Wednesday, 27 December 2017

A Logic of Learning

I don't know how anyone can say anything defensible about learning. Learning is like an "itch" - it is what Searle calls an aspect of "epistemic subjectivity" - something we know about in our individual consciousness, but provides no direct object for shared social inspection and agreed definition. Yet in the dreary world of educational research, so many academics insist at some point in defending their educational innovation with some kind of statement about what learning is. What they imply by such a statement is what learning isn't - and what learning isn't is the particular practice in education that they don't like, as opposed to the one that they "sell". How can they possibly know?

The fact that we think we have some idea of what learning is is important. It impacts on our educational practice. I once asked a friend (who is a leading education academic) my favourite question, "Why is education so crap?" and he said "bad theory". But that raises the question as to what a good theory might look like. Since we can say nothing defensible about what learning is, how could we establish any ground for good theory?

Theory generates expectations. Bohm pointed out that the word theoria has the same root as "theatre". Theory, he says, is a "theatre of the mind" - where our expectations about what might happen play out. But whilst it might be impossible to agree a single "play", it might be possible to agree on the logical principles upon which all our different plays are constructed. There is, after all, a logic to the plays of Shakespeare, to the politics of Machiavelli, to the music of Bach or the military tactics of Julius Caesar.

To be more precise, there is "logic" in the sense that we learn about on philosophy and mathematics courses. It belongs to the classical world of Aristotle. It involves principles like the law of the excluded middle. This logic is also the logic which underpins the way in which we think about computers and technology, and in turn it drives our thinking about social organisation, big data, statistics, metrics and so on.

But the logic of nature is not this. It works differently. The logic of Shakespeare, Bach, Machiavelli and even Caesar embraces contradiction. Only recently have such logics been explored, partly through the discovery of logical principles in nature (quantum mechanics and biology) which appear to similarly embrace them. At the moment, I am exploring the logic of Stephane Lupasco (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St%C3%A9phane_Lupasco) and the work of Joseph Brenner, whose 'Logic in Reality' presents itself as a new way forwards in logical thinking which might be able to express a deeper logic which might unite aesthetics, biology, quantum mechanics with learning.

So whilst we might not (and cannot) agree about what learning is, we can unpick the logic upon which our propositions about learning are formed. Doing this is to tunnel under the foundations of our current mad discourse in education. It's a strategy for reformulating an approach to education which acknowledges learning as metaphysical whilst embracing it within a transformed scientific approach.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Christmas TV and the Entropy Pump

I had a nice family Christmas with everybody being together. This year, it was noticeable that we didn't watch TV. There were a couple of moments where someone said "What's on telly?", and after perusing the available 100+ channels, we concluded that the answer was "nothing"! When I think back to our childhood when my brothers, sister and I had opened our presents, we inevitably settled down to watch the TV, and usually, there'd be something on that we could all watch (even if we didn't fully agree). Then there were 4 channels to choose from, and the programming between those channels was carefully planned so as to gain the best possible audience.

The other striking things about modern TV is the sheer complexity of turning the thing on. Ever since satellite broadcasting we have had to work out which remote control to use, how to get to the programme guide, and so on. We used to simply turn the thing on and that was it. The business of choosing something from 100 plus channels has become the process of watching: and it has become a process where eventually (after about 10 minutes of deflation) we decide there is nothing to watch. Then someone says "What about Netflix? or iPlayer?", and round we go again...

Technology adds to the available options for doing things. The uncertainty involved in choosing anything, as a result, increases. Another way of looking at this increase in uncertainty is to say it is an increase in disorder, or entropy. More technologically driven choice increases entropy: it is an entropy pump.

Entropy pumps are useful for controlling people. Where totalitarian regimes used to ensure through propaganda that everybody got the official message, now social control can be effected by ensuring that there is so much noise, nobody gets any message! When the entropy pump is focused on a family group deciding about what to do with their time, then it results in a pointless 10 or 15 minute activity of arguing about nothing, and in the end deciding to do something else (whilst still feeling disappointed that somehow they must be missing something). When the entropy pump is focused on the individual, the result is different.

What limits the family discussion is a balancing of the chaos presented by the TV with a collective awareness of each other and an exploration of other possibilities for communication. When we retreat into our mobile devices, we are faced with another kind of entropy pump... but we seem to get hooked on it rather like a drug! Why is this?

An increase in entropy in the environment leads to a search for identity of the system that finds itself in that environment. When the device we are using is both the source of entropy, and presents itself as the means of finding identity, preserving one's sense of self, then the relation between the individual and the device will be addictive. Even by writing this blog, this is what is happening in me: I am defining or reinforcing my identity in the face of the electronic noise around me.

All systems exhibit this behaviour in the face of the increasing complexification produced by technology. The most dangerous responses are by traditional institutions as they engage in all kinds of pathological measures to try and keep their structures stable. In some cases (government, media companies), the command "generate more entropy!" is given.

What we do as individuals to defend ourselves against this is a critical question. It has, I suspect, a simple solution: we need to look at each other. Christmas is such an interesting time because, for all its faults and distractions, we cannot avoid doing that!



Thursday, 21 December 2017

Marion Milner's "The Human Problem in Schools"

Marion Milner was a psychotherapist who, in 1938, undertook a research project on the nature of schooling by studying a girls school which was part of the Girls' Public Day School Trust which had been established in 1872. Milner focused on a range of dimensions of schooling including:

  1. The physical conditions
  2. Arrangement of the Time Table
  3. Teaching Methods
  4. Mental Health of Teachers
  5. Intelligence and Vocational training
as well as a programme of dissemination of findings (what Milner calls "lecturing to parents and staff"). 

She captured in note form the difficulties faced by various members of staff. For example, 

Difficulty in form mistress in getting to know her form when very often she does not teach them all. Thinks that children are not putting in their share of the work, they don't really work in class. 'We try so hard to make it amusing but certainly when they leave no one is going to do that' [...] Thinks the children are spoonfed. Thinks that fatigue partly due to fact that 'if you let up attention for a minute, you've lost them'.
Problem of change of regime when a form passes up to another form mistress with different methods of discipline... transition from strict disciplinarian to one who believes in independence, resulting period of apparent unruliness[...] Children take so long to settle down nowadays...
For the children, she created a questionnaire in which she asked what might be improved about their experience. She captured a list of "miscellaneous worries" which are fascinating:

  • When people are cross
  • Telling lies
  • Being the eldest in the class and the least brilliant
  • Quarrels
  • Feels her worries are too ridiculous to mention
  • Life generally
  • Losing things
  • Making younger sister go to bed when told to
  • Being late
  • If she's forgotten to do something she promised to do
  • Gets very depressed
  • Suffering in the world
  • Worries over trifles
She then tabulated these responses:


One of the big innovations in schooling at the time was the emergence of the intelligence test. Milner appears to support this, although she does document the thoughts and feelings of both staff and students towards it. One child said she didn't like it: "it's ridiculous and I don't believe in psychology and I know a girl who got ill through it", or another who said "it tired my brain too much" (p.62)

Milner conducted a series of deeper interviews with the girls. One of the techniques used was what Milner describes  as a postcard sorting technique:
A set of about 40 picture postcards was prepared, showing different kinds of people in a variety of different situations. When each girl came for her interview it was explained it was explained that a study was being made of the 'different kinds of things people are interested in' and she was asked if she would sort the cards into three piles, according to whether she would 'like to be one of the people in the picture, or hate to be, or not mind either way'. When she had done this she was asked to go through the 'likes' pile and the 'dislikes' pile and say why she had placed each card in that particular pile. (p.79)
In more detailed questioning, children were asked about their day-dreaming. One child, described by her teachers as having an "antagonistic attitude in class, indolence and lack of ambition" reported her day-dreams like this:

In bed I imagine I am diving in the Olympic Games, and doing extraordinary fancy dives absolutely perfectly. In school I imagine I am taking a Gym class. When listening to the wireless I wonder what it would be like to act, or sing into a microphone, or perhaps sometimes I feel I am broadcasting myself.
 Another child, reported as being aloof, has a different set of daydreams.
I imagine I am far away in some unknown land, I fancy it may be Utopia. The fountains play and in their spray there forms a cottage smallest of the small, I always think. The oak beams after many years have warped and now are bent and in the crevices grow moss of all shadses. This place, once a home, is now an empty field.
The roses, pink and white have spread over the doorway so that I cannot enter in. I know what is inside because through the lattice windows lovely visions play across my mind. The house is mine, I say, no one shall even know what I see in there! I shall always remember how a tall Poppy bnowed down to me and said, "It is yours for ever". This is one of my thoughts that comes to me when I am tired. I call it the Home of the Unknown. 
Milner points out that the contrast between these two descriptions as demonstrating "emotional assertiveness" in the first and a lack of interest in domination or successful performance in the second. She relates this to Jungian ideas of extroversion and introversion.

Milner then looked at ways of 'dispersing anxiety', using Jungian categories of sensation, intellect, intuition and emotion, she specifically focused on "finding a social function" and "dispersing anxiety through creative work" as two practical avenues the emotions could be dealt with. She also considered the environment for the growth of the individual, including:

  • The nature of the parents' interests
  • Amount of change in the environment
  • Opportunities available for the multi-level solution of conflict
  • Companionship of equals
  • Amount of emotional stress in relationship with adults (p189)
There's some stuff in Milner's book which is of its time, and to us would seem quite offensive. For example, her solution to reducing fatigue for the staff is to recognise "the intellectual limitations of the non-academic child"! However, she also supports "abolition of numerical marking", and comments that (in 1938!) "several parents mentioned, quite incidentally, that it is a recognized practice for girls to help each other over the telephone while doing their preparation"

She also comments that 
"much of the time now spent in exhortation is fruitless; and that the same amount of time given to the attempt to understand what is happening would, very often, make it possible for difficult girls to become co-operative rather than passively or actively resistant. It seems also to be true that very often it is not necessary to do anything; the implicit change in relationship that results when the adult is sympathetically aware of the child's difficulties is in itself sufficient."


Thursday, 14 December 2017

Personal Learning, Technology and the end of the Curriculum

I'm learning Russian at the moment. I have an excellent tutor, and I think Я делаю хороший прогресс! Since I've been very interested in the mediating role of objects in learning - particularly in how objects illuminate the understanding of both the teacher and the learner - I've been particularly fascinated by the way that Google Translate can be used to loosen-up the learning conversation so that it follows a more natural line of human inquiry.

All of a sudden, I find myself back in the world of the Personal Learning Environment - but with a twist. It is not that we learn through personal tools. But rather computer tools (like mobile phones) are objects which can be used to summon-up other objects (like an automatic translation or Wikipedia). In a face-to-face learning conversation about language, technology becomes an interlocutor whose flexibility and sheer variety of behaviour prods both teacher and learner into revealing more about themselves.

So, for example, a conversation may start with talking about the different cases of Russian grammar (genitive, dative, accusative, etc). With the mobile phone in the centre, the question becomes "does Google Translate deal with cases correctly?". This turns the process of learning a language (which is often presented as a dull exercise in remembering stuff) into a process of inquiry about the behaviour of the tool. Sometimes the tool gets it wrong. I will ask my tutor why it's wrong. I learn something more about the tutor. I am always studying the tutor, not the content.

All objects illuminate the understanding of people engaging with them. It is through the use of objects that we produce multiple rich descriptions of our understanding. What is learnt are the underlying patterns which generate the variety of descriptions: so one moment we talk about google translate's attempt to translate cases properly; the next we talk about the news in Russian or the weather in Vladivostok.

Education has yet to catch up with the generative power of the technological objects at its disposal. When it does so, it will see the "curriculum" to be a redundant concept. The curriculum is a very crude object which expresses the organisation of knowledge in some form. Good teachers seek to redescribe the curriculum "object" in such a way that their own understanding (or lack of it) is revealed more to their students. But more usually, teachers hide their understanding (or lack of it) behind the curriculum, its assessments, and their Powerpoints.

Objects as technologies should be the organising focus of education, not curriculum. We should create ways in which objects can be manipulated so as to create a natural flow of inquiry between teachers and learners and between learners and each other. The ridiculous thing is that I don't think this is hard to do. But to achieve it we have to deal with that other pernicious object in education: the assessment. Assessments are where everybody hides their lack of understanding! In an authentic world of object-human relations, there may in fact be no need for assessment. But that's an unthinkable thought in the education system of today.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Bohm on Nilpotency and Quaternions

My interest in physics and its relation to phenomenology, education and sociology stemmed from my meeting Peter Rowlands at Liverpool University. This is unquestionably the most important thing that has happened to me in Liverpool (although I have done a lot of other stuff, including converting a few people to cybernetics!). But really we work and study in a University to mix with people from whom we learn new things and gain new insights which we wouldn't have otherwise gained. 

Peter's work is based on the mathematics which underpins physical law. It addresses fundamental problems which beset quantum mechanics and relativity theory, and addresses the relationship between classical mechanics and quantum mechanics (which is often seen as a radical paradigm shift - something which has done the social sciences no good, as people have jumped on to the "entanglement" bandwaggon). In Peter's arsenal of mathematical devices, two things stand out: the "nilpotent" - the idea of a mathematical entity which when raised to a power equals zero (it's like the square root of minus 1, but with zero). In Peter's universe, everything grows from nothing.

The other element is Hamilton's Quaternions. These are a 3-dimension complex number, which has the property of anti-commutativity: if i and j are elements of the quaternion, then i * j is not the same as j * i. This anti-commutative behaviour introduces powerful and complex symmetries, which when coupled with the nilpotent, arise from nothing. These ideas have changed me (and I noticed that Peirce was also interested in quaternions).

Now, I have been looking much more closely at physics and quantum mechanics more particularly. David Bohm is a fascinating figure because he connects physical theory with a theory of consciousness and communication. A coherent connection to learning and education isn't far behind, although Bohm didn't quite go there - but that's where I'm interested in going!

But Bohm was ahead of the game. In this passage, he seems to prefigure Peter Rowlands work:
We do not regard terms like 'particle', 'charge', 'mass', 'position', 'momentum', etc as having primary relevance in the algebraic language. Rather, at best, they will have to come out as high-level abstractions. [...] the real meaning of quantum algebra will then be that it is a mathematization of the general language, which enriches the latter and makes possible a more precisely articulated discussion of implicate order than is possible in terms of the general language alone. (p 163)
He then discusses some of the properties of the algebra, and hits on two of the key features which are also important in Rowland's work. The first is the nilpotent:
It is important to emphasise that the 'law of the whole' will not just be a transcription of current quantum theory to a new language. Rather, the entire context of physics (classical and quantum) will have to be assimilated in a different structure, in which space, time, matter, and movement are described in new ways. Such assimilation will then lead on to new avenues to be explored, which cannot even be thought about in terms of current theories. 
First, we recall that we begin with an undefinable total algebra and take out sub-algebras that are suitable for the description of certain contexts of physical research. Now, mathematicians have already worked out certain interesting and potentially relevant features of such sub-algebras.
Thus, consider a given sub-algebra A. Among its terms A(i), there may be some A(n) which are nilpotent, i.e., which have the property that some powers of A(n) (say A(n)^6) are zero. Among these, there is a subset of terms A(p) which are properly nilpotent, i.e. which remain nilpotent when multiplied by any term of the algebra A(i) (so that (A(i)A(p))^s = 0) (p. 169)
This is a slightly different take on the nilpotent from Rowlands: Bohm is saying that invariance in structure depends of the absence of what he calls proper nilpotency ("we should have an algebra that has no properly nilpotent terms" (p170)). Rowlands, by contrasts, sees invariance in terms of conservation, and that this is an aspect of the different dimensions associated with mass (a scalar), charge, space (vector), or time (imaginary scalar).

Bohm also addresses the use of quaternions:
It is significant that by mathematizing the general language in terms of an initially undefined and unspecifiable algebra, we arrive naturally at the sort of algebras used in current quantum theory for 'particles with spin', i.e. products of matrices and quaternions. [....] the quaternions imply invariance under a group of transformations similar to rotations in three-dimensional space. (p/170)
Why does this matter to education? It is because Bohm makes the connection between quantum mechanics and consciousness. His "implicate order" is nothing short of what we perceive in our emotional life minute by minute. Bohm's mechanics and his algebra gives us a technical way of thinking about questions of phenomenology as we reach for apprehension of the implicate order from analysing the explicate order. Education itself, and university particularly, deals ostensibly with issues of the explicate order (because they are ostensible), but it sits on an inner logic about which both Bohm and Rowlands have powerful things to say. That their techniques and approach are similar is not, I think, a coincidence. 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

David Bohm on Music

I'm finding my current obsession with David Bohm quite mind-changing. His insights are profound. I have not been this affected by academic work since I discovered Alfred Schutz a few years ago.  The common denominator is that both Bohm and Schutz say some penetrating things about music. This is Bohm on music in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, pp198-200:
Consider what takes place when one is listening to music. At a given moment a certain note is being played but a number of the previous notes are still 'reverberating' in consciousness. Close attention will show that it is the simultaneous presence and activity  of all these reverberations that is responsible for the direct and immediately felt sense of movement, flow and continuity. To hear a set of notes so far apart in time that there is no such reverberation will destroy altogether the sense of a whole unbroken, living movement that gives meaning and force to what is heard. 
It is clear from the above that one does not experience the actuality of this whole movement by 'holding on' to the past, with the aid of a memory of the sequence of notes, and comparing this past with the present. Rather, as one can discover by further attention, the 'reverberations' that make such an experience possible are not memories but are rather active transformations of what came earlier, in which are to be found not only a generally diffused sense of the original sounds, with an intensity that falls off, according to the time elapsed since they were picked up by the ear, but also various emotional responses, bodily sensations, incipient muscular movements, and the evocation of a wide range of yet further meanings, often of great subtlety. One can thus obtain a direct sense of how a sequence of notes is enfolding into many levels of consciousness, and of how at any given moment, the transformations flowing out of many such enfolded notes interpenetrate and intermingle to give rise to an immediate and primary feeling of movement. 
This activity in consciousness evidently constitutes a striking parallel to the activity that we have proposed for the implicate order in general. Thus [...] we have given a model of an electron in which, at any instant, there is a co-present set of differently transformed ensembles which inter-penetrate and intermingle in their various degrees of enfoldment. In such enfoldment, there is a radical change, not only of form but also of structure, in the entire set of ensembles[...]. and yet, a certain totality of order in the ensembles remains invariant, in the sense that in all these changes a subtle but fundamental similarity of order is preserved. 
In the music, there is, as we have seen, a basically similar transformation (of notes) in which a certain order can also be seen to be preserved., The key difference in these two cases is that for our model of the electron an enfolded order is grasped in thought, as the presence together of many different but interrelated degrees of transformations of ensembles, while for the music, it is sensed immediately as the presence together of many different but inter-related degrees of transformations of tones and sounds. In the latter, there is a feeling of both tension and harmony between the various co-present transformations, and this feeling is indeed what is primary in the apprehension of the music in its undivided state of flowing movement. 
In listening to music, one is therefore directly perceiving an implicate order. Evidently, this order is active in the sense that it continually flows into emotional, physical and other responses, that are inseparable from the transformations out of which it is essentially constituted. 

Friday, 8 December 2017

The Dynamics of University Corruption

From reading the press today, one would be forgiven for thinking that all universities are corrupt fiefdoms, exploiting the young who are not of an age to know the full implications of the financial commitments they enter into, or the risk of getting very little in return for it. The focus on VC salary is important - some of these people have displayed an astonishing arrogance of superiority. But it's very important to look deeper.

The most penetrating critic of the present situation in Universities lived over 100 years ago, and saw in the American education system a manifestation of atavistic madness. Thorstein Veblen was right, but we have made no progress in untangling the mess created by what he called the "leisure class" and the capitalist system it lived in in assuaging its own ontological insecurity.

Ontological insecurity characterises the mindset of most of the university system today. Nobody - students, teachers, Vice-Chancellors - is comfortable to "be". Academics will often boast of how much more they could earn in industry: they have adopted "industrial" mentality - always thrusting, getting the next grant, recruiting the next bunch of gullible students.  When push comes to shove (and we've seen a lot of shoving!), University managers will hold a cosh over teachers saying "do what I say or you'll never work again": this effectively was the message given by a particular Vice-Chancellor during a stunt with staff involving the pro-Vice Chancellor counting out £10 notes in an attempt to demonstrate the financial woes of the institution. He was, of course, projecting his own fears.

University has been distorted. Vice Chancellors will still cite the lofty ideas of Newman, staking a claim to a more illustrious and thoughtful heritage. But it's either a manipulative lie as they parade their gold (or silver!) TEF rating, or a desperate attempt to quell the existential anxiety of marketised education with some mystical past glory. What they want to say is "Come and buy your certificates here!" (and keep me in the manner to which I've become accustomed).

Salaries are important in the sense that they enslave individuals to capitalism. The VC with the big salary will have a big mortgage, kids at private school, status in society, invitations to high-level political gatherings and a sense of self-importance. That's a lot to give up. When we explore the corruption of Universities, we have to explore the psychoanalysis of loss.

It doesn't just apply to the VC. It applies to the whole management team, and to many academics. The boast that "I could earn more in industry" is usually not true. In fact, it is usually not true that "I could earn more in a different University". So, in fact, it's "This job or we sell the house and the kids leave their schools" - unless such an individual has access to private means (which creates additional problems).

Now, in the senior management team, the degree of ontological insecurity is greater. Many of these people have risen to their position through naked ambition and a desire to please the boss, rather than through acting with integrity and honesty. Many of them will have done dirty work for the boss at some time in the past. Some will know dirty secrets and the boss wants to keep them close. Talent for the job is not a criterion for career advancement! What this all means is that they are committed to the success and happiness of the leader.

The astonishment that remuneration committees have approved eye-watering salaries becomes much more understandable when the collective and inter-dependent ontological insecurities of senior staff are taken into account. "I'll approve your £800k and I continue to get senior approval to stay in my job".

The other dimension to this is the network of ontological insecurity in the local community outside the university. The University has prestige coveted by local business people, leaders of the local council, the local football club, the leading law firms, etc. In each of these institutional structures, similar dynamics will play out, and for each of the people at the top of these structures, association with the University can similarly ameliorate the existential angst of modernity, whilst reinforcing their own positions. The Vice Chancellor has a powerful card up his or her sleeve: the "honorary degree". We should look to those recipients of this de-facto honours system (as if the proper one wasn't bad enough!). Those among them will be on advisory committees for the University, or advising on the latest corporate wheeze as the University uses student income to build some new facility (which will not benefit those who paid for it).

The scale of the problem and the nature of its dynamics are very complex. It is not down to a few rogue University Vice Chancellors (although they exist and thrive). It is not even down to governance: whatever new models of governance are invented, they will be corrupted in the same way. The problems are existential and organisational. Truth and Reconciliation is required - put the students shafted by the system in front of the Vice Chancellors who bought yachts with their money! But then we need to rethink how science and knowledge is preserved and developed in our society to save it from the disaster that Universities have become. 

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Intersubjective Foundation of Economic Confidence: Why Bitcoin will crash...

Simmel understood that money was a codification of inter-human relations - it codified expectation. Marx had a similar view. How the codification actually happens can vary. Money might be linked to the actual value of the precious and scarce metal in a coin. Equally, it might be linked to a promise made by an institution on a piece of paper issued by that institution (fiat money).

Codifying expectations is a way of establishing trust between humans, and that essentially means that communications can be made with some security that conversations can be managed by both parties, that irrational acts are unlikely, and that space exists for negotiation and manoeuvre if something goes wrong. The bank's promise acts in a similar way to the universal recognition of the value and scarcity of a diamond. One is a speech act (what Searle calls a "status function"), the other involves many other levels of description (aesthetics, etc) in addition to speech acts.

The context within which expectations are established is critical to the whole thing working. Technology is changing the context within which we deal with money, and the shared expectations it brings. First of all, the model of "flexible pricing", used by airlines, holiday booking sites, Uber and so forth, looks set to become more widespread. What this means is that the bank may promise to pay the bearer the sum of £5, but the exchange value of that £5 might depend on the time of day, the insurance group of the owner, and the extent to which the owner really wants to buy a particular thing. What might this do to codified expectations? Nobody knows yet.

At the same time, technology has been used to change the rules of fiat money. Bitcoin is fiat money with a difference: the promise to pay the bearer is not made by an institution, but the requisite trust for the currency is established through the way the algorithm works. In this shifting of parameters around fiat currency, some variables are overlooked which might render Bitcoin worthless. For example, banks are subject to political forces where Bitcoin isn't. Some see this as a strength of Bitcoin. I'm not so sure. Political forces themselves result from individuals grouping together for a common cause: in the face of catastrophic uncertainty, they look to each other for support, and organise themselves to change their environment. The best way of managing catastrophic uncertainty is to look into the eyes of another human being facing the same thing. This is the essence of trust, not a shared ledger.

Human trust is an intersubjective phenomenon. It may be mediated by objects: a coin, or a shared ledger are objects. But objects themselves merely illuminate the humans  who deal with them. It is through human engagement with objects that humans understand each other better. We may think that we trust the ledger, or the bitcoin, or even the £5 note. But this is to miss the point that it is each other that we really get to know better, and through this illuminated "getting to know" we establish trust.

The problem with hype - whether around Bitcoin, or around University (which is another bubble about to burst) - is that the codification of expectation it manufactures is only indirectly the result of a particular object. Like the Emperor's new clothes, trust finds a way of establishing itself with the removal of the object too.

Bitcoin has got no clothes on. The illumination it brings to our understanding of each other can be equally well-established by its absence, and as circumstances become more and more intense, the search for new ways of establishing human trust and the codification of expectation also intensifies. Indeed, if trust and intersubjectivity is what it's all about in the end, we may ultimately have little need for "shared objects" like money at all...


Monday, 4 December 2017

The Computer Programmer's Superego and Mental Illness

The second book of Ehrenzweig's Hidden Order of Art makes reference to imagery in Frazer's Golden Bough and relates it to Freudian interpretation. It's a move of some brilliance because it presents the primeval mythological forces that all art draws on and relates them to an understanding of therapy and conscious life. He begins chapter 13 by making a bold statement about the role of the superego over the ego:
The exact role of the superego's aggression in creative work will probably be fully understood only when we have found out more about its role in causing mental illness. In many ways creativity and mental illness are opposite sides of the same coin. The blocking of creativity through ego rigidity is apt to unleash the self-destructive fury of the superego, which is otherwise absorbed and neutralized by the periodic decomposition of the ego during creativity. An increased measure of the superego's oral and anal aggression against the ego is utilized for deepening the normally shallow oscillation of the ego as it swings down to less differentiated levels. 
When Ehrenzweig uses Freudian terminology like "oral" and "anal" aggression, he is referring to processes of attenuation and assertion of distinctions. Sometimes the superego breaks down the distinctions of the ego and drives them into the unconscious: Ehrenzweig calls this "anal scattering", after the anal stage of development where the child doesn't control their bowel movements. Alternatively, the superego can cause rigidity in the ego by becoming authoritarian in the distinctions that are made: Ehrenzweig calls this "containment". Deeper delving into the unconscious "undifferentiated levels" (the primary process) occurs through a process of generating and enforcing new distinctions: scattering melts things down, containment gathers things up. New distinctions drill deeper into the undifferentiated levels, drawing up new material for the conscious mind to work on. He continues:
The superego's anal scattering attacks drive the ego inexorably towards an extreme oceanic depth until the process of dedifferentiation even suspends the distinction between ego and superego. Then the ego can shake itself free from the superego's aggression. 

This is the creative struggle which all artists and scientists must deal with. Insanity, Ehrenzweig argues, "may be creativity gone wrong" (Ch.15, p257).

Since I've been doing a lot of computer programming recently, I'm asking myself where computer programming sits in this creative process. Is it creative in the same way that Picasso was creative? Does it probe the oceanic depths of consciousness and bring forth new distinctions? In much recent writing about creativity, the consensus seems to be that creativity in software is the same as creativity in art; the designs of Apple Corp are creative in the same way that Jackson Pollock was. Coupled with this question is a question about why I personally have found it so difficult to compose music using technology (which I will write about in a later post, inspired by Marion Milner's "On being unable to Paint").

The deep question in this stuff is "where do distinctions come from?". In forms of activity like computer programming, distinctions are normatively defined: the syntax of a langauge, the right way of doing something, the threats of doing it wrong, and so on. Are the normative distinctions of code the same as the affordances of paint, or the properties of sound?

I don't think they are. The difference, I believe, has to do with singularity and multiplicity of distinction. A sound comprises many distinctions (many frequencies, for example); paint has many properties including viscosity, colour, luminosity, and so on. In the logic of code, syntax is syntax - formally defined in the rulebook of the language: there is not multiplicity at a deep level, and there is not flexibility for redefining it. All great painting redefines paint at some level or other. In Ehrenzweig's language, the material is scattered, dedifferentiated, and then contained and reconstructed.

It is possible to code like this, but it is not what most people would take to be computer programming. It is the difference between the sculptor working with metal girders to create some new edifice, and the architect working with girders to create a bridge which won't fall down.

The superego of the computer programmer is the compiler + the expectation of the customer. Both of these are containing forces, and their pressure causes a rigidity of the ego. I find myself, when I am subject to these forces and writing code, that my creative spirit dries up. It's interesting to reflect that much of education - even creative education - has this same dessicating effect. The result is mental anxiety and stress which we've learnt to put down to modern life, but which is really a symptom of ego dissociation and madness.

Could we escape this? Could our manipulation of symbols be a scattering as well as a containing? I'm beginning to see this as a very important question regard the human relationship with technology.