Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Digital natives collaborating

Digital natives collaborating

From The Statesman

ND Batra

The challenge for the academia lies in tapping and pooling the brainpower within academic units as well as outside and creating an environment of synergy and enthusiasm for collaboration. That is how you develop what is called “swarming intelligence.”

As it has been often said, the digital age is breaking walls and melding previously divergent communities, for example, of critics and practitioners; of message creators and audiences; of teachers and learners. The virtual and the physical are crisscrossing and becoming co-extensive parallel universes.

The Second Life, YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook generation is developing its sensibilities in virtual environments characterised by new assumptions based on heterarchy, interactivity, and intellectual engagement, what MIT’s Henry Jenkins describes as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.”

This kind of heterarchical culture generates “opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude toward intellectual property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship.” The cyber generation that is descending upon campuses requires skills that enable it to be competitive in a global environment where collaborative teamwork, spread across time-zones and continents, is becoming a necessity.

Fortunately, thanks to computer and video games, many kids are already coming to colleges equipped with some of the skills suggested by Jenkins; for example: “the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving; the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery; the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes; the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content; the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details; the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities; the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal; the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources; the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities; the ability to search for, synthesise, and disseminate information; the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.”
And there is much more to come.
To educate the cyber generation, the campus grey eminence needs to develop tools for collaborative environment in which students and teachers can work as co-workers and performers. For a university an important step in building collaboration for innovation is to develop its own Wiki, where people can collaborate, build, edit, and correct each other. The idea of Wiki is based on the principle of redundancy and the system’s self-correcting behaviour, which makes it possible for knowledge and creativity to emerge through continuous emendation, additions and revisions. Andrew P McAffee calls it (Sloan Management Review) as “The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration.”

Convergence and emergence shape our lives today.

I believe that in an innovation and knowledge-driven world collaboration is imperative, though most of us are obsessed with lone geniuses like Albert Einstein transforming space-time dimensions into abstract mathematical equations; Ludwig van Beethoven composing and conducting the orchestra and chorus in the premiere of his Ninth Symphony that he could not hear; or John Milton, blind and old, dictating Paradise Lost to his daughter. It is not that the proverbial genius will ever vanish; rather the most important point in the age of social networking and collaborative code-making is that academically disparate people now have the means, for example, as mentioned earlier, a constantly evolving digital platform like Wiki, to work together and enhance the creation of knowledge and scholarship.

Consider the novel Click, which was collaboratively created under the editorial oversight of Arthur Levine by ten authors each contributing a chapter to a mystery surrounding “a camera, some photographs and box with seven shells.” The collaboration took place sequentially, each author’s contribution built upon the previous one, story upon story that has hung together as a wholesome plot. But the novel could have been created in Wiki also, probably with better results, tapping into the collective wisdom and interactivity of the group instead of each author waiting for his or her turn to write a chapter.

Collaboration in the arts and humanities is not something new. In televisions, as I mentioned in one of my earlier books, The Hour of Television, creativity is normally negotiated and bargained, where, in fact, the collective is the creator and programs emerge from a generative system rather than as an act of individual creation. Think of "Guiding Light", a programme that originated as a radio soap opera (25 January 1937) and was transferred to television (30 June 1952) and has been continuing since then - an example of generative collaborative creativity across two generations.

From Bollywood to Hollywood, collaboration is of the essence.

In the digital age, poor communication occurs because of structural and bureaucratic potholes and because people who have expertise in one field fail to appreciate new ideas in others and shut them out.

Sometime collaboration fails because it is limited to very few people in partnering academic centres, so if some key expert quits, the network withers away. Redundancy, the basis of decentralised networking, is not only essential for continuous creativity but also acts as an antidote to the arrogance of expert power.
In the digital age, chain of commands is an anathema.
The challenge is how to integrate creative activities and unique knowledge as effectively as global supply chains integrate labour, raw materials, finance, and marketing. In the world of globalised business, creative work flows in loops across people, building on shared brainpower, each knowledge hub validating and adding value to the work done by the other, thus, hastening testing, and shaping up and perfecting the final project that might have begun in Kolkata but ends up in Silicon Valley.

In cyberspace, disciplinary zones need not become impenetrable barriers but in order to turn them into an asset it is necessary to develop a user-friendly IT system that provides reliable and uniform services, which can be adapted to ever increasing complex environment across academic disciplines, divisions, and schools.

The task henceforth is to create a system that is capable of accessing available sources of knowledge and mining all modes of human expression, whether audio, video, pictorial, or textual - a protocol that transcends cultural and disciplinary barriers. IT system should be capable of customizing knowledge as per individual or group needs.
For example, consider Dragon Naturally Speaking, which I have been using to dictate my weekly column for The Statesman and update my blog, CorporatePower. In the beginning, the programme would ask me to read the given text passages over and over again, and as I did, the system began to learn my speech rhythm, cadence and accent (Indian-American), and eventually it adapted itself to my needs. The more I use it, the more it learns and more intelligent it becomes. Dragon Naturally Speaking was not created for people like me but for busy corporate executives. The important point is that systems can be created that listen to us and evolve to meet our scholarly, scientific, humanistic, and artistic needs.

And that is a blessing of the digital age, which digital natives are exploring as they build collaborative platforms across cultures from Bangalore to Boston, from IIT to MIT.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University. The author of Digital Freedom, he is now working on a new book, This is the American Way.)

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