Open Thinkering


Tag: Ed.D.

Wabi-sabi, Mono no aware & creative ambiguity

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


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 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.


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! 🙂

The Hyperlinked Society [Full Review]

A while ago I posted a partial review of The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age. That review has since been accepted and will appear in a forthcoming volume of the academic journal e-Learning and Digital Media.

I realised this week that I never posted the completed review. So here it is, for what it’s worth, in full! 😀

The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age

Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui, Editors (2008)

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

ISBN 0-472-05043-5 (pbk)

319 Pages.

Reviewer: Doug Belshaw, Durham University

In the introduction to The Hyperlinked Society, editor Joseph Turow explains how the book became a follow-up to a 2006 conference that ‘came together to address the social implications of instant digital linking’. ‘We did not intend to solve any particular problem at the meeting,’ he writes. ‘Instead, the goal was to shed light on a remarkable social phenomenon that people in business and the academy usually take for granted.’ The stated aim of the resulting book? ‘[N]ot to drill deeply into particular research projects [but], rather, to write expansively, provocatively – even controversially – about the extent to which and ways in which hyperlinks are changing our worlds and why.’ The book, therefore, is published explicitly as a platform upon which others ‘will launch their own research projects and policy analyses.’ (p.5)

Given this stated aim, it is easier to forgive The Hyperlinked Society‘s unconventional structure and somewhat eclectic nature. There are three main sections to the book. The first, ‘Hyperlinks and the Organization of Attention’ is almost entirely descriptive, ostensibly to set the scene for the rest of the book. The second ‘Hyperlinks and the Business of Media’ appears incongruous in an academic book; the essays and articles it contains feature few references and assertions abound. The final section is the most rewarding for researchers and academics in the field of new literacies and internet culture. It features an abundance of analysis – everything from the moral nature of hyperlinks to what constitutes the ‘online public sphere’. This final section is worth the price of admission alone.

Puzzlingly, given the editor’s proud statement in the introduction that over 200 countries were represented at the conference that led to the book’s existence, the examples given are almost entirely taken from the USA. Moreover, the American political situation and how it reflects, and is reflected by, internet culture is a dominant theme. Indeed there is more than one reference to ‘our country’ and what ‘we’ need to do. This does not sit comfortably at times, making this (English) reviewer feel like an outsider.

But there is much to like and admire in The Hyperlinked Society even if, at times, the authors try and relate anything and everything to the concept of the hyperlink. The editors have discovered and successfully begun to fill a niche: that space between popular internet culture books such as Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and more traditional academic articles. The Hyperlinked Society successfully combines elements of both, especially in the third section and in particular Adamic’s The Social Hyperlink. This essay continues the collection’s dominant theme of political blogging, showing empirically that the ‘blogosphere’ is divided with hyperlinks mirroring political affiliations. Coupled with this, however, is a corrective to the possible conclusion that hyperlinks cause this ‘echo-chamber’ effect. An analysis of online communities in the USA, Kuwait and the UAE demonstrate the powerfully complex cultural and contextual factors at work. The reader is left fascinated, interested, and wanting more – especially given the ‘Do bloggers kill kittens?’ story with which Adamic ends the article. This, of course, fits hand-in-glove with the editor’s desire for others to use the collection as a starting point for their own research.

A second dominant theme in The Hyperlinked Society is whether hyperlinks constitute an inherently a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing for society. Most deal with this in a cursory way, but Weinberger’s The Morality of Links confronts the issue head-on. In perhaps the most valuable and reflective essay in the collection, Weinberger analyses his personal belief that ‘Links are good’. His wide-ranging and knowledgeable philosophical treatment of the problem takes fully three pages of background, covering everything from a critique of Essentialism to the value of a funnel. Weinberger concludes that there are two reasons why ‘Links are good’. First, the Web is a huge potentiality – but not in the same way ‘a stick could potentially be used to prop up a car hood’ (p.189). Instead, ‘the potential is the sum of the relationships embodied in links’ which makes the Web ‘a potential that we’re actively creating and expanding’ (p.189). The second reason we’re better off with links, states Weinberger, is because ‘every time we click on a link, we take a step away from the selfish solipsism that characterizes our age – or, to be more exact, that characterizes how we talk about our age’ (p.189-90). The world, says Weinberger (quoting Ted Nelson) has never been so ‘intertwingled’.

The third and final dominant vein running through The Hyperlinked Society is the emancipatory nature of hyperlinks. Whilst several authors raise privacy concerns and implications , the general consensus is that through ‘mashups’, ‘countermapping’ and other online grassroots activities, traditional power structures are beginning to be challenged. Halavais, for instance, in The Hyperlink as Organizing Principle explains how the changing way hyperlinks are used represents ‘a kind of collective unconscious’ that represents ‘deep social and cultural structures’ (p.39). Halavais also points out, with some apparent glee, that researchers can passively track social relationships and connections through the aggregation of links – thus alleviating the ‘Hawthorne effect’ and bias inherent in self-reporting.

Finkelstein, in Google, Links and Popularity versus Authority highlights two important instances where technical issues relating to hyperlinks threatened to undermine their potential for emancipation and democracy. The first is what he deems ‘the commodificiation of social relations’. This is a result of ‘blurring the lines between business and friendship’ (p.115) that occurs online. A second, related, problem is that of search engine algorithms being based on inbound links. Google’s PageRank algorithm, for example, works a ‘weighted combination’ of factors centering around how popular the website is with other websites. Herein, of course, lies a problem. If you want to talk about the dangers of a racist hate site, making parents and teachers aware of the URL , linking to the site would be counter-productive. It would constitute an inbound link – and therefore improve the racist hate website’s Google PageRank. As a result, the ‘nofollow’ tag was invented to allow links in such cases without the attendant positive conferral of status (or ‘Google juice’ as it is commonly termed). This is an example of what The Hyperlinked Society does well as a collection, dealing with both the social and technical aspects of problems caused by Web-mediated communication.

The Hyperlinked Society is not an overly-edited collection. There are places where the same stories are told, the same studies cited, and similar ground covered. But given the and/and/and nature of hyperlinks and the Web, this is highly appropriate. Instead of fitting rigorously into a pre-determined order, the authors are free to explore their own interests in a way that suits them. Such a structure and approach works well, and serves to reinforce the themes outlined above: the case of political blogging, the nature of hyperlinks, and their emancipatory potential.

However, as a researcher into new literacies and 21st-century education practices, it was disappointing to see terms such as ‘link-literacy’, ‘savvy’ and ‘competence’ used uncritically. There is a wealth of research in this area towards which the individual authors or, at the very least, the editor could have directed the reader. Although Lankshear and Knobel’s Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices was published in the same year as The Hyperlinked Society, their earlier volume New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning (2006) was available as a guide to the field.

Overall, The Hyperlinked Society is satisfying and informative when read in its totality, but also serves as an excellent reference point, with useful overviews to each section provided by the editors. It would be of most use to those running postgraduate courses exploring Web-related issues as it covers such a wide range of issues. The final section in particular is an object lesson on how to explore the wider implications of a very particular technology.


  • Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006) New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning. Open University Press
  • Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2008) Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices. Peter Lang Publishing
  • Shirky, C. (2008) Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin Press

Why the European view of ‘digital literacy’ is ambiguous.

In the 1930s, William Empson came up with seven types of ambiguity. He applied them to poetry and literary criticism, but I believe they can be more applied more widely. Roughly, they are:

  1. Word or grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once.
  2. Two or more meanings are resolved into one.
  3. Two ideas, relevant because of the context, are resolved into one.
  4. Two more more meanings do not agree, but make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.
  5. Author discovers idea in the act of writing.
  6. Statement says nothing (e.g. tautology) so reader has to make up meaning.
  7. Two meanings of the word or phrase are opposite within the context (shows division in writer’s mind)

I’ve long thought the concept of ‘digital literacy’ was an ambiguous one, and am beginning to look in which ways definitions of it are so. Although I’m still in the early stages of my analysis, it’s becoming clear that the view of ‘digital literacy’ held by official bodies in Europe is ambiguous in a very particular kind of way.

Take the following quotations, for example:

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) affect our lives every day – from interacting with our governments to working from home, from keeping in touch with our friends to accessing healthcare and education.

To participate and take advantage, citizens must be digitally literate – equipped with the skills to benefit from and participate in the Information Society. This includes both the ability to use new ICT tools and the media literacy skills to handle the flood of images, text and audiovisual content that constantly pour across the global networks.

European Commission (Digital Literacy: Skills for the Information Society)

Digital literacy is a process that affects at least four dimensions:

  • Operational: The ability to use computers and communication technologies.
  • Semiotic: The ability to use all the languages that converge in the new multimedia universe.
  • Cultural: A new intellectual environment for the Information Society.
  • Civic: A new repertoire of rights and duties relating to the new technological context.

In this sense, digital literacy today is similar to what UNESCO has defined for some time as “media education”. According to this organisation, media education “enables people to gain understanding of the communication media used in their society and the way they operate and to acquire skills in using these media to communicate with others”. To accept the similarity, we only need to acknowledge the evident fact that practically all media today are based on the use of digital technologies.

Jos̩ Manuel P̩rez Tornero* РDigital Literacy and Media Education: an Emerging Need

I believe these to be examples of the second type of ambiguity. That is to say that they involve a situation where ‘two or more meanings are resolved into one.’ Specifically, they combine media literacy with technical (and procedural) skills to form some kind of quasi-umbrella term that leans towards the third kind of ambiguity.

These kind of definitions of ‘digital literacy’ are common within the official literature of the European Commission and related bodies. Digital literacy becomes a hybrid notion that appears to have legitimacy because of the relatively straightforward notion that each word connotes. It is not clear, however, that forming the two words into a phrase results in anything meaningful.

Interestingly, Empson hints that ambiguity may be a three-dimensional process and that the seven types of ambiguity he identifies lie on a continuum. I think there’s definite scope for some visualization in my thesis… 😀

* ‘Advisor of the eLearning programme in the field of digital literacy, Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, European Commission’