Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Gouge Out Your Eyes with a Rusty Synecdoche

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community
One of the things that has troubled me about the 'network' way of thinking of things is its obvious coupling with what has come to be known as the 'free market' economy. Such as, say, the predictions markets discussed in this Cognitive Edge post. Not because I am against free markets, so much, but because free markets are demonstratively ineffective at certain points - such as emergencies, infrastructure development, and conditions of scarcity - and because the free market system as it exists today is terribly imbalanced, the wealth of the few being based on the oppression of the many. This article looks at some of those conditions.

Where many people go with this is in the direction suggested by Beth Kanter's post. Social networks, she writes, incorporate a "ladder of engagement", and these different levels of engagement change the nature of the contacts between members of the network, and hence, the nature of the network itself. And you see this sort of effect not only in Facebook causes, but also in the evangelism for new network technologies, such as Second Life and Twitter. Because these communities offer more than mere transaction, the value of the network to its members is increased - and so is their emotional attachment, which also feeds back into this same cycle.

Why is this important? Well, the free market is, in essence, a network of transactions. By setting up the network as nothing more than an exchange of goods for currency, no emotional attachment is created (except for those who develop a perverse love of money, like Conrad Black). Dave Pollard has been struggling to explain this recently, trying to embody a philosophy of love into community transactions. But this, I fear, takes us into an environment where all our transactions are group transactions, which carries its own risks.

Published concurrently with all this is a discussion from the useful weblog, Architectures of Control in Design, which looks at (as Scott Wilson summarizes) "the complex interplay of agents, systems and power structures." Wilson writes, "the discourse of control in education is very simplistic with a response of 'control = BAD'" such that "the common approach is one of either (a) denial, or (b) rejection, rather than (c) an effective intentional design." But this is simply to confuse intervention with control. When we look at the article, as it displays the many ways bench designers try to control the use of the bench - doing everything from shortening the bench to installing armrests to tilting the surface to discourage transients.

Only a couple of the benches depicted demonstrate any intention of helping, rather than controlling, transients. This bench opens to provide a place to store public food supplies for transients, bedding, and other survival gear. It's like the world depicted in Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire: a world in which free ford, health care and housing are distributed to everybody, regardless of need or circumstance. This is a network that is about something more than just transaction - a network based, not merely on getting, but also on giving. It creates a different sort of network, because giving is a more personal, more emotional, and more human transaction.

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Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: May 22, 2024 2:17 p.m.

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