Microlearning 2007 … and conversation

Time at last for a couple of conference retrospects. First up, this year's Microlearning organised, as ever, by Martin. It was heralded by a puff from Judy on SmartMobs and it was a great success, Martin — congrats! And many thanks.

A mellow tone developed from the start: the three days saw a lot of warm, friendly conversation and really interesting talks. For me, it was a pleasure to have the chance to chat with Martin at much greater length than last year and to meet (their write-ups of the conference follow in brackets after each name): Hemma Kocher (here), Teemu Leinonen (here), Ajit Jaokar (here), Mark Kramer (here; Mark's photos of the conference are here), Stephanie Rieger, Arnaud Leene (here) and Martina Roth.

Teemu's slides for his talk, 'Knowledge Building in New Media Environments', are on Slideshare, as are mine for my talk, 'Where Next?' — here. Hemma's talk, 'How to Deal With Microcontent at the Workplace 2.0', is available as a podcast (from Mark) here and as slides here.

Martin wrote to me that this year's conference had been something like what he had always imagined university life would/should have been like: 'digital media does create a whole new dimension of "scientific community" - I hated the days of "real hard work in the faculty meatspace"' (Twitter). This is something I keep hearing people say — about the web, about great conferences … To borrow from Martin again, it was an experience of 'collective friendship'.

Conversation is absolutely central here. In his talk, Teemu quoted Mikhail Bakhtin, 'Any true understanding is dialogic in nature', and Tim Spalding's comment on my post of last month, Conversation, led me to Barbara Fister's Gorman Forgets to Wind the Clock and so to Michael Oakeshott's 1959 essay, 'The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind'. Disappointingly, this essay doesn't seem to be available online, but Barbara Fister quoted two wonderful passages:

We are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation that goes on both in public and within each of ourselves . . .

Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.

And I found more, quoted on Mike Love's blog, in his post Oakeshott’s Conversation of Mankind:

In conversation, ‘facts’ appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; ‘certainties’ are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other ‘certainties’ or with doubts, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another. Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. … voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy. Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering. Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another.

This, I believe, is the appropriate image of human intercourse, appropriate because it recognizes the qualities, the diversities, and the proper relationships of human utterances.

There's a lot to think about in that! (Need to get hold of the whole essay.) I love how Konrad Glogowski plucks out part of it in Unending Conversation and writes, 'teaching, the way I see it, is what Michael Oakeshott refers to as "unrehearsed intellectual adventure"'.

And doesn't what Oakeshott wrote remind you of something else? Play. 'Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions.'


We surely need some full studies of conversation — it occurs in so many ways. It's realised when companies find that users generate up to 70% more tagging terms than the company taxonomists had dreamed of (because that's how users talk about what's important to them) — Thomas: a triumph of the vernacular over the-officially-provided. (The lesson holds good — and see also the later post — but conversation ensues.) It's conversation that organisations of all types are in part trying to enable when they aspire to go beyond the artery-clogging practice of e-mail. And it's conversation that drives me to items found via friends and people I know through the web with 'via: ...': I want to keep those links alive in my outboard memory as well as in my own head. (There's something very Ted Nelson about this — show all the links. A humanist's web. I would dearly love to see develop more of its native social identity.)

At Reboot this year, one of the most interesting slides I saw was Jyri's of the the hum/wave//beat/particle world of communication. I posted this slide on my Tumblr site, here, and you can access Jyri's talk here, Microblogging: Tiny social objects. On the future of participatory media. Right now, I find I'm using hum/wave software tools a lot (that's what they're there for, that's why they're hum/wave), Twittering and Jaikuing away (even Pownce-ing a bit) — part of that online, conversational world that David Weinberger calls 'continuous partial friendship' and that Martin refers to as 'creating the kind of little loose social events we'd like to have in a real-space environment, but now in the digital dimension':

 … part of the greater tendency to *duplicate* the dimension of small events that together make "daily life" into the digital dimension. like, say, meeting people at the university campus, exchanging witty, sarcastic, melancholic comments in the floors, between courses ... or at an office floor in some media company ... it is an "urban lifestyle layer" for non-spaces.

The best things I've read on Twitter (the above apart): Ian Curry's take, Twitter: The Missing Messenger, and his use of 'phatic function' (Bakhtin/Jakobson); Matt(Jones)'s comment there, referring to Matt(Webb)'s brilliant Glancing piece; Khoi Vinh's Writing and Sizing Twitter (which I heard him talk about at FoWA); Leisa's Ambient Intimacy ('Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible') and Reboot talk (which I got to hear).

Of course, you can say Twitter's 'not for conversation… it’s for stream of consciousness thoughts or status reports', but I don't think that's the whole truth. Ambient things get taken up into conversation, become themselves part of the conversation. (Yes, there's the tension between Twitter's ambient nature and its capacity for threaded conversation … But there's also this other, distinct phenomenon — I've lost count of how many times, meeting someone in the flesh, we refer to things we know about through Twittering.)

I also want to situate 'conversation' in a Long Now perspective. The young are inspiring and, as we grow older, it's obviously in them that our hopes for the future come naturally, and increasingly, to rest. I can well imagine being one day where the great Richard Feynman found himself towards the end of his life — in this conversation with Danny Hillis:

"I'm sad because you're going to die."

"Yeah," he sighed, "that bugs me sometimes too. But not so much as you think." And after a few more steps, "When you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you've told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway."

But before that (!), we need to get the young to our conferences — and you can imagine my delight that people were saying this to me at Microlearning and Reboot and Interesting2007. You know, you don't find this attitude everywhere you go. Thanks, again, Martin.