Retrospective: ‘Learning, Knowledge & Meaning – the Singapore Diary’

As part of my own professional development, throughout this year i am carrying out a critical reappraisal of my legacy work and publications around the context of the Social Age, as well as a reflective journey through my influences and experience. Part of this process is also to complete a research degree to locate my work in a broader context. Today, i’m revisiting one of my first books, ‘Learning, Knowledge, and Meaning – the Singapore Diary’.

This book takes place across five days, part travelogue, part personal diary, part philosophical reflection, and highly observational. In my language today, i would consider it to be a perfect example of #WorkingOutLoud, but at that time those words were less embedded in my practice.

It’s an exploration of how we create the ‘meaning’ around us: essentially an attempt to find vocabulary and concepts with which to do this, and in the absence of existing cognitive models, i adopt some from observation of the landscape around me.

One of the stories at the heart of this work is that of the vast Docks: whilst Singapore can be experienced as ‘retail’, ‘leisure’, or ‘dining’, there is a deeper layer of commerce and trade, much of which is hidden from the tourists and run with an immigrant labour force largely segregated from the ‘performance’ society.

On Day #2 i consider this in a chapter on ‘meaning from chaos’, which i would recognise now is a reflection on Systems Thinking, Metacognition, and the social co-creation of meaning.

The Docks are chaotic, from the outside. A “tangle of girders and steel”.

“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.”

As i re-read this i also notice my casual use of gender: at that time i would barely have considered saying ‘her’, or ‘they’. This evolution of my own vocabulary and usage is part of reflective practice, and my own deeper sense of meaning.

I talk about the people i am with: ‘meaning emerges from the group’, as a consideration of social sense making, as well as an early sense of the tribal nature of our social world (language which i would not find until publication of the two books on Trust in 2018, which grounded the language of ‘tribes’ (trust bonded structures) in my work.

“…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” – these words circled back around to me years later as i explored more deeply how the things that we ‘know’ to be true may occlude other truths.

Some language, some of my learning from this book, remains intact: my central definition of Social Learning today remains relatively unchanged from this date. Although my language around the first part, the creation of meaning, and specifically my understanding of the mechanisms of such, have evolved significantly.

“The purpose of Social Learning spaces is to co-create meaning, we come together to share knowledge, then, through challenge and support, to create meaning, things that are relevant to us in our own everyday reality. Social Learning is inherently applied, it’s meaning that is created within the workplace, not imposed upon it.”

Most recently, in the research for the Learning Science Guidebook this year, i have formalised some of this view.

As i re-read the book, i spot some seeds within it: ideas that i did not realise were ideas, even though they were sometimes scattered widely through my writing. “Learning can be like this sometimes: you need to find the cracks and then leverage them”, was a comment on the role of disturbance, something i had talked about from the earliest days of the blog, but it was not until 2020 that i re-worked it into a more formal narrative about disturbance in learning (and the creation of ‘mosaics’, which grounds this in the individual creation of meaning).

Indeed, i also took this further to the point where we could consider the fracturing of ‘Dominant Narratives’, a more active attempt to ‘break ourselves’, or in this case to break our broader social context. Currently this sits in my research into change as a Social Movement, which i guess in turn will pull me back into storytelling.

As well as looking forwards from this work, i can look back, “It’s like archaeology: when you excavate, you destroy the strata and the strata are what give the artefacts meaning.”

My original experience and degree in archaeology and material science has left a long legacy, in ideas and approach, and the discovery of the contextual nature of strata was one that i clearly remember and which has stayed with me.

As society lives, it deposits layers of rubbish and detritus, the things that fall to the ground, and are subsequently buried. We build upon ourselves. When you dig into this landscape, you dig down into history, seen in the preserved layers, the strata, one on top of the other. A fire will leave a dark layer, and a flood will wash in silt and sediment. A lost ring will be preserved within the context in which it was dropped. But to dig down destroys this physical context. So to discover will destroy.

This sense of layering, and context, is what leads me to this day to hold such strong views about the fallacy of ‘unlearning’ (in reality we learn ‘on’), and the complex woven nature of the self, indeed, even into Identity (and my current research on the Identity Project) as a layered and stratified feature of self.

“But now it’s time to close the chapter: time to narrate my learning and see what i can take forward. Just as all things start, so they finish and there can be value in closing things down rather than leaving them to wither or grow out of control”. These are words from, the closing section, and i find them interesting as they make the reflection, the book, discrete as opposed to open ended. Years later i would write in ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ about how Organisations are shadows of the past, and so too are books. Latterly i would write that my books represent what i used to know, but they are poor indicators of what i now believe.

The Singapore Diary was the first of a series of works that were to some extent both philosophical and reflective, yet deeply rooted in place: this first one explores ‘learning, knowledge and meaning’, the Amsterdam Diary explores ‘culture’, the New York Dereliction Walk focusses on the evolution of social narratives, and ‘To the Moon and Back’ takes us into orbit.

It was written on the move, something not incidental to it’s nature, or my experience as a writer. I am constantly in motion and cannot write in one space.

Roger Deakin, the English naturalist, wrote of writing in huts, sheds and cabins, spread across his Suffolk estate, and he too grounds his writing in place (‘Waterlog’ is in water, ‘Notes from Walnut Tree Farm’ is on the land. ‘Wildwood’ grows in trees.)

When i wrote these books, between 2010 and 2019, my own work was becoming global, and hence i was spending extended periods of time abroad, and particularly immersed in different cultures. I think the year i wrote the Singapore book i spent seven weeks there, before living in Amsterdam for six months.

This all cascades out into my language, and my thinking. It’s no surprise to me that many of my analogies are geographic, are landscapes (‘The Landscape of Trust’, ‘The Landscape of Communities’, and latterly the ‘Organisation as Ecosystem’ in the Quiet Leadership work, which literally explores a landscape as a central theme of culture and leadership).

I think that the Singapore Diary still holds value, but today i would see it as transitional, a foundation stone, not an edifice. There is little in it that i would directly refute, but much that has evolved. Perhaps today is stands more as a context piece for my work, not a core element. But as a stepping stone into #WorkingOutLoud and transdisciplinary practice, as well as a rehearsal of ‘how’ to write, it’s been of great value.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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