27/06/2013 / Using the Framework of Networks to Enhance Learning and Social Interactions

Nodus Labs works at the interface of scientific research, social experiments, and artistic practice. Our objective is to study how the framework of networks can be used to understand cognition and social dynamics. We are particularly interested in practical implications of this approach, namely how people can change their behavior, communication strategies, and patterns of thinking as a result of seeing them through the prism of networks. We seek to expand the reach of scientific research into the social practices and into everyday life.

These ideas formed the main core of our talk with ComplexNetworks team at LIP6 lab of Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University Paris VI. We presented several strategies from our practice where we used the framework of networks to find ways to enhance learning and social interactions. Taking the concept of metastability as a reference point for the dynamics that enables complex systems to be flexible and robust at the same time, we demonstrated several tools, social experiments and performative practices we developed in order to explore these ideas in everyday life.

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Metastability is a kind of transient dynamics present within human brain, which allows it to simultaneously segregate and integrate different activities, making it possible to produce complex cognitive functions and sensorimotor behaviors. Metastable dynamics is something between order and chaos, enabling the system to maintain a certain state for a prolonged period, but also to shift at any moment of time.

Our hypothesis is that social and cognitive processes can also be described as a sequence of metastable states, which may, in turn, point us toward creating the new tools and practices for learning and social interactions.

For instance, let’s take the process of reading. Normally when we read we unfold the text in a linear fashion, following the original narrative. However, as the words come together to produce certain meanings, we can trace those pathways we follow and see if there are any regularities within the text. If we represent the words of the text as the nodes and their co-occurrences as the edges in a graph, then the main topics inside the text (or those regularities) will be represented as clusters within the graph. The result is a sort of phase state diagram that shows the possible metastable states within the text and the possible transitionary routes from one state to the other. This way of thinking was the starting point for us to develop the online text network visualization tool, Textexture. Free and open for everyone to use, Textexture can visualize any text, article or a transcribed YouTube video as a network, emphasizing the nodes (words) with the highest betweenness centrality and partitioning the text into communities, which represent those different topics (states) inside. You can read more on the methodology we use on Nodus Labs or try it in action on www.textexture.com.

Some practical uses of this methodology and Textexture can be found in our case studies of dynamic text network analysis of American presidents’ speeches from 1969 to 2013 and in the short study on group profiling using the research abstracts from ComplexNetwork labs in 2010-2013.

Another case study is how we can use a graph to represent the process of thinking: the concepts are the nodes and their associative connections are the edges inside the graph. We can then use this framework to record and share various personalized knowledge graphs, which are not based on ontologies and semantics, but, rather, on associative thinking and intuition. Based on this idea we developed an online resource ThisIsLike.Com. The premise behind this site is that anyone can add a concept and link it to another concept with a link, describing the connection. As soon as they touch on someone else’s graph, the other person will receive a notification, helping people discover new knowledge through each other. ThisIsLike.Com is like Wikipedia of relations. It’s a human-driven recommendation system, which is not based on an optimized algorithm promoting rational thinking, but rather on the irrational, creative connections that we normally make when we have an interesting conversation or recommend our friends something new that they haven’t tried before.

The existing recommender systems on the web are normally driven by algorithms based on very rationalized criteria. It’s either about what the majority buys or what could improve or be added on to the already existing purchases. Such approach definitely makes sense, especially when high profit is the objective. However, as soon as the objective is to find something new or different, they fail. We exemplified this behavior through the project “Interviews with Artificial Artificial Intelligence”, which was published as a book and presented as a video installation. Some excerpts are available on http://www.iaaibook.com. In this way ThisIsLike.Com is an attempt to create an “irrational” human-powered recommender system, which would not necessarily provide the most “suitable” recommendations, but definitely the more interesting ones.

The concepts of metastability and the basic tenets of network theory do not only have to be presented in the realm of scientific research. During our educational practice we developed several methods that exemplify those concepts through so-called constructed situations: the social events where people can learn to have a different point of view on their social behavior through network thinking.

One of the examples is the “Chair Game”, where the participants go through a series of interactive arrangements that exemplify various network structures over a period of two hours. Direct involvement in this “game” allows them to experience what networks are like not only from a conceptual point of view, but also in a much more visceral way, through real social encounters with their peers.

Another example is “The Waiting Room” project, which is focused on the idea of real one-on-one interactions (something that’s becoming a rarity in the world of online networks). There we create the social conditions for people to focus on the actual concept of an “edge” (rather than a node) as a process of communication with the “other”. Through a series of encounters the participants develop an acute sense of what an “edge” in a social network can actually mean beyond being a mere representation of an “acquaintance”.

Our work in popularizing network science is documented on Polysingularity blog, which serves as a place for translating complex ideas into the more everyday experience.