Tag: creative ambiguity

Creative Ambiguity and Digital Literacy

I’m (re-)writing my first journal article at the moment, ostensibly in order to make my viva easier when I’ve finished my Ed.D. thesis. It’s easier to prove an ‘original contribution to knowledge’ when some of it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal! You’ll understand, therefore, why this post, which constitutes the first part of the article, is Copyright (All Rights Reserved).

All human communication is predicated upon vocabularies. These can be physical in the form of sign language but, more usually, are oral in nature. Languages, therefore, are codified ways in which a community communicates. However, such languages are not static but evolve over time to meet both changing environmental needs and to explain and deal with the mediation and interaction provided by tools.

As Wittgenstein argued, a private language is impossible as the very purpose of it is communication with others. Those with whom one is communicating must have the ‘key to open the ‘box’. Yet if all language is essentially public in nature it begs the question as to how popular terms can be used in such a variety and multiplicity of ways. Terms, phrases and ways of speaking have overlapping lifecycles used by various communities at particular times. A way of describing a concept often enters a community as a new and exciting way of looking at a problem, perhaps as a meme. Meanwhile, or soon after, the same concept might be rejected by another community as out of date, as ‘clunky’ and lacking descriptive power.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions provides some insight into this process. Kuhn identified periods of ‘normal’ science in a given field which would be followed by periods of ‘revolutionary’ science. The idea is that a community works within a particular paradigm (‘normal’ science) until the anomalies it generates lead to a crisis. A period of ‘revolutionary’ science follows in which competing paradigms that can better explain the phenomena are then explored. Some are accepted and some are rejected. Once a paradigm gains general acceptance then a new period of ‘normal’ science can begin and the whole process is repeated. Kuhn’s theory works in science because there are hard-and-fast phenomena to be explored; theories and concepts can be proved or disproved according to Popper’s falsifiability criterion.

The same is not necessarily true in the social sciences, however: it can be unclear what would constitute a falsification of certain widely-held concepts and theories. Indeed it is often the case that they gain or lose traction by the status of the people advocating them rather than the applicability and ‘fit’ of the concept. In addition, a concept or theory may serve a purpose at an initial particular point in time but this utility may diminish over time. Unfortunately, it is during this period of diminishing explanatory power that terms are often evangelised and defined more narrowly. This should lead to a period of ‘revolutionary’ social science but this is not necessarily always the case. If, for example, a late-adopting group holds political power or controls funding streams, even those in groups who have rejected the concept may continue to use it.

An example of this process would be the coining of the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ in 2001 by Marc Prensky. This led to a great deal of discussion, both online and offline, in technology circles, education establishments and the media. Debates began about the maximum age of a ‘digital native’, what kind of skills a ‘digital native’ possessed, and even whether the term ‘digital immigrant’ was derogatory. As the term gained currency and was fed into wider and wider community circles, the term became more narrowly defined. A ‘digital native’ was said to be a person born after 1980, someone who was ‘digitally literate’, and who wouldn’t even think of of prefixing the word ‘digital’ to the word ‘camera’.

It is our belief that the explanatory power of a concept, theory or term in the social science comes, at least in part, through its ‘creative ambiguity’. This is the ability of the term – for example, ‘digital native’ – to express a nebulous concept or theory as a kind of shorthand. The amount of ambiguity is in tension with the explanatory power of the term, with the resulting creative space reducing in size as the term is more narrowly defined. Creative spaces can also bring people together from various disciplines, allowing them to use a common term to discuss a concept from various angles.

The literal meaning of a term is the denotative element and includes surface definitions of a term. For ‘digital literacy’ this would be to simply equate the term with literacy in a digital space. The implied meaning, on the other hand, is the connotative element and deals with the implied meaning of a term. With digital literacy this would involve thoughts and discussion around what literacy and digitality have in common and where they diverge. The creative space is the ambiguous overlap between the denotative and connotative elements:

Such creative ambiguities are valuable as, instead of endless dry academic definitions, they allow for discussion and reflection, often leading to changes in practice. In order to maximise the likelihood and impact of a creative space it is important that a term not be too narrowly defined, for what it gains in ‘clarity’ it loses in ‘creative ambiguity’. There is a balance to be struck.

Terms and phrases, however, can be ambiguous in a number of ways. Some of these types of ambiguity allow for creative spaces between the denotative and connotative elements of a new term to a greater or lesser degree. In other words, they involve greater or smaller amounts of ambiguity.

References

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (On The Horizon, 9(5), available online at http://dajb.eu/fpIs05, accessed 14 December 2010)

The rest of the journal article deals with Empson’s 7 types of ambiguity as related to the above. You may want to check out the posts I’ve written previously relating to creative ambiguity. I’d welcome your comments!

Wabi-sabi, Mono no aware & creative ambiguity

John Connell's 'Buddha', an example of wabi-sabi

Introduction

After last week’s post about designing opportunities for ‘creative ambiguity’ I had a brief Twitter conversation with @siibo about what exactly I meant. Which is kind of the point. :-p

The great thing that came out of it, however was being directed towards a couple of Japanese concepts of which I knew nothing previously, Wabi-sabi and Mono no aware.

Wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist assertion of the Three marks of existence specifically impermanence . Note also that the Japanese word for rust is also pronounced sabi… and there is an obvious semantic connection between these concepts.

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the suggestion of natural processes.

To me wabi-sabi is a different concept than creative ambiguity. Whereas the former is ‘imperfect, impermanent and incomplete’, those terms and concepts that provoke creative ambiguity often claim to be perfect, permanent and complete.

If we use the concept of ‘Digital Natives’ as an example, we can see that this creatively ambiguous term is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete only in retrospect. Much like Kuhnian ‘normal science’, many latched onto the idea of Digital Natives in order to build an edifice that could be applied more universally. It was only when there were too many problems with the concept that a period of ‘revolutionary science’ began. I would argue that we are still in this revolutionary phase.

Whilst I would love to proclaim that everyone should embrace wabi-sabi, it flies in the face of western academia and cultural practices. Pragmatically, therefore, it would be better (to my mind) to make people aware of how creative ambiguity can be useful in a specified period of time.

Mono no aware

Mono no aware (…literally “the pathos of things”), also translated as “an empathy toward things,” or “a sensitivity of ephemera,” is a Japanese term used to describe the awareness of mujo or the transience of things and a bittersweet sadness at their passing.

People like the status quo, it makes them feel safe. To my mind, the reason why we don’t like endings and change is that it reminds us that we will all eventually die. This sadness is summed up very nicely in mono no aware.

Something that is central to creative ambiguity is its time-limited nature. What from a Pragmatic point of view is ‘good in the way of belief’ at one point in time may not be at another. We must be willing to let go of terms that have served us well but no longer have any cash value.

Conclusion

Whilst I used to be a ruthless believer in Occam’s Razor, I’m now of the opinion that there’s actually no long-term harm in allowing a plethora of terms to proliferate. In fact, the more the better. The best, most useful terms – those that actually have some explanatory power, are good in the way of belief, and have some ‘cash value’ should win out.

We just need to be aware that, as wabi-sabi teaches us, nothing will ever be anything other than imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. And, as mono no aware teaches us, we should not be sad when a term outlasts it’s value! 🙂

Designing for Creative Ambiguity

Design (Wikipedia’s definition):

Design is the planning that lays the basis for the making of every object or system. It can be used both as a noun and as a verb and, in a broader way, it means applied arts and engineering.

Creative Ambiguity (my definition):

Creative Ambiguity is brought about when an intangible idea, process or way of thinking is defined in an imprecise way. It is a delicately-balanced conceptual space in which the very nature of the ambiguity leads to creative outputs.

So if Creative Ambiguity is a good thing, how do we go about planning and designing for it? I suggest 3 guidelines:

  1. Avoid using precise language if your understanding of a idea, process or way of thinking is imprecise.
  2. View other people’s opinions in an and/and/and way rather than either/or. Embrace the greyness!
  3. When coming across a new idea, process or way of thinking, find out if it has been previously defined. If not, come up with a new term and throw it out there for people to comment upon.

According to Pragmatism, things don’t have to ‘exist’ they just need to be ‘good in the way of belief’. Is Creative Ambiguity good in the way of belief for you?

Freire, Conscientization & Digital Literacy

Before I begin, I confess not to have read Freire in the original Portuguese so I may have missed a nuance or two. What I’m trying to do is link some of his thinking around Conscientization to the concept of Digital Literacy (and other ‘new literacies’) through the lens of Pragmatism.

Paulo Friere (1921-1997) was a Brazilian educator and philosopher best known for his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. His ideas were heavily influenced by his Catholicism and his (somewhat ambiguous relationship with) Marxism. One of the key themes of his work is that of Conscientization or ‘critical consciousness’, explained by Taylor in The Texts of Paolo Freire (1993) as the type of consciousness that can transform reality. Taylor claims that Freire does not mean by this that objectivity is created by consciousness – for example, to believe you are free does not make it so – but education is nevertheless a means of transforming reality.

The part of Conscientization I believe applies to conceptions of digital literacy is encapsulated, although not teased out fully, in the following statement by Freire:

Conscientization occurs simultaneously with the literacy or post-literacy process. It must be so. In our educational method the word is not something static or disconnected from people’s existential experience, but a dimension of their thought-language about the world. (1970:222)

That is to say that ‘literacy’ as a concept does not really exist as such – it is a construct that we abstract from experience and communication. There would be, therefore, for Freire, no such entity as ‘digital literacy’ but only individuals who are ‘digitally literate’. Whereas Freire couched this in terms of those who are critically literate and therefore able to engage in a literate way with their own emancipation, we can apply this to those who may be considered digitally literate and therefore able to engage in a ‘literate’ way with their digital world.

Education transforms reality, believed Freire, because it can never be neutral. It always includes elements of both ‘domestication’ and ‘liberation’, the two seemingly opposite ideas being held in tension through what I would term a ‘creative ambiguity’. As Taylor explains, Freire, whilst championing (a certain type of) literacy, was wary of it because of his Marxist tendencies:

Society requires literacy because in the power-knowledge relationship of the modern world, literacy defines who controls the means of production, that is the means to produce wealth (industry) and the mans to reproduce knowledge (education). (1993:139)

The difficulty is with the English language itself, which does not disambiguate ‘non-literacy’ and ‘sub-literacy’ in the term illiteracy. The difficulty with this is that the ambiguity from such definitions of ‘classic’ literacy become built-in to new literacies and other concepts that use the seemingly-innocent and obvious term ‘literacy’ as their bedrock.

I’m going to leave it to Taylor to sum-up, given that he puts so succinctly my own view of what we’re talking about when we talk about literacy:

[T]here seems to be no ontological imperative that necessarily correlates literacy with transforming knowledge… What is significant is not the actual learning to read and write but rather that relationship between the word, reality and the ways in which the latter is transformed by the former. (1993:61)

I’m still thinking about this and mulling it over. What are your thoughts? Do you agree that literacy is a construct that cannot really be considered independently of the people to whom the word ‘literate’ applies? What about ‘digital literacy’? 🙂

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