Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age

I have been puzzling over George Siemens’ idea that learners need to develop ‘being skills’ if they are to cope with what it means to be human in a digital age.

George discusses this with Neil Selwyn in an interview recorded for Monash University, Australia, Faculty of Education.

George does qualify, right at the beginning of the interview, that his question ‘What does it mean to be human in a Digital Age?’ is posed from a learning in knowledge development angle. During the interview he says that technology can ‘out know’ us, artificial intelligence is taking over human roles, and that in the future technology will become a co-agent rather than an enabler; you, me, colleagues, algorithms and robots will all work together in a techno-socio distributed learning model. George tells us that learners (humans) need to learn how to participate in this and that this will be through ‘Being skills’ which, as yet, machines can’t succeed at. He says we are necessarily entering a ‘being age’ because the technological systems around us are more intelligent than we are.

My immediate thought was that this is not so much a techno-sociological issue, or even an education issue, as a philosophical, ethical issue, which will involve deep inquiry into robot and machine ethics and the nature of ‘being’.

I have recently attended an ethics day course, in which in one session we discussed robot ethics in relation to whether we can teach robots ethics – see  and . I have also attended introduction to contemporary philosophy and epistemology courses in which we were introduced to how some of the great philosophers in our history have thought about knowledge and being. So philosophy, epistemology and ethics have all been on my mind recently.

George said that he has only just started this work, and that his ideas are still emerging/forming, but  I wondered how philosophy and ethics will fit into his future work.

I then came across this article – ‘Our Technology Is Our Ideology’: George Siemens on the Future of Digital Learning‘ –  in which the author  Marguerite McNeal (Aug 11, 2016) writes of George

Throughout his various projects, of which there are too many to track, he focuses on education’s potential to develop the capabilities that make humans unique. Affect, self-awareness and networking abilities are all traits that separate mankind from machines and will be important for work and life in an increasingly automated world.

This reminded me of what Iain McGilchrist said about the difference between living organisms and machines, on a course I attended earlier this year (see posts on The Divided Brain):

According to McGilchrist there are eight things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

For McGilchrist, things come into ‘being’ without being forced (p. 230/231 The Master and His Emissary; see reference below)

“The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. Whatever it is out there that exists apart from us comes into contact with us as the water falls on a particular landscape. The water falls and the landscape resists. One can see a river as restlessly searching out its path across the landscape, but in fact no activity is taking place in the sense that there is no will involved. One can see the landscape as blocking the path of the water so that it has to turn another way, but again the water just falls in the way that water has to, and the landscape resists its path, in the way it has to. The result of the amorphous water and the form of the landscape is the river.

The river is not only passing across the landscape, but entering into it and changing it too, as the landscape has ‘changed’ and yet not changed the water. The landscape cannot make the river. It does not try to put a river together. It does not even say ‘yes’ to the river. It merely says ‘no’ to the water – or does not say ‘no’ to the water, wherever it is that it does so, it allows the river to come into being. The river does not exist before the encounter. Only water exists before the encounter, and the river actually comes into being in the process of encountering the landscape, with its power to say no’ or not say ‘no’. Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.”

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

For McGilchrist the way forward is to recognise the nature of the problem, that we are living in an increasingly left hemisphere dominated world. He thinks we will have to cope with profound change and that will involve our individual practical selves and training ourselves out of habits of mind. We will have to question and invert things to see if we can find truth. We will have to change the way we spend our time, by first stopping a lot of what we do, switching things off, making space, and being quiet. For McGilchrist the answer is to create a different world and change our culture.

McGilchrist didn’t mention ’being skills’, but it seems to me that his concern is that we need to find a new way of ‘being’ in this technological left-brain dominated world. His work is steeped in philosophy, ethics and scientific research.

I wonder if George’s work on ‘being skills’ will cover any of this.

There are No Things. There are patterns.

As we can see from his website, Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  is working on a number of further books, but the one that he talked to us about on the Field & Field course that I recently attended in the Cotswolds, was the one which bears the title: ‘There are No Things’, a book on epistemology and metaphysics.

Iain told us that this follow up book to The Master and his Emissary will focus on how everything is changing, flowing, connected and never fixed. He told us that if we could slow things down enough we would be able to see the mountain behind his house flowing.

Source of image:

Iain’s new book will make the case for no static and separate things, but instead relationships and patterns. For me, this brings to mind Stephen Downes’ work on the theory of connectivism and an early article that he wrote on his blog in 2009, where he wrote:

[Knowledge] is not an object (or objective), it is not discrete, it is not a causal agent. It is emergent, which means that it exists only by virtue of a process of recognition [pattern recognition], as a matter of subjective interpretation. 

  • Knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows; it is a process, not a product.
  • It is produced not in the minds of people but in the interactions between people.
  • The idea of acquiring knowledge as a series of truths, is obsolete

Even earlier than this in 2007  Stephen was writing about connectivism as follows:

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

It shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing (

The first time I heard Iain speak he told us that his follow up book to The Master and his Emissary would be a book entitled: The Porcupine is a Monkey.  The intention was to write ‘a popular Master and his Emissary’, a book that would discuss how science and education have become increasingly left-brained, but this book has been abandoned. He felt it would be repeating much of the work he has already done.

So Iain has moved away from an explicit focus on education, although clearly his work has implications for education, but Stephen has addressed how connectivism might influence pedagogy. He has written that connectivism:

… implies a pedagogy that (a) seeks to describe ‘successful’ networks (as identified by their properties, which I have characterized as diversity, autonomy, openness, and connectivity) and (b) seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (which I have characterized as modeling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner)). 

But both authors, as philosophers, are interested in the relationship between knowledge and ‘truth’.

Iain told us that the first part of his new book will attempt to answer the question of what we mean by ‘truth’. In the Master and his Emissary he writes

‘Truth is a process.’ (McGilchrist, p.154).

‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150).

‘The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’. If we had no concept of truth, we could not state anything at all, and it would even be pointless to act. There would be no purpose, for example, in seeking the advice of doctors, since there would be no point in having their opinion, and no basis for their view that one treatment was better than another. None of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150)

Stephen, in one of the quotes above, doesn’t write about a single truth so I am not sure what he thinks about this or whether or not he and Iain would agree about what we mean by truth. But it does seem to me that they agree on some epistemological positions, principally that ‘One must never [] lose sight of the interconnected nature of things’ (McGilchrist, p.154). The importance of patterns, relations and processes seem to be recognised by both.

The work of both authors work has implications for education, epistemology, and understanding our world and our existence.

16-03-2018 Update: Stephen Downes’ responds (Thank you).

I’ve said in the past that knowledge is recognition, and if I were pressed to describe what I think truth is, I would say that it is a strong feeling of recognition. This I think is consistent with what the early empiricists (like David Hume) would say. Formally, truth is an attitude toward a proposition: we say that a propositoon is ‘true’ or ‘not true’ and then try to explain that through an interpretation (such as Tarski’s theory of truth, or model theory, or some such thing). That makes truth easier to work with, but only because it abstracts the messier reality. Having said all this, I think this puts me in accord with Iain McGilchrist, cited by Jenny Mackness in this article, when he says things like ‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ 

16-03-2018 Update

See also notes from last years course – Where we can go for Truth –

Trust in the steps. Focussed and whole picture thinking

The Field & Field McGilchrist 4 day course about Iain’s book, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  is a very rich experience. Not only do we hear Iain McGilchrist speak twice a day, but we are also offered a range of optional workshops. This time (I have attended this course twice before) the workshops were designed to stimulate auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learning and thinking, so we were offered workshops which focused on drawing, listening to music and embodied learning, in this case Tai Chi. We were also offered the opportunity to listen to speakers who, for personal reasons, have found that Iain McGilchrist’s writing on the Divided Brain – resonates with their practice.

One of these speakers was Bonita Norris,  a woman, who as a girl of 22, in 2010, was the youngest woman ever to climb Everest, and has since climbed many more Himalayan mountains and reached the North Pole. (She is only about 30 now! )

Bonita is a passionate speaker, and it was, I think, impossible not to be inspired by her story. Here is a woman who at the age of 20, whilst at University, happened to attend a lecture by two men who had climbed Everest. In that moment she decided that she also wanted to climb Everest, despite never having done any mountaineering before. A lot of things fell into place for her. The two lecturers responded to her email in which she wrote that this was what she wanted to do and asked for advice. Ultimately these men became her climbing partners, and she finally, after a great deal of effort, hard work and persistence got the funding she needed for the Everest expedition. Two years later at the age of 22 she climbed Everest.

In her talk she told us about her climb, how she prepared for it, how she experienced it and what that experience now means to her. But most importantly, in terms of the course, we could see how her experience resonated with Iain McGilchrist’s writing on how in optimal circumstances, the right and left hemispheres work together.

Bonita showed us wonderful photos of her climb and described her feelings on standing on the top of the world and at seeing a sky full of stars with no light pollution. In her words, ‘the world comes to meet you’ and she described seeing the curvature of the Earth. These seem to me to be statements that come from the right hemisphere, an appreciation of the ‘whole’ as opposed to the parts.

But one the most interesting parts of her talk was how focussed she had to be on taking the first step when she was afraid. She described a point at which, when having to cross a crevasse by walking over a ladder,  she was so afraid of taking the first step that she held up her team on the freezing slopes of Everest for 20 minutes.

Two things come out of this. First that she did take that first step and then the following steps were easier. Secondly that her team understood and supported her through this process saying that they had also experienced this paralysis in relation to taking a first step.

Here are some of the inspiring things that Bonita said during her talk.

‘There was no logic or reason for wanting to climb Everest. I just had to do it.’ ‘I can’t articulate why I wanted to do this’. Everest was where she put her attention.

‘Trust in the steps. Trust that small things will add up.’

‘My imagination is the biggest mountain I’m trying to climb’.

‘The big picture can be paralysing/overwhelming. Focus down to one step’.

‘Focus, be present, don’t fret about things you can’t control.’

‘Climbing is meditation. You focus on the present and are aware of the world around you.’

‘Take leaps of faith.’ “Do one thing every day that scares you”. (quote from Eleanor Roosevelt)

‘Each of us felt so insignificant and pointless in the grand scheme of things. We reached a deep flow state.’

‘Small things can defeat us.’

‘Nature can heal you in your lowest moments.’ (NB – Nature – not environment. Iain McGilchrist distinguishes between the two).

‘You have to trust in the possibility of the moment.’

‘The last step doesn’t matter as much as you think. It is not about the summit.’

‘To escape from the ‘Hall of mirrors” (LH thinking) you have to ground yourself in Nature, get rid of your ego, and retreat from the world to come back to it.’

Thank you Bonita.

Iain McGilchrist and the divided brain

Last weekend I attended a 4-day Field & Field course in which Iain McGilchrist discussed with us the main themes in his book – The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the making of the Western World, and his recent thinking. I have attended this course twice before and first came across his work in 2011. Since then I have written a number of posts about his work (see Here, I will simply return to some of his key ideas for those new to his work.

The two key questions which led to the 20 years it took to write the book are:

  • Why is the brain divided at all?
  • Why is the brain asymmetrical?

Iain McGilchrist believes that the answers to these questions help to explain why our world is as it is today.

He tells us that whilst both hemispheres are involved in everything we do, each has its own ‘take’ on the world. The right hemisphere (RH) is the one that understands implicit meaning, the one that has a much richer connection with the body (an important point for those interested in the mind-body relationship), the one that understands the unique. For further information about the differences between the left and right hemispheres, see these three posts, and of course Iain’s book.

Each hemisphere not only communicates more with itself than with the other, but also attends to the world differently. The left hemisphere (LH) focusses attention. The RH keeps a broad overview. From an evolutionary point of view this relates to the need for animals to be able to apply both focussed attention to catch their prey and broad attention to keep a look out for predators. (see )

The thrust of Iain’s argument is that we are living in a time when the hemispheres are out of balance, a time of LH dominance.

In the Master and his Emissary, Iain explains that the title of his book comes from a story in Nietzche, where the Emissary sent out by the trusting Master to do his work ‘became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.’ (McGilchrist, 2010, p.14). For Iain, this tells the story of the left and right hemispheres, with the RH being the selfless, spiritual Master and the LH being the usurping Emissary.

On the Field & Field course (and in his book) Iain told us that three times in the history of man, the hemispheres have worked well together; in the Ancient World (6th century BC),  and during the Rennaissance and Romanticism periods.  During these times civilisation flourished, but each time ultimately overreached itself geographically (for example in the case of the Roman Empire), becoming increasingly abstract and bureaucratic, with a focus on power, manipulation and wealth grabbing, i.e. the LH became increasingly dominant, with a loss of balance between the two hemispheres and collapse of civilisation. As mentioned above, Iain believes that we are currently living in a LH dominated world. He believes that signs of this are in a loss of sight of the natural world and embodied culture, treating our bodies like machines, creating art, music and poetry that is too explicit, and religion becoming important or unimportant for the wrong reasons. He writes a lot more about this in his book.

In his book and on the course Iain discussed LH dominance in relation to a number of big themes. On the course these were music and language; life, death and machines; negation as a creative act; time, space, change and flow. I have heard him speak about these themes before and each time have shared my notes (see But each time I hear Iain speak I take away something new. As I told him this time, if it took him 20 years to write his book, it is going to take me more than a few courses to fully assimilate all he has to say.

All this can feel incredibly pessimistic, a feeling that some course participants resisted, but Iain describes himself as a hopeful pessimist, saying that humanity is incredibly innovative and creative. In the final lines of his book he writes, ‘… if it turns out to be ‘just’ a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world.’ (p.462)

Since returning from the course I have found this excellent video on Iain’s website. In case you haven’t seen it before, I share the link to it here – – as it covers a lot of what we heard him talk about last weekend and gives a very good sense of who he is, what is important to him and how he thinks. I don’t need to write more. The video speaks for itself.


Death is a friend of life

The Self-Unseeing (by Thomas Hardy)

Here is the ancient floor,

Footworn and hollowed and thin,

Here was the former door

Where the dead feet walked in.


She sat here in her chair,

Smiling into the fire,

He who played stood there,

Bowing it higher and higher.


Childlike, I danced in a dream;

Blessings emblazoned that day;

Everything glowed with a gleam;

Yet we were looking away!


At some point in life, I expect most people will wonder what life’s all about, what it means, what’s the point? For philosophers, answering these questions can be life’s pursuit. For others, these questions may only become significant at certain points in life, such as with the death of a loved one.

I have just returned from a 4-day course with Iain McGilchrist, author of the ‘Master and his Emissary – the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’. For reasons which I will explain later in this post, I was keen to hear Iain’s thoughts about life, death and dying. So, at the very start of the first day, when he read Hardy’s poem, ‘The Self-Unseeing’, and said that Hardy was unique and had he not existed there would be a Hardy-shaped hole in the Universe, I knew it had been worth battling the snow and dreadful motorway conditions in the worst freeze that the UK has had for years, to get there.

In a recent discussion that Iain had with Jordan Peterson, Peterson said that death is a friend of life (in Iain’s words, a friend of being) and a necessary stage in life.

We all know we are dying from the moment we are born and of course many cells in our body die and are replaced during life, so a different Jenny Mackness stands before you today than did yesterday, last week or a few years ago.

But Iain McGilchrist’s view is that life is literally on its way out in relation to the way in which we live our lives and behave as social animals in today’s society. Birth, sex, the body and death are all suffering. There is a declining birth rate and sex is also on the decline. For example, 20-40% of young men express no interest in having a sexual partner. Sex has been objectified through the internet and robbed of its power through explicitness. There has been a death of ‘flirting’ and hysteria about ‘touching’ to the extent that teachers are afraid to touch the children they teach and nurses are similarly cautious about touching patients. There has also been some research to show a declining mother-infant relationship. (Schore, A.N. 1994)

Likewise death is no longer talked about. In Victorian times, death was talked about, but sex was not. Now it is the other way round. Doctors used to be present at death, as depicted in this painting.

The Doctor, Sir Luke Fildes,

Now death is often surrounded by machines. Unlike elephants and other animals who know how to mourn death (, Iain McGilchrist believes that we no longer honour the reality of coming face-to-face with death, as we did in the past. Elephants seem to know and understand the reality of death.

The reason I was interested in this, is that my mother died just over a month ago. I have attended this Field & Field course twice before (each time writing up and sharing my notes), but this time I went with the specific purpose of creating a space in my life, to come to terms with the confusion I have felt about my mother’s death.

Although my mother required 24-hour care at the time of her death, she was not surrounded by machines and we were able to ensure that her wish to die at home in her own bed was respected and realised. Neither did she die alone, but was surrounded by those who understood that ‘death is a friend of life’.

I did not think of Hardy’s poem at the time of my mother’s death but a friend of my mother’s sent me Tennyson’s poem, Crossing the Bar, which we read at my mother’s Thanksgiving service

… and a friend of mine, sent me this beautiful music by Brahms, which we played at her service.

Iain McGilchrist’s stress on the importance of poetry, music and presence at a time of the death of someone you love, or indeed of anyone, resonated with me. I am fortunate to know at least two people who really understand this. As many testified at her death, my mother was unique. Had she not existed there would be a Betty-shaped hole in the Universe.

Reference: Schore, A.N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: the neurobiology of emotional development. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale NJ.