Several areas of my recent readings about dialogue prompted me to think about ideas I had wrestled with while reading Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget including collective wisdom, fragments and bits, and of course the cephalopod.
Both Edgar Schein and Nancy Dixon discuss the benefit of dialogue as resulting in a better and more creative solution than any one person could have contemplated. While I tend to agree with this, I do see that when taken to extremes, collective wisdom can become group think which can lead to what Lanier calls the noosphere or hive mind. Lanier argues quite emphatically against the idea that quantity, at an extreme scale such as you would find on the Internet, will produce quality. While Schein and Dixon are not talking about dialogue on a scale that large, it begs the question that Lanier asks “whether it is possible to map out where the one is smarter than the many” (p. 56).
In support of the collective wisdom of the group, I give you Gamers who come together in online communities and have solved some of the most perplexing problems through cooperation and collaboration. For a quick overview, read this blog post; for a more exciting look into this online community, view Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk. (I wonder what Schein would think of these groups and their prowess at problem-solving as I’m reading now his ideas on the interpersonal processes involved in building and maintaining groups… perhaps something to explore in a later post.)
I was quite taken with Dixon’s summary of David Bohm’s theory, and I was pleased to see that Schein based much of his discussion on Bohm’s work. As a physicist, Bohm views the world as an “unbroken flowing whole” (as quoted in Dixon, p. 10). Dixon goes on to describe Bohm’s frustration with the way people see the world not as a whole but as bits or fragments. Bohm’s “objection to a fragmentary view of the world was that it disposes people to think of the divisions between things as absolute and final rather than as having a limited utility and validity” (p. 11).
Lanier spends a great deal of time laying out his ideas about how we present ourselves in bits and fragments to the point where “the deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits” (p. 20) and “this information underrepresents reality” (p. 69). It would seem to me that Lanier might agree with Bohm (and Schein) that “dialogue is a way to apprehend the meaning of others and to thereby experience the wholeness of the world” (Dixon, p. 11).
The Platypus and The Cephalopod
Schein retells the story of when the platypus was discovered and the ensuing controversy about how to classify it — was it a mammal, a reptile, or perhaps a bird? While this speaks to the natural inclination of people to look at things as fragments, trying to fit something new into an existing schema, this story also reminded me of two areas Lanier discusses — language and what Lanier calls post-symbolic communication.
The more direct comparison is with Lanier’s discussion of language, which he describes as “built up from entries in a catalog, not from infinitely morphable patterns” (p. 165). He goes on to say that “while language has become richer over time, it has never become absolutely precise” (p. 169), thus our inability to define the platypus. This leads me to one of my favorite quotes from Lanier’s book: “it seems pointless to insist that what we already understand must suffice to explain what we don’t understand” (p. 51) — an idea I think Bohm would support as he claims that “we have to have enough faith in our world-view to work from it, but not that much faith that we think it’s the final answer” (as quoted in Dixon, p. 11).
Which brings me finally to the cephalopod and Lanier’s ideas of postsymbolic communication which could “give rise to a vivid expansion of meaning” (p.190). Watch as this cephalopod morphs into its surroundings:
Suppose we had the ability to morph at will, as fast as we can think. What sort of language might that make possible? Would it be the same old conversation, or would we be able to ‘say’ new things to one another (Lanier, p. 190)?
And what implication might that have on dialogue?
Dixon, N. M. (1996). Perspectives on dialogue. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.
Lanier, J. (2011). You are not a gadget. New York: Vintage Books.
Schein, E. H. (1999). Process consultation revisited. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.