Sunday, February 01, 2009

Teaching, Symbology, and Intellectual Materialism – The Chasm is a Vacuum

If you could use a tool and do good works with it, but if you didn't know the name of the tool, would you be less of a craftsperson? How much less? Would your works be less valuable to the people who are served by them?

The world is filled with people who don't understand advanced subjects, but who would like to learn. And the world is blessed with many knowledgeable people who can't understand why the things that they've discovered, learned, and elaborated are not being soaked up by everyone else.

Sadly, the people who are among the first to gain knowledge in a subject often tend to make that knowledge unpalatable to the rest of humanity.

On either side of the issue are people who have fundamentally different reactions to a subject's symbology. Intellectual materialists celebrate and adore a subject's symbology, and the mainstream simply doesn't.

To a mainstream learner, a subject's symbology and pattern language can be a hindrance to learning. This fine point isn't often perceived by those bright and creative people who are quick to recognize, adopt, and deeply-learn an emerging subject, and quick to revel in the accomplishment through the recitation of its symbology within innovator social circles.

When intellectual materialists turn outward from their social circles to readily share their knowledge with the world, the involvement with symbology is often so powerful that they simply can't resist its indulgence. In these moments, the mainstream learner often dismisses many brilliantly-simple and game-changing ideas because they're wrapped up in intimidating symbology, like "Liskov Substitution Principle", "Cyclomatic Complexity", or "Inversion of Control".

These are terms like a lover's whispers to an intellectual materialist. They verily celebrate and decorate the knowledge behind the words, and this celebration of knowledge itself is a deeply-ingrained and vital aspect of intellectual materialism culture. The collection of knowledge and the celebration of knowledge is often as essential as its rightful and meaningful application.

And because the trailblazers aren't often aware of this, they are often only effective as teachers to other early adopters, leaving a chasm between themselves and the mainstream that is a stumble in what should be the continuum of communication along the learning curve.

The Chasm is a Vacuum

Adoption Curve

The chasm in the technology adoption curve is a bit of a stutter-step in what is otherwise a smoothly-flowing transfer of knowledge from people on the left who are earlier adopters than people on the right.

The word "chasm" describes hiccup in the shape of the population distribution curve, but it doesn't describe the social dynamics. Socially, the "chasm" is a "vacuum".

Intellectual materialists from the left-hand side of the adoption curve spend some amount of time amongst themselves incubating emerging ideas before they venture - either accidentally or purposefully - into the mainstream with the ideas. During the incubation, their insular communication patterns are even further reinforced and institutionalized. The celebration of symbology becomes even deeper ingrained through repetition and elaboration.

When intellectual materialists first meet mainstream learners and reach out through these well-ingrained patterns, the ideas and even their representatives are often met with a resistance that doesn't seem to be commensurate with the goodness of the good news of new understanding. If innovators aren't met with resistance, then they've likely just bumped into a new intellectual materialist, pulling them over to the left-hand side of the curve rather than having transformed knowledge - preparing it for, and transitioning it to the right.

When knowledge is first offered across the cultural seam and is met with resistance, the respective cultures recoil into themselves, leaving behind the vacuum. The vacuum shows up on the graph of the technology adoption curve as that blank spot between early adopters and the early majority known as, "the chasm".

Anxiety and Fear

At the point in the continuum where the people who live in the left-hand side of the curve meet the people in the middle of the curve, a lovely handshake should take place. These two neighbors should forge life-long bonds of respect and recognition building on the near-infinite creative potential of diversity, continually transforming and communicating knowledge across the cultural seam.

Far too often an early adopter will bump into someone from the mainstream who will extend his hand across the seam in greeting and say, "Hi, my name is Joe. Lovely day isn't it?" To which the intellectual materialist replies, "Cyclomatic inversion of Liskov test-driven domains of concern segregation substitution interface... in principle". Which in early adopter land roughly-translates to, "Hi-diddly-ho, neighborino!"

The mainstream learner smiles nervously, backs away from the seam, and accelerates away. He returns later with a sign that reads, "Warning: Irrelevant, Academic Clap Trap Beyond this Point", but finds it unnecessary as the intellectual materialist has returned to his capitol city to participate in the ceremonial Reciting of the Terms of the Sacred Symbols at the dedication of an all-new, top-of-the-line, ultra-modern, Class-A echo chamber that his entire society has decided to retreat into for the next five to ten years.

Mainstream learners are often more receptive to new ideas when they're not introduced with the psychic weight of the subject's symbology. It's not because the symbology is just too much to absorb. It's because the symbology and nomenclature, starting with the grandiosity invested in the new subject's name, usually over-states the complexity of the subject.

Innovators and early adopters give names to things that are celebrations of knowledge. They capture and replay the exaltation of the moment of crystallization of the idea by every intellectual materialist that comes to assimilate the new idea.

The name is the idea's material. The name is more than descriptive, it's the psychic texture of the idea. And none of this makes a lick of difference to someone in the mainstream who doesn't also value an idea's texture, but who just wants to learn how do do something so that he can in fact get something done.

Mainstream learners first try to figure out whether some subject is worth learning before they commit their time to learning. There's a lot of anxiety invested in this filtering. The sheer volume of new things bombarding a mainstream learner's priority filter is literally mind-boggling. The subjects that make it through the priority filter are the ones that seem less intimidating, and frankly, the grandiose symbology that is the mark of intellectual materialism is often very intimidating.

As soon as a student's mind touches anxiety about a subject, we've lost a significant portion of their ability to remain present to the subject. The teacher's first duty is to protect the student from anxiety and fear because these things are the anti-matter of learning and knowledge.

Respect the Learner's Tolerance for Intimidating Symbology

The answer isn't to start over with a new symbology (although it would be nice if some thought were given to the effects of symbology on the vacuum when the symbology is established). As teachers, and as the people whose cultural segment on the adoption curve creates most of the intimidating symbology, we have to be conscious of when and where the use of the symbology is appropriate.

The time at which a subject is being introduced to a mainstream learner is often the least appropriate time to introduce a subject's symbology. It might have no effect, or it might have a positive effect, but there's a strong chance that it will have an altogether negative effect - repelling the learner from the subject and the learning experience.

There's no reason to entertain the risk when any subject can be introduced without introducing the symbology. Doing this means that the psychic weight of the intimidation of the symbology isn't brought into play as an obstruction to the learner's capacity to be open and receptive.

Protecting the learner's cognitive space from the anxiety derived through intimidating symbology is a teacher's scared responsibility. It's akin to a physician's oath to do no harm.

There's usually nothing inherent in the symbology that helps a teacher communicate the subject that the symbology represents. It's the subject that it's important, and the subject isn't its name. A subject's symbology can be introduced later, once the subject has been taught past the point of a learner's inherent initial anxiety with new subjects. Until then, there's no reason why a teacher can't introduce a subject, teach it past the intimidation hump, and then and only then introduce the symbology.

Filling in the Vacuum

Sooner or later, enough knowledge is communicated though the vacuum that it eventually dissipates, and the continuum resumes with normal, expected fluidity. This happens when enough early adopters - be they originally from the left of the chasm or the right - work long enough to bridge the gap. If there were more teachers who understood that the role of a teacher bridging the gap is as translator and transformer rather than symbolist, then the vacuum may never even grow from the width of a humble seam.

The strange and predictable phenomenon of the chasm isn't a necessity of the adoption curve, it's the result of a cognitive impedance mismatch between two sub-cultures that fail to recognize the significance of each other's differences.

Intellectual materialists are so over-stimulated by symbology that their behavior borders on the mania of addiction and obsessive compulsion. The solution to the manifestation of the chasm is to respect the human dispositions that turn seams into vacuums.

If we avoid leading with symbology, we avoid inducing the fear response in the mainstream learners, and this goes a long way toward avoiding inducing the chasm. This is well within the reach of the people on the left-hand side of the curve. It simply requires the same discipline as teachers as they require of their students.

When teaching across the void, teach to empower! When empowered, a subject's symbology won't diminish a learner's capacity to be receptive to the subject, and open to learning.

When empowered, a mainstream learner is just as likely to join the celebration of the subject through the subject's symbology just as intellectual materialists do! That doesn't mean that a mainstream learner will have crossed over the seam and become an intellectual materialist, it means that he has been given a chance to see the beauty and power of a subject from his own cultural perspective.

This shared experience from different cultural perspectives is the diversity that will lead to even more creativity and refinement. It's through this diversity that knowledge becomes even more powerful, with new possibilities and applications emerging that lead to the next big idea. And it's through the practice of this diversity that the sheer waste of time and resources that result from the cultural vacuums can be avoided.

Ampersand GT

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