Scott, I disagree with your characterization of this discussion as “hand waving” and “loose writing,” though in the case of my own contributions, I can already see places where I could have been tighter in my prose, but then, that’s always the case. While the writing might be a bit fuzzy, the ideas are not.

We are talking about complexity, not as some New Age mumbo-jumbo or even some effete scholarship, but as a hard-nosed, carefully crafted, and meticulously researched concept of how the universe works, even how education works. I’ll offer what explanation I have of complexity, and I acknowledge up front that I am borrowing heavily from Edgar Morin’s wonderful little book On Complexity (2008). Also, I appreciate the chance this conversation is giving me again to clarify and develop my own thinking, or to paraphrase my loose writing: to shape and reshape each other, to map myself to the rhizome as it maps to me.

Morin says that, as a hard-headed scientific concept distinct from its commonsense meaning, complexity emerged in the twentieth century from micro-physics (quantum theory) and macro-physics (relativity). Micro-physics “opened up not only onto a complex relationship between observer and observed but also onto the more complex notion, the destabilizing notion, that elementary particles appear … as a wave, but also as a particle” (19). At the other end of the Universe, macro-physics “made observation dependent on the position of the observer and complexified the relations between time and space, until then considered transcendent and independent essences” (19,20).

Unfortunately, or perhaps in self-defense, all the other sciences (chemistry, biology, sociology, psychology, education, etc) pushed these undeniable complexities either to the too small to think about (quantum) or to the too large to think about (relativity), and in general, they continued to behave as if the universe here in the middle was the comfortably predictable and manageable deterministic place 200 years of Western science had convinced them it was. They continued to believe that a thing was either this or that, but NOT that a thing is both wave and particle. They believed that we could all see the same evidence regardless of our position or velocity relative to the evidence, and after 100 years of Einstein, relativity and relativism still get bad raps in the public press, certainly in the pulpits.

However, Morin goes on to say, cybernetics, especially the work of Wiener, Ashby, and von Neumann, introduced complexity into this middle reality (you really should read his book for a better explanation). Complexity burst into Middle Earth like Jedis in the wrong movie, and things haven’t been stable since. We now have apparently sober physicists discussing multi-dimensional realities and parallell universes, perhaps an infinite number of them, and describing them with great mathematical precision. Meteorologists say that a butterfly in Africa can cause hurricanes in Louisiana. Their talk may one day prove wrong, but it isn’t loose. It’s based on a scientific notion of complexity: the effect of large numbers of “units and interactions that defy our possibilities of calculation” and that embody “uncertainty, indetermination, and random phenomena” (20).

I think Dave and I were addressing this notion of complexity and the reductionism that tries to undo complexity: first when he complained that the phrase personal learning environment reduces a complex system to the merely personal, and then when I countered that he is correct in protesting this kind of reductionism, but that the phrase might be read in a different sense that honors both individual person and network. We were both saying the same thing: that learning cannot be reduced to either discrete individual or to holistic network. We are both abandoning the language of either/or for the language of and/and/and. Part of the problem is that we have a very robust either/or language, especially in our middle sciences, but unlike micro and macro-physics, we do not have a robust and/and/and language. I think that part of the reason for the MOOCs that Dave, George, Stephen, and Rita have been doing is to help us develop this language of rhizomatic complexity.

So perhaps our language in this discussion has been too loose, but the concept we were approaching, complexity, is not loose. It is well-grounded and reliable, though in a complex sort of way. 🙂 Consider complexity carefully and well. I think it has a fair chance of being one of the intellectual pillars of human thought for the rest of this century.