Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Symmetry of Ignorance

I was talking with a friend of mine on Sunday. She was telling me about her baby: "She's just a little learning machine," she told me. "And let's hope she stays that way for the next fifty or so years," I said. I still learn new things. It's a great shame to stop learning, because learning is itself an enjoyable activity, for all its difficult moments.

Horst Rittel, who I've mentioned in previous posts, suggested a notion of "a symmetry of ignorance." He suggested this concept in the context of planning problems--planning in the sense of large-scale urban planning. In a 1972 article titled "On the Palnning Crisis", he writes:
The expertise and ignorance is distributed over all participants in a wicked problem. There is a symmetry of ignorance among those who participate because nobody knows better by virtue of his degrees or his status. There are no experts (which is irritating for experts), and if experts there are, they are only experts in guiding the process of dealing with a wicked problem, but not for the subject matter of the problem.

This description (even if we ignore the concept of "wicked problems", which may not be familiar, which I've not defined here, and which, in my opinion, is not paticularly well described in wikipedia), obviously isn't quite appropriate to the writer who is working alone, or to the writer who is seeking to complete a dissertation.

But I think the notion of the symmetry of ignorance is still relevant to the writer. First of all, Rittel writes "nobody knows better by vitrue of his degrees or status." But is there any criteria by which somebody does know better? I would say no, and Rittel, I think, would say no, as well. Rittel writes:
an essential characteristic of wicked problems is that they cannot be correct or false, but only good or bad. But who says whether a plan and the solution to a problem is good or bad?

Who, indeed? With a dissertation, of course, we can identify the specific individuals who get to say whether it is good or bad, but we may not be easily able to assess what they would say is good or bad. But that's sort of beside the point: Rittel is suggesting that there is no absoulte standard by which to judge the work. If we are thinking about the work as a written piece and we want that written piece to be "good", who says whether it is good? We don't really know what will make it good ahead of time, and neither do our professors. This is not to say that neither we nor our professors can assess quality, but rather to say that until the paper is written we can't know exactly what it will take to make it good.
The symmetry of ignorance does not suggest that there is no point in trying to plan, and the idea that we don't know exactly what is needed for our dissertation, and neither do our professors, is not intended to suggest that we're just shooting in the dark. Rather this notion is important to the writer--to the academic writer, at least--to help keep in mind that the process of writing is one in which learning is going to take place: we don't know what it will take to finish the project, but we will learn that in the course of the writing. We don't know what the experiment will show, and so we learn from it. This idea that we must necessarily learn in the process might, perhaps, help us deal with the emotional difficulty of not knowing what we have to do: of course we don't know what we have to do, we are told by the principle of symmetry of ignorance, the challenge of the task is to understand what it is that we are going to write. And a natural corollary of this is that as we write--especially near the beginning of the process--we will necessarily do work that needs later revision, because it's work based on what we knew before we started learning during the process.

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