In my doctoral dissertation I wrote about the way everyday household objects moved through the networks formed by early modern Dutch trade. I talked about how things like ceramics, textiles, and even paintings formed connections between people as they moved throughout the world. And often these systems were altered by technology – printing presses, navigational systems, and scientific developments. Knowledge was constructed by the images and objects that circulated through these networks.
Van Schagen’s map of the world (1689)
Perhaps this is why I am drawn to Connectivism learning theory. Although it has only been developed recently to articulate the digital era, it has connections to the early modern epistemology I studied for years. In his famous “imagined communities” Benedict Anderson’s description of Renaissance naturalists’ international connections “might best be conceived as a network; local groups were connected, through one or several of their members to one or more nodes in a wide-flung net” could also describe collaborative online international learning classes (COIL) based in Connectivism learning theory.
Its founder George Siemens draws on chaos theory, the connection of everything to everything, and Gleick’s Butterfly Effect to explain how underlying conditions “profoundly impact what we learn and how we act based on our learning” (Siemens 2005). Cleverly enough in her work on Dutch Trading companies as knowledge networks, art historian Julie Berger Hochstrasser connects The Butterfly Effect, embodied cognition and perceptual knowledge to her work on Anna Maria Sibylla Merian, a German naturalist and scientific illustrator who travelled to the jungles of Suriname. One of the first European naturalists to observe insects directly Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705) made her one of the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.
Maria Sibylla Merian: Gummi Guttae Tree with White Witch, Cocoon and Caterpillar of a Hawk Moth and Drops of Resin, (1705).
There is also a striking similarity between Stephen Down’s Connectivism cycle of “knowledge informs learning, what we learn informs community; and the community in turn creates knowledge” and the reverse “knowledge builds community, while community defines what is learned, and what is learned becomes knowledge” and Hochstrasser’s analysis of the Dutch West India Company’s role in contributing to the outpouring of seventeenth and eighteenth century publications projects and the advancement of natural knowledge.
Like their twenty-first century counterpart Google and other digital information repositories, the images and objects that moved along the conduits of early modern Dutch trade networks formed a worldwide web. And to quote Hochstrasser:
“the whole complex environment in which a perceiver is embedded has a profound influence on how and what that organism learns; in turn, such interactions change not only that organism, but the total state of the dynamical system of which it is a part” (p. 99).