More Bricolage

A transcript from a 1999 talk by John Seely Brown, “Learning, Working & Playing in the Digital Age.”

Reasoning classically has been concerned primarily with deductive, abstract types of reasoning. But what I see happening to today's kids as they work in this new digital medium has much more to do with bricolage than abstract logic. Bricolage, a concept originally studied by Levi Strauss many years ago, relates to the concrete. It has to do with the ability to find something—an object, tool, piece of code, document—and to use it in a new way and in a new context. In fact, virtually no system today is built from scratch or first principles—like the way I used to build systems—but rather from finding examples of code on the Web, borrowing “that code,” bringing it onto their site, and then modifying it to fit their needs. Today's systems are built up through an extensive sense of bricolage—by cobbling or “wiring” together code fragments and extending or modifying such fragments when necessary.

So while there isn't an emphasis on deduction, digital bricolage brings about a new emphasis on discernment:

The catch, however, is that if you are going to become a successful bricoleur of the 21st century, a bricoleur of the virtual rather than of the physical, than as you borrow things you have to be able to decide whether or not to believe or trust those things.


So we now have navigation being coupled to, basically, discovery and discovery being coupled to bricolage but you don't dare build on whatever you discover unless you can make a judgment concerning its quality or trustworthiness. Thus navigation, discovery, borrowing and judgment all get wrapped up together, especially when the student is engaged in using or building something that he deems important. Judgment is inherently more critical than ever in order to become an effective digital bricoleur.

Bricolage doesn't happen in a vacuum. A relationship starts to take shape:

Discovery –> Judgement –> Bricolage

What's interesting here is that judgement can be supported by a deductive, abstract type of reasoning. That which is considered antithetical to bricolage can actually help bricolage. Then again, judgement can come from many places. Brown says as much:

But how do we make judgments? Do you do that socially in terms of recommendations of others you might trust? Do you do that cognitively based on rational argumentation? Do you do it based on the inherent warrants of the institution that might have sponsored it? What's the mixture of ways and warrants that you end up using to decide and act? With the net, not only is the need greater but so are the resources, but many of these resources are different than the non-digital adult is used to.

Judgement doesn't happen in a vacuum either. It too exists on a spectrum.

I am reminded of Robin Sloan's The slab and the permacomputer — accepting both.

I’m perfectly comfortable in the both/and. I accept the invitation of the slab; I benefit daily from the leverage it grants me. I am, at the same time, certain my functions and notebooks will be blown away before the decade is out; maybe just by the leviathan’s restlessness, or maybe by something more dire.

I’d like a permacomputer of my own.

This also brings up what Tom Critchlow mentioned in a tweet about the freedom to discern being pivotal to digital bricolage:

“Accepting” parts of code as “unreadable” breaks the rule of the bricoleur – who wants to be able to tinker with any and all parts of the system at once.