This week i am in Singapore, using the chance to explore learning, knowledge and meaning from a variety of angles. Yesterday, we looked at how objects have both tangible and imbued meaning and at how so much of our understanding relies on us knowing the code. Today, i want to explore this further, looking at how meaning emerges from chaos.
The docks are substantial: after counting thirty huge ships waiting out in the channel, i give up. A tangle of girders and steel form dozens upon dozens of cranes lining the shore. These are not the elegant, slim, tall cranes used for construction: these are dinosaurs, squat, heavy, looming over the containers below, before hoisting them up to be deposited in sky high piles, or onto the back of waiting lorries.
The steelwork is painted a variety of colours, including the final coat of rust orange applied by the pervasive humidity. On top of each one is perched a substantial structure, rather like a two story house. This, i assume, houses the controls as well as the lifting and moving mechanisms. They are splendid in their isolation: each one self contained, independent, wild. There is no apparent reason to their movement. Some work methodically, some erratically, some seem to have died, their carcasses left to rot alongside piles of timber and the remains of a concrete bunker.
The meaning is not apparent to me: indeed, it appears anarchic, dangerous. The system is made up of subsystems: i imagine each driver in his perch up high knows what he is doing, but is unaware of the chaos around him. I assume communication is refined, efficient, practiced.
I, too, am isolated. Travelling alone is always isolating, especially to a new continent, a new culture. True, Singapore is easy to learn: it feels safe, compact, clear, but nevertheless, i am in cultural limbo. The smells are not the smells of home. The palm trees are bigger than our puny post victorian seaside efforts in Bournemouth. I feel out of place, uncertain. This is not my territory. I spend five minutes silently working a machine to buy a train ticket, each movement studied and hesitant. Counting coins i spread them on my hand, the shapes unfamiliar, the values uncertain.
I am isolated in space, but also intellectually. I am in a new group, co-presenters at a conference that i do not know. Most of them have no idea who i am, what my story is but, disconcertingly, some of them know me by my writing, by my reputation, by my broadcast self. I catch glimpses of their worlds as i look over from my elevated crane to theirs. We work in the same field, but the meaning is not immediately apparent to me, the wider story is unclear.
We do, at least, speak the same language. Meaning emerges from the group, but it depends upon a foundation of commonality. Small things in Singapore make me feel at home: the plug sockets are the same. It’s a small thing, but it’s familiar. Yesterday i reflected on the meaning of Starbucks: today, the meaning to me is clear. It’s a haven of familiarity. I don’t actually need to go in to drink the coffee: it’s not about the coffee, it’s about recognition, about validation of my code, my cultural framework.
Of course, that very familiarity is also depressing: it means that i am still half in my comfort zone. A crane in a container port will never be anything more: it will never build a great building, lift the final keystone of a great bridge. It is designed to be one piece of a complex jigsaw, much as our formal learning teaches us to be one cog in the machine.
So, the things that make me comfortable, the things that allow me to construct meaning, are also the things that hold me back. I cannot be both things: i cannot be part of the machine, embedded within the existing knowledge, the existing meaning, whilst also being wonderfully out of my depth, challenged, deconstructed and adrift, searching for meaning.
I cannot be both lost and found. As i wander the city, i flip between both states, but never at once.
As we implement social learning spaces, as we bring new cohorts together, as we play choreographer to learning, people face all these challenges: the space is unfamiliar, they are isolated, they may be uncertain.
We have to work to establish the commonality, to build the lines of communication. Only by doing that can we build meaning from the chaos.