Wednesday, 31 October 2012

From Information to Technology

"What is information?" - this question will be guaranteed to cause maximum consternation and argument amongst cyberneticians - those who think about information more than anyone else.

"What is learning?" - this question will be guaranteed to cause maximum consternation and argument educationalists, learning technologists and the like - those who think about learning more than anyone else.

"What matters?"

Now that is a different sort of question. My family matters. Those that I love and care for and who love and care for me. Then the threats to those that I love and care for and the threats to me - they matter. And particularly the threats that may lie in the future for my daughter. They matter. Politics matters. And information and learning and education and knowledge and everything else is tied up in politics.

But we can't seem to get from "what is information?" to "what matters?". And we can't seem to get from "What is learning?" to "what matters?".

That's where I think technology is important.

Because to ask "What technology do we need?" is another way of asking "What matters?". The study of technology is political.

So the move from studying 'information' to the serious study of 'technology' is the move from worrying about epistemology to thinking about action.

Marx would be seriously into technology right now!!

So stuff the theory of information, or the theory of learning! We need a theory of technology - and then we need to act on it!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Information, Truth and Political Behaviour

The relationship between information and politics is one of the most intriguing questions in the discourse on the knowledge economy. For example, Floridi claims that False Information (FI) is not information, because according to his 'veridicality thesis', semantic information must be true, meaningful well-formed data. There are good arguments for upholding the veridicality thesis (see Part of the problem hangs on the role of the word 'false' in FI (well explained in the blog-post). But I think False Information is politically significant in a way where the assertion that it "isn't information" is difficult to apprehend.

There is a deeper issue here and it has to do with the nature of the truth attribute in the first place. I've discussed Bhaskar's 'truth tertrapolity' before (see and I think it is revealing with regard to the veridicality thesis. Bhaskar argues that truth is dialectical, and there are distinct 'moments' in the dialectical process.
1. Normative fiduciary
2. adequating
3. expressive-referential
4. alethic

The normative-fiduciary level is truth as represented in the "trustworthiness of the person making the statement about truth". 'Adequating' truth concern the logical assertability of a statement. Truth as 'expressive referential' ties together an ontological aspect of truth with the logical and epistemological aspects: expressive-referential truth relates truth propositions to things in the world (this I think is most close to correspondence theories of truth). 'Alethic' truth however, is a level deeper still: the causal ground for things at a deep ontological level.

I find these distinctions about truth useful. At the very least, it allows us to pretend that there is a Father Christmas to small children. That is false information. But really it can be seen as a complex interplay between normative-fiduciary level (your parents tell you that Father Christmas exists), the construction of adequating circumstances (mince pies for Rudolf, men in Santa outfits), expressive-referential (belief in Father Christmas is important in establishing the atmosphere of Christmas which feeds the belief) and the alethic level where the deep grounds for celebrations and human togetherness can be seen to be connected to the pretence in the existence of Father Christmas.

The bond between the normative-fiduciary level and the alethic level for the false information that Father Christmas exists illustrates the fundamentally social import of this particular aspect of false information. So what does it mean to say that False information isn't information? On the face of it, it appears to deny social import to information, rather seeing information as logical (adequating). To what extent is this useful? To what extent is it right?

I think the veridicality thesis is ontologically naive and because of this, its predictive and explanatory power will be compromised. Information is uttered (in one form or another). The way this is done matters. No two utterances are the same. Each utterance is the result of human agency which is ontologically grounded in a world whose dimensions extend beyond mere adequation or correspondence. This of course is what Wittgenstein unpicked in his later work. Understanding information necessitates understanding agency. With Wittgenstein, I think understanding agency means understanding the game that is played. Floridi tries to deal with this by acknowledging the role of agency in information, but doing it by developing a theory using 'autonomous agents'. In this way, the veridicality thesis becomes related to a positivised and individualised concept of agency. The idea of information as transpersonal, or political is entirely absent. Indeed, the concept of absence itself conveying information (as Deacon discusses) is also not considered.

Floridi has opened up an impressive area for philosophising the nature of information. But he rests on a narrow and idealistic conception of truth which is basically Kantian. Information cannot be understood in the absence of an understanding of truth (on this, Floridi is correct).  But the ontology of truth need inspecting in a Wittgensteinian manner to reveal the games that are played with truth and the games which are then played with information. At the same time, as Floridi notes, Wittgenstein himself had views about what was and wasn't information, when he writes:
'it either rains, or it doesn't rain. If it rains, we'll stay in my room; if it doesn't...' The first part of this sentence is no piece of information (just as 'take it or leave it' is no order) - Brown book p. 161 
I think this is interesting. The statement 'it either rains, or it doesn't rain. If it rains, we'll stay in my room; if it doesn't...' isn't FI, although it is certainly agency - a speech act. What does it do? I think it addresses an absence. In so doing, it has a political effect.

That's what I'm after - a political theory of information.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Surprising moments and Recursive Processes

There were two pieces of music on the radio this morning, one by Tippett and the other by Tchaikovsky. Both were very good. But both very different in terms of style. Yet, in their respective 'goodness' they shared something fundamental: an ability to surprise: Tippett in his dancing rhythms and tonal colourings, and Tchaikovsky in drastic changes of mood and colour. But what is surprising on hearing this is the sensation within me that "this is interesting". What is happening there?

I've been pursuing a variety of models of this kind of moment. First of all, I think it is a "restructuring of anticipation" that might be related to 'meaning' (see More broadly, I think we may consider things meaningful when they change our expectations of the world. More recently, I have begun to think of 'expectation' or anticipation in terms of a meta-strategy game tree (see This thinking makes anticipation and the strategy tree dependent on the participation of other people: we do not think within our individual heads, but between each of our heads, for our anticipations are anticipations of the agency of others. Thinking is necessarily social.

This position has political implications which I will explore in a later post. But for now, I want to concentrate on the transformation of the meta-strategy tree. What I think brings about a restructuring of anticipation is the grasping of a concept. The restructuring is effectively a collapse of complexity in the game tree. Where numerous branches disappeared off in various directions, the concept comes along and fundamentally changes the structure. It does this because powerful concepts are recursively applicable: they apply at many levels of the meta-strategy. Recursive applicability simplifies complexity. It means that more becomes thinkable.

With music, though, as we listen - where is the concept? Is it in the notes? Is it in the experience? Is it in the composer? or the performer? Whilst it is probably in all of these, and the concept itself will work in all of these cases, I think there is merit in looking for something in the actual notes. In this way, motivic structures within the work, or tonal shifts, etc can correlate to moments of revelation in performance. If we were to analyse the work, would picking up these recursive structures help us to identify that moment of meaning where anticipation is transformed? I wondering if the techniques of granular computing might help here - after all, granular computing makes its distinctions around those pattern that recur at many levels.

If we had some kind of recursive map of a data stream, would it be able to indicate where something meaningful happened? Would it be able to filter out the noise and reveal the essence of what might have been transformative? If this was possible, then a new way of steering playful interventions might present itself...

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Understanding Computers and Metacognition

Winograd and Flores's "Understanding Computers and Cognition" has been a major influence on our thinking in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics. It introduced the principal themes of our work: the philosophy of technology and phenomenology of technological experience; the dynamics of communication and speech acts; and the cybernetics of biological self-organisation. Winograd and Flores's thesis (really, I think its Flores more than Winograd) is that computers are about communication. That hardly surprises us now, but the book was written in the early 1980s when the dominant paradigm for thinking about computers was Artificial Intelligence. There was no internet. So it was prescient.

Their deeper argument is that computers allow us to track the commitments we make to each other. That's very important, and I think, demonstrably true. You only have to look at your email management software to see this. But I think there is something more. It is something which has struck me as I have examined my blogging practice. It is not commitment I make to others that I track; it is the different levels of my own thinking: computers allow us to track our metacognitive reflexive states.

The account of "reflexive modernisation" presented by Giddens and Beck is being borne out by social changes that are underway. At the heart of these changes is the increased atomisation that reorganises the relations between individual experience and collective being. I think the 'collective' is increasing under attack - probably because it is the most dangerous politically - and in its place, 'networks' which are effectively controlled by the elite are substituted: these produce isolation which is the breeding ground for susceptibility to the risks produced by the elite. Computers, of course, are at the heart of this network.

Whilst risk requires isolation, with isolation comes more risk. However, isolation itself needs to be understood. It is, I would say, a meta-strategic problem. It is obvious to say isolation results from lack of 'other people', but it isn't the absence of others that creates isolation, it is the problem of being deprived of the means to make choices. 'Other people' and the shared experience, conviviality, etc provided by them is the means by which choices  can be made. Those are the conditions within which shared absence can be determined, and shared political action undertaken.

But although we are atomised into networks, human experience is much deeper than the expression the networks afford. Moreover, the networks provide the means by which individual experience can be inspected more fully. My thinking is in my blog yesterday and today, from last year, from the year before. I can trace my thinking (like a diary), but (unlike a diary) I can see how others have responded. I can see what they are interested in; what they are searching for. Personal analytics are important. Individuals can track their own meta-strategies and meta-cognition. Go deep enough down and the absences around the network start to reveal themselves. It is the absence around the network which is the deep shared absence; here there is authenticity once more; that may be where we can refind togetherness. As usual, technology is a double-edged sword.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Absence, Redundancy and Play

I have seen others before me in a state of panic in the face of redundancy. There was nothing I could really say or do to help them. Just as feelings of grief are extraordinarily visceral ( so too is the fear of imminent loss of livelihood. Unlike grief, sympathy brings no solace: they are different feelings, and I want to explore that here. It's a good time to do this because I'm absolutely 'in it', and however much we can sympathise with others who face this, just as with grief, there can be no imagining what it is like until you are there. I think the closest experience I had to this was divorce (I'm glad of that experience because it helps me deal with this one!). Yet we'd better get used to it, and we'd better understand  how to manage it because lots of people are in this, and many more will follow.

Panic is a kind of tension which produces 'flailing around'. In terms of a theoretical approach to tension (see I think the panic is due to an inability to distinguish between choices: an inability to identify the 'equibrium points' (in game theory) which are necessary to determine an effective action. Why does this happen?

What is revealed with a threat of redundancy is a gaping absence. It was always there, but a way of living, of communicating, of thinking had emerged which worked around it. Indeed, the 'presence' of the absence helped to coordinate action: it was a shared absence - shared between other colleagues for whom the prospect of unemployment was similarly shadowy. In other words, the absence explains the form our thinking took - it was the thing we all worked around.

A threat of redundancy makes the absence present. In doing so, a number of things happen, I think. First of all it means that the absence with colleagues is no longer shared. Making what was shared absence present for one individual means that the particular individual is in a different space: they see new absences surrounding the 'new reality' (the old absence) that is revealed to them; this new absence is not shared. This becomes very difficult to talk about, because to articulate the new absence will be challenge the existing shared absence in the rest of the group. They will not want that! Consequently, isolation is inevitable. [This is another way of expressing Bateson's Double-Bind] Not even support groups can be much help because each absence is so deep and individual... although there are exceptions. [Thinking about Bateson again, it is interesting to compare this perspective with his account of Alcoholics Anonymous - which resorted to religion for its shared absence - see] What is lost with this is the ability to make rational distinctions. What is required is for this ability to be re-discovered in a new context.

Shared absence facilitates communication because expectations of the behaviour of others can be aligned with expectations of one's own reactions: the double-contingency works. These are the circumstances of meaningful engagement. Without shared absence, and with a prohibition on being able to articulate the new absences that are revealed through redundancy, it becomes hard to nail the space which people have in common. Only existential absences can be grasped at, but most people who are still busy with their jobs will have little time for this, or the spiritual baggage that goes with it.

What is left for individuals in this situation are forms of exuberance. Art, music, drama, play, etc can still have the power to reach to the existential level. In so doing, they alone can be transformative of the situation because they can still create a shared space for everyone. Formal religions can embrace this too. But depending on exuberance is dangerous, as Bataille warns us. Violence, wars, profligacy, lust, etc are also exuberant. They perform the same function. But unlike art, their action is destructive.

What this leaves me thinking (and thinking this makes me feel a bit better!) is that in an age of employment insecurity, the means by which shared absences are revealed is incredibly important. The revealing of shared absence is a pedagogical issue: Hans Rosling does it right at the beginning of this talk: (the rest of the talk is also brilliant).
But more than that, it means that play, art, music and drama are of fundamental importance. The experience of insecurity is directly related to the inauthenticity with which we have been living for so long. The education system in particular is swamped by the inauthenticity of commodified degrees which infects everyone involved. Inauthenticity brought us to this crisis by blinding us to the absences which shaped our shaping of the world. Only a deep, existential, metacognitive engagement will lead us out of it.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Regulation in Education, Technology and Society

Pierre Bourdieu produces this fascinating diagram in his "Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture":

You'll have to click on it to view it full-size to see what he's doing. He explains it like this:

"This diagram is intended to suggest the logic by which the system of determinations attached to class membership (circle A) acts throughout an educational career, restructuring itself as a function of the varying weight of any given factor (e.g. cultural capital or income) within the structure of factors at the different stages of the passage through education. broadly distinguished here as primary, secondary (A1), higher (A2) and post-graduation (A3). It must be borne in mind that within this system of factors constantly restructured by its own action, the relative weight of the determinations due to Transformed form of initial class membership steadily declines to the advantage of the academic determinations which retranslate them. The lines indicate correlations between variables and the arrows indicate genetic processes. The dotted arrows are used to suggest the determinations which operate through the internalization of objective probabilities in the form of subjective expectations. In other words, the diagram seeks to represent some of the mechanisms through which the structure of class relations tends to reproduce itself by reproducing those habitus which reproduce it."
The factors which relate to the ways in which individuals find themselves at different social strata as a result of the reproductive education system are:
"(1) Distance from centre(s) of cultural values (concentration(s) of intelligentsia) and from educational and cultural facilities; structure of academic and cultural opportunities of groups belonged to (neighbourhood, peer group). (2) Other demographic characteristics (sibling order. family size. etc.) specified by class membership (differential selection) and social definition. (3) Security of Cultural and employment; income and income prospects; environment and working Class social conditions; leisure, etc. (4) Dispositions towards school and culture (i.e. vis-a-vis learning, authority, school values, etc.); subjective expectations (of access to school, of success, of advancement by means of school); relation to language and culture (manners). (5) linguistic capital; previous knowledge; capital of social connections and prestige (testimonials); information on educational system, etc. (6) Average income; average income at beginning and end of career; speed of promotion; position in economic and social structures, particularly in the various fields of legitimacy and in power structure. (7) Relation to class origin and education, depending on academic record and eventual class membership. (8) Diploma; old boy network."
This diagram has fascinated me for a long time. It is fundamentally cybernetic - Bourdieu was heavily influenced by the systems sociology of Parsons. It's interesting to think what he might have done with Luhmann had he looked carefully. But maybe that's something for me to do...

I think that whilst Bourdieu's focus is on reproduction, and indeed reproduction is very important, my concern (as I said yesterday) is regulation. Bourdieu's worry, deep down, was that an education system which reproduced social inequality would eventually produce an unviable society. He was right. But I think now more than ever, rather than describing the mechanisms of reproduction (which have only really fed the careers of sociologists), we need to think about what a viable society looks like. Education is a reproductive force - but in its function it is regulatory. As our thinking about education is now being transformed by post-industrialisation, marketisation, technology, personalisation, etc, I think we need to re-examine the reproductive function of education as a regulatory system and to see it in the context of broader regulatory systems within society.

Here there is the need to think about the relation between the regulatory functions of education and the regulatory functions of technology. As I argued yesterday (amidst my angst at the prospect of being without work - although my University has done that to practically everyone now...) people are the regulators of society. Bourdieu's worry is that the system for making the regulators (education) makes them from a mould which reproduces unviable patterns of class structures. This, he would argue, is because education is controlled by the elite who wish to preserve their position. I'm sure that was true in Bourdieu's France of the 1960s and 70s, and probably elsewhere too. Is it the case now?

I think it's more complex. Technology complicates the picture. It affords learning without state regulation. It asserts its own hegemony - the power of the global technology companies is wielded for the maximising of profit, not for the good of society. Corporate expediency replaces principle and individuals are atomised, which in the process compromises the deep social solidarity that is necessary for politics and (ultimately) emancipation.

But then education itself is in a process of industrialisation and marketisation. Governments are pulling-back from regulation and state support as education is increasingly seen as a commodity, and a factor in global competitiveness. In the post-industrial world, education simultaneously promises conviviality and solidarity on the campus, whilst participating in the atomisation of individual accreditation and certification. And within this setting, education is still doing the reproductive work that Bourdieu highlights.

But people are the regulators of society. The biological and psychological effect of injustice and entrapment is fury. Any society must worry if it produces too many angry people. The function of government is to prevent that happening (Ibn Khaldun's remarkable 14th century definition of the function of government still stands: "to prevent injustice other than that which it creates itself"). The job of preventing injustice is going to get harder. The priority of government must be to understand how to do it in complex times.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The New Job of Educational Cybernetics

I've been arguing for a long time now that the domain within which I worked, Educational Technology, was moribund, and that many of the individuals who we regularly interacted with professionally (from project colleagues to project funders) would themselves be out of work quite soon.

But the challenge I wish to concentrate on is not the death of educational technology. It is the peril that education itself is in. The work which has changed my life over the last 10 years has focused on an immensely complex issue of how technology has affected the organisation of education. The means by which we, in our Institute for Educational Cybernetics, have addressed the problem have allowed us to cut through the morass of category-bound confusion and false divisions that dominate the education discourse. In short, a cybernetic approach matters.

But of all the issues we have dealt with, it is the relationship between education, technology and economy which is the most important. The regulators of society are people. Education equips them to perform their regulatory function. States regulate (or have regulated) education for this purpose. Increasingly, technologies afford the means of providing education, and what technology does need not be regulated in this way. Increasingly, the marketisation of education similarly leads it towards some kind of deregulation. Government wants to loosen the ties of regulation of education to the level of coordinating the management and allocation of resources between students and institutions (and enforcing a hike in tax rates on students in the future). Increasingly, education finds itself sitting awkwardly within a strangely regulated internal market, which at the same time attempts to open itself to the outside world, but with increasing restrictions relating to immigration and social regulation. It's all a bit crazy - so many conflicting levels. Seeing things clearly must be a priority. How do the regulators work? What are humans that they can regulate a society? What is a society that it is regulated by humans? What is education that it produces in humans this capacity? What is knowledge in its function as an organising principle for education? What is the relationship between education and civilisation?

Educational Cybernetics can help us to do this. But if the resource-base for Educational Cybernetics (Educational Technology) has dried-up, where else does it go? This is my personal challenge. But I passionately believe it is also the challenge for the sector and our society.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Open-Sankoré and Tablets: Rapid video feedback in the classroom

As anyone who's seen the videos I post on  my blog will know, I love my tablet PC. But recently I started to use it as an electronic whiteboard, just plugging it into a projector, and writing (usually using Microsoft Word's 'Inking' feature). It's much like teachers used to use OHP rolls: I can look at the students and write and avoid having my back to them, which I would if I was writing at the board. But it's a bit old-fashioned still.

I've been looking for something that will support this practice better, and recently came across an amazing package called Open-Sankoré: It's an Open Source, free interactive whiteboard application developed in France. I think it's fantastic. It's much like the software that is bundled with interactive whiteboards. But it's utility is not just being used as a whiteboard. It has many features which can be used in other ways in the classroom.

Top of the list, for me, is its integration with YouTube. What this means is that I can video record anything that I do on my PC, and as soon as I've clicked stop, I am prompted to send my video to YouTube. So I can give individual feedback to students in the classroom "How's your assignment going?" for example, and record it. But because Open-Sankoré has such amazing annotation features (I can draw wherever I want) it means I can feed back on any kind of activity: video, blogs, programming, etc. It's just amazingly quick and easy to do, so a 2 minute conversation in the classroom can be preserved for the student so that they can revisit it (because, like all students... and me, they forget it almost as soon as it's happened)

Other features which are equally worthy of mention is it's support of W3C widgets. Since I've done a lot of work with this, this is very promising.

But sometimes, it's the simple things that win. For example, Open Sankore is the simplest way to 'ink' a PDF document, and save the inked version back as a PDF document! You'd have to have the full version of Acrobat to do that otherwise!

I couldn't recommend it more strongly!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Educational Cybernetics and Recursion

The central problem that Educational Cybernetics addresses is "how do we think holistically about education?" The fundamental problem with the educational discourse is that since Plato it has been dominated by categorisation. There are reasons why this has happened (see my suggestion here:, but it produces deep confusion as policy makers, educationalists, institutional managers and others try to negotiate the boundaries between psychology, philosophy, sociology, management, history and so on. And technology now makes the mix even more toxic. The old categorisations (the categorisations of  the curriculum for example) are even more challenged by the blurred distinctions of the sheer variety of different kinds of agency mediated through technology. These appear to challenge the institutional structures that once supported those activities within the ancient categorised structures.

Cybernetics allows for a different way of conceiving categories, not as distinct entities but as epiphenomenal products of processes. If we can grasp the processes, the we can situate the epiphenomena. Whilst this may appear to be an ontological challenge - that cybernetics asserts that the world is process  and not substance -  it need not be. It need only be a pragmatic suggestion. After all, if categorisation in a complex world of technology no longer works because it confuses people too much (particularly politicians), then if a process perspective helps to simplify the complexity, greater coordination of action may be possible, and (who knows!) better policy!

The principal idea that cybernetics employs to address reductionism is recursion. Put most simply, recursion involves applying the same simple idea at different levels of thinking and experience. Without thinking critically about this in detail (which we must!) it is clear that should such thinking succeed then it can simplify the complexity of difficult domains of education and the plethora of categories. The challenge is whether educational thinking can be simplified in this way and retain its essential character. That is where discourse in educational cybernetics needs to penetrate. It must be clever enough to apply recursions at all levels of education, whilst sensitive enough to feel what might be missing.

This latter point is most important. Education, it seems to me, is directly connected to absence. Any exploration of recursive mechanisms which doesn't account for what's not there will simply result in a new kind of categorisation - a new kind of positivism. This will always make itself vulnerable to attack from philosophers who will eagerly point out the deficiencies of the approach... and nothing will have been solved. But to think of absence and presence together in recursive way may indeed promise something new, and a deep way of thinking of education within a world where our old ways of thinking simply don't work any more.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Hirst's Forms of Knowledge and Recursion

A little while ago, I considered Aquinas's distinction between Will, Appetite and Intellect as different levels of recursion rather than distinct categories (see Now I'm wondering about my interest in Hirst's Forms of Knowledge and whether a similar approach might be useful (see

There's a lot of interest in Hirst's work - of all the searches that lead to my blog, the most dominant one has to do with the Forms of Knowledge. I wonder why this is. Possibly because, when it comes down to it, the differences between mathematics, physics, history, music, drama and physical education are at once palpable and yet mysterious. Yet, I am in agreement with M. F.D. Young, who criticised Hirst saying that it represented an "absolutist conception of distinct forms of knowledge". But this is the problem. How can we account for the obvious difference between mathematics and literature without being absolutist?

In my work on metagames, I have begun to think how these kind of absolutist distinctions can be accounted for. To begin, absolutist distinctions are moves in a game within the world of academic education studies, and particularly the philosophy of education. To say this is not to disparage Hirst's work, but simply to acknowledge that certain kinds of utterance are acceptable in different academic communities. The tradition which Hirst belongs is a philosophical tradition of musing about education which goes back to Plato - and indeed, the forms of knowledge is a very Platonic idea, which he clearly acknowledges.

But the academic game of the philosophy of education takes place, unlike philosophy itself, within the context of very real and practical problems of classroom practice and educational organisation. Where philosophy can explore explore its own internal consistencies (and inconsistencies), an educational philosophy becomes a kind of calculus for taking measurements from things that happen in education which are profoundly complex. In this way, the philosophy of education stands in relation to education practice in the same way that mathematics stands in relation to economic phenomena. Where mathematics itself can explore its own internal properties (and so, fundamentally is about epistemology), economic mathematics retreats from this esoteric world to apply itself as a means of calculation.

At the root of this is the relation between concepts and experience. 

The deep question regarding Hirst's work is to unpick the domains of experience he addresses. For on the one hand, there is a domain of experience in the classroom which he seeks to explain. Then there is a domain of experience within the professional group of educational philosophers. There is also the domain of experience within the esoteric world of philosophy itseslf. These are different kinds of game, but they are ones which he must balance carefully. Step too far into the world of practice (and talk the language of practitioners), and the philosophers will disregard you; step too far into the world of philosophy, then no-one doing 'real stuff' will relate to you. In short, Hirst's job is to establish a complex coalition, where his utterances resonate across the different concerns of very different kinds of individuals.

I suspect that it is in trying to play this complex coalition game that Hirst finds his way into absolutism. His forms of knowledge acknowledge their dept to Plato - so there is a game that can be played with the philosophers. It also acknowledges the reality of the palpable difference between subjects, as so appeals to practitioners. But it unsettles people like Young (and me!) who seek a more holistic picture and for whom absolutism carries the dangers of uncriticality and dogmatism.

Hirst is no holist. Like many who have made their professorial careers in education, he is a strategist. To be holistic requires awareness of the game one is caught in. It is not to go seeking a categorical answer to the distinction between the subjects, but, having suggested a categorisation (the forms of knowledge) and for this to have gained traction, to then ask "why has this gained traction?". It is not to assume that the answer to this question is "because it's right", but rather to consider what new knowledge might be gained from studying the acceptance of the concept of the "forms of knowledge". This is to ascend to the next level of recursion.

For the forms of knowledge is a form of knowledge. It is palpably distinct from philosophy, or from education, or from mathematics, etc. What is the form of the forms of knowledge? If I respond by saying "it's a move in a metagame", and I follow the logic of that argument, then (I would suggest) the forms of knowledge itself looks rather less absolutist and instead more organic.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Fractal Parallel Coordinates

I've been puzzling over how to represent recursive sets of metagames, which is following the work I'm doing around Nigel Howard's Paradoxes of Rationality. I know that what I am articulating is very fractal-like. What makes it so is not just the recursiveness of the metagame idea, but the fact that the metagame tree has boundaries marked out by the 'blind spots' of individual thinking - where deep recursion breaks down. More importantly, the depth of the recursion of a particular path is the fundamental determiner of an equilibrium point for making a decision. This led me to think that Mandelbrot style visualisations might be useful, since the different colours reflect the different levels of recursion at particular points.
But I'm not interested in this for the pretty pictures! With regard to Metarationality, the distinction between light and dark is a distinction between deep metarationality and shallow metarationality. The dark stuff is an indication of where the equilibrium points are. But can we do better?

Then I started looking for a different kind of coordinate system. Parallel coordinates are very interesting because they highlight visual patterns which are not obvious using Cartesian coordinates. Using parallel coordinates, points become lines. After a presentation by Alfred Inselberg in Vienna (who has pioneered the use of Parallel coordinates), I asked him what fractals look in his parallel system. Not terribly interesting was his reply (I guess a lot of different coloured lines for all the different points). But I'm now thinking about a different approach.

Maybe we should consider 'fractal axes' and then see what parallel coordinates might show. I was looking at this from Curtis Faith which presents a fractal-based coordinate system which looks like this..
Now when I'm thinking about metagame trees, and the limits of reasoning, this might have something. Particularly because this kind of fractal geometry provides a way in which a number of metagame trees with different sources (i.e. different people) may be integrated and their dynamics considered.

There's more work to do (as usual). But, as well as being fascinating and potentially useful, it's all very pretty!

Monday, 1 October 2012

On Stretches and Spins

Cybernetics is full of 'spins'. From Watt governors to Heinz von Foerster's Eigenvalues, circular metaphors abound. This makes more sense when we can directly see the machine that makes it. But when the spin metaphor is applied to thinking itself, as with the Eigenforms, then I find that the description of the identification of objects as the emergence of stable patterns of flux in a continually emergent engagement between individuals and their environment difficult, if not downright fanciful. The assertion of those who believe this is that objects aren't 'real', what is seen as an object is a patterning of perception, notwithstanding philosophical arguments about 'real' in the first place.

Gordon Pask puts a similar emphasis on spins when he talks about concepts. He argues that
Concepts are force exerting, persisting, closed, Brunnian in threes at least, braids recursively packed in toroidal processes ("like multicore telephone cable" or ""onion skins") in any medium, solid, liquid, gas, plasma or, indeed, brains. Their spins exert a residual parity within a coherence.
What on earth does that mean? I suspect Pask saw concepts much as Von Foerster saw objects: a dynamic whose patterning forms (the "residual parity within a coherence") the basis of cognition. But it's a jolly abstruse concept!

What do I think of this? It's difficulty is indicative of a bigger problem: it's simply all too circular. Spins are fascinating, but in the end, they just go round and round. I suspect everyone (including Von Foerster) got carried away with topology in the 60s and 70s and got caught up in its spins (everyone was into knots then: R.D. Laing and Lacan are (k)notable exponents!). It fitted the 'cybernetics of cybernetics' idea (although I'm fairly sure they misunderstood Margaret Mead's appeal - she had an eye on the circularity of cybernetic discourse, which Von Foerster's 'cybernetics of cybernetics' may have only made worse). It was as if they'd used mathematical topology for calculation of some hermetic wisdom: the maths became a positive metaphor for articulating what was the case with "thinking" and "perception". Yet topology, like all maths, is interesting where its reasoning breaks down: it articulates the limits of reasoning, albeit very complex reasoning.

For all this spinning, to me experience does not spin - it stretches in a process of tension and release. Music doesn't spin - the most spin-like music (for example, hypnotic trance music or minimalism) seems to me musically deficient. Curiosity is like this too, and for all these spinning accounts of cognition, curiosity precedes cognition. (Pask has an idea about the dynamics of concepts which appears to try to explain cognition, but it's all still spinning around).

There is at least some tension between Luhmann's psychic system and his social system. But the tension here (and indeed, the most sensible aspect of Luhmann's theory) is the fact that really he doesn't attempt to theorise what a psychic system is, only to say that it's what you and I do in our heads. For Luhmann, it's the communications we make which matter, which is a position with quite a Marxist practicality to it. He sensibly side-steps the issue of 'stretch'. The separation between psychic and social systems is what Luhmann gets criticised for by 2nd order cyberneticians. To me, it's a smart move, allowing him to say something practical without getting sucked-in to intractable arguments about thinking.

But characterising a stretch is difficult. Our physical analogues are usually biological in origin: the sinewy stretch of muscles, strings, elastic, and so on. But they could equally be psychological: stretching one's imagination, stretching a dissonance, prolonging moments.

The key difference between spins and stretches is a difference between sequentialism and recursion. That sounds like a strange statement, but I think I can explain it like this. A spin is conceived as a process of motion in time. The equation for a spin, as any circular motion is:
But what, really, is T? Ironically, the T is something which derives from clocks, which in turn depend on the same equation in order to operate, and the principal notion with regard to clocks is sequentialism (one thing follows another).

With a stretch something latent within a thing is revealed: the increased length of the elastic was always in the elastic. Whether the elastic is stretched or not, it is still elastic. The stretched elastic is always within the unstretched elastic as a potential. This is like saying that the infinite division of a line is always within the line (for example, the division in the Sierpinski triangle): the form that emerges is ever-present but unrealised. With the Sierpinski triangle, particularly, this indicates recursion as the operating principle.

But realisation of potential creates tension in elastic. But is the tension is really in us, not the elastic? It is our fingers that feel the force. And in our thinking about the division of the Sierpinksi triangle, as the recursion gets deeper so does the complexity, so does the tension we feel in apprehending what we witness.

But release is then interesting. We can of course release the elastic, which will take us back to where we started. But equally, we could do something with it which creates a new kind of stability. We can create some sort of tensegrity, which itself will have new latent recrusive properties. This, I think, is what concepts do. It may be that Pask is saying something similar. But I do suspect he gets it the wrong way round. Spins may be the product of stretches, not stretches the product of spins.