Stigmergy, deep reading, and John “Pigsarse” Elliott

Over the past week or so of all-consuming work on my scholarly book review a few interesting thoughts and ideas came up that did not fit into the framework of such a writing task (or the word limit) but I thought I’d like to share them here.

My book was Mind amplifier: Can our digital tools make us smarter by Howard Rheingold. As part of background research I came across Wolf’s article (2010) where she poses the question “Will we lose the deep reading brain in a digital culture?” ALL the reading I did for the book review was online, mostly on PC or iPad but occasionally on my phone too. I don’t think I’ve read so deeply or thoughtfully in years. I found the highlighting, note-taking and search capacities in Kindle and Evernote enormously helpful for constructing and consolidating my thinking about the text. In fact, I suspect I would have found the task significantly more difficult without the affordances of of my digital tools. It was something of a relief to find that Wolf has now found it is possible to train the brain for deep reading of both digital and print texts, something she calls “bi-literacy”  Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say. Even more interesting for me at the time was that I was alerted to this article by a series of tweets from Rheingold himself:



As it happens I have been following “my author” for nearly as long as I’ve been on Twitter (over five years), it was one of the reasons I was drawn to his book. When I had a question that no amount of search seemed to be able to answer (who first called Rheingold “The first citizen of the internet” as the Amazon blurb for an earlier work proclaims?) the obvious next step was to tweet and ask him. Which I did and got an answer straight away!


A further tweet revealed the source: The Citizen.

Stigmergy is my new favourite word! Referring to a process where intelligence resides in group but not the individual (think about how ants find their way to a food source by leaving a trail of pheremones that other ants then follow) or where something is created without a central control. Mark Elliott (from Melbourne!) wrote his doctoral thesis about Stigmergic collaboration, specifically in wikis like Wikipedia. Reading about this reminded me of the Emergency 2.0 wiki which I learned about as part of the work I did with Red Cross last year; which then led me to some other emergency services related content that was relevant to my book. I never expected that to happen! And as an aside I edited Howard Rheingold’s Wikipedia entry to add Mind amplifier to his publications list.

John Elliott has more relevance than I thought. In my previous post I pondered on John Elliott’s attitude to the internet – “It’s secretary’s work”. Mind amplifier explains how important it is for the individual to be able to use a given tool so that he is enabled with the mind expanding abilities it provides. The power of word processing is in its ability to allow the writer room to think instead of having to type and re-type drafts (or have his secretary do so) – thus to fully take advantage the writer must have the capacity to use the tool, not just direct someone else to do so. Just in case you don’t know who John Elliott is:

Finally, the support and encouragement of others in the cohort, most notably Simon @aus_teach and Bec @MissB6_2, is outstanding. Simon and I read and commented on each others book reviews via Google docs, just one example of what is so good about this course, knowledge networks, digital technology…the whole thing! I had a fantastic catch-up with Simon at the State Library (most appropriately) on Thursday. It was terrific to have the chance to talk face to face and mull over some of the issues and ideas we’ve been learning about. I’ve begun to realise that I’m very interested in computational thinking, we found links to stigmergy in what Simon is doing in another subject, we agreed on how wrong we think exams are as useful assessment tools and wondered how on earth something like the book review could be done under exam conditions. The whole “everybody has to be treated identically” attitude drives me bonkers in lots of contexts but the idea that a three hour exam is the only fair way to assess a year’s learning is the worst. And of course it’s only natural that a certain amount of “teaching to the test” ends up going on… All too big for one coffee session but fantastic to have the opportunity for the discussion in real life.

Simon, Bec and I will be speaking about our experiences, so far, of doing this course at the next Melbourne TeachMeet on May 10 – if you’re in the area you might like to come along. Sign up here, including for the subsequent TeachEats if you can.


Rheingold, H. (2012a). Mind amplifier: Can our digital tools make us smarter? New York, NY: TED Books.

WOLF, M. (2010). Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions. Nieman Reports64(2), 7-8.

7 thoughts on “Stigmergy, deep reading, and John “Pigsarse” Elliott

  1. Wow – I am so proud of the work you and the others have done. Your deep reading, research, and collaborative discussion as well as use of tools is exactly what knowledge networking is all about. Thank you for writing this post!

  2. Hey. Your blog inspired me to write a response here but I got so carried away in my meanderings that it turned into a blog post of its own!
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. Great work Heather (and great cross pollination with other INF530 participants). Stigmergy is a great word and I love the fact that you have lived it as part of your book review process! I wish I was just a little closer to Melbourne to take up the TeachMeet offer. Maybe the next time I can make arrangements to get there. May is always tricky at our house because of various school commitments. Now I’m off to follow Howard too. I found my author on Twitter but he mustn’t use it much – certainly didn’t pick up on my thread – lucky you.

  4. Definitely food for thought. I agree the book review definitely made me read more intensively than I had for a while. I am jealous in a way that you could connect with your author via tweeting, I didn’t even think about trying to connect with any of mine (I did the anthology).
    I think I also like your new favourite term, stigmergy; I think, in a way, what this MEd and Inf530 is trying teach us.

  5. Hi Heather,

    I really enjoyed reading this post and was hoping to reply sooner- however with assignments and two long weekends in a row- who can keep up! I have used the opportunity from blog task 3 for #INF530 to actually sit down and think about it in depth (being one day late as I had lap top charging issues yesterday).

    Rheingold’s ‘Mind Amplifier’ is on my ‘to-read’ list. The reason I chose this post to respond to, and why I want to read ‘Mind Amplifier’ so much is because whilst reading I was already starting to make many connections to some of the research I have done when reviewing ‘The New Social Leanring’ by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner and some personal research I am doing into why Evernote literally is my second brain.

    Like you- all of my research and readings for this subject have been done digitally and I can definitely connect with the idea that I was able to read ‘deeper; and more thoughtfully. I have never been one for pen and paper and handwriting in general, and I believe that the reason for this was being ridiculed for my ‘chicken scratch’ handwriting when I was in primary school. Needless to say, in my few years as a teacher I have never been upset at a child for the state of their handwriting. I too believe that without the affordances of digital technologies that task would have been harder. There is no way I could have had all of my information so easily accessible and searchable if it was handwritten. I saw the Wolf article floating around on Twitter and to be honest I initially ignored it, I completely disagree with the headline so therefore I never read any further. But this being only a personal opinion, I decided to go back and read it- figuring someone had probably put a lot of research into the article.
    And though I still disagree with the headline from a personal perspective, I am intrigued by the research being completed in ‘bi-literacy’.

    As you know, I think Twitter is amazing, the connections and learning that can develop through social media continue to blow me away constantly. Not long after I initially read your post, Marcia Conner followed me on Twitter…I contemplated Tweeting her about my review but couldn’t find the words (unlike me, I know).

    I also connected to what you wrote about ‘stigmergy’ when you described stigmergy as the process where intelligence resides in group, not the individual, with some research from my review. Johnson (2009) discussed ways in which tacit knowledge- knowledge which is is difficult to transfer or can not be recorded in words, visualised or taught- can be shared through social media and collaborative platforms. This can allow deeper levels of knowledge transfer.

    Finally, thanks for the mention in your post. I have really enjoyed that fact that you and Simon are in this course. It is great to have some familiar faces and connections to share with, ask questions and, as poor Simon knows, have a little vent to. I am grateful for my PLN and the amount of learning I have done because of my connections online. I am looking forward to our presentation at TeachMeet Melbourne!


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