Yesterday, I joined the CIDER meeting Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. One of the other audience members made a comment to me that got me thinking. We were talking about emergence, and I made mention of mathematical complexity. The response was that we were discussing social emergence, and that math was just a metaphor. That is what got me thinking.
A little background. Chaos theory was just becoming big when I started my masters. One of my professors, knowing I had a strong background in math, talked with me about it. It also came up in a class on modeling ecological systems. I kept up with complexity and chaos theory off and on since then (but it never became a major calling for me). As a scientist, I also have been taught the supremacy of mathematics since I was in high school. So saying that math was just a metaphor was odd, since all complexity theory ultimately originates in mathematics.
The specific thing that was discussed was regarding the imitation of the system, and that small changes at initiation can have a dramatic effect. My ultimate idea here is that one person could throw the group dynamics into a spin and radically affect the forming social network. But I sat with the idea of math as a metaphor, and that is when I was struck by an amazing similarity between what is being discussed with collective learning and emergence. One point I made regarding codifying collective learning is the unpredictability of the initial system. But it is not just the initial system, it is the individual(s) that make up the collective.
Where did this come from? What the conversation reminded me of was a work of Science Fiction: Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series. If you are not familiar with the series, in the first book, a mathematician develops an algorithm to predict large scale societal trends in the future. A foundation is built to "oversee" these trends, working for a "better" outcome. The problem comes in the second book, because the one thing the algorithm can not predict is the actions of an individual, and one individual throws the entire system into chaos. I know I have left a lot out, but this is just meant as a breif overview.
What is the point? Ultimately, the individual is the important element in the collective. How do you maintain a collective when one individual disrupts the collective? With a large enough population, the collective maybe able to maintain itself, but a small one may not survive. Think about that one disruptive student in a class. How much of a problem do they make for the learning of others? This is not to alienate one person, or to even say one system is better than another, but if you ignore that one individuals actions, it can have a damaging effect on any collective you try to build. This becomes a question of leadership/management ultimately, but it can not be ignored when trying to build a #collective.
And how does this deal with math...well except for the reference to an algorithm to predict future societal trends by one person, which is in many ways analogous to small changes in initial state altering the behavior of the system, not much. :)