The end of the line

The words “rhizome” and “rhizomatic knowledge” came up a lot in week 3 of the course.  Last year, it is though Dave Cormier’s blog that I first came across of this idea of rhizomatic knowledge in education, a metaphor which comes from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.  I have since come across this metaphor applied to other domains, but in most cases, it is used to describe  the organization of knowledge, it is more than often associated with change (as in from one paradigm to another) and with information technologies.  Looking for “rhizome” on Flickr, I came across several coloured clusters like these:
knowledge remix blog as a graph
Knowledge Remix visualized

Such “rhizomes” are generated using the following Java applet:

What this applet does is that it creates coloured clusters based on the html tags found in the source code of the web page:
blue: for links (the A tag)
red: for tables (TABLE, TR and TD tags)
green: for the DIV tag
violet: for images (the IMG tag)
yellow: for forms (FORM, INPUT, TEXTAREA, SELECT and OPTION tags)
orange: for linebreaks and blockquotes (BR, P, and BLOCKQUOTE tags)
black: the HTML tag, the root node
gray: all other tags
The graph above is therefore a visual representation of this blog which was generated from the page’s url.  Indeed, it looks like a rhizome, ie it has
no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat. (Cormier, 2008)
By extension, one can imagine a potential visualization of the entire internet using such a technique.  
For instance, in “Organization of Knowledge and the Hyperlink”, Iva Seto uses the rhizome metaphor to describe Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel”.  Published as early as 1941, “The Library of Babel” seems to anticipate the structure of the World Wide Web as we know it today.  Borges’ library is composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries and contains all the books that have ever been written, in every language, with every variation and combination possible etc.  It is infinite and universal.  In other words,
The Library as a honeycombed labyrinth both relates to the Web, the Universe, and also to the rhizome: many nodes that have shoots and connections to an infinite number of other nodes. Nodes can also be thought of as Web pages, or one of the hexagons in the Library of Babel. In the rhizome, the Internet, and the Library of Babel, there is no center and no binary, but an infinite number of interlocking nodes, linked through similarity through the Semantic Web. (Seto, 2006).
What is interesting in Seto’s article is that she uses Borges’ Library to illustrate the impact of the internet in the context of information and knowledge organization in libraries.  In the space of less than two decades, internet technologies have simply disrupted centuries of a western legacy of linear, logical and binary way of thinking (see the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress Classification systems in libraries for instance).  As well as that, Web 2.0 technologies have further supported the disruption of traditional taxonomies with collaborative tagging and various social bookmarking services whereby users can create a new type of folksonomy. This is one example of “the end of the line” when it comes to knowledge organization.
Applied to a totally different domain, I recently came across a reference to Indra’s Net, which in Buddhist philosophy
“[…]symbolizes a universe where infinitely repeated mutual relations exist between all members of the universe.” (Wikipedia)
A visualization of Indra’s net – CC David Parrott – source Wikimedia Commons
This particular metaphor was used to illustrate the need to adopt an integrated and holistic approach in the area of manufacturing and design.  In “Ecological Intelligence”, Daniel Goleman documents the increasingly unsustainable nature of traditional (linear) manufacturing and business processes.  See Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff” for a very good introduction to the limits of linear manufacturing systems where she highlights the fact that “you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely”. In a nutshell, a linear manufacturing model can be simplified to the successive processes of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal.  This dominant model is still generating a phenomenal amount of waste in terms of raw material, energy and environmental pollution.  This is where Industrial Ecology and Life Cycle Assessment [or Analysis] (LCA) come in as an emergent approach to supply chain management.  LCA looks at every single processes involved in the manufacturing of goods and their respective cost and impact on the environment (raw material consumption, energy, water, CO2 emissions, hazardous wastes, transport etc.).  Goleman takes the example of the manufacturing of a simple glass jar.  Instead of 13 distinct processes (in a linear manufacturing system), it takes 1,959 distinct unit processes, 659 different ingredients and 220 different kinds of emissions into the air to manufacture such a simple jar.
“Each unit process along the chain itself represents an aggregate of innumerable subsidiary processes, themselves the outcome of hundreds of others, in what can appear an infinite regression. […] Because everything connects to everything […] we need to think in a new way” (Goleman, 2009, p. 16)
hence the reference to Indra’s Net.  According to Goleman, the development of information technologies over the last few decades has had a significant impact on the generation, manipulation and analysis of huge amounts of data concerning manufacturing processes.  All this data can now be analyzed in detail and used towards generating more sustainable processes, promoting renewable energies and reducing waste.  But the real important step along the way is “radical transparency” whereby all this data becomes publicly available both to the consumer and to every stakeholder of the supply chain.  This is what Goleman means by “Ecological Intelligence”:
Ecological Intelligence allows us to comprehend systems in all their complexity, as well as the interplay between the natural and man-made words.  But that understanding demands a vast store of knowledge, one so huge that no single brain can store it all.  Each one of us needs the help of others to navigate the complexities of ecological intelligence.  We need to collaborate. (Goleman, 2009, p. 47)
Linear manufacturing systems originate from Taylorism and scientific management (rational, logical, standardized processes).  Internet technologies, collaboration tools and social media provide us with a radical new, transparent way of doing business.  In the context of manufacturing, this is another example of “the end of the line”.
In the context of education in general, several authors have used the factory line analogy to describe the current education system. See Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms” clip for instance where the author points out how the current education system is modeled on the industrial system (standardized testing, separate facilities, education by “batches” or age groups, separate subjects etc).  Have we now reached the end of the line too?
The current education system as a factory line
In light of the two examples above which are not directly related to training and learning and whereby traditional linear processes are giving way to more complex, interconnected, collaborative and transparent models, a significant shift is slowly taking place.  Why should the current education model not be affected too? This to me gives further weight to the validity and pertinence of Connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age, of a rhizomatic education model or of learning in networks.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>