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<nettime> collaboration - 7 notes on new ways of learning and working to
florian schneider on Thu, 22 Mar 2007 03:16:48 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> collaboration - 7 notes on new ways of learning and working together


dear nettime!

below i finally attach a piece of text i have been working on over the
past few months. it's kind of work in progress and  i'd appreciate
very much any comment or reply.

an earlier shorter version you find in the sarai reader
<http://www.sarai.net/publications/readers/06-turbulence>  this
version has been written for "Academy", ed. by  Angelika Nollert,
Irit Rogoff, Bart De Baere, Yilmaz Dziewior,  Charles Esche, Kerstin
Niemann, and Dieter Roelstraete (Revolver Verlag) which was published
in the  framework of a series of exhibition projects of the
same title  which took place from 2003-2005 in hamburg, eindhoven  and
antwerp.

in the context of these exhibitions we developed the idea of
organizing a project that we entitled SUMMIT -- non aligned
initiatives in education culture and hat will take place end  of may
in berlin. some days ago i forwarded the call to  nettime.

on the SUMMIT website <http://summit.kein.org> we are going to publish
these days most of the other texts  of the academy book such as Irit
Rogoff's "Academy as  potentiality"

more soon!

florian


---

Collaboration
Seven notes on new ways of learning and working together
http://summit.kein.org/node/190

If one principle could be seen to inform the opaque surface of what in
the 1990s was called a "new economy" -- the shifts and changes, the
dynamics and blockades, the emergencies and habit formations taking
place within the realm of immaterial production -- it would certainly
be: "Work together".

Facing the challenges of digital technologies, global communications,
and networking environments, as well as the inherant ignorance of
traditional systems towards these, 'working together' has emerged as
an unsystematic mode of collective learning processes.

Slowly and almost unnoticeably, a new word came into vogue. At first
sight it might seem the least significant common denominator for
describing new modes of working together, yet "collaboration" has
become one of the leading terms of an emergent contemporary political
sensibility.

Often collapsed into the most utilitarian understanding,
'collaboration' is far more than acting together, as it extends
towards a network of interconnected approaches and efforts. Literally
meaning working together with others, especially in an intellectual
endeavor, the term is nowadays widely used to describe new forms of
labour relations within the realm of immaterial production in various
fields; yet despite its significant presence there is very little
research and theoretical reflection on it. This might be due to a wide
range of partly contradictory factors that are interestingly
intertwined.

As a pejorative term, collaboration stands for willingly assisting an
enemy of one's country, especially an occupying force or malevolent
power. It means working together with an agency with which one is not
immediately connected. Most prominently, "collaboration" became the
slogan of the French Vichy regime after the meeting of Hitler and
Marshall Petain in Lontoire-sur-le-Loir in October 1940. In a radio
speech Petain officially enlisted the French population to
"collaborate" with the German occupiers, while the French resistance
movement later branded those who cooperated with the German forces as
"collaborators".

Despite these negative origins, the term collaboration is mostly used
today as a synonym for cooperation. Dictionary definitions and
vernacular uses are generally more or less equivalent; but
etymologically, historically and politically it seems to make more
sense to elaborate on the actual differences between various
coexisting layers of meaning.

Is it in principle, possible to make a relevant distinction between
cooperation and collaboration and  to what end? If so, what
characterizes the constellations, social assemblages and relationships
in which people collaborate? And last but not least: Does this have
any impact for the current debate on education?

What follows are seven notes and propositions in which I try do adress
these questions in a very preliminary, eclectic and sketchy way.


1.

In pedagogical discourse, both cooperation and collaboration are
relatively new terms. They emerged in the 1970s in the context of
"joint learning activities" and "project-based learning", which were
supposed to break with an authoritarian teacher-centred style of
guiding the thinking of the student.

What might be defined as "educational teamwork" corresponds to an idea
promoted at the same time by management theory; that is, in a teamwork
environment, people are supposed to understand and believe that
thinking, planning, decisions and actions are better when done in
cooperation.

At the beginning of the last century and well ahead of his time,
Andrew Carnegie, steel-tycoon and founder of Carnegie Technical
Schools, said: "Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a
common vision, the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward
organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to
attain uncommon results."

To this day, this famous quote has probably featured prominently in a
myriad powerpoint presentations by human resource managers across the
globe, but its central argument only became a reality in the early
1980s, when the crisis in the car manufacturing industries triggered
the first large scale proliferation of the concept of teamwork in the
realm of industrial production.

Factories that had hitherto been characterized by a highly specialized
division of labour usually coupled with a strong self-organization of
the workers in trade unions were turned upside down: teamwork started
being considered as a prerequisite for breaking the power of the
unions, dropping labour costs and moving towards so-called 'lean'
production, which was seen at the time as a response to global
competition and the success of Japanese exports to the US and Europe
in particular.

In late industrial capitalism the notion of teamwork represented the
subjugation of workers' subjectivity to an omnipresent and
individualized control regime. The concept of group replaced the
classical one of "foremanship" as the disciplining force. Rather than
through repression, cost efficiency was increased by means of
peer-pressure and the collective identification of relatively small
groups of multi-skilled co-workers.

The model of teamwork soon spread across different industries and
branches, yet without any great success. Meanwhile, various research
studies showed that teams often make the wrong decisions, especially
when the task involves solving rather complex problems. Teamwork
frequently fails for the simple fact that internalized modes of
cooperation are characterized by "hoarding" or stockpiling, quite the
opposite of knowledge sharing: in the pursuit of a career, relevant
information must be hidden from others. Joining forces in a group or
team also increases the likelihood of failure rather than success;
awkward group dynamics, unforeseeable external pressures and bad
management practices are responsible for the rest.

This overall failure is even more staggering if we consider that rapid
technological development and the availability of global intellectual
resources were supposed to have increased the pressure on individuals
to exchange knowledge within and between groups. Yet as knowledge
became the main productive force, neither the free wheeling and
well-meaning strategies of anti-authoritarianism nor the brutal force
of coercing cooperation seemed capable of establishing any new
dimensions of the dynamics of 'working together'.


2.

Increasing evidence shows that 'working together' actually occurs in
rather unpredictable and unexpected ways. Rather than through the
exertion of the alleged generosity of a group made up of individuals
in the pursuit of solidarity, it often works as a brusque and even
ungenerous practice, where individuals rely on one another the more
they chase their own interests, their mutual dependence arising
through the pursuit of their own agendas. Exchange then becomes an
effect of necessity rather than one of mutuality, identification or
desire.

This entails an initial level of differentiation between cooperation
and collaboration: in contrast to cooperation, collaboration is driven
by complex realities rather than romantic notions of common grounds or
commonality. It is an ambivalent process constituted by a set of
paradoxical relationships between co-producers who affect one another.

In "Le Ma=EEtre ignorant", published in 1983, Jacques Ranci=E8re =
indicates
that ignorance is the first virtue of the master or teacher. He gives
the example of Joseph Jacotot, an exiled French revolutionary,
professor of French literature at the University of Louvain in Belgium
from 1815. Jacotot taught French to his Dutch-speaking students in the
absence of a shared language, through what appears to be an entirely
collaborative method: without setting up a common agenda, identifying
a common ground or communicating through a shared set of tools, he
"placed himself in his students' hands and told them, through an
interpreter, to read half of the book with the aid of the translation,
to repeat constantly what they had learned, to quickly read the other
half and then to write in French what they thought about it." This
"teaching without transmitting knowledge", as Ranci=E8re defines it,
seemed to be incredibly successful, because it granted a level of
autonomy to the students who acquired their own knowledge as they
deemed useful and independently from their teacher.

Ranci=E8re's example is particularly enlightening in the context of
collaboration and its relation to notions of hierarchy which so much
of collaborative disoiurse deems to have vanquished.   It exposes the
hypocrisy of the supposed anti-authoritarianism that essentially
underlies many notions of cooperation. This misconception might be
seen as the practice of liberally weakening the position of power, yet
ignoring the inherent paradox of doing so, so that in an infinite line
of regression power reappears even stronger than before. The more it
tries to explain, mediate, communicate or teach, the more it reaffirms
the distance, inequality and dependency of those who lack knowledge on
those who seem to possess it. The same applies to cooperation and
teamwork:  a presumption of equality actually extends both
discrimination and exploitation while seemingly providing continuous
evidence in support of such an illusion, as if there were no radically
different modes of working together.


3.

The work of Jacotot's students can be seen as a form of collaboration
with their teacher that flattens the hierarchies and does away with
the teacher-student relationship altogether, without romanticising it.
Through collaboration hierarchies are neither criticised nor morally
disapproved of and hypocritically discarded. This way of working
together is capable of ignoring the ignorance of the ignorant and of
pauperizing the poverty of the pauper precisely because collaborators
are neither questioning obvious authority nor pretending to be equal.
Instead they have worked out a system not of exchange but of flow in
which these positions are avoided altogether.

Collaborations are the black holes of knowledge regimes. They
willingly produce nothingness, opulence and ill-behaviour. And it is
their very vacuity which is their strength.  Unlike cooperation,
collaboration does not take place for sentimental reasons, for
philanthropical impulses or for the sake of efficiency; it arises out
of pure self interest. Collaborations could reveal the amazing
potential whereby an ignorant, poor or otherwise property-less person
can enable another ignorant, poor or otherwise property-less person to
know what he or she did not know and to access what he or she did not
access. It does not entail the transmission of something from those
who have to those who do not , but rather the setting in motion of a
chain of unforseen accesses.

Shifting the focus away from its components and outcomes,
collaboration is a performative and transformative process: the sudden
need to cross the familiar boundaries of one's own experiences, skills
and intellectual resources to enter nameless and foreign territories
where abilities that had been considered "individual" marvellously
merge with those of others. In this sequence, outcomes and processes
follow an inverse relation as do the relations of power. For what
comes about is not the 'granting' of access but a recognition across
the board of those involved in the process, that it is the unexpected
multiplicity and uncertain location of the points of access that is at
stake in the exchange.


4.

Translating the concept of collaboration back to the context of
education also points to a reverse-engineering of the teacher's role.
Etymologically, in Greek and Latin "pedagogue" or "educator" means
"drawing out" or "pulling out" and refers to an ancient Greek
practice: a family slave called "pedagogue" used to walk the child
from the private house to a place of learning. Rather than the
teacher, who was supposed to have and transmit knowledge, the
pedagogue was the person who accompanied the student to the place
where the teacher imparted it.

This rather spatial notion of bringing somebody across a specific
border evokes striking associations with human trafficking. The escape
agent or "coyote" - as it is named at the US-Mexican border - supports
undocumented border crossers who want to make it from one nation state
to another without the demanded paperwork. Permanently on the move,
only temporarily employed, nameless, anonymous and constantly changing
faces and sides, the coyote is, in an ironic way, the perfect
role-model for both education and collaboration. As a metaphor it
serves the purpose of destabalising the idea of 'knowledge in
movement' away from its always assumed progressive direction. Instead
it allows for a certain degree of illegitimacy inherent in all forms
of collaboration and distinguishes it from the always perfectly
sanctioned and legitimate nature of cooperation. By extracting a
principle of mobility and perceiving the lack of legitimacy as
enabling as opposed to criminally inhuman and disabling, the 'coyote'
who may or may not be motivated by self gain without ideological
committment, produces a possibility whose parameters cannot be gaged.

The "coyote's" motivations remain unclear or, shall we say, do not
matter at all. The "coyote" is the postmodern service provider par
excellence. The fact that there is no trust whatsoever between those
engaging in the transcation, does not actually play any part in the
unfolding of its play. Here , we might say, conceptual insecurity
overrides the financial aspects of the collaboration and triggers a
redundancy of affects and perceptions, feelings and reactions. Those
who do not need the coyote's support hunt and demonize it; those who
rely on the coyote's secret knowledge and skills appreciate it all the
more. The extreme polarities of these responses instantiate the range
of the collaborative field and the impossibility of navigating it
through moralising vectors.

Ultimately, collaboration with a coyote generates pure potential:
ranging from the dream of a better life to the reality of pure living
labour power ready to be over-exploited in the informal labour market.
If it wasn't for its totally deregulated character, this practice
would bear similar results to that of traditional educational systems;
we might say that in this exchange nothing can be claimed for material
existence, let alone possession, but neverthelss something very
precious and entirely precarious comes into being; pure imagination,
yet potentially powerful beyond measure.


5.

Against the background of postmodern control society, collaboration is
about secretly exchanging knowledge independently of borders. It
stands for the attempt to regain autonomy and get hold of immaterial
resources in a knowledge-driven economy. It no longer matters who has
knowledge and who owns the resources; what matters is access: not a
generously granted accessibility but a direct, immediate and instant
access, often gained illegally or illegitimately.

While cooperation involves identifiable individuals within and between
organizations, collaboration expresses a differentiated relationship
made up of heterogeneous elements that are defined as singularities.
As such they are not identifiable or subject to easy categories of
identity, but defined out of an emergent relation between themselves.
As such collaboration is extra-ordinary in so far as it produces a
discontinuity and marks a point of unpredictability, however
deterministic. Its unpredicatbility takes the form of not being able
to entirely categorise the components of the collaborative process,
even when its general aim or drive may be steering it in a particular
direction.

Rationality has here been replaced by a kind of relationality that
constantly decomposes and recomposes information in order to make
temporary use of unexpected dynamics and contingencies: from stock
market speculation to the development of network protocols, from the
production of new forms of aesthetics in art and culture to a
generation of political activism with global aspirations.

People meet and work together under circumstances where their
efficiency, performance and labour power cannot be singled out and
individually measured; everyone's work points to someone else's.
Making and maintaining connections seems more important than trying to
capture and store ideas. One's own production is very peculiar yet it
is generated and often multiplied in networks composed of countless
distinct dependencies and constituted by the power to affect and be
affected. At no point in the process can this be arrested and
ascertained, for it gains its power by not having explicit points of
entry or exit as a normative work scenario might.

This excess is essentially beyond measure; collaboration relates to
the mathematical definition of singularity as the point where a
function goes to infinity or is somehow ill-behaved. The concept of
singularity distinguishes collaboration from cooperation and refers to
an emerging notion of precariousness, a systemic instability.  this in
turn can be seen as the crisis associated with the shift and
transition from cooperation to collaboration in modes of working
together.

The nets of voluntariness, enthusiasm, creativity, immense pressure,
ever increasing self-doubt and desperation are temporary and fluid;
they take on multiple forms but always refer to a permanent state of
insecurity and precariousness, the blue print for widespread forms of
occupation and employment within society. They reveal the other side
of immaterial labour, hidden in the rhetoric of 'working together'.


6.

Today it is tremendously urgent to learn how to deal with such excess.
This is not simply the realm of an exclusive minority of geeks, nerds,
drop-outs and neurotic freelancers; it invests a rapidly growing
global immaterial labour force that is confronted with the prospect of
life-long learning witout the complimentary prospect of there ever
having a teacher or a schoolbook in store, because knowledge emerges
as useless as soon as it can be commodified and reproduced as such.

The crucial question is how a form of education to collaboration is
possible that is not reduced ad absurdum to become the application of
truism after truism. Certainly this would not mean the staging of a
collaborative process within the classroom or other spaces of
learning. This debate can take place at a meta-level or around the
issue of "un-organizing" oneself in order to be aware and ready for
the future challenges of collaborative working environments. It can
takle place in the fragementation  of the components of bodies of
knowledge and their re-alignemnt with one another according to other
principles. Or it can take place in the removing of pre-determined
directions around the flows of knowledge.

Cooperation necessarily takes place in client-server architectures. It
follows a metaphorical narrative structure, where the coherent
assignment of each part and its relation to the others gets reproduced
over and over again. The current educational system mirrors this
structure and is therefore essentially incapable of responding to
contemporary challenges, let alone future ones. Even worse, the more
the system attempts to re-modernize itself, the more it sinks in the
swamp of commodification, homogenization and hierarchization.
Obviously the problem lies with the educational system's understanding
of what contemporary imperatives are and its insistance that these
must have an 'applicable' function. If a model of collaboration were
to be applied to educational cultures , then it would have to accept
an inabilty to predetermine outcomes even while sharing a set of
aspirations or directives or being anchored in a set of recognised
probelamtics.


7.

Collaboration entails rhizomatic structures where knowledge grows
exuberantly and proliferates in unforeseeable ways. In contrast to
cooperation, which always implies an organic model and a transcendent
function, collaboration is a strictly immanent and wild praxis. Every
collaborative activity begins and ends within the framework of the
collaboration. It has no external goal and cannot be decreed; it is
strict intransitivity, it takes place, so to speak, for its own sake.

Collaborations are voracious. Once they are set into motion they can
rapidly beset and affect entire modes of production. "Free" or "open
source" software development is probably the most prominent example
for the transformative power of collaboration to "un-define" the
relationships between authors and producers on one side and users and
consumers on the other side. It imposes a paradigm that treats every
user as a potential collaborator who could effectively join the
development of the code regardless of their actual interests and
capacities. Participation becomes virtual: It is enough that one could
contribute a patch or file an issue, one does not necessarily have to
do it in order to enjoy the dynamics, the efficacy and the essential
openess of a collaboration.

In the last instance, the democratic or egalitarian ambition  has
migrated into the realm of virtuality: Open source developer groups
usually do not follow the patterns and rules of representative
democracy, the radical notion of equality reveals in the general
condition that everyone has instant and unrestricted access to the
entire set of resources that form a development. The result is as
simple as it is convincing: Those who disagree may "fork" and start
their own development branch without loosing access to the means of
production.

On the internet, distributed non-hierarchical information
architectures are characterized as "peer-to-peer" (P2P) networks. They
emerged in the 1990s and triggered a revolution of the conventional
distribution model. These networks were first designed to exchange
immaterial resources such as computing time or bandwidth, mainly in
scientific academic contexts. Their aim was to overcome technological
limits, incapacities and shortages by combining the existing free
resources.

Since the late 1990s the same network architecture has been used to
exchange relevant content: music and movies were distributed amongst
ordinary personal computers that worked as both downstream and
upstream nodes in mushrooming networks.

The enormous success of these projects, from "Napster" to "BitTorrent"
- currently estimated to account for nearly half of the total of
internet traffic - enabled people who do not know each other and
probably prefer to not know each other to actually "share" their hard
drives. In fact, their anonymous relationships are based on the irony
of sharing, even in a strictly mathematical sense: due to lossless and
cost free digital copying the object of desire is indeed multiplied
rather than divided.

In the last instance collaborations are driven by the desire to create
difference and refuse the absolutistic power of organization.
Collaboration entails overcoming scarcity and inequality and
struggling for the freedom to produce. It carries an immense social
potential, as it is a form of realisation and experience of the
unlimited creativity of a multiplicity of all productive practices.

FLORIAN SCHNEIDER

[thanks to Arianna Bove, Eric Empson and Irit Rogoff for proof-reading,
comments and advise]=20=


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