Friday, November 23, 2007

Network Learning - A Long Pause for Good Information

I recently reread Stephen Downes' article How the Net Works, in which he articulates an excellent summary of the mechanics of network learning.

I'm particularly interested in the conditions necessary for avoiding informational cascades, or groupthink. Many of the truly interesting problems in IT cannot be solved by individuals, so network learning seems promising. However, network-derived solutions carry their own set of risks.

Stephen lists four conditions for avoiding informational cascades.
  • Diversity - Did the process involve the widest possible spectrum of points of view? Did people who interpret the matter one way, and from one set of background assumptions, interact with people who approach the matter from a different perspective?
  • Autonomy - Were the individual knowers contributing to the interaction of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, or were they acting at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection?
  • Openness - Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?
  • Connectivity - Is the knowledge being produced the product of an interaction between the members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members' perspectives? A different type of knowledge is produced one way as opposed to the other. Just as the human mind does not determine what is seen in front of it by merely counting pixels, nor either does a process intended to create public knowledge.
Few networks can boast all of these characteristics. Indeed, as I ponder some of the networks around me, it seems few can boast more than one or two. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, or perhaps it's a sign I need better networks. :-)

On the other hand, the list provides a good diagnostic for assessing information gleaned from a network. Viewed as degrees of freedom, it's easy to see how absence of a particular characteristic might affect the output.

Also, I've rearranged the list to provide a memory aid.
  • Connectivity
  • Openness
  • Diversity
  • Autonomy
This is primarily for my benefit, but others might find it useful.

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