Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Location of Thinking

Ordinarily and naively when we think about thinking, we think of it as something that happens “in our heads”. And indeed we think of the process of learning as a process of taking information that lies outside our heads in places like books and websites and copying it so that we have at least a summary version of that information “inside our heads”.

The direction of information flow appears to be going from “outside our heads” to “inside our heads”. A typical experience of the western education system seems to encourage this idea about what constitutes thinking and learning and understanding.

Now as the quantity of available information that could be moved from “outside our heads” (OOH) to “inside our heads” (IOH) gets exponentially larger, individuals, groups, communities and even society at large tend in the direction of a state that gets called Information Overload, Information Meltdown or Information Overwhelm.

Whereas for a long time it seemed as though human beings were lacking information, and anything that could be done to increase the amount of information available to any given one of us was a good thing, that is no longer the case.

However the spectre of Information Overload may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for it leads us to begin to question our original model of learning. What if learning was in fact NOT a process of moving information form OOH to IOH? What if the kind of thinking we do IOH is actually the least reliable, least creative and least useful kind of thinking there is? What if we are at the threshold of a new paradigm for thinking: a paradigm in which thinking is something that we do in an information space that exists very much in the world – in the space BETWEEN our heads, or at the very least in the space that lies in front of them?

Here is the proposal:

We start from scratch and think of thinking as being a process that occurs in an information space which has nothing or very little to do with “our heads”. An information space is constituted in reality by things like people in conversation with each other, or students writing essays or reading books, or a lecturer giving a presentation to an auditorium or presenting a television series on BBC2, or a mathematician working with a piece of paper and a pencil, or collaborative participants editing a Wikipedia entry, or a group of engineers using a whiteboard to find a solution to an engineering problem, or a bloke sitting at home typing at his computer or using a piece of thought-processing software to explore a subject.

In all of these examples, I know, we can point to the existence of heads. People have heads, no question about that. Their heads come at the top of their bodies… or usually they do. My point is that for the most part the heads in question are largely irrelevant to the process of thinking.

Thinking is something that happens IN THE WORLD, and after it happens it may sometimes make its way into our heads… like an after-thought.

The value of this new way of thinking about thinking, a paradigm in which thinking is something that happens in an information space that occurs in the world, is that it affords us a much more powerful relationship with thinking. From this perspective, thinking starts to look like a transformation that we apply to information objects in the world, which alters the condition and relationship of those information objects from one state to another.

Instead of learning being a process of moving information from outside to inside, the direction of information flow during a learning process now goes from one information space in the world to another information space in the world, or else it occurs by the transformation of an information space so that the significance or layout or the organizational structure of the information has been altered. For example a lengthy treatise has been summarized. In the process of the summarization a subject that was previously inscrutable is transformed into one that is relatively digestible. For another example consider the transformation that information undergoes when it is converted from a reference-book type format and converted into a training course format. In many ways we might say the reference book contains the “same” information as the training course, but now the impact of that information is completely different. In this way we might think of learning as a process of transforming information so that it is “ready to hand” (that is to say more quickly accessible or organized for quick access by a particular person).

In all these examples there may well have been, during the process of “learning”, a corresponding modification in the contents of the head of the person doing the summarization, or carrying out the re-organization of the information, but perhaps we can think of this as being largely incidental.

If we follow this line of thinking through to some of its conclusions, we might start to consider that the power of any given thinking activity is not a function of IQ or necessarily any particular kind of individual abilities, but rather a consequence of WHERE we are attempting to do our thinking. In the light of this, the question of where we are doing our thinking starts to look like it is a matter to which we should pay a lot more attention than we have heretofore been doing.

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