oCoC: Online—off-line in time of COVID-19

Set of the film “Good bye, Lenin” (Photo: DPA)
from https://www.thelocal.de/20190925/films-east-germany-legacy-east-germans-perceive-them

On the complexity of change

COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:

This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.

Once upon a time in the last century, I was born in a tiny country that called herself Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Others called her East Germany or Soviet Occupation Zone. There was on-line and off-line even there and then.

Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.

My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.

Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.

Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.

I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …

Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.

And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.

In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.

And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.

In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.

Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.

Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.

I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone.
Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.

Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom?
For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.

Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.

Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.

oCoC: What is happening with COVID-19?

On the complexity of change

A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.

Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.

If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.

How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.

Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.

Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?

  • Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
  • Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
  • Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.

Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.

I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.

oCoC: Initial conditions … … … do you like skiing?

On the complexity of change

I do. Like skiing. So, please bear with me for a minute. This is one of those strange texts where things are only revealed at the end.

First, we are going on a skiing hill. And because we are talking about initial conditions and the sensitivity complex (adaptive) systems have to them, this is a very special hill. For this thought experiment, the hill has been designed by a mathematician. The slope of the hill is homogeneous. The hill has moguls. These are of perfectly identical smooth shape, and they are spaced evenly, both horizontally and vertically. Let’s take the comfortable chair lift and go up. Not to worry, you can come; you won’t need to ski, a ski will do all the work. All we have to do is make predictions, observe, take notes, and then compare our observation notes with our predictions. This way we will know a little more about the nature of complex systems. We are on top of the hill. Take one ski, please. You can also use a snowboard, if you prefer. Place it flat on top of the slope, mark its position, and let it go downhill. We are observing its path, the trajectory of this process. We know exactly how it went down the slope. And we mark its exit position at the bottom of the hill. Just memorize it. Meanwhile, I will go back down and fetch the ski. I am sure you noticed that the one initial condition, to which we are paying particular attention in our thought experiment, is the entry position, where we let the ski go. The end state of this complex dynamic system is the ski’s exit position at the bottom of the hill. Alright, I am back up; let’s do this again. Find the first entry position. Move the ski or snowboard just slightly to the left or right, whichever way you are inclined. Mark the second entry position. Now is the time for predictions! The entry position is minutely different. What trajectory will we observe? Identical to the first one, because minute differences don’t matter because they are just noise in the system? Parallel, because the slope is homogeneous and the moguls are identically formed and evenly spaced, and all we changed a tiny wee bit is the starting position? Or just different in so many parts? How about the exit point? Is it going to be exactly the same distance between exit points 1 and 2 as there now is between the two entry points? Or are the two distances going to be different? Unless you really are on this skiing hill, you will have to believe me: The trajectories are different, and the distance between the two exit points is not the same as between the two entry points. We can let the ski go down time and again. The probability of both the trajectory and end state being different to any one of the earlier ski runs is significantly higher than the probability of trajectory and exit points – the end state – being the same.

Why is this so? Because complex systems have a high sensitivity to initial conditions. To show in our thought experiment that the sensitivity is high we only introduced a minute change to the initial condition, the entry position, and we assumed that nothing else changed. The weather and snow conditions remained the same, the force of letting the ski go is always the same, the ski did not carve into any mogul, … And still, trajectory and end state are different, and sometimes wildly different.

In Chaos Theory, this has also been called the Butterfly Effect. (When talking I am often prone to go off on an – interesting – tangent. Here I won’t do it and you will have to wait for a later post. Or you can look it up in Wikipedia.) It is a good example of how important initial conditions are, because the system is highly sensitive to them, even when many other variables – also of a larger magnitude – interact and change in the process. There is one main reason why this is so: These variables – the initial conditions – are the first ones to impact the process, even if only slightly. When we observe a complex dynamic system, a complex process, we can split it into time segments, iterations. And in one way or another, the variables of the initial conditions impact each iteration. Or as they say: Constant dripping wears away the stone.

Are initial conditions equally important when we want to understand complex social processes, such as work in a team, leading and managing a project, or an intimate relationship or marriage? I think we all know what the answer is, simply from experience: Yes, they are. Once we encounter a complex problem, we are well advised to look for and at the initial conditions of the underlying process(es). How we can figure out what the initial conditions were and how they influenced how events unfolded, we will have to leave for after the introduction of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. What is important to take away from this brief excursion is that all complex systems are sensitive to their initial conditions. And (not only) because of this sensitivity to initial conditions, complex systems cannot easily be reversed to a prior state. No one steps in the same river twice. Complex adaptive systems have what we can call a history. This is strongly connected to the characteristic of nonlinearity. And that is the beginning of another post.

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