Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

September 25, 2008

Networks of Dead People

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lisa M Lane @ 11:48 am

Most of the members of my network are dead.

I raised this idea in a Sept 19 Ustream session (audio from 28:00) and promised to blog about it. At first, the concept was gently ridiculed (“dead people don’t answer email”), but gradually participants began to realize that since most of what we know about others are just their artifacts anyway (particularly if we’ve only met them online), we may indeed be networking with those we read, many of whom lived long ago. (I thought it was particularly important for Stephen Downes to understand this, since his network includes so many wonderful philosophers, like Wittgenstein, about whom he writes as if they were still around.)

If we say that our networks are made up of ties we have with people, then my knowledge (which I define much more deeply than is often done in this class) is dependent on many people who are no longer living. If we say that networks are comprised of hubs at the center of their own networks, I can see Jefferson, Voltaire, Rousseau, Adams, Madison as hubs. If we say they are influenced by power laws, you betcha. Scale free? Definitely. Made up of connectors and those who are highly influenced? Uh huh. Emphasizing weak ties? Oh sure (although I think Jefferson and Madison’s families were close, geographically and as friends).

Dead people have the following advantages in a network:

Less Noise
Their ideas are often well-indexed (though perhaps not prior to the 18th century), and their writing better focused. I do not have to use Search for blog posts or deal with a 404 error when they move something. I don’t have to read what they had for breakfast while looking for something important. (Although it is more fun to know what Thomas Jefferson had for breakfast than, say, Andrew Keen.)

Prior Vetting
Many famous dead writers have had their work repeatedly analyzed within the context of various historic eras, providing not only access to secondary analysis but a history of the application of their ideas.

Context for “New” Ideas
Whenever the Salesmen of our age try to sell us something as new and different, distinct and unique, dead people in the network can provide good balance and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Reminders of our Humanity
If their lives have been researched and studied as well as their work, they remind us of our own humanity. Although all public work is what the author wants us to see, historical biography often reveals what they didn’t want us to see. This reminds us that even great thinkers of the past were subject to the same vices and failings as ourselves.

Their disadvantages are:

They don’t answer email.
Well, perhaps not, but neither do many live people I know.

They don’t have the current research.
Very true, and yet current research is constructed within our current social context. Thus it only has enduring value in historical perspective, which is what your dead people provide: a context for that new research.

They aren’t going to come out with anything new.
Again, many live people don’t either, and every new reading or interpretation does bring something new to the conversation.

They don’t Twitter.
OK, you’ve got me there.

The false assumptions are:

They can’t talk to you.
They don’t talk to you personally, perhaps, but they do talk to you. All of the past talks to you if you are the type of person who enjoys reading and thinking.

They won’t answer.
As with live people, if you pose a question appropriate to the source, you will get a good answer; otherwise you won’t.

We don’t need them here.
The field of educational technology in particular has Marshall McLuhan as a vital network member, to name just one.

Contrary to the Pirates of the Caribbean mentality, dead men do tell tales. When I told a colleague, “what they said was: dead people don’t answer email”, his response was, “no, but they do answer questions”. If we’re going to value meta-cognition as an intellectual skill, it would be good to acknowledge those ideas that help form our perspective, and cite our sources. Filling ones network with dead people will make it deeper, more sustainable, more holistic and more useful.



  1. […] jasonkgreen Categories: CCK08 Tags: CCK08, dead, networks Lisa writes about networking with the dead.  This seems to me something in between the social networks discussed in Wednesday’s session […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP () and so is spam.

    Pingback by CCK08 - Very asynchronous networks « An Education and Technology Blog — September 25, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

  2. Wonderful!
    Thank you Lisa

    Comment by Andreas Formiconi — September 26, 2008 @ 3:14 am

  3. Hi Lisa, When you said that in the Ustream session I thought yes I have arguments with dead people all the time. This got me thinking and I came to a similar conclusion as yourself. As a bit of an exercise I related this to Karl Popper’s (deceased) idea of world 3 objects the objective contents of thoughts. (see knowledge is mediated by world 3 objects we aren’t talking to other people but rummaging through their world 3 objects. We know precisely who these people are because we have direct access to their world 3 objects. Relationships are a bit trickier with the dead because they don’t respond directly to your world 3 objects. You have to rummage longer with their world 3 objects to get an answer. The dead are here among use having a real influence on real people and real events. Plato has more influence and more power today than most people alive today.

    Comment by Tim Gillibrand — September 26, 2008 @ 11:42 am

  4. From my last post…
    …connectivism is a puzzle in wich the whole is much, much more than the sum of pieces. Is it a new way? I’m not sure. Surely new are the tools, the technological tools that support and enhance this way of transforming information in Knowledge. But I think to ancient Greece (I’m an Ancient Greek and Latin Teacher…) . I think about Greek theatre, tragedy and comedy. When all citizens of Athens reflected on life, politics, ethics. “For chidren there is the school, for adults theatre”said Aristophanes. I think about the method of Socrates, who taught by dialogs , or about symposium… There was a community of learners, who shared their Knowledge, their thoughts, their reflection .In “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word’, Ong writes about secondary orality, specifying analogies between the electronic era and Greece…

    here some features of secondary orality It seems to me a description of connectivism…

    Comment by Marialetizia Mangiavini — September 26, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  5. Thank you for this post and the explanations.

    Comment by Kristina Hoeppner — September 27, 2008 @ 9:59 am

  6. Hello Lisa,
    I saw your post at The Daily.
    I would say that these “dead people” started a chain of ideas (or followed other chains that were already on sight), so they may be dead, but their ideas are not. That’s what the concept of dialogicy, coined by Mikhail Bakhtin, leads us: when you speak (or when you think) you are not doing it in a vacuum, but as an answer for someone’s else utterence. It may be your neighbour talk, the conference you attended or that dead people whose utterence you read. And you are not just “decoding” their ideas, but also finding your position about it. So communication will be always a dialogue with a bunch of references, some of them uttered a long time ago, other of them with “public” people that are still alive, but will not arrive to read your post or react to your ideas.

    Comment by Lilin Starobinas — September 27, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  7. I keep thinking of the film ‘Sixth sense – “I see dead people”. 🙂
    I really enjoyed your post because it is thought-provoking. I am not 100% sure I agree that the ideas of dead people are connective knowledge but I certainly agree that they play a very powerful part in learning. Thank you.

    Comment by Sarah Stewart — September 27, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  8. I really believe that we can use the knowledge gained from the previously living to enhance our current level of knowledge but to consider them part of someone’s network, I dunno? I guess that depends on what someone considers a network. Our readings state, that our knowledge is based upon our context of the information that we have been presented from our networks.

    And here in lies my concern with this theory, the individuals who are dead are having their information filtered through a network by many different individuals, not themselves. So are they really in the network? For example, if you wrote a book and someone was quoting your ideas, based upon this theory you are in their network. However the person has filtered the information to fit their context, which is uniquely different than yours, so therefore are they truly representing you, or are they representing an idealized version of your information to suit their needs. Either way, are you in that network?

    So the question that must be answered is, “Is a network a network, if the signal between entities only goes in one direction?

    Comment by tomwhyte1 — September 27, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  9. Tom, I’m considering a few distinctions here.

    If I read a book that quotes someone, then the author of the book may be in my network (if I absorb any of his/her ideas), but the person quoted wouldn’t be. The book is a secondary source, not a primary source. The dead people in my network I know from their work, although the biography angle can be humanizing (despite what I wrote in my post, I don’t like biographies much).

    I also think that there is a distinction between an “influence” and someone being in your network. My thinking would have many influences from the past, filtered through my culture already. Some of these would of course be unconscious. If I am not aware of someone’s ideas, they’re not in my network.

    People already filter their information (and their personalities) to fit a particular context. I don’t think that’s any different with the dead than with the living.

    And yes, I have many live people in my network where the signal only goes from them to me. I’ve been reading Stephen Downes for a year or so. Just because I post to his blog “right on, Stephen” doesn’t make me part of his network, and he was already part of mine whether he knew it or not.

    Comment by Lisa — September 27, 2008 @ 10:31 pm

  10. Stephen may not at this time know he is in your network however there is an opportunity for it to still happen, because of the possibility of life (The Wallflower can still have a dance or two).

    However, I still look at the dead as I look at anything that cannot communicate in a two-way fashion, just plain old information to be used or discarded as I see fit depending on my needs at the time. I am not saying the minds of yesteryear are to be forgotten and ignored because they cannot participate fully, I am saying that for this type of learning theory they are lacking specific attributes/skills that are necessary to perform in a network.

    To many they are their primary sources of insight, moral guidance, etc… But they are now stagnant, unable to shift as the network shifts, they are the content within the pipe not the pipe itself.

    But lastly, I personally believe that we can and should learn from our past. Without it we have no compass or since of shared history to provide a sense of community as we move forward in always uncertain times. Thanks for this unique insight.

    Comment by tomwhyte1 — September 28, 2008 @ 6:32 am

  11. “To many they are their primary sources of insight, moral guidance, etc… But they are now stagnant, unable to shift as the network shifts, they are the content within the pipe not the pipe itself”.
    Interesting, Tom. I understand you call those ideas “stagnant” because the authors won’t be able to react when people move the conversation ahead, quoting their words.
    But I don’t get how being alive and being able to react change our words to pipes, instead of “contents”. Maybe we could say we are “live nodes” of linking pipes – that is the web, for instance.
    Is that so?

    Comment by Lilin Starobinas — September 28, 2008 @ 6:48 am

  12. I like the idea of defining Live and Dead nodes in terms of the individuals breathing, however some people could think like Live Link and Dead Link…

    That would not limit there contribution to the knowledge, but I think put their knowledge into context. Is there a better term that could be used, like Current Node and Historical Node???

    Comment by tomwhyte1 — September 28, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  13. […] looked at Pat Parslow’s posts. My Google Alerts brought me Lisa’s delightful post about Networks of Dead People and today Ailsa’ post on iatrogenesis. My WordPress Tag Surfer led me to Jenny […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP () and so is spam.

    Pingback by CCK08: Swimming with dolphins, sharks and dead people « Clyde Street — September 28, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

  14. Hi Lisa, well identified issues provocatively named. To these thoughts, I would also add ‘that no one reads the same book twice’. Or so it says on my ibrary bookmark. Ideas are reshaped based on current networks, current constructions of knowledge.

    Comment by ailsa — September 29, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  15. Ailsa, I’d love to answer your comment, but I gotta get back to reading some of Jefferson’s networking stuff…again. 🙂

    Comment by Lisa — September 29, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  16. Lisa,

    You’ve done a magnificent job of articulating something that has been sloshing around in my head for a couple of weeks. I lost my father in during the 2nd week of the CCKK08 class. I immediately began wondering about networks that can be formed with the dead.

    I’ve learned a lot in the ensuing weeks-not just about him–but the military , the depression, etc. in going through his medals and other possessions. I didn’t even make the connection (pun somewhat intended) that my father could even possibly be in my learning network.

    Thanks for the post!

    Comment by scott smith — October 1, 2008 @ 8:45 pm

  17. Hey Lisa

    I firmly believe that there is a great thriving community of people who have lived across time, having been reincarnated into new and more challenging (karma-filled) lives.

    And I believe that history lecturers are as important as the science teachers, because their view of life covers this transition through time. In fact they would constantly be our source of answers to questions about the fourth dimension.

    I am writing a novel based on themes of reincarnation and through my belief in that network of dead people, I am able to dream up some wonderful words to put in there (even if I do say so myself!)

    On my blog I point out another aspect of ancient networks resounding down through the ages (possibly more audibly than you can imagine!)

    Anyway, I am enjoying the Connectivism course because of the people I am meeting and the ideas that are starting to buzz around in my head!

    Best wishes,
    Steve from Valencia, CA

    Comment by Steve Tuffill — October 2, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  18. […] about the longest standing member of my network moved to a different part of it today.  This got me thinking about many things. A couple of them even had to do with learning […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP () and so is spam.

    Pingback by CCK08 - When your network shifts « An Education and Technology Blog — October 3, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

  19. Thanks for a lovely post Lisa. I remember reading my last unread Thomas Hardy novel, and being sad it was the last, unlike a living author where there is always the possibility they will write more and better.

    Comment by Frances Bell — October 7, 2008 @ 9:38 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: