Social (non) Sense-making

Ripples of knowledge or folly?

A couple days ago I wrote about the idea of social sense-making and how fostering a climate of knowledge sharing that involves trusting people teach and giving them the opportunity to do so. One powerful argument is that teaching is a powerful method of learning in its own right and evidence suggests that we retain much more when we teach someone than when we simply take something in passively. The value here is predicated on a constellation of assumptions that the teacher is providing something of value, can communicate the message effectively, inspires a response in the learner that activates pathways in the brain that encourages reflection and retention, and that the learner and teacher are co-participating in this process.

What is  sometimes forgotten and more problematic is whether or not the content being shared is true.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines true as:

True: Oxford English Dictionary

When you parse through this definition in the context of social learning, much of its component terms such as ‘reality’, ‘genuine’ , ‘standard’, and ‘accurate’ become highly problematic. Much of the literature on sense-making supports the concept of knowledge being socially constructed within a context. The work of Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge, John Seely Brown, or Gary Klein at Klein Associates are worth looking at in this regard.   The critical realist perspective, which posits that reality is co-created by humans who function within a set of conditions that can be known, but only partly, is the most common expression of this viewpoint. It is a perspective that is congruent with much scholarship in the social sciences and philosophy (although purists will argue how true — as in the definition above — this is).

The sense-making scholarship looks at how relationships influence our decisions and the meaning that is constructed from it. When you engage in a relationship with someone, you’re able to send signals that convey meaning through gesture, tonality, and circumstance that go well beyond what we often bound as the “information” we are trying to share.

But as work popularized by Jeff Howe in Crowdsourcing or James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds points out, having little relationship with others and partial knowledge is more than sufficient if one’s ability to make sense of the whole is leveraged with collective decision-making capacity of many others. In these models, one only need to see part of the problem to make effective decisions when combined with the equally limited perspective of many other people who, when working together, see the whole. This form of collective decision making has become exceptionally popular in business and even health. One of the other ways to view this model is that it operates something like the SETI@home Project, which was one of the first initiatives to use the power of grid computing to solving problems that required massive computing power to make calculations based on large, complicated datasets. Grid computing uses excess processing power from dormant computers to feed into a large, networked ‘grid’ to create a virtual supercomputer. Howe and Surowiecki describe social decision-making models that look a lot like grid computing. In these models we can afford to use less than our full capacity to understanding a problem because the collective capacity is so much more powerful and will fill in the blanks. This kind of decision-making works well with complicated tasks, those with many different parts, but configured in a manner where we can understand their relationship to each other. Complex problems are quite different. Here, knowledge of the parts and their relationship to each other is only partially useful in understanding the impact on the whole. The crowd-sourcing model might be good for the former, but the latter is where many of the challenges in our health and social system lie and I’m not convinced that this is always a good thing.

Combine cognitive off-loading with a massive amount of information and the tools to enable this information to be distributed and re-distributed quickly and you create new problems, ones that are exacerbated by the shift in our social network ties. Media scholar Clay Shirky recently spoke to this issue in a recent ‘rush’ on the BBC’s Virtual Revolution show by pointing to the example of the Obama administration’s implementation of change.gov and how, in spite of the economic challenges facing the US, two wars, and the threat of climate change, participants on the site chose legalizing marijuana as the #1 issue to solve problems on. The Change.gov site was not making decisions for the country, but the model it employs is consistent with social decision making. It’s probably why we haven’t heard much about this initiative that was the much promoted way to take the engaged citizenry that supported Obama’s election and transform it into a guide for government.

On Facebook, people posted their bra colour on their status to show support for breast cancer (even when there appears to be doubt as to its origins, motives or even rationale for how this was to work). Have you joined a group to show support for something that has no method of converting that support into anything except through collecting names? On email, have you received or been sent a note promising you a free laptop if you forward something on or help save someone by doing the same because each forwarded message will raise money for a good cause? These things abound and the social web allows it to flourish. Yet, by indulging in such things we are creating patterns of decision-making that continue the off-loading of cognition (and maybe action) to the group and go from social sense-making to nonsense making. Someone else will take care of it.

Taking it slow, reducing media consumption to allow processing of information mindfully, and building up your strong social ties (relationships) are three ways to address this problem. But the latter is what I think is critical. In his interview with the BBC, Clay Shirky discusses the challenge a world where weak ties are growing at the expense of strong ties and wonders aloud what impact this will have on democracy and decision making. In a world that is currently fascinated with social networks, the ‘strength of weak ties’ argument posed by Mark Granovetter and many other social networking researchers has become cocktail party talk. While I am glad that social networking research is getting its time in the sun, the concern is that – perhaps for the very reasons I’ve discussed here — people are off-loading the deep thought about it and going into the realm of weak ties over-enthusiastically. Because it is a lot harder to off-load when your close relations will hold you to account and know you well enough to tell when you’re not making sense (and will be comfortable telling you as much). It is in these interactions that the concept of ‘true’ can really be known.

2 Comments on “Social (non) Sense-making

  1. after reading your post cameron im not sure i haven’t become convinced that very little has changed with the coming of the web and the emergence of our so-called interconnected space. our weak ties have become weaker and more numerous perhaps, more fragmented for sure, and our strong ties have become stronger outside of traditional blood units, but have essentially remained constant in terms of numbers and (conditionally) strength of bond. that we are offloading our brains to an external hard drive today does however change what we know, yes. we’re all hanging out in the shallow end of the pool, so to speak. we know less about more and know more people less well. i think your advice is sound – go slow, consume less (media), and build stronger strong ties. If there was a fourth quality to be added i would think it would have to do with ‘rigour’ and memory development. but since i know nothing of rigour, i’ll leave that to you.

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