Monday, June 22, 2009

Beginner's mind and collective intelligence

It's five years to the day since the first post on Connectedness.

An unspoken theme of those five years deserves recognition today: Beginner's Mind. I heard the phrase last September, when Fred Small preached his very first sermon as the new senior minister at my church.

Without Fred's flair for story-telling, Wikipedia still does a good job of explaining beginner's mind:
"Beginner's mind ... refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. The term is especially used in the study of Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts.

"The phrase was also used as the title of Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki's book: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, which reflects a saying of his regarding the way to approach Zen practice: In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."
My fascination with beginner's mind often puts me in a bind: In my consulting and my teaching, I am usually invited to take the role of expert, the perspective that will reduce the confusion of many possibilities to the simplicity of the few and the best. Rarely am I invited to help experts take off the focused blinders of their hard-won experience.

Beginner's mind is easily left behind and forgotten. For example, consider that exemplar of communal beginner's knowledge: Wikipedia. The scope and accuracy of this site are deservedly celebrated: Rob Laubacher, Executive Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, notes that Harvard medical school students prepare for exams using Wikipedia. But where do beginners turn for an introduction to anatomy, once Harvard medical students have claimed Wikipedia as their study guide? I posed that question to Rob. He said it was the first time he had heard the notion that Wikipedia was evolving into a collection of specialized expert-driven beginner-unfriendly articles. We wondered if my experience of Wikipedia being advanced and not at all beginner-friendly was related to the topic my students most want to learn: Web technology.

To a point, perhaps. As a case study of how Wikipedia takes a simple non-Web idea and moves it beyond the grasp of beginners, consider the notion of probability as introduced by Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. Within its first few paragraphs, before citing a single concrete example of probability (e.g., flipping a coin, rolling dice), Wikipedia asserts thatwhich is easy for them to say. And I mean that truly. Once you have mastered such notation, explaining probability with a language as imprecise as English is really hard. Yet English is the language spoken most often by American students. So where are they to turn? Read Britannica and see for yourself.

When Wikipedia introduces probability as is that what we mean by "collective intelligence," "working wikily," or "wikinomics"? Probably not. But you have to admit it makes sense for Wikipedia to explain probability to us in that way. Why should privileged experts with mastery of a valuable language such as probability theory make it easy for ignorant beginners to join them? The simplest answer is, "Because Encyclopedia Britannica pays them to." In conversations with Rob and others, I have heard of other sensible and even uplifting answers to this question. And so I hope that ignorant and expert alike may be blessed with Beginner's Mind.

PS: See James Surowiecki for a good argument that high-quality information requires high-quality compensation.

PPS: My last sustained post along these lines was this one, in reference to John Ziman's 1968 monograph Public Knowledge--An Essay Concerning the Social Dimension of Science, specifically in the chapter "Community and Communications."

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

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