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How OSL and technology are entwined

How use doth breed a habit in a man!
This shadowy desert, unfrequented woods,
I better brook than flourishing peopled towns:
Here can I sit alone, unseen of any,
And to the nightingale's complaining notes
Tune my distresses and record my woes.
O thou that dost inhabit in my breast,
Leave not the mansion so long tenantless,
Lest, growing ruinous, the building fall

And leave no memory of what it was!

Valentine, Act V Scene IV, The Two Gentlemen of Verona

We are slaves to our habits, and the technologies out of which they are formed, and at the same time, find our habitat ruined if we cease to use and care for them. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger argued, the important thing is to bring technology and technologies into question:

"Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this Conception of it, to which today we particularly like to pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology." 1

And that means taking an unfashionably critical stance. How unfashionable? Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Rosabeth Moss Kanter neatly expressed a commonly-held belief in technology as emancipatory:

"Each technology wave produces tools that are more accessible, user-friendly, and democratizing than their predecessors, blurring the line between amateurs and professionals; think of real-time street videos of news events." 2

In the world-view of techno-utopians, the battle lines are drawn between emancipatory new technology and repressive conservative institutions:

"...some establishments can be remarkably impervious to bottom-up disruption because of their organizational structures... In education and health care, numerous demonstrations show the transformational power of technology, but the overall systems change slowly and haven’t reached a tipping point." (ibid)

But what if those top-down structures exist and hold power as a result of an un-critical acceptance of technology? - a willingness to hand over control and responsibility? - a resignation to the "network effect"? What if organizational structures are in fact built unconsciously out of habitual, uncritical, unthinking acts repeated many times? For example, perhaps the institution has become more impersonal because of the way in which its members habitually use email for all kinds of activity for which it is not suited. Perhaps future institutions are right now being constructed within a "dialogue" of 140 character long fragments? Furthermore, the habitual use of technologies combines with habitual thinking and language to reinforce the stratifications, to sediment the walls of our habitat. The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari described how, as a reaction to an over-abundance of connectivity, systems become habitual, sedimented, un-critical and anti-creative - the tyranny of habit:

"We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present." 3

It is true that habits and habitats are essential. We don't want to have to think about our technologies all of the time - for the same reason that one can't live with deconstruction as tool for doing the grocery shopping. Even the most nomadic of tribes have take their habits with them on their wanderings. As the cognitive scientist Andy Clark has argued, the ability to "offload" cognitive work into our environment is what makes human intelligence so effective.4 Habit is therefore both good and bad. The important thing is to take a reflective and critical stance on habit.

And this is where the connection between Open-space Learning, technology and the methodology described in this book becomes particularly exciting.

The "open-space" in Open-space Learning has a double meaning. The space of learning is opened-up to unforeseen possibilities, creativity, innovation. New products are possible, but also new ways of doing things, new collaborations and new values. Good. That's what we are after. But there's a second more challenging meaning, drawn from its roots in performance studies. The open-space is the space into which things are brought into the open, exposed, challenged, critiqued.

In the summer of 2011, I interviewed a broad sample of third-year students from Warwick's English and Comparative Literature courses. They had all taken variations of the compulsory Shakespeare and his Contemporaries module. Some had opted for a "without chairs" version (open-space with Carol Rutter).5 Others had opted for a traditional approach. Although my findings can only be anecdotal and unscientific, I am personally convinced of this: the "without chairs" experience is significantly more intensive, demanding, intellectually and experientially rich because of the inescapably exposed environment in which it takes place. In contrast to the "traditional" seminar approach, the students reported that the open-space approach put their existing habits under scrutiny, and sharply contrasted them with the new intellectual and physical habits practised in each session (often quite starkly in contrast to more comfortable practices). The theatrical rehearsal room in which the sessions were held constituted a different habitat to that of conventional study (the seminar room), but also acted as a stage upon which habits and their props were brought into critical consciousness.

Open-space learning therefore puts habits onto a stage. Habits and habitats become objects for critique and experimentation. The playwright Samuel Beckett had perhaps the keenest grasp of the power of "staging" the habitual. In his essay on Proust, Beckett wrote that:

"Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities..." 6

Beckett's characters are often imprisoned by their habits and their habitats, like animals. His plays show a slowly unfolding ecology, with behaviours that are absurd from the long-view but entirely rational in close-up: a temporary ecological compromise. In just the same way, habitual behaviours with technology may seem to make sense in close-up. Technology users may even develop an emotional attachment to their technologies. But ecologies are unstable, subject to morbidity, or uncontrolled growth leading to collapse and extinction. For the sake of our own development, we need to be able to step back, detach ourselves to some degree and imagine different ways of being. Be like an ecologist studying the habits and habitats of creatures and their machines. At the individual level it is a necessary requirement for living in this world of hyper-connectivity and rapid change. But it's even more important than that. Writing in the late 60's, Deleuze and Guattari, following Beckett (their inspiration), realised the devastating effects that habitual technologies can have on the world (described in the first volume of their Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which Michel Foucault described as an "introduction to non-fascist life" 7). By the time they penned the line quoted above ('94, just at the birth of the World Wide Web) things had got worse - hence the need to find new ways to "resist the present". Open-space Learning gives us a new way to resist - not against technology, but with technology.

This then is a handbook for resisting the dangers of the habitual with technology.

Next, we should follow these considerations of habits and habitats with a brief exploration of the concept of learning ecology, and as a precursor to outlining the method, consider the sensitive role that technology change plays.

Read on...

1 Martin Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology" in Krell, Basic Writings, Routledge, 1993, p.311-312.
2 Rosabeth Moss Kanter, "Evolve (Again)", in the Harvard Business Review, July 2011.
3 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, Continuum, 1994, p.108.
4 Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, MIT, 1997.
5 Nicholas Monk, Carol Chillington Rutter, Jonothan Neelands, Jonathan Heron, Open Space Learning, Bloomsbury, 2011.
6 Samuel Beckett, Proust, Grove Press, 1931, p.7-8.
7 Michel Foucault, "Preface" in Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Athlone Press, 1984, p.xv