Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Pattern that Connects

Gregory Bateson's famous but somewhat mystical phrase raises as many questions as it attempts to address. In essence it is an appeal for holism - particularly the kind of holism that cybernetics specialises in: the reduction of the world to the interactions of recursive processes. In this sense, 'pattern' is an allusion to 'abstraction' - the description of a mechanism. Bateson himself created many abstractions: 'double description', 'double bind', 'levels of learning', 'schizmogenesis', etc. In his language, these things are seen to be patterns by virtue of the fact that they repeat themselves at different levels of recursion, and much of his work was focused on unpicking the presence of these patterns in biological, sociological, anthropological and mathematical/logical domains.

Holism, as understood by cybernetics, is precisely this identification of recursive repetition, or 'patterning'. The cybernetic abstraction is the 'explanatory principle' (another Bateson term) which is applicable at many levels: a "defensible metaphor", as Pask would say.

But I'm wondering if this is a particular understanding of holism. The question is "does this understanding of holism leave anything out?" I'm worried that it might.

My worry is grounded in a suspicion that the holistic explanatory aspiration of cybernetics cannot account for the personal desire to hold to a holistic explanatory principle. Erich Fromm wrote about this is "Haben und Sein". He points out that there is much in theological discourse that guards against the kind of Faustian ambition of being able to explain everything - to "have" an explanation. It's probably better to "be" an explanation (although that's hard to explain!) - it's the kind of thing that Jesus or Buddha attempted to get across.

It all comes back to our relationship with abstraction. I've struggled with this, and if I attempt to 'explain' abstraction, then I'm thinking of saying:
"abstraction is the removal of redundancy from the flow of experience"
But abstraction creates its own flow of experience. So no abstraction can be complete. We're into a territory that requires a kind of Cantor-like diagonal argument...

Abstractions have to be learnt by others. Indeed, if they are not taught and learnt, there is no point to them. So I'm also thinking of saying:
"learning an abstraction is a process of recreating the redundancy that was removed in the abstracting process" 
and what about teaching?
"teaching is the process of creating the conditions for the production of redundancies related to a particular abstraction"
but this is all getting a bit abstract!

It's very much like the relationship between music as played and music as notated. A performance is the process of creating redundancy from the abstraction of the score. Notation - which is the hard job of all composers - is the process of distilling experience into notated redundancies. [this is helping me think about my own difficulties in composition]

Bateson does talk about the relationship between classification and process (in "Mind and Nature" - where he reproduces this diagram from his anthropological work)
But the essence of the problem with abstaction (essence is another abstraction!) is that we lose sight of our own personhood, and the particular importance of "love" in being a person. As Faust realised, it is impossible to get beyond love, and whilst it is tempting to abstract it away (to remove its redundancy), to do this is to remove our humanity. If I say that "love is only redundancy" it reminds me of the damage that abstractions can do (although "loving" is partly "abstracting"...)

We cannot know the pattern which connects. But we can know the source of our desires to abstract knowledge. Knowing this, we might know ourselves and each other better. Then we might be in a position not to abstract further, but to do the opposite. To love the world more and to create redundancy.

Thursday, 25 April 2013


When we see a pattern, what we really see is redundancy.


is not a pattern. but



all those As are not that dissimilar from the Fs here...

The one A (or the one F) can summarise the pattern. But if we say

A x 15

that doesn't have the same patterning as 



A x 15, A x 14, A x 13, A x 12...


(but at a different level)

Is the difference between abstraction and experience the difference between levels of redundancy?

When we abstract, we remove redundancy. That's what happens in Schenker's analyses (this one of Bach's first prelude):

The key redundant component removed in all of this is:

With Schenker, it simply becomes a C-major chord. But if it was really just a C-major chord, it would be a very boring piece!

Redundancy shapes its form. Creation is a process of redundancy generation: ABABABABCABABBABAABABC... (and so on!)

How does this work? The question is about the relationship between redundancy and novelty: when things are redundant, they create the conditions for something new. 

Today, Spain's unemployment statistics are 27%. That's a lot of redundancy. Maybe that is also the condition for something new. (let us hope it is beautiful rather than ugly!)

I suspect that redundancy creates novelty through a kind of catalytic process (Terry Deacon has got Autocatalysis just about right, I think). With a lot of catalysts in the air, an unexpected reaction becomes more probable, suddenly sparking into life from nowhere. Something new causes a reorganisation of expectations: this is when we know something is meaningful. The new thing causes everything else to be re-cast. Then new redundancies can grow, and the process begins again. It's tension and release.

Schenker was right about layers though. This (I think) is the emergent irreducible stratification of experience. In this way, we remember motifs, tonalities, progressions, etc - they become irreducible components: almost like the "code" or the components of a grammar. The emergence of the code, and the expression of statements within it produces new absences.

There is a magical moment, however, when an old code is completely transformed into something different...

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Forms of Knowledge and Forms of Interaction: Some thinking about MOOCs

What is the relationship between the 'aboutness' of something - the topic - and the way a topic is engaged with, or the way it is taught?

MOOCs are an opportunity to study this. Since they encompass the range of the curriculum, and since their operation is largely transparent, some easy comparisons can be made. Whether MOOCs are any good or not (in general) is perhaps beside the point. Indeed, delivering content is probably not in the deep business model of MOOC corporations (I suspect they are instead a back-door to providing 'shared services' for Universities.. but that's another post!). But taken as a content-providing platform, which is how they appear at the moment, there is - I think - something to study.

The idea that different subjects have different 'forms' is an idea that goes back to Plato. In the 1970s Paul Hirst wrote a very influential paper on "forms of knowledge" which still creates a lot of interest (why?). Hirst's focus is largely on the conceptual structure of knowledge. There is less emphasis on the activities that are engaged in when learning within a domain of knowledge (although he does acknowledge the specialised "skills and techniques for exploring and testing").

I have been interested in Forms of Knowledge for a while (see and But whilst the structuring of concepts may be important, I think the activities by which something is taught is equally important. A music lesson is characterised as much by the activities with which a teacher will typically engage the class (composing, improvising, etc) as a maths lesson is framed by its activities (doing exercises) or a computing lesson (writing a program, listening to theory)

Not all MOOCs are the same. I must admit I've tended to focus on the bad stuff in the past - the boring web pages with too much text and too little thought about the experience of reading it. But it needn't be like this. And, if the MOOC experiment is going to succeed, there is likely to be considerable diversity in the ways that teachers approach teaching online, or the kinds of activities they engage their students in. Moreover, the innovative stuff isn't going to be confined to Coursera or EdX or even ds106. Leading academics are setting up blogs as effective MOOCs for people to come together to do close-readings of new work (see for example Geoff Hodgson's blog for his new book "Darwin's Conjecture": Eventually I guess the hype will die down and people will realise it's a web-page... but the hype will have changed us to the point that the idea of large-scale online engagement with teaching is less strange. (Of course when the MOOC mystique has gone, Coursera will be undercutting the University Student Information Systems companies because they will have positioned themselves as the market-leader for student authentication services!)

In this diverse and now easily examinable world, there are new distinctions to be drawn - particularly distinctions about the kinds of activities and interactivity that learners are engaged in, and the relationship between those activities and the  knowledge domain pertaining to them. Fundamentally, this is about the way teachers manage 'variety' (a cybernetic concept - typically used as the 'unit of complexity'). How is the complexity of the subject managed through activity? How is the complexity of the students managed with the technology? How is assessment organised (if it is used)? How is progress monitored? How are individual needs addressed? and so on. And most fundamentally, "what is the experience?"

Some of these questions have been addressed in work on "Learning Design" (particularly the Educational Modelling Language). But that work, on the whole, takes a rather shallow view of what actually happens between learners and teachers in the classroom (it just considers that teachers coordinate activities). With MOOCs there are deeper things we can measure. These certainly go beyond the rather basic and crude 'analytics' that is much talked about in MOOCs. There are ways of analysing the content; there are ways of analysing the tools; there are ways of analysing the activities (I would recommend Klaus Krippendorff's work as a starting point with regard to the tools and the content).

I also think there is an opportunity for deeper thinking about the ontology of learning. What interests me most is  the possibility of overturning a fundamentally positivist epistemology (despite the fact that it's dressed up as 'constructivism'). It may be that the MOOC experiment can reveal to us just how important what "isn't there" - within a teaching and learning situation - is! (It may be the "negative ground" of interaction which is the most important factor in effective engagement.)

Saturday, 20 April 2013

From Information to Learning: Why Shannon is important and what it means for Educational Technology

Shannon's information theory as presented in his and Warren Weaver's "Mathematical Theory of Communication" still stands as one of the great intellectual monuments of the 20th century. Indeed, when we consider that the technologies of the internet rely fundamentally on his re-application of Boltzman's statistical thermodynamics, his social impact is of Einsteinian proportions.  When things become that familiar, it is easy to forget what they were really about, and what problems they attempted to solve. Now, when 'information' appears all around us, when our learning is becoming dependent on the information we are able to discover as much as the colleges and teachers we meet, when we have become much more aware of our own 'information literacy' (whatever that means!), when we have become more aware of the relationship between the decisions we make and the information presented to us, when 'misinformation' is a stock-in-trade of corporations of political parties, etc., etc., it's worth thinking about what Shannon was saying.

What he wasn't saying was anything about "meaning" (although Weaver had a different view). Shannon made a distinction between information and meaning - information, essentially, was defined in a fairly tight description of a set of statistical probabilities of message transmission and reception: essentially information related to the uncertainty involved in predicting the value of a random item of information. The measure of this uncertainty Shannon, following Boltzman, called 'entropy'. His equation borrowed Boltzman's equation which described the uncertainty of predicting the state of matter at a particular point. Shannon's equation instead showed the minimum number of 'bits' that would be required  to transmit a message. Sending the message with more bits was to add redundancy. His insight was to see that Boltzman's work on physics had  application to communicating signals through a medium.

When we think about learning, however, it's "meaning" that counts. Any teacher knows that they can't just throw information at their students - if it doesn't mean anything to those students, they won't learning anything. The 'meaning' of Boltzman's state of matter is transferred to us because we can see that such and such is 'hot': we might touch it and say "ouch!". We might then relate our experience of "ouch!" to the statistical formulation presented by Boltzman - particularly if only part of the material makes us go "ouch!". What is the equivalent of "ouch!" in Shannon's theory? Since Shannon's equation is a measure of uncertainty, maybe the "ouch?" moment is a moment of confusion.

His point is that communication occurs through fluctuating patterns of uncertainty. Indeed, if you can encode the fluctuating patterns of uncertainty and code them, you may be able to 'compress' the message communicated. This is the basic principle behind entropy encoding algorithms like the Huffman algorithm (see which is used in the file 'zip' process. But it is important to understand what the Huffman algorithm gives us. Communication is successful because there is sufficient redundancy to guarantee transmission over a 'noisy' medium. Huffman eliminates the redundancy encoding the spread of probabilities that could be communicated if the medium was clear. This will lead to the communication of the message, but without the redundancy. We see that the message is the same because we can convert the Huffman code back into the message. Some redundancy is reapplied in the decoding of the message.

No human being works at the basis of a Huffman code. Does meaning require redundancy? Does redundancy contribute to the pattern of uncertainty? Consider a noisy environment. and person X chooses to shout to person Z above the crowd. Person Y, on the other hand, beckons to Z to move into a quieter environment. What's happening here? Partly, we might say that there is a selection of different "channel": the auditory channel is too noisy for Y so they use the visual channel (I don't like the idea of channels but it works in this example).  But there is more than the selection of the channel. There are messages galore in this situation depending on the sender and receiver. The receiver of X's shouting will receive a message like "this person's a fool if they think they can shout above this!"; the receiver of Y's visual signals might equally think "yes, we need to find a way of eliminating the noise". In human communication, noise affects the selection of the message as well as its transmission. Why does this happen?

One way of explaining this is to suggest that anticipation of the likelihood that a message will be successfully received and the communication is successful is fundamental. That calculation involves a selection of the message, a consideration of the medium (the noise), and some acknowledgement of the capacity of the receiver ("how are they likely to respond?"). Such a calculation requires a degree of reflexivity by the sender as they consider the options for making an utterance ("what should I say? how should I say it? how are they likely to respond in each case?")

The criteria for deciding a particular utterance over any other is the maximising of the probability of successful communication. The communication which is going to be most successful is the communication which has the maximum redundancy.

This sounds simple. But much communication doesn't work - particularly in education. Why is that? The reason must be that it is very difficult to assess the capacity of the receiver (students) to guess their likely response. Indeed, much that happens in education isn't communication! Whilst in face-to-face learning communication, it is possible to assess the noise, in online communication, this too is impossible. Online, the receiver is also even more of a black box. But that doesn't explain things completely. The deep problem is that transmitters (teachers) work with constraints which mean that they can become blind to certain options for communication which might be more successful. Custom and practice, assessment regimes, institutional protocol, power relations, personal histories, and (more than anything) fear all feed into this.

Personal constraints can affect the process of selecting the utterance with the maximum redundancy. The communication with the maximum redundancy is the communication that isn't there - with that communication there is no knowable message, so all signals are effectively "redundant". This is the communication which is absent. Identifying the communication which isn't there means looking at the 'negative' images of the possible communications which are imaginable. That means examining the constraints upon the transmitters communication, and considering the likely constraints bearing upon the receiver. By considering the  negative image of communication, a new kind of utterance can emerge. This is a determination of the 'absences' which unite sender and receiver.  In my example, Y's use of the visual channel is a good example: visual communication was absent, and Y's gestures turn the visual channel into a communication channel which is understood by both parties, considering the noise in the environment.

Person Y does more than just identify a new channel. They create new redundancies with their new language. In fact, they create lots of new redundancies, since their message is very simple, but their gestures are likely to be quite elaborate.

So there is a process of identifying the communication that isn't there (the shared absence), which creates the maximally redundant communication. Beyond that, with the emergence of a new language, new redundancies are further produced.

I think this process lies at the heart of creativity in teaching and learning. It is the off-the-wall gestures of teachers in tearing-up the rule-book (that's the book which constrains the messages!) that reinvigorates the communication. Those gestures only happen if teachers can inspect their own constraints as a way of identifying the maximally redundant communication. That shared absence then catalyzes new communications whose form (with their redundancies) gradually emerge. The deep question for online educators is how this can be done online - where the protocols are so rigid and where it is difficult (but not impossible) to step outside the box.

But perhaps what is most interesting in this is that there is a direct link between Shannon's insights into information and something more deeply human and creative.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Information and Emancipation

Is a theory of information futile? There's something of a Zeno's paradox about it all: we can pursue Shannon, or Deacon, or Floridi, or whoever else braves this territory. But there's always an unexplored aspect. Is it the physics, or the biology, or the sociology, or the pedagogy? Exploring information is rather like exploring education - it is torn apart by the various disciplines that have a stake in it - which is all of them.

I think there is a central conflation in all attempts at information theory. That is a conflation between describing the mechanism of emergence, and the mechanism of experience. Cybernetic theories tend towards conflating emergence with experience in a causal circularity. But what of the experience of engaging with the theory? That inevitably is outside the circularity.

Experience is personal. There is no reduction possible beyond our living as people, persons in a social world, with parents and families and loves and beliefs. However, to believe that there are possible reductions is part of our personhood. Yet such a belief is subject to the forces which shape our personhood.

Emergence is a way of explaining how things comes to be. As persons, explanations are important to us. They help us act in the world. Explaining how things come to be is how we understand the nature of things. Acting in the knowledge of the nature of things is likely to be more effective than acting in ignorance of the nature of things. (all sorts of silly examples can be used to illustrate that point!)

Information is produced by an act. We might explain how that act may have occurred - what its emergent causes were. Only the person committing the act can know the experience - and even  their retrospective analysis of the act is not the same as the act itself.

But an act is the result of a decision. Decisions, as I argued yesterday (and have been arguing for some time) result from absences. A decision (and therefore by extension, information) emerges from a mechanism involving absence, but a decision is also irreducible.

Is information irreducible? Surely, that's nonsense. After all, the chief value of information is that it can be 'gathered', 'compared', 'collated', 'organised', etc! At the same time, however, we also know about the deficiencies of our gathering and comparing and organising. It creates great analytical problems for us as we seek to find new sophisticated algorithms to unpick the 'meaning' of the information. In the  process, we move further away from the everyday world of the senses into an abstract world of data.

Information may well be irreducible. It may be that when we correlate data, we actually coordinate around absences. Both apples and pears may be negatively defined: the characteristic features whose absence determines that x can be nothing but an apple or a pear. Yet at the same time, there are the characteristic features whose absence determines that x can be nothing other than an apple-pear. (c.f. Wittgenstein's 'family resemblances') But the point is that the absence processing goes on in us. It is not in the data.

What bears upon the processes of absence determination in the correlation of data? Well, there are the cumulative absences that each of us carry from our lives. No-one can quite know what they are. But there are certain to be some common themes: death, attachment, love, sex, religion, and so on. They are almost always there at some level in the negative ground of our being. There is an aspect of data correlation which is a determination of a part of absence which in turn is a recognition of our shared biology.

But those things about togetherness, attachment, identification with the species are so fundamental - even in processes of data correlation. The most impressive thing I find in Grounded Theory (which otherwise I find quite troubling) is the emphasis that is made on 'living with the data'. That is the process of attuning absences to acts which caused data to be produced.

But personal and social ontology, personal history and behaviour all count. Absences point towards emancipation; towards the critique of prohibition. Information is the result of absences: data is produced by acts determined by what isn't there. Analysis is an act too. It too produces information. Personal absences matter at all levels. That means that at all levels, it is an acknowledgement and inspection of absence, not information, which is continually required.

Deep information theory is not a theory of information; it is a theory of absence. Absence is real, whereas information is merely an epiphenomenon of the effect of absence on decisions. If we privilege information, we risk enslaving ourselves to a false ontology. We risk denying fundamental parts of our personhood whose denial contributes to poor decisions (particularly poor analytical decisions).

By privileging absence, an account of the emergence of information can be created. This would relate information to decision and action. It would see information as irreducible yet account for the mechanisms whereby information can be correlated. But most importantly, in drawing attention to the root cause of stratified information and the emergent pathologies resulting from it, it can make the connection between ontological security and our treatment of information in the world around us. In this way, by privileging absence, an approach to information can be created which is explicitly infused with the emancipatory drive which unites the spreadsheet and the new technologies with the policy and its effects.

That, I think, is a path worth taking. For not only does it give us an approach to information that is hopeful rather than dismal, it also gives us a way of thinking about technology (which is also a determination of absence) and social change. Absence, I believe, may be important in re-engaging the political sphere in the business of information and technology.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Prolongation and Information

A prolongation (which is something often talked of in music, but which I think is a more general feature of conscious experience) is an effect which results from a particular structuring of events. The structure of those events is perceivable and analysable because of the presence of prolongation in the first place, but there are discernable levels of experience which successively bracket-out details, but which can be seen to be related to one another in a coherent way. The structures of prolongation integrate deep level and surface level features. This can be most clearly shown in the musical analyses of Heinrich Schenker.

In my paper "Music, Memory and Cognition: a cybernetic approach" (see I sketched out a possible mechanism whereby the phenomenal flow of music was related to the phenomenal flow of consciousness - and particularly, memory. I argued that flows of experience caused prolongations to be established which were maintained by a combination of inner-world experience and outer-world engagement. Looked at this way, conscious existence is a process of maintaining prolongations - a position not dissimilar from Ulrich Neisser's "Cognition and Reality".

Music is a kind of information. What about other forms of information? Are they similarly dependent on some kind of 'prolongation'? I find this an interesting question because much of the current work on information theory (Floridi, Krippendorff, Deacon, etc) tends to look at information in an atemporal context. It doesn't see information as 'flow', rather it sees it as an abstract, analyzable entity. Whilst to see information as 'flow' is anthropocentric, the experience of information is, I think, important. When we are in the flow of information, certain things strike us and we remember them as 'important', whilst much just washes over us.

Remembering something from a flow of information is a way of saying that we found it 'meaningful'. That part of the information flow struck us with some power and stayed with us. Yet we can't be entirely sure if the thing that caused it to stay with us was inherent in the moment of the 'important' bit of information being transmitted, or whether it was inherent in the flow in its entirety which had the requisite structure to prolong that particular piece of information. This, it strikes me, is a big problem for current information theory! It's like saying that at the end of a symphony, we can still remember the climax, and yet out of context, the climax wouldn't have the same effect. The climax is memorable because of the other things that went on around it.

Is finding something meaningful related to what we anticipate? There may be a moment of restructuring of anticipation at a climactic moment. Yet the prolongation of this requires other events to be structured in such a way that satisfies the new set of anticipations. What is this restructuring of anticipation? What happens?

Now I think what occurs is a moment of breakdown as attachments to old ideas, old prolongations are discarded, and new ideas appear which clarify which had become murky and dark (indeed, 'prolongation' may be a different word for 'attachment'). New structures emerge out of this clarified realm which serve to prolong that moment. 'Clarity' and 'murkiness' are words which describe the difference between determined and undetermined absences. What emerges in a crisis (or a climax) is the increasingly heavy and chaotic weight of things that are not there which bear upon our perception of things as we see (or hear) them.

What is meaningful is a determination of an absence.

The fact that this is a restructuring of expectation creates the conditions for the prolongation of the moment of meaning. (Deacon's allusion to the evolutionary emergence of information from Darwin is relevant here).

I need to think about this more. But what it means to me (!) at the moment seems significant. Information can only be inferred through what we find meaningful; through what we prolong in our experience. Essentially, this is a Kantian position: Information isn't real. Absence, on the other hand, which drives the process, must be real according to this logic.

When Luhmann talks about the communication of meanings, what I think he is talking about is the coordination around absences. A new piece of meaningful information may be a determination of an absence; yet the determination of an absence is dependent on prolongational processes which extend beyond the meaningful 'moment'. Indeed, what is meaningful is realised over time - and in a socio-material context.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

HBOS, Bad Decisions and Fear

The Banking Standards Commission report into the collapse of HBOS ( serves as a dire warning about managerial hubris. As Douglas Fraser commented today ( there were some stonkingly bad decisions taken which steadily led the  bank to require taxpayers (many of whom had invested their money in the bank once already!) to bail it out. For some reason, it appears that a culture of bad decision-making emerged in HBOS: each gubernatorial move only served to smash another hole in the hull of the ship.

How could this happen? How can bad decisions become endemic? What does this tell us about governance structures and leadership? What can be done to prevent it?

There are some initial theories which might present themselves. For example, it wasn't just one person making decisions - it was a group of people. The decision-making process happened between the individuals concerned. What we don't know is whether they believed they were doing a good job, despite mounting losses. But we can speculate - especially given the fact that there was apparently a culture of self-congratulation at the top. One person on their own might find an individual failure resulting from a decision they had taken to be painful. This might cause them to reflect and change course. However, if the decision was the product of a small group of people, then whatever negative feelings each of them might harbour, no single individual need take responsibility (and need not feel too bad), and since each individual wishes to maintain their position, and sees maintaining a positive outlook as essential to that, each member of the group will reinforce a false positive perspective thus avoiding any deep reflection on the failure of any particular decision.

But there will be people in the organisation who have a clearer picture of what is happening. These people will typically be in the lower ranks of the organisation, who are more in touch with things on the ground. They will moan and worry. But increasingly, they are unlikely to be heard. This is because the self-reinforcing positive dynamic at the top becomes increasingly allergic to criticism. Indeed, criticism is seen as dissent, and dealt with through the disciplinary procedures at the disposal of the directors. The bad decisions are driven by shared fears amongst the board. Yet the fear is absent - it is never acknowledged because to do so would threaten each individual. Each disaster increases fear, which in turn increases the probability of more disasters.

Where does the allergy to criticism come from? The buried fears of the directors know the straight-jacket they are fitting themselves with even if they can't explicitly determine it. They know that poor decisions in the past are responsible for a pattern of failure. Yet as the failure gets bigger, so does the self-preserving instinct for maintaining a positive spirit at the top. Anything which threatens that (like criticism) must be dealt with severely. But the lie of the 'original sin' just keeps on getting bigger - a bit like the dead body in Ionesco's play "Amédée".

How can it be stopped? The positive feedback loop in governance communication needs to be broken in order for fears to be made explicit. A public inquiry does this nicely - but frankly, that's after the horse has bolted and the stable's fallen down. Before this stage occurs, it is hard to see how this kind of structure can be avoided. I think, however, there is a way. Teaching and learning are all about dealing with fear...

Good teaching never threatens, but invites. A pathological board is like a class of naughty children. There are interventions that good teachers can make to gradually open up the communications. What it really does is deal with the fear. It may be also that technologies can play a role. They break down barriers between people - and that is another way of dealing with pathological commuication dynamics. In order to achieve this, those who understand the dynamics of the situation need to organise themselves carefully. As things creak under the mounting failures, there are cracks in the walls where it is possible to make an intervention.

What is required is listening.

Managerialism has given us many governance structures in public and private institutions that look like the HBOS board. It would be unsurprising to see the same dynamics play out. But failures threaten peoples jobs and the economy at large. Dealing with the potential pathologies of this kind of group decision-making may be an urgent requirement if we are not to see many more institutional failures come before Parliamentary Select Committees. 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Bataille's "The accursed share" and Absence: An analytical approach to data, decision and economics

I'm in the process of completing a paper on George Bataille's economic theory set out in his book "The Accursed Share" (see It is perhaps surprising that Bataille, who wrote so powerfully around deep human issues of sex, eroticism, and religion should have regarded his work on "general economy" to be his most significant: but "The Accursed Share" is an extraordinary work which builds on the earlier work, using it to probe the depths of human motivation in economic behaviour. Where Keynes brushes over deeper psychological issues (going no further than assuming psychological dispositions or 'propensities' to save and consume which react to broader socio-economic conditions), and where Kahneman has more recently brought to bear the somewhat narrow and reductionist epistemology of modern psychology and neuroscience on economic behaviour, Bataille does something quite simple but very different. Where most conventional economic thinking revolves around ideas of equilibrium, Bataille points to the fundamental asymmetries of economic behaviour - particularly the asymmetry between the acquisition of commodities and wealth and their waste. It's waste not equilibrium, Bataille argues, that we should focus on - and waste in all forms - not only the destruction of war which seems to keep capitalism on its feet (as Marx described), but extravagant waste by societies on temples, pyramids and cathedrals, or the waste of life in primitive rituals of human sacrifice (the Aztecs of course build pyramids too!), or the waste in sexual excesses (where Bataille's earlier work becomes important), or more benignly in the luxury of artistic expression. Now, as sovereign wealth hemmorhages in a frantic attempt to keep the world and its banks afloat, and as public institutions self-destruct in a desperate attempt to live within their means, Bataille's perspective deserves attention.

Bataille links the need for waste with the accretion of 'energy' which, he argues, creates a surplus which must eventually release itself (he produces a somewhat mystical account of how the sun's energy is continually absorbed and must be released somehow). What causes energy to be released in particular and usually violent ways is the constraining power of social prohibitions. He argues, drawing on Marcel Mauss's idea of the 'potlatch' - gift giving rituals amongst eskimo tribes - that we need to find less damaging ways of releasing this 'energy', and advocates potlatch-style 'giving' as a way of casting off commodities for no immediate gain. In order for this to happen, the constraining power of prohibitions needs to be understood better if not overcome. Bataille's focus is on those prohibitions, and because of this, his is an economic theory which is fundamentally 'negative' - it's looks at the negative 'ground' of economic behaviour for an explanation, rather than at the positive 'figure' of equilibrium  theory, or psychological modelling.

The negative focus of his theory makes me think of Bhaskar's concept of absence, and it also ties in with my own thinking about critical and negative thinking (see Bataille goes through a process of determining the prohibitions and understanding how they bear on economic rationality. In his view, economic rationality isn't rational at all - it effectively amounts to patterns of communication (rather like Habermas's communicative rationality) orbiting 'black holes' of prohibition, taboo and transgression. Understand the taboos and you can understand the dynamics of 'economic rationality' and make interventions which can steer a path towards benign forms of waste of commodities.

What interests me is whether an analytical approach might be taken to put some meat on Bataille's arguments. I'm currently working on an agent-based model of Nigel Howard's 'Paradoxes of Rationality'. When we look at data, what we see is an epiphenomenon of decision. The form of reflexivity behind that decision will bear the imprint of absences which will have had a causal bearing on the decision taken. An analytical approach would examine data and model possible absences which might have existed to produce the decision that produced the data. With enough data, there should be common ground about absences. I'm hoping that a regression-type analysis would be able to at least show some interesting patterns.

Such an analysis can only pinpoint the 'dark matter' of decision. But the point of any analysis is that it itself leads to decision. Inferring meaning in the dark matter, i.e. determining the absence, is something that happens in the observer of the analysis. In this way, this kind of analysis can be a way of catalysing decision-making processes. Because it is on a computer screen, there is also the possibility of sharing the experience and the reasoning with others.

Bataille's economic theory is either crazy or brilliant. I suspect it's the latter. But operationalising it in a way where it might have some practical utility would be the best way of proving it.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Stratification of the University Sector and the Importance of Critique

Can uninspected absence and insufficient critique of the education system lead to unequal and pathological structures? Is critique regulatory?

I'm thinking this with regard to the way that the University sector is developing in the UK in the wake of the marketisation reforms. The current regulatory framework is provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Their job has been to 'safeguard standards' across the different institutions that call themselves universities.When pushed however, no-one can say what 'standards' actually are safeguarded, for it is clear that a degree from Oxford is different from a degree from Leeds Met (say). It's not as if everyone sits the same exam: institutions, and individual lecturers, have autonomy in setting and marking exams and assignments, overseen by appointed 'external examiners'. Typically, safeguarding standards amounts to adherence to some sort of localised norms of perceived fairness towards students in different parts of the sector. Whatever localised norms are adhered to, students will gain the award of a degree that is notionally regarded as a selection filter for career advancement, and yet the differences between the value of degrees and the respective merits of different institutions (and courses) is at once obvious and absent from wider debates about fairness.

In 'regulating' quality and 'safeguarding standards' what the QAA appears to do is to stifle debate about a thorny subject. Quality in HE cannot be an issue because the QAA says it's ok and they know what they are talking about! As a result, the regulation bears upon the discourse about equality and fairness, not on actual issues of equality and fairness. The reason for this may be that deep critique about quality, fairness and the respective merits of degrees from different institutions would destabilize the nascent education industry as it seeks to present to the world a 'united front' of 'quality products'.

The deep problem is that the role of government in regulating Higher Education (and education in general) is contested (see The priority with the rise of marketisation and entrepreneurialism within institutions is the maintenance of a viable business model for selling education. "Safeguarding quality"  is part of this strategy. But what of "safeguarding fair access to employment"? That, it seems to me, is a more pressing regulatory task.

The consequence of not safeguarding fair access to employment is social balkanisation. But what would we need to safeguard fair access to employment? I think we would first have to acknowledge the differences between different institutions of Higher Education, and the differences in the opportunities which they afford, the social classes who have access to those institutions, and (most importantly) the relative achievements of individuals within different social and educational contexts.

The natural reaction to this might be to reach for sophisticated indicators (a bit like 'value added' scores). But there is quite a lot wrong with these kinds of indicators - or at least, how we tend to approach them. They produce a kind of 'positive regulation' which involves adherence to the indicators and the production of evidence: all things that can be said to 'positively' exist. As we know from other examples in health regulation and in schools, an emphasis on positive indicators creates the conditions for the production of favourable indicators. A number of uncontrollable processes are set in motion. First, and obviously, manufactured conditions for the sake of indicators do not tell the truth; indeed, their purpose is often to hide it. But worse is the fact that some institutions are better placed to manufacture conditions for positive indicators than others. Given that the indicator system is designed to identify differences (otherwise, what is the point of indicators?), the success of successful institutions is self-perpetuating, and the gap between successful and unsuccessful grows at the expense of improving real problems on the ground, and exacerbating problems in certain areas where disadvantage reigns.

I think we need 'negative regulation'. Indicators are important and useful (like the fact that 7% of kids who attend private schools get 37.5% of places at Oxford - and Oxford was really proud of that!!). But only because they present questions about phenomena which need to be explained. Our regulatory structures need to be structures that produce better explanations. The questions relating to the successful institutions are as great as the questions relating to the failures; the questions relating to successful careers are as important as the questions relating to the long-term unemployed. Regulation of HE should mean better ontological understanding and more socially efficacious interventions. It is at once strategic and operational. We need to be asking better questions of our Universities than shallow and meaningless probing of 'quality' and data in the Key Information Sets. There is nothing wrong with collecting the data - indeed, it is important. But we have no way of explaining it, and there is no effort to explain it (other than to say that institution x has a failure of 'quality'!). In place of an explanatory effort, it is left to the 'market' to evaluate the meaning of KIS statistics, in the hope that solutions will rise through a Darwinian process that eliminates weaknesses. This is clearly ideological nonsense: a profoundly mistaken social ontology.

The absence of critique means that other uninspected absences rule the day, and since some of the regulatory agencies (like the QAA) nullify deep consideration of those absences (like the supposed equality of degrees), what takes their places are tacit but acceptable forms of bigotry and elitism. The consequences of this are already apparent in the HE sector today as the Russell group universities split off from the rest playing a giddy game of powerful research grant lobbying, global brand marketing, and Research Assessment metrics. Increasingly unaccountable by virtue of their 'quality', their rising socio-economic power should worry us as much as banks and global corporations.

The role of government ought to be to critique their rise. It ought to critique the gaps that are forming in the sector. We need to know why this is happening, what its long-term consequences might be, and what might be done about it. But it is the very absence of deep critique that could turn out to be the number one suspect for a causal agent in the process of pathological stratification in the first place!