Monday, 17 October 2011

If the accident will

'If the accident will'.

It sounds like a sentence designed to break CELTA trainees, but it is actually a stand-out line from a stand-out book, Slaughterhouse-5.

It's a line which, in the novel, captures the aleatory character of existence but which, for our purposes, also describes the happy juxtaposition of two or more sources from your PLN.

You happen to be reading, for example, about the experimental use of whale-song in meeting role-plays when you chance upon a blog post about white noise in learning environments.

The connection may only be tangential, but it is possible to sense a cognitive chime when this happens, a palpable re-adjusting of mental cogs.

It is a mini-Eureka!

But is it Eureka-lite?
I ask this question because, for me, a PLN is most effective when there is a kind of montage effect with different people bringing different view-points to bear on related subjects.

One way to visualise this process is to think of a kaleidoscope.

Each colour is a blog post, article, or Twitter reference, overlapping the colours next to it, and refracting different hues to produce new shades.

There is no single focus, just predominant patterns and tones, which shift with time.

Montages and kaleidoscopes all sound a bit intellectually shallow, of course - a bit superficial.

Kant would not have approved, although the later Nietzsche might, and so may have Walter Benjamin, who dreamed of a book made entirely of quotations which gave meaning to each other.

However, we are used to thinking diachronically.

We enjoy the story, and the seduction of the ending or the big point.

But the simultaneous nature of a PLN fosters a more synchronic form of intellectual enquiry.

It nudges us toward the pattern, not the point.

It may feel superficial, but this feeling, like skipping across the surface, arises I think from the absence of a teleological arc, such as we might find in a traditional book.

In lieu of the big ending which confers meaning on all that has preceded it, the PLN can leave us with a permanent sense of deferment.

While this can be frustrating, it does mean that we are never finished, but rather always looking, always enquiring, always moving on.

This, and the absolute welter of information, does account for the occasionally wearying character of intellectual life online, but it also augurs badly for complacency of thought, which is generally a good thing, particularly in a professional environment.


Next week I will outline an example of the kind of kaleidoscopic thought I describe here (and which actually led me here in the first place), although that may all change if, in the mean time, someone really does pen a post on the experimental use of whale-song in meeting role-plays...


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