Revisiting 'The Power of Context'

Has anything really changed for networked learning?

Another dive into the archives, this day in 2004 I was writing about the power of associative thinking to generate new insights, purely by juxtaposing existing ideas in a new way.

These days it seems we hear of “nothing but” the power of associative thinking in the context of Zettelkasten or digital gardens, driven by the core principle of breaking ideas down into atomic concepts to support re-combination and serendipitous insight.

However what many who focus on those current trends ignore (or are perhaps unaware of) is the very long history of tools that support this way of working (e.g. wiki, 1995, mind-mapping, 1970 ).

So what, exactly, is the new context added by digital gardens? I’m not sure I know yet at a technical level. One clear benefit at an information level is that there is no shortage of discussion on how to use those tools to support thinking, but I would suggest much of that could be applied to any technology.

Beyond the associative power of one mind is the additional benefit of social networks to support high quality ideation. In Burt 2003 1 the author studied 673 managers in a large US electronics company and found that

good ideas were disproportionately in the hands of managers rich in the social capital of brokering connections across structural holes. [such managers] were more likely to express their ideas, less likely to have their ideas dismissed by senior management, and more likely to have their ideas evaluated as valuable.

Clearly there is more than associative thinking at play here, a social network is not just a source of new ideas, but one’s cultural capital within that network is likely to add perceived value to one’s own constructs.

If digital gardens and Zettelkasten have given us new tools for personal associative thinking, and when they are public can stimulate new patterns of thought in a reader, what do we have that supports the social element?

In 2004 I wrote about three factors I saw as critical to the unpredictable emergence of learning:

  • Generalist / Polymath learning exists, contributes knowledge and helps the horizontal distribution of knowledge;
  • The public, linked, asynchronous nature of blogs and related technologies both exposes conversations to a wider pool of people and helps the ideas start to flow before any face-to-face meeting;
  • The benefits of any specific piece of knowledge are not always forseeable until the right combination of circumstances and other people arises – in other words unpredictable emergent behaviour;

I’m not convinced anything has really changed there, it’s just we’ve all spent 15+ years looking in other directions. The re-emergence of blogs as an asynchronous conversation, combined with the ready availability of tools such as digital gardens to express loosely-coupled ideas, provide as good a platform now as they did then.

The rise of distributed working has also given asynchronous work new credibility as the route to both sanity and productivity in an always-on context.

So what, is needed on top of my three points for 2004 to encourage effective networked thinking? I will hazard a guess at:

  • expose yourself to lots of ideas - renew your self
  • learn stuff to support your process - more important to learn how to read, think and write in a networked context than how to use any specific technology
  • create your own process for Seek-Sense-Share and stick to it (lightly)
  • be intentional
  • “own your own space” on the web - although embracing Indieweb principles typically means an investment in learning some tech skills, that’s a small price to pay for your ideas having a permanent home (your domain), in a format you can lift and shift to any server you like
  • engage with others and their ideas

Lastly I’m not immune to the thought that this is a self-referential post - it is re-examining earlier ideas in a new context. I’m happy to admit I stole the idea of going back through the archive from Ton Zjilstra, and as he found recently, even a conversation with your past self can generate new thinking.

Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change