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On feeding connections (II)

Translation of Ilaria Montagni

In the previous post, On feeding connections (I), I've tried to underline the fundamental role of the networks in an evolution which has never seen any continuity solutions.



The networks appeared in the western science when in the 1920s the ecology scholars described the ecosystems as a community of intra-connected organisms in a well-defined network of food relations.



Afterwards the characteristics of the networks have been recognized in a lot of other contexts: for example the organisms can be thought as cells'networks, the cells as molecules'networks and so on.



The generalizations go on and the terminologies contaminate very different fields. For example Google finds more than 4 million web-sites searching "economic ecosystem". Actually today the term ecosystem is very common in the description of economic systems.


Saying that through the networks we can explain the misteries of life is absolutely exaggerated, but where is the life, there are networks. Fritjof Capra calls living networks the nets which form living organisms [1]. Not all the networks are "living". The living networks are those capable of auto-generate themselves, i. e. employing one's components in order to transform or build up new components.



The scientific panorama has been complicated a lot. The instruments of science in the IXX century and in the XX century are revealing insufficient in order to understand and describe the world where we live. Maybe, the most significant result of the scientific  research in the XX century has been that of recognizing one's limits in a huge variety of fields. A fact that has broguht the scientific community to revise the mass of concepts, of values and shared condivisions in order to define the problems and search their solution, the process that Thomas Kuhn has described as the sliding of the paradigm of the scientific method.



So we are face to different new domains of research which share the attempt to face in some ways the complexity: theory of systems, complex systems, fractals,  chaos, non linear dynamics, cognitive systems, systemic thought just to mention some of them.



In a variable way, in all these fields we renounce to the minimalistic approach which has dominated the scientific method before the XX century and through which we dismantle a system in its parts with the hope to deduce the whole behaviour of the mass starting from its single parts.


This way of looking at the totality without damaging the relations of each part with the context represent the holistic approach to the scientific research. As it always happens when we present a dichotomy we have to pay attention not to be trapped and the risk is evident because today

the diatribes between "reductionists" and "holistics" abound.



It must be clear that I don't want to bring the reader not to a way nor to the other of this umpteenth dichotomy but I just want to underline how during the XX century the man has been obliged to accept a vivid change of paradigm in the methodology of scientific research and in general in the vision of the world.



It is a change of paradigm which is not at all painless and which is also far from being accepted by the scientific community and interiorized by the general community, The knowledge way is not linear. The seeds of new things bloom when the ground which welcome them is ready. What we have some problems to accept today, in 2009, can have been the object of the intuition of a poet two centuries before. Here for example the words of Giacomo Leopardi (4 October 1821, pages 1837, Zibaldone dei Pensieri [2]):



Dismantle a very complicated machine, take away from it a large part of its wheels, and put them aside and don't think about them anymore. Then, rebuild the machine and start thinking about its proprieties, its tools, its effects: all your reasonings will be false, the machine is not the same anymore, the effects are not the expected ones, the tools are weakened, changed or useless facts; you go and woolgather about this composition, you try to explain the effects of the divided machine, as if it were entire; think appropriately about each wheel which compose it and attribute to one or the other an effect which the machine doesn't produce anymore and that you've seen producing for the virtues you've taken away etc... This happens in the system of the nature when the mechanism of beauty has been taken away, which was thought and made with other systems' parties and with each of them.



With the intuition that only the poets can have, Leopardi anticipates the change of the paradigm in the vision of the world which also today, in the XX century, we have some difficulties to accept.



The networks represent a central element in the new vision of the world, almost an answer to the ojection made by Leopardi two centuries ago.


So, let's go back to the consideration of Internet, the network which represent the principle infrastructure for the communication, to which everybody can acceed with a variety of instruments of common use, not only with the computer [3].



Well, internet is a "living network" because it has autogenerative capacities. The technologies which are at the basis of a large part of internet functions are developped thanks to the characteristics of the network itself. Only to make an example, the most important software for webpages management which is used in the web servers is Apache, an open source product and thus a product of a particular Internet component.


Internet is a living thing as living are the numerous communities hosted there. There are good ones and not good ones, there are a lot of types of them. They are alive because they were born and die, because they all have a tendence to survive, because they can change, transform, divide and re-unite. They are alive because they are human communities. If you want, you can establish connections with one of them or all of them.



The quantity of opportunities offer by Internet is amazing and it was not imaginable ten years ago. But it seems to prevail in the common opinion, and maybe reasonably, the idea of a vain thing, where quantity prevails on quality, stupidity on wisdom.



Is it really like this? Where there is the mass it is inevitable that the quality fades and the bad things prevail, isn'it? Internet, with its extraordinary capacity to fluidificate the infos, is it the clear demonstration of this sad thesis?



I must say that, once considered our situation on this planet, the idea that everything which concerns the mass should be negative makes me feel uncomfortable. Then, we have to forget that some extraordinary phenomena as the open source software, the operative system Linux, IBM which makes business with the open source world, as the other big IT enterprises, the multinational enterprises which make researches by collaborating with the mass, the chance for the authors to decide how much and how make their works free through Creative Commons?



A lot of people, after having heard some of my descriptions of this phenomena, say: "But these beautiful things concern other people, those who know, those who can... I don't have such tools, I've no competence".



No. I don't agree. It's not a problem of competences. It's not a problem of tools. It is not because always the others can.



The boom of Internet from the year 2000 is due to the fact that express oneself and act in the web is possible thanks to elementary competences and at very low cost tools, obiquitorious and that the new generations use without even knowing it.



That of the lack in competences and appropriate tools in order to participate is just an alibi which hides a deeper unease which I believe comes from the school education (and no forming, unfortunately) and the schooling of our society with at least two bad consequences:



  1. notwithstanding the continous evidence of activism we have actually a very passive, conformist and scarcely creative behaviour
  2. we are not used (or quite) to manipulate living things.



The first point is that developped by me in the previous post dedicated to facebook where I referred to the change of paradigm suggested by Patch Adams with which we substitute the so that … to the because of …”: now I do this because I've tha aim to... instead of I can't do this because of... I ended by saying that the matter is not about "where we are", in the real world or in the virtual one or somewhere else, but on the tools to emply in order to try to realize one's projects, maybe one's life projects.



Here I'd like to analyze the second point: we've lost the necessary sensibility in order to communicate with the living entities, we can't listen to themm anymore, we can't talk to them anymore, we've lost the capability to empathize to the point that sometimes we don't even see them.



Maybe, someone is wondering what I mean for living thing. Here are the examples: the plant you've in a pot but also the earth which welcomes it, the (brewer's yeast) which you put in the dough for a cake, wine, cheese and then the ground from which all our food comes from, even a child is a living thing and also a class, our blogclass, a community of people who periodically meet in order to discuss a subject of common interest, maybe internet, a practical community, the totality of web feeds I'm interested in.



Some of the things I've mentioned seem obvious but judging for example the way we eat, the way we talk to youngsters, how we teach in school classes, I've serious doubts we can actually talk to living things.



Carlo Petrini writes in the intro to his beautiful dvd Storie di Terra e di Rezdore:



"he savoir faire of good artisans and peasants of all the world tells us how the man in the past has created an alliance with the nature, before starting to destroy it systematically, believing that he could dominate it.



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A living thing is destroyed when we don't undersatnd it anymore and we can't talk to it anymore. We can destroy a child without touching them. We can destroy parts of a world (the famous school subjects) in one's students' mind.It usually happens, a part form wonderful exceptions. You can destroy your earth.


Why all this happened? It happened for the process of atomization of the society which brought to the disgregation of the little human communities, families, towns, cities. It happened for the consequential schooling of society. The family doesn't educate anymore, gives the education to others and manage the day of sons. Parents has become managers of their children. Partially because they don't have any time, but partially because they don't have many things to give them.


The threads along which the knowledge was passed have broken, from generation into generation. Now we go to school but this give only a spare copy aimed at inserting people into the job world, actually in a way which is not satisfying. School cannot give that knowledge that before used to go from old people to youngsters for osmosis, through observed and shared acts, which is not difficult to codify in propostitional forms and certainly not in those of school books.


In all that part of knowledge that extinguished within two generations, there is also the knowledge of living things. And I refer only minimally to the school knowledge mostly made of notions, even if lacking, like for example the fact that we don't know that in order to produce milk, cows have to give birth to a calf once a year.


I refer to the totality of sensibilities and perceptions that allow us to talk to the living thing. All the living things talk, also those that don't know a symbolic language. My grandpa, a peasant, tought it to me when I was 10:


"Well, Andrea, plants talk"

"What do you mean?"

"You have to observe them in order to understand what they say, you have to learn their signs. For example if the leaves fall and dry it means they are thirsty. All living things talk. You have to wait and observe, they will give you some signs. You can talk to plants but you need time."


My father, graduated, an educated man with lots of values couldn't have said something so poignant. Now I'm 54, so we are facing a phenomenon of extinction.


In the panorama of the generation of my sons there's nothing like this and, I repeat, what we know, we kill it without knowing it. To say the truth there are some attention signs which are emerging again thanks to the initiatives and the works of people like Carlo Petrini, creator of Slow Food. We have to be happy with these signs but they are only drops in the ocean face to the pas culture of common people.


My thesis is that we can't find a pro in the wealth of the online world because we have lost a developped culture which was fundamental in tha past thousand years and which, in the process of schooling in the society began in the IXX century, is now estinguished because the school wasn't able to take it and let it be alive.


The culture we've lost contemplated the alliance with the nature mentioned by Petrini, like all the alliances funded on the dialogue and the understanding. We can make a lot of examples that can be seen as useful metaphore for the online life. The problem is that metaphores function when they bring to a familiar context and rather a lot of them bring to a context which is unfortunately remote. For such a reason, I propose some of them with the hope that for each of you there is an appropriate metaphore.



I begin with the metaphore which is more appropriate for me and that I can call "of the sharecropper". Why sharecropper and not simple peasant? The sharecropping [4] was a work contract between master and peasant which expected the peasant to live with his family in the farm thus managing completely its condition and giving the 50% of its product to the master.


This is the main form of management of the agricoltural territories in the hill zones and mountains in Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Emilia Romagna. Actually, a part from some great exceptions, it was a form of explotation which has reached hateful levels, above all in the mountain farms which are less fruitful.


A real pity because the sharecropper, a bit for necessity and for scarcity, a bit for the huge variety of activities that the management of a farm needed a man of great competences and versatility. The competence of the sharecropper, evaluated in a equal job market would be like a well-made wine: priceless. What a pity: the economic development has gone somewhere else.


The list of all the things that a sharecropper had to control, care of, decide, correct, mantain, build in his farm and for his animals. All the things from which depended the surivival of his family were alive, plants, cultures, gardens, animals, etc... He needed forcely to be able to talk to them. He didn't have to loose control of its totality and being always ready to interact.


It is a mentality which is very different from the dominant one in the secondary and tertiary sectors, where prevail manipulation, construction, management of entities seen as inanimated, objects to assemblate, jobs to do, staff to consider for their skills, resources to allocate, objectives to reach.


In the work of the sharecropper there were moments of planning and building but the practice of listening prevailed. For example the garden that makes the man dead- needed a daily visit and things to do depended on always changeable conditions only partially predictable- today salad needs more water because tonight there's been a little watering, the tomatoes have too many weeds, those beans have to be picked or they will harden... ah, snails are eating my strawberries...


The feeds you choose to follow are like vegetables you decide to seed and plant, you have to know what you need.


Feed is a technical term but it represent a connection with a human being and such a connection should be followed as a plant in the garden so that it gives the expected fruits, it must be cultivated: reading when interested, reflectiong, commenting, answering, proposing.


The totality of your connections is your garden.


I don't use any other word because I know that words cannot communicate more than this. If you have in your real life a connection of this type, a person or a memory linked to the ground world, well, try to take it back and go deep inside it, you will get more than through my words.



Explaining the meaning of this metaphore should be easy after what i've said for the previous one. Moreover it should function for half of the human beings, in theory.


Actually I'm not so sure of it. I remember the conversation of an ostetrician who lamented the absurdity of the questions made by a growing number of parents. Questions that some time ago couldn't have been made by nobody and which reveal the shame of not knowing what to do face to a living thing: "Let's ask the doctor!", "Let's subscribe to a course!"


Luigi Pirandello, in "Donna Mimma" [5] described the suffered transfer from the experience of the mother to the professionality of the obstetrician and when Donna Mimma is obliged to go to the university to get a diploma in order to continue her profession she made for 35 years


"little by little, as that famous implicite knowledge, about which Prof Torresi has talked, it becomes explicit, donna Mimma, seeing more clearly, doesn'it? what? Sha cannot see anything at all anymore."


Now mothers and fathers are loosing the implicit knowledge, too!


Here a good example of what I mean for schooled society. Looking into propositional forms, given ex cathedra and payed at a certain price, knowledge which were before imbued in the community.


Like comparing the purchase and the consume of a bar with the preparation of a course and its tasting with a friend. The difference is the life.


I believe that schooling contribute tragically to the relationship with the successive generations, if we can still talk about a relationship... but who knows?



I find this metaphore more beautiful. The cure, the respect and the modesty in an elder who follows the track of a young person. The real teacher speaks just a bit, few interventions, just a minimum. The real teacher is just interested in quality and not in quantity, because the quantity will be a matter of the youngster but the research of the quality will be the matter of the teacher.


Rare. Very rare at school. The rarety makes even more precious the exceptions which fortunately exist. If you had the luck to find a teacher on your path, then think about that experience again.


If you pay attention and cure as the teacher does with his pupils, you will have pleasant surprises.




Both looking for the connections and cultivating the selected ones, you can feel anxious about the impossibility to face a such a big quantity and above all to loose something in the vastity of which you cannot see any limits. Another effect of schooling: the will to see the limits of the territory, needing the manual, wanting to know all that is needed. This a bad education given by school. Life is not like that. Never.


These anxieties have emerged evidently on the online course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in the fall semester of this year.


During the second week of this course I suggested the metaphore here below.



 It seems, perhaps not surprisingly, that many appear to be puzzled and sometimes annoyed by the chaotic structure of the course.


Well, let’so go for a walk in a wood and relax …


What does it mean to know a wood?


    * to know its name?

    * to know the region where it is located?

    * to know all the paths in the wood so as to be able to find the way back from any place and in any condition?

    * to know the kinds of trees, plants and animals that are populating it?

    * to know it so that you can hunt wild animals there?

    * to know that in a certain place there is water flowing under the soil?

    * to know where and when one can find good mushrooms there?

    * to know a relevant historical fact that took place there?

    * to know that there a famous poet found inspiration there?

    * to know it because you felt in love there?


Oh, there are so many ways to know that wood, some of them achieved in an entire life and some in very short times.


However, nobody would assume that in order to know that wood one has to know exactly every tree, one by one, its shape, age and location. Every plant. Every leave of every plant. Every animal and where every animal is and what every animal is doing at any instant. Every stone. Every particle.


Of course not! It is just too much and after all, would this kind of knowledge be desirable? No, this thorough and crazy knowledge appears to be less desirable than one of the previous ones.


No, what we need is to find our own way to know that wood. There are unlimited ways to now it and everyone has a different system (network?) of concepts to connect to it. Even the same person at different times has a different system of concepts to connect to it.


At any rate, which is the best way to achieve that peculiar knowledge? Just enjoing a walk in the wood, one, two, many times and go where you see something you like. With the passing of time you will know that wood in your own way.




If you are still here but the metaphores I've suggested to you do not convince you and you don't find significant references to some experiences of your past, I could suggest you to get the dvd Storie di terra e di rezdore and watch it with attention. There are some sequences which deserve repeated visions.


If, even after this, you don't see the link... well, maybe it is better that in Internet you actually spend less time.



[1] Capra, Fritjof, The Web of Life, Flamingo, London, 1997.


[2] Leopardi, Giacomo, Zibaldone dei Pensieri (pag. 1837, 4 ottobre 1821), Oscar Mondadori, Milano, 2004.


[3] The computer is almost old. According to different sources, the moobile is the technology which is invading the world. In a lot of parts of the world where it has been impossible to build the traditional technological infrastructures there are some mobile networks which offer a huge cover for infos (”The art of the possible” Economist, 13 novembre 2008). For example, the 72% of the afghan population is covered by the network and in 2006 the 68% of the new requests to subscribe to a new number of mobile are coming from the third world.


[4] Casanova, Paolo ; Sorbetti Guerri, Francesco, La vita e le cacce dei contadini fra Ottocento e Novecento : quando si cacciava per vivere, Edizioni Polistampa, Firenze, 2007.


[5] Pirandello, Luigi, Novelle per un anno, Donna Mimma, Il vecchio Dio, La giara, Garzanti, Milano, 1994.

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