further, to pre-literate societies in which slavery and sexism were rampant, and which were also completely oral. No permanence in communication technologies there.

    Is there any evidence that books are more totalizing or encourage more absolutist or hierarchical forms of thought? Are there well-controlled studies looking at the impacts of different communications technologies on critical reading or thinking strategies? If so, I’d love to see them. In their absence, I’m tempted to say that a poorly-trained mind will take as gospel any old thing published on the internet, and a well-trained mind will dissect a print source and treat it as a conversation regardless of whether or not the author is ever aware of it.

    I’m also going to be a biology nerd for a minute: you’re not talking about weeds. Weeds do reproduce rhizometically, this is true, but a weed that reproduces this way creates an identical clone of itself. It’s not new or different plants spreading underground, but the same plant existing over a larger space. Trees can and do reproduce the same way, as do many garden flowers (any from a bulb). All apple trees are clones (through grafting), because apple trees reproduce so inconsistently that there is no guarantee of edible fruit from planting an apple seed.

    The process of moving nutrients around underground through rhizomes does exist, but is carried out by fungi. They can move enormous quantities of nutrients through ecosystems, through the process of decomposition. Fungi aren’t producers, however. In order for producers to create something new, they need to reproduce sexually through the combination of sperm and egg, and this always produces something that is to greater or lesser degree unpredictable. I’m not aware of any educational system that doesn’t try, in one way or another, to eliminate the potential for unpredictability.

    Weeds are also ferocious competitors. They’re colonizers, meaning that they are the first species in to a recently disturbed habitat (clearcuts, forest fires, landslides, erosion, or freshly-cleared ground for a garden or farm–which is why they’re so common in human habitats). They have high needs for sunlight and a wide tolerance for poor soils and low moisture. However, through the process of ecological succession, they eventually alter their habitat in ways that make it unsuitable for themselves, and begin to be replaced by species more tolerant of shade. Eventually you end up with a climax ecosystem, in most cases a forest though depending on moisture regimes potentially a prairie or savannah. The only way you keep a habitat friendly for weeds is to continually burn it down or chop it up. Presence of lots of weeds is an indicator of frequently-disturbed poor-quality habitat with low biodiversity.

    If you open up your garden to weeds reproducing rhizometically, you will have a front lawn full of the exact same dandelion, with one massive root and a thousand little yellow heads, and to keep it that way you’ll be mowing it every week for the rest of your life. Weeds are the perfect first plant after a revolution, but they don’t last.

    I know what you are trying to get at with your metaphor, but to any students with a biology or ecology background, it actually contradicts your point.

    1. bon

      just seeing this now, Andrea…thank you. much. much to chew on, re the weed metaphor then, from this not-very-competent gardener. have you ever read Deleuze & Guattari? i’m curious how their usage of the rhizome as metaphor (which is subtler than my own, to be sure) holds up biologically.

      1. bon

        As for evidence about how print as a medium has different reinforcing cultural effects, yes, there’s extensive research on that, back as far as McLuhan’s Understanding Media…but it’s not positivist research with control groups because we’re talking effects at the broad level of culture and the application of the scientific approach makes no sense in that context.


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