Ambient Research, Recursion, and RWS

(This is a follow-up and continuation of a previous post, Infrastructures of Ambient Research)

"Untitled," by gadl on Flickr.

I'm going to begin this post by drawing on some research in cognitive science, and then I'll make a few statements about the nature of cognitive recursion, and its importance to writing, rhetoric, meaning-making, and ontology. Much more of the research supporting these statements will necessarily remain separate from this blog post, but if you're curious about the work I'm drawing from, please see the slidedeck from my presentation at the 2008 Conference on College Composition and Communication, and the review of that presentation.
"Every moment in your waking life, each region of your neocortex is comparing a set of expected columns driven from above with the set of observed columns driven from below. Where the two sets intersect is what we perceive. . . .Longtime cortical modeler Stephen Grossberg calls this 'folded feedback.' I prefer 'imagining.'"

"If you study a particular set of objects over and over, your cortex re-forms memory representations for those objects down the cortical hierarchy. This frees up the top for learning more subtle, more complex relationships. According to the theory, this is what makes an expert."

"Creativity is mixing and matching patterns of everything you've ever experienced or come to know in your lifetime. It's saying 'this is kinda like that.'"

"Your understanding of the world and your responses to it are based on predictions coming from your internal model." (Hawkins, 2004; p. 156, 167, 187, 202)
"We humans are beings whose fate it is to be able to perceive abstractions, and to be driven to do so. We are beings that spend their lives sorting the world into an ever-growing hierarchy of patterns, all represented by symbols in our brains. We constantly come up with new symbols by putting together previous symbols in new kinds of structures, nearly ad infinitum."

"Consciousness . . . is an inevitable emergent consequence of the fact that the system has a sufficiently sophisticated repertoire of categories. Like Godel's strange loop, which arises automatically in any sufficiently powerful formal system of number theory, the strange loop of selfhood will automatically arise in any sufficiently sophisticated repertoire of categories, and once you've got self, you've got consciousness."

"In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference."
(Hofstadter, 2007; p. 295-96, 325, 363)
Recursion is a pretty simple concept; at its most basic level, it simply denotes things that are repeated in a self-similar way. When we start to explore some of these recursive things, however, complications can mount exponentially, resulting in an ever-increasing complexity; think of the graph of "e," for example:

At some level then, recursion is easy to grasp--the way a mobius strip elegantly bends back upon itself, for example. But when we begin to consider complex constructs like language, meaning-making, human ontology, and consciousness, these recursive things can become increasingly, almost infinitely complex.

Folks in English Studies may think of Bakhtin's heteroglot notion of language, perhaps, as a tremendously complex form of linguistic recursion and evolution. And anyone with even passing knowledge of the disciplinary discourse of Rhetoric and Writing Studies will be familiar with the idea that "writing is recursive."

Recursion and Writing Studies

Janet Emig appropriated the notion of recursion from applied mathematics to describe the ways in which an individual might negotiate the various components of textual production, bouncing back and forth among seemingly discrete actions such as composition, revision, outlining, etc. As an early hallmark of the process theory movement, the notion that "writing is recursive" quickly became incorporated into lore, such that few would dispute the fundamentally recursive nature of writing production.

And in this I wholeheartedly agree;
writing is recursive. In fact, writing is recursive in profoundly complex ways. One of the key arguments of my dissertation research, however, is that the disciplinary discourse of Rhetoric and Composition has commonplaced recursion in the study of writing, and as such, has woefully undertheorized its role in writing production and the complex cognitive demands that accompany writing. So, much of my research has explored the ways in which writing actually is recursive, beyond the simple formulations of early process theory.

As Douglas Hofstadter argues in
I Am a Strange Loop, recursion is fundamental to epistemology, ontology, and consciousness. Recursion, in other words, is no small matter. It's essential to meaning-making, to subject formation, and to postmodern notions of rhetoric--where rhetoric is epistemic in an ontological sense. And as Hawkins argues, "creativity is mixing and matching patterns of everything you've ever experienced or come to know in your lifetime. It's saying 'this is kinda like that.'"

We learn--and communicate what we know--by continuously looping back to old, established knowledge within the context of new inputs. These complex (often tacit) processes, which are intimately and infinitely different for each person, foment meaning-making. In short, and within the disciplinary context of Rhetoric and Writing Studies,
recursion is the fuel of rhetorical invention.

Ambient Research and Writing

Steven Johnson, author of
Ghost Map and The Invention of Air, among other works, recently guest-blogged on BoingBoing. In a particularly intriguing post, he said that he "thought it might be fun to say a few words about the writing system I've developed over the past few books." Johnson says that

"the one constant for the past four books has been an ingenious piece of software called Devonthink, which is basically a free-form database that accepts many different document types (PDFs, text snippets, web pages, images, etc). It has a very elegant semantic algorithm that can detect relationships between short excerpts of text, so you can use the software as a kind of connection machine, a supplement to your own memory." (emphasis added)

"The first stage, which is crucial," he says, "is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting." If you've read my previous post, and you're tracking with my arguments about recursion and writing, then this should all be sounding very familiar. Johnson says

"I grab paragraphs from web pages, from digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text--and each little snippet I just drop into Devonthink with no organization other than a citation of where it came from. This goes on for months and months; I read in a completely unplanned and exploratory way (increasingly online. . .) and just drag anything that seems at all interesting into Devonthink."

As he moves from aggregation to organization, and from organization to the writing of actual chapters, he reads through all of these seemingly disorganized snippets of research. "In reading through them all," he says, "I have a completely new contextual experience of them, because I'm at the end of the research cycle, not at the beginning. They feel like pieces of a puzzle that's coming together, instead of just hints or hunches."

While Johnson doesn't explicitly address recursion, I want to reflect for a moment on the kinds of cognitive acts that accompany the research process that Johnson has articulated for us here. Obviously, the work of pulling strands into Devonthink, and then contextualizing those multiple, disparate strands within the context of writing production is fundamentally recursive work.

But I'm quite certain that Johnson's cognitive recursion doesn't begin and end with the act of pulling, contextualizing, and rethinking strands within the Devonthink database. Certain important connections are no doubt made along the way. And these kinds of connections will
recur, over and over again, ostensibly away from the project (yet anyone who has ever completed a writing project with any kind of complexity--from a student research paper to the books that Johnson writes--will understand that one is never completely away from the project). For example, he might make an important connection between two bits of research while running on the treadmill; he might reformulate the organization of a given chapter while listening to a fellow traveler. This is the stuff of cognitive recursion, and this stuff is at the core of writing production.

Devonthink is the primary infrastructure that is foregrounded in Johnson's example, but there are clear analogues to the infrastructures of ambient research I discussed in the last post. In fact, I can think of no better framework than leveraging push, pull, and streams as one is researching and thinking through a given project, and then contextualizing that research through a tool like Devonthink.

What I'm arguing here is that a framework of ambient research fosters cognitive recursion. Conversation streams from Twitter periodically delivered via SMS to mobile phones can foster such recursion for developing and expert writers alike. In curricular and pedagogical terms, this can carry complex thinking within a given content area beyond the classroom, and beyond the computer and course management software.

Wading into ambient research can allow researchers (and I see undergraduate and even advanced placement secondary students
as researchers) to continually interact with and consider new cognitive inputs within the context of what they already know, pushing them to consider how "'this is kinda like that,'" how we can put "together previous symbols in new kinds of structures."

So What?

With a more robust theory of recursion within writing studies, the scope of what constitutes "writing" and "writing processes" must necessarily expand. To use myself as an example, the great bulk of the writing I do--probably 95%--is
cognitive. That is, when I am focused on a writing project, I spend most of my time thinking through the potential permutations, interconnections, and implications of my argument, and I write it all down (in what we traditionally think of as the "act of writing" or "composition") in short bursts. I can write 30 or more pages in a 24 hour period, so long as I have developed the appropriate cognitive framework to do so. It is this framework that has been made largely invisible in writing studies (though there have been several noteworthy exceptions over the years, such as that of Prior and Shipka, for example). It is this framework that can be strengthened through ambient research.

In The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain argues that "recursively generative applications are capable of producing not only new works, but also new generative applications that can then be used to create new works." This brings us back to platforms, and the role that they play in fostering recursion, innovation, and rhetorical invention in writing. Well -developed infrastructures of ambient research are productively generative, as they explicitly (and continuously--it's a stream, remember?) foster recursion.


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