Friday, 30 December 2011

Making time and form

Henri Focillon's 'Vie des Formes' is an important study of artistic form written in the 1930s - but fascinated as I am by it, I've had a number of unsuccessful attempts to read it deeply and understand it. Now however it is making more sense to me after I have spent a lot of time thinking about Von Foerster's idea of Eigenform and the relationship between the recursions of thought and the experiences of being: particularly the experiences of matter, space and time. What Focillon says accords very much with Von Foerster's ideas.

Focillon's main thesis is the dynamic interplay between form and experience. He says:

"For form is surrounded by a certain aura: although it is our most strict definition of space, it also suggests to us the existence of other forms. It prolongs and diffuses itself throughout our dreams and fancies: we regard it, as it were, as a kind of fissure through which crowds of images aspiring to birth may be introduced into some indefinite realm - a realm which is neither that of physical extent nor that of pure thought."
This is very much the theme of Von Foerster's Eigenform idea, and reminds me of Louis Kauffman's recent talk at the Von Foerster congress in Vienna this year, where he talked about "what is an object that a person might know it, and a person that she might know an object?". Kauffman's talk centred on the binding relationship between Eigenform, materiality and experience, but most interesting of all was his weaving of time into the equation.

For Focillon too, time is important. Although unlike Kauffman, it is not so much the time of experience which interests him directly (although he does see this as part of the process of form), but rather the historical time of creation: the emergence of epochs and styles in history. But Focillon is not on the side of those who see art as purely political or historical...

"We have no right confuse the state of the life of forms with the state of social life. The time that gives support to a work of art does not give definition either to its principle or to its specific form"
 Form, time and experience are entwined...

Focillon treats the fundamental dimensions of art in separate chapters: Form in the realm of space, form in the realm of matter, in the realm of the mind and in the realm of time. Focillon makes a distinction between the moment of a work of art and the 'moment of taste'. With regard to the relation between these two moments, Focillon says that sometimes they coincide, at others their relationship is sluggish and intractable.
"One is tempted to conclude that, in the former case, a work of art suddenly and with great power promiulgates a necessary actuality that had long been seeking with feeble, rudimentary movements to define itself, and that, in the latter case, a work of art eventually overtakes its own actuality and forestalls the moment of taste. But in both cases, a work of art is, at the very instant of its birth, a phenomenon of rupture" (p155)

This is what I have been wondering about as I examined some of the art works in Cologne's city museum the other day from the 1920s. There was a distinct experience of rupture which (I think) coincided with a moment of taste.

But I want to be clearer about this. I think Focillon has a message which is consonant not only with the cybernetics of Eigenforms, but the cybernetics of human viability and the cybernetics of attachment. Maybe next year I will try and put all this together!!!

Friday, 23 December 2011

What can we reasonably say about music? (a response to Dmitri Tymoczko)

I've always thought there is something very unreasonable about music. It consumes experience but defies reasoned understanding. My intellectual life began by trying (in vain) to seek reasoned understanding. Many many others have gone before me, and recently my attention was drawn to Dmitri Tymoczko's book "The geometry of music" by a rather unflattering review in the Musical Times by Arnold Whittall.

I think what bothered Whittall was the shear confidence with which the theory is presented. And the confidence is evident from this conference presentation:

Tymoczko has 5 basic principles of "what makes music sound good". They are:
1. melodies should move by short distances
2. simultaneous sounds should have consistent harmonic configurations over time
3. simultaneous sounding notes should be consonant
4. notes over time should fall within a statistically limited number of notes (5-7.. not 12)
5. there should be an uneven distribution of probability of emphasis across a range of notes - some should be stronger than others (i.e. tonal centres)

Much as I agree with Whittall, for me there is a more interesting question than whether Tymoczko is right or not (which he clearly isn't!). Because if you ask the wrong questions then being right or wrong with regard to your question is irrelevant. But what are the 'right' questions about music? Are there sensible things to say?

That's the question I want to address here. When I think about sensible questions, I think about the sensible people who talk about music. Whittall is one of them, but then so is Schoenberg (Tymoczko hasn't got much time for him!), so is d'Indy, so is Schenker (in small doses) and so were many of my favourite composers in the 20th century including Tippett (although I gained most through the eminently sensible interpretations of his music by Ian Kemp), Messaien (how would his music stack up with Tymoczko?), Norgard, Birtwistle, Boulez, Cage, etc, etc...

When looked at in its totality, music asks one question: "What's it all about?". My questions about music are questions about myself. Music does extraordinary things to me. Those extraordinary things are fundamental to my whole being. Moreover, the things that music does are closely related to the things that other elemental experiences have on me, most notably sex and religion. There are, as Wittgenstein would say, strong 'family resemblances' between the types of experience. What you might sensibly say about music is related to what you might sensibly say about sex, or what you might sensibly say about religion. And there we are left with little else sensible to say other than to quote Blaise Pascal:
"Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point"
Is Pascal is saying something about the left and right brain here? Maybe (McGilchrist would approve!). Tymoczko is definitely in the left-brain camp. For some reason, art seems to escape him (he's a composer, though.. but personally I find the same deficiencies in his music as in his thinking).

Pascal presents a challenge to cyberneticians like me. Cybernetics too can be very much in the left brain game. But I believe it doesn't have to be there. The recent emphasis on art and performance at the American Society for Cybernetics conferences in 2010 and 2011 have been very refreshing (if not a bit challenging sometimes). To me, cybernetics (done well) is the best way of reasoning with (not about) the unreasonable, because it seeks to identify and specify the reasonable rather than trying to reason about the unreasonable. In this way, cybernetics is about the negative space of experience. It tries to create spaces where the unreasonableness of the world can do its thing, whilst ensuring that our reasonableness sticks to what it knows and prevents it from entering domains where it can do more harm than good. To quote Wittgenstein once again:
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
To me, this means that the sensible things to say about music are not 'about' music. They are the things which we can know. Some of those things are musical: scores, biographies of composers, journalism, performances. There are other things which can be sensibly spoken about which are not musical: anthropological issues for example. But then there's the fascinating class of things which we can talk about which are 'self-organising systems' - the stuff of cybernetics. I think that digging into these is the best way of mapping the ground from where the great mystery of music unfolds.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Meritocracy, Family and Education

In "The rise of meritocracy", Young explains how 'the cult of the child' took over from social class as being the most significant driving force behind educational and professional success. The triumph of the socialist movement gradually led parents to go to increasing lengths to get the best for their children: ballet classes, music lessons, reading groups...
"The cult of the child became the drug of the people; inspired by hope, vitalized by ambition, the whole nation began to advance as never before from the moment that the Labour Party came to a standstill" (The rise of meritocracy, pp111-112)
Not surprisingly, Young explains, this led to some distortion of the meritocratic organisation of society, where it was those who had access to the best opportunities - who increasingly tended to be the children of the rising working classes who did best, at the expense of those whose IQ scores were kept low through the lack of access to educational opportunity.
"the children of top trade unionists and Labour Ministers, and of other outstanding working men, were not becoming manual workers themselves. They were in attendance at grammar schools and universities, training for commerce and the professions, very large numbers of them even going to public schools."
The unions too had to adjust: becoming more technical (so the mineworkers becomes the  mine technicians, textile workers becomes the  textile technicians). Some unions dealt with workers (for example, the Association of Science Workers) with higher IQs, and they became highly influential in the TUC: the aquisition of IQ has been the chief determiner of social success, and the high-IQ unions sought to defend 'unfair' means of acquiring IQ (so they exposed the 'IQ crammers' for example).

In this way, education drives the society of "the rise to meritocracy". IQ becomes the mark of social standing and the gateway to professional success. But this means that the lower classes are also the least intelligent. Young muses on the "likely events of May 2034" which
"will be at best an 1848, on the English model at that. There will be stir enough. The universities may shake. There will be other disturbances later on as long as the populists survive. But on this occasion anything more serious than a few days' strike and a week's disturbance, which it will be well within the capacity of the police (with their new weapons) to quell, I do not for one moment envisage" (p151)
His reason is that
"without intelligence in their heads, the lower classes are never more menacing than a rabble, even if they are sometimes sullen, sometimes mercurial, not yet completely predictable. If the hopes of some earlier dissidents had been realized and the brilliant children from the lower classes remained there, to teach, to inspire and to organize the masses, then I should have had a different story to tell. The few who now propose such a radical step are a hundred years too late. This is the prediction I expect to verify when I stand next May listening to the speeches from the great rostrum at Peterloo" 
Young was somewhat perturbed when New Labour seemed to take the idea of meritocracy seriously. Maybe it was there before them, but there are many parallels between this spoof history and what we now see unfolding in front of us. Most telling is the increasing power of education, and the organisation of society around educational success. One only has to read 'degree certificates' for 'IQ', and the menacing threat of the Higher Education Achievement Record and other such REAL initiatives start to appear in a sombre light.

The delicious note that the publisher puts at the end of Young's book tells us that
"since the author of this essay was himself killed at Peterloo, the publishers regret they were not able to submit to him the proofs of his manuscript, for the corrections he might have wished to make before publication [...] The failings of sociology are as illuminating as its successes."

Be warned!

Friday, 16 December 2011

The road to Fookinel (with apologies to Michael Young)

Worktown's northern metropolitan district of Fookinel is characterised by a high degree of family breakdown, poor housing, low social aspirations, high unemployment and anti-social behaviour. It's not where you or I would choose to live. But it sits at the very heart of the challenges that face our society. Hopelessness and fear coupled with envy, greed and pride all jostle for prime position in a pathological combination. The result? social unrest, ill health, low achievement, early death and a huge cost to everyone else.

The first problem is that neither you nor I would want to go anywhere near Fookinel. Less so would we want our children to go anywhere near it. They're on their own. The road to Fookinel is empty. And road out of it is poorly maintained and virtually impassable. Fookinel is so notorious that it has become a part of speech.

Not that there haven't been a number of well-meaning interventions - particularly in the domain of education. Fookinel Academy is the latest of these, exhorting its' depressed students to the highest possible academic standards. Various radical initiatives are tried out: personalised learning, huge classes, free curricula, etc. Technologically, they tried giving the kids iPads, but quickly found it necessary to police their use to such an extent that the extra work involved in overseeing the use of the technology outweighed the benefits. What has been successful is the 'zero tolerance' behavioural policy. The children of Fookinel find it difficult to put a foot right, and quickly find the weight of the school authorities bearing down on them. This does seem to have had some positive results: GCSE results are up this year. The champions of the zero tolerance initiative will sloganise their success as "these kids need structure!", or "strict discipline shows that we care!". All meet with approval from managers and well-meaning people who don't live in Fookinel. For the kids of Fookinel, it's just one more set of obstacles they have to jump over. The kids have adapted to dodging obstacles.

But outside the school gates, the kids remain in the domain of the street and the home. There all hell breaks loose with the regularity of clockwork. Dad left when mum was still pregnant with Jonny. There have been a string of male visitors to the house, many of whom have been abusive. Mum doesn't work, but between benefits and with irregular (and rather strange) financial injections, she manages to keep going. Drugs are a necessity to cope. The house is often (and increasingly) cold. They live on canned food and occasionally ready-meals. To mum, every other person in the house, if they don't make some financial contribution, is an extra problem. That includes Jonny. The TV is always blaring out.

Home, to Jonny, is not where the heart is. Jonny hasn't thought about his heart for a long time. It is a long time since he cried. Home is a place of torment where he tries to go to sleep. Although as he gets older, he'd rather find other places to sleep. Already, the lure of financial independence afforded by illegal activities is strong. His friends already deal drugs. There is little doubt that he will go down this route himself too.

Everyone's attachments are to the things they see on TV. All attachments are to fantasy objects, the most popular being talent contests. Each person dreams of winning: their identity is interpreted in terms of their relation to the fantasy. Music (and to some extent, computer games) play a hugely important role in this. In both of these, there is a sensual compensation for the damaged emotional fabric of their selves. But it is only a palliative measure, and indeed, its palliative effect has a whole economy around it. In this way, continual expensive consumption of the celebrity fantasy often takes priority over the meeting of more basic physical needs. This sort of sensual compensation for broken self-regulatory mechanisms is the order of the day. Inner-world storylines are fractured fantasy clips from TV. Outer world communications reflect this with the anxiety of having to defend identities which ultimately are indefensible. Quickly conversations turn aggressive. Offence is taken almost as a matter of course. Little intervention can calm this down, such are the rifts within personality which lie at the heart of the problems.

Conviviality is completely absent in Fookinel. It wasn't always like this: the old people of Fookinel who remember the community as it was, remember deeper human values and stronger self-respect. Religion brought some degree of this conviviality. But fundamentally, it was the factory that did it. Now, whilst attachment is to fantasy objects and consumer society, and identity is seen not in relation to one another but in relation to unattainable dreams, there seems little that can be done.... But the issue almost certainly is to deal with conviviality.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Attachment, Detachment and Divorce

Tolstoy's detailing of the relationship between Levin and Kitty in Anna Karenina is one of the most fascinatingly vivid accounts of the progress of love. The obsessions of the tabloid press are testament to the fact that how people fall in love and the processes of attachment are in many ways less interesting than the questions of how people fall out of love... effectively a process of 'detachment'. The divorce courts are full of it! Couples, who for whatever reason, once found a deep sense of personal communicative inter-penetration (to use Luhmann's powerful phrase), and shared a sense of joy and excitement in being together, gradually either 'grow apart' or (in the case of Kitty and Levin) may grow together in new ways.

Levin and Kitty's relationship develops in a way where it doesn't fall apart, but it certainly changes from the initial idealisations of both characters (Levin's obsessive idealisation of Kitty and Kitty's wishes for Vronsky and jealousy of Anna). What these processes both attest to is a process of identification and attachment: but the attachment isn't to something real, but an idea. Tolstoy describes Levin's early observations of Kitty, and an almost fetishistic fascination with tiny details of clothing, hands, etc.

The difficulties of life and the intimacy of their married relationship changes the situation. Towards the end of the book, the excitement of Levin's idealisations are long gone, gradually replaced with a deeper sense of spirituality (this is after all, for Tolstoy, a self-portrait!). A more stoic realism pervades their relations. These are the shifting attachments and machinations of identity, as each individual seeks a viable state in the environment they find themselves. In the process, old obsessions are jettisoned as unsustainable and new attachments are formed.

In the divorce courts, new attachments tend not to include the person to whom the attachments were once formed. But Levin and Kitty are interesting because they don't go this way. The detaching from initial objects of attachment causes re-attachments to new objects as identity reorganises itself. But what is fascinating is the focus of these new attachments. One might be tempted to say that sex lies at the heart of it (that would certainly be the tabloid line!). But this doesn't explain Levin and Kitty who turn to religion. It leads me to think that absence, of which sex and religion are manifestations, drives the processes of adaptation and change. Might becoming more aware of how absence works be a key to the sustainability and evolution of human relations??

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Taking Care, Being Fair and Quality agendas in education

Educational institutions have a tendency to obfuscate the path to educational success. When students just want to know how to pass the degrees which they now have to have (and to pay for) to get anywhere in their lives, Universities find ways of making it "more complicated". Obfuscation often takes the form of 'quality improvements': political agendas to which students have to conform, ranging from 'Information literacy', 'personal development planning', 'internationalisation', 'professionalism', 'employability' etc all of which increasingly become burdensome and swamp the curriculum as the criteria for satisfactorily meeting these constructed learning requirements are understood by no-one: neither learners nor teachers.

Why does this happen? I think it's got something to do with technology and institutional anxiety to "do what technology cannot do" as a means to guaranteeing some role for universities in a world where more and more actual learning goes on on YouTube and Wikipedia. The ever ratcheting-up of quality criteria is the response of the institution who believes that this sort of 'quality' is what their customers want. Yet whilst YouTube can teach people about diffferential equations and Keynesian economics, it cannot award certificates.

What if the raising of compulsory schooling to (at least) 21, or until you get a degree, has more to do with the economy finding ways of maintaining education as a vital part of the service economy, rather than meeting 'skills' agendas?? There has been a key political and economic shift in the last 20 years. Governments used to think directly in terms of skills and promote skills development by funding education programmes (and other 'quality' initiatives in universities!). But maybe this isn't the agenda now. Maybe it is about keeping the education industry going...

Looked at this way, students are in a difficult situation - they are the pawns for keeping the system going: placed in an impossible situation where they either pay their fees for their degrees, or face a future in a professional wilderness where it becomes increasingly difficult to get a job without having paid your fees for a degree. And a good deal more of those available jobs will be in education itself, or in fields associated with it.

Quality agendas then become pernicious. Because they make the process of being awarded a certificate more difficult, less transparent and potentially unfair. After all, the over-dependence on individual judgement already introduces levels of uncertainty into the system. Couple this dependence on individual judgement with increasingly nebulous areas where those judgements have to be made, and you have a double-whammy for students: "how do I pass my degree?" "get on the right side of Dr x, whilst adhering to the requirements of quality agendas a, b and c - each of which are pretty incomprehensible and open to interpretation".

This is nonsense.

There are two fundamental things that must happen in educational processes:


Good teachers take care of their students, steering them through the difficult emotional landscape of learning. Institutions need to ensure that good care is a universal across all teaching. But more importantly, institutions must be fair with their students, ensuring that all students know where they stand and understand what it is they have to do to pass, and ensure that one student in one part of the institution doesn't stand a better chance of passing than another of equal ability.

As institutions globalise and expand their provision internationally and nationally, it is getting harder to BE FAIR. Dissonance between individual judgements causes 'autistic ruptures' within institutional processes which can be deeply unfair to students and which are fundamentally out of their control.

As education has been made increasingly compulsory over the last 100 years, the process has been accompanied by increasingly standardising assessments (often against much opposition). That means standardising the 'fairness bit' - ultimately to make it more fair, and to take away the element of 'pleasing Dr x'.  I think it's time Universities standardised their assessment. That would mean they could concentrate on "TAKING CARE", whilst "BEING FAIR" became part of a separate process.

But this doesn't have to follow the 'exam board' route. I think this ( would be a way of doing it...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Uninstalling EU...? (or why I am an Educational Cybernetician)

The best tweet I saw today was "Uninstalling EU... 1% complete". There's some 'big stuff' happening at the moment.

The problem seems to be to get any clarity on the situation. The first step is identifying where the crisis is. I'm tempted to say it's not the Euro which is in crisis, or the EU... the economic crisis is a "crisis of economics". The uncertainty over causal connections stems from the collapse of the available models we have for making sense of the world. Interestingly (but predictably), the reaction to this collapse is one of denial: economics can't be wrong; we have to fix our institutions to make them fit the available models - and 'fixing our institutions' means different things depending on whether you are France, Germany, Greece or the UK.

But really, we should be concentrating on fixing our models! There is a theory-practice gap, and I don't think the practice can develop without some serious attention being paid to the theory.

This is familiar territory for learning technologists. There's long been a theory-practice gap in educational technology (and education in general). It's telling that there has been very little coherent theoretical development in 50 years, whilst there has been an inordinate amount of shifting of practice - usually to advance towards pre-existing theoretical positions (whether constructivist, instructivist or whatever). But it's rare to find work which looks at practice as it is and seeks to remodel the theory.

We urgently need to look at the world as it is. We need to look at the lived experience of people in the globalised, technological bubble that we have created for ourselves; not from the perspective of wanting to oppose it (although we might), but simply from the perspective of acknowledging that it has happened, and at some level we (collectively) wanted it to happen. But most importantly of all, we need to recognise that living in the bubble produces the conditions under which it gets harder to stand back from it and ask "what's going on?". We need to see the danger in that, and find ways of doing something about it.

I was struck in a recent meeting in my University that staff are increasingly being asked to study for PhDs, whilst at the same time are so busy that they have no space to think. That's the situation that technology is producing for us (and particularly the species of 'techno-education' which has taken over the University sector). We have to understand it to learn how to live with it and manage it. And we have to make space for ourselves (whether we are in a University or not) to think.

This depends on having tools to think with. As I see it, the study and theorising of 'organisation' is the only disciplinary area which can feasibly and defensibly examine the mechanisms behind everything from the atoms of matter, to the biology of the cells from which we are composed, to the psychologies that yield us consciousness and action, to the communications that we make, and the institutions and nations we build. This is why I'm a cybernetician. More importantly, though, because I see that the only hope for us is to teach each other our understanding of these mechanisms, I would say cybernetics on its own isn't enough. It must be an 'Educational Cybernetics' which recognises that however good its models might be, those models must be taught and learnt before any change is possible.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Time, Ritual and Attachment

Susan Hiller has commented that the distinction between an object and an event is not a distinction about materiality, but about time: objects are events extended over time, she says. And so begins a conceptual mapping between  art objects, installations, happenings, etc.

My thinking about attachment to objects (for which I've just completed a paper for Cybernetics and Human Knowing which focuses largely on economics), is now extending to thinking about the biological mechanisms of attachments to events, rituals, seasons.... particularly acute at Christmas time.

In Louis Kauffman's work, the distinction between observer and object is tied up in Von Foerster's idea of Eigenform, and Kauffman has recently put time in there (at least this is my understanding) as a kind of operator. I think this conceptual formulation may be consistent with Hiller's thinking... but I don't necessarily find that it solves the attachment situation.

My rationale for attachment to objects is that proximity to the sensual perturbations of objects are maintained by the mechanisms of maintaining viability of the organism. This is shown in the diagram below:
Here the viability of the individual is dependent on the sensual perturbations of objects, and that in order to maintain viability the system has to take action to maintain proximity. In this way, I think that the model can explain Lorenz's baby geese. 

But what about time and events?

The key to understanding how that might work is to think of the role that anticipation might play in this process. I've been thinking that Kauffman and Von Foerster's work on Eigenform is not quite right (see Importantly, I wonder if the Eigenform is really an anticipatory system. As such, it belongs in System 4 of Beer's VSM (which is the part of the viable system which is looking towards the future). I have been trying to articulate (in a video for Kauffman) how an external reality might interfere with this idealised Eigenform, and in so doing 'create time'. Using musical experience as a metaphor (where time seems to move at different speeds at different moments) I've tried to express this as a continually shifting Eigenform
What's interesting here, with regard to attachment, is the extent to which the Eigenform/time relationship might be characterised as a 'form of life'. This in a sense is a higher-level eigenform, which encompasses (generates) the process of emergence of lower-level eigenforms. That means that the question of attachment to seasons, rituals and events may be a question of attachment to 'forms of life', or rather the question of attachment to the higher-level eigenform.

This may sound a bit half-baked. But I believe it has implications for the economic argument in my paper for Cybernetics and Human Knowing. Because in that paper, I make an argument for the compensation of one attachment for another (because we need this to be able to explain the exchange of goods). Now the idea of compensatory attachments might be extended to compensating goods for ritual and forms of life. With regard to education and religion, that is interesting, because it allows us to think what might be going on with St Francis of Assisi (and, incidentally, Stafford Beer!) and others who gave up possessions for spiritual enlightenment. 

There's much more to say on this, but a solid model for thinking is a useful start...

Monday, 5 December 2011

Body and Screen

In the Graham Greene short story "The end of the party", Greene describes how the two twin brothers, Francis and Peter, are playing hide and seek in the dark. Francis did not want to play, and had had a sense of foreboding about going to the party in the first place. Greene describes the intimacy of the relationship between the two brothers as they seek each other in the hide and seek game:
"for between Francis and himself, touch was the most intimate communication. By way of joined hands thought could flow more swiftly than lips could shape themselves round words. He could experience the whole progress of his brother's emotion, from the leap of panic at the unexpected contact to the steady pulse of fear, which now went on and on with the regularity of a heart-beat." 
This is, to me, what attachment is. It is fundamentally a sensual communication: the mothers voice, smell, touch with the baby - just as the touch between twin brothers similarly communicates "more swiftly than lips could shape themselves round words."

I'm thinking about this as I read Sherry Turkle's new book "Alone together".

Turkle is worried about our lives on screen. She sees physical togetherness separated by screens - peculiar techno-etiquettes which seem to run against common-sense behaviour (like the nanny who would only text her housemate because it "was intrusive to knock on her door"). I share many of these concerns, but I'm anxious to address them in a way which doesn't say "technology bad!".

The problem is attachment, and the fact that attachment may well be fundamentally physical. I'd wondered about an online space where attachments could form; but a friend pointed out that that is no more likely to be meaningful than virtual sex. But if it is about people being physically together, then we have a problem because somehow we have to stop the screen becoming a barrier and turn it into something convivial. The question is "how can technology help us to use the screen to face each other?".

I often sit on the sofa with my daughter and a laptop looking at her and my favourite youtube videos (lots of comedy). These are special moments for both of us, and something which we could not have done without Youtube and laptops. Both Youtube and the laptop enhances the moment of togetherness in an immediately to-hand way. But the attachment is with each other: we both recognise it as a special moment: we dwell in the moment.

Most of the time when I'm on the computer, this togetherness is not my experience. My thoughts are active, strategic and somewhat selfish: "how should I phrase this message to so-and-so?"; "I see so-and-so online.. should I skype them?"; "how many people have viewed my latest blog post?"; "what should my next blog post be?" (that one preceded me writing this!). I wonder if I'm not always seeking personal advantage or ego-boosting...

There may not be anything wrong with that, but it is important to recognise what it is not. Personally, I've found myself to be a happier person since I started blogging and tweeting, but my blog started out as a kind of therapy: I've learnt to blog as I've learnt not to be afraid. (Which makes me think that Luhmann is right about communication!) But on the other hand, I know so many people who live on Facebook in such an ever-active frame of mind that I'm left wondering about their deeper lives, their sense of self and ultimately their capacity to act sensibly. There is an aspect of 'life online' which is riddled with a deeper existential fear: do I blog and Facebook as a way of drawing attention away from my mortality?

It may be that only with catastophic loss does the power of attachment really hit home. At such moments, Facebook is not the place to be - it is not the moment when strategic communications are made. The place to be is directly dealing with those affected.

Greene's story ends in death, with such a loss. His Catholic doubt beautifully expressed:
"'Where's Francis?' but they were silenced by Mrs Henne-Falcon's scream. But she was not the first to notice Francis Morton's stillness, where he had collapsed against the wall at the touch of his brother's hand. Peter continued to hold the clenched fingers in an arid and puzzled grief. It was not merely that his brother was dead. His brain, too young to realize the full paradox, yet wondered with an obscure self-pity why it was that the pulse of his brother's fear went on and on, when Francis was now where he had been always told there was no more terror and no more darkness"

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Creativity and "Eigen-Forms of Life"

I've been recently working through papers by Von Foerster and Louis Kauffman on Eigenform: there's a powerful confluence of ideas which is hitting me quite strongly at the moment - something which doesn't happen very often. In such circumstances, it's difficult to get done what ought to be getting done - but some degree of reorganisation is necessary to make space for the intellectual work which has to be done at the 'right' moment in the 'right' conditions.

In other words, I think I'm experiencing a rich period of creativity. I think everyone experiences these at some points in life. Personally, I feel energized, switched-on, buzzing with ideas... generally good (ironic given the pretty dismal outlook of UK HE). I'm consciously trying to create the right conditions for things to be done. For me, those conditions include going to the John Rylands University Library - often quite late at night. The conditions also include certain practices - blogging (which has become increasingly important), going to the pub, going to church, having coffee, McDonalds (!), as well as the consequent bodily functions of various forms (which I won't go into!) which I think are particularly important to creativity. There's also travel (train journey on Thursday to Brighton). It has also required some discipline in terms of making sure I don't neglect other more prosaic things... although I am finding that even prosaic things are firing the imagination in ways I hadn't expected.

I'm fascinated by the richness of these things which I do in the 'right' conditions and their relationship to those conditions. It is as if something has happened inside me which seeks some sort of resolution through particular types of object relations with the outside world. It is as if I have entered a particular "form of life" (to use Wittgenstein's phrase) which drives to some sort of perfection, having articulated some renewed concept of my 'identity' and seeking particular relationships with the things and people around me in order to realise that identity. It may be that my 'identity' is now not the same as it was before this creative burst. I may have become a different person; in short I may have 'learnt' something. 

This is particularly exciting because my explanation for what is happening to me coincides with the object of my fascination and the thing which is stimulating me so much: Von Foerster's Eigenform. The nature of that excitement, and the recursive folding-in on itself of the Eigenform idea onto my own creative experiences are connected. If I believe Von Foerster to be right, then I trace the recusive patterns of my own experience onto the logical structure of an Eigenform.

Actually, I don't think Von Foerster is quite right. Because I don't think my apprehension of objects is an apprehension of an Eigenform. What I think is that an Eigenform is an anticipation of an object, with which a real perceived object interferes. It is in the process of interference that observation occurs, and (incidentally) time is made. But sometimes there is real confluence between the idealised Eigenform and the sense-object: mediative practices, minimalist music, op-art, drug experiences. The fact that in these experiences a sense of time is lost suggests to me that time is made in the process of interference. Where there is no interference from the sense object, the Eigenform closes in on itself and we become sucked into a pattern of our own recursions of thought, where recognising the pattern is itself part of the pattern.

My creative state is borne of the fact that I seem to have stepped-up a few levels of recursion, finding myself part of a large-scale Eigenform with the world. The large Eigenform helps me to situate the other Eigenforms I know from ordinary life. I know I could be deluded. But until such a point that some sense-perception disturbs the large-scale Eigenform that I am caught in, I don't think I can really believe any of it isn't true...

Monday, 28 November 2011

Interoperability, Levels of Breakdown and the Real-time web

I remember when working for a software house specialising in NHS data systems in the mid 1990s that one of the services they offered was the transfer of data from legacy systems to their own system. This was done through various rather unorthodox means, the most popular being running 'screen reports' from the old system, and scanning each screen for ascii text which was captured and then input into the new system. Was that interoperability?

Of course, of a sort, it was. In those cases, interoperability existed as a requirement to have a solution to a problem. Whilst there was a demand to upgrade a system, there was a threat that in the upgrade process, data might be lost. This was a headache for managers: a moment of breakdown in the contract between the supplier of the new system and the demands of the operation which required an upgrade. For users of the existing system, the assumption was that whatever was decided in response to this breakdown would work and everything would be ok. For end-users, the means by which a solution might be found didn't matter, so long as it worked.

The case for interoperability standards arose from cases like this, where enough variety of jiggery-pokery was being done in different areas for people to think how it was that some agreements could be made as to how data could be moved from one system to another. However, the case for interoperability standards arose in different places in the organisation, depending on where the problems or breakdowns that the interoperability standards addressed arose. For example, interoperability of learning content arose from concerns of learning managers who didn't wish their learning content to disappear if they changed system. As with the NHS data systems, end-users on the whole didn't care how the problem was solved so long as the solution worked.

However, it is interesting to compare these managerial interoperability concerns with the interoperability concerns of individual consumers, which have similarly led to standards. MIDI, for example, is much closer to individual practice. The problem of "how do I get my electronic musical devices to talk to each other" is a breakdown at the individual musician level (but importantly not at the 'listener' level). By being a breakdown at the individual level, it produced a marketing opportunity for musical instrument suppliers and the standard emerged. Similar individually-based (and even more universal) breakdown situations can be identified in the 3-pin electric plug. Other standards present breakdown situations for users who whilst being consumers, provide services for others who may not care on the adherence to standards by their service providers. Standardised construction materials and tools for example, present builders with solutions to potential breakdowns, which may well be of little interest to the customers who they serve.

What is particularly interesting is that a standards-based solution to a problem at one level of practice may present a barrier at other levels. Examples of this can be found amongst the plethora unpopular EU-directives which irritate the Daily Mail. But the point there is that from the perspective of high-level bureaucratic processes, particular standards address specifically-identified points of breakdown in the regulatory system of the European economy. However, the intervention of a standard has impacts on practice of individuals for whom the breakdown which the standard addresses isn't a problem at all, and instead presents ordinary individuals with their own new problem: a solution at one level is a problem at another.

When this occurs in e-learning, what tends to happen is that the standard simply doesn't get adopted. Whilst at a high-level, the standard is deemed necessary, at the personal level it is deemed irrelevant. It is worse if at the high level, the standard is paired with some sort of 'desired change in practice': that will never fly! The trick with technology standards is to find those which address individual breakdowns, but the solution to which creates a transformed organisational framework around which the different layers of regulation can organise themselves. TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML and (maybe) W3C Widgets are like this: each address a specific end-user need, but in doing so scale-up to address higher-level needs too.

In education, however, we have a tendency to look on problems from a high-level, formulating grand designs as to how things ought to be done "in order to meet the challenges of the future". However, if this is done by ignoring the challenges of the individual at the present, then the high-minded standardisation efforts are likely to be ignored. In the graph above, column B shows an identified high-level breakdown, which is significant at a global international level, but insignificant at an individual level. Conversely, column A shows an individual high-breakdown moment (say, "my whiteboard doesn't work"), which is significant for the individual teacher, but as it approaches the global level is insignificant. Column C is the most interesting. It is some sort of interoperability solution which addresses the institutional and end-user need. But by doing this, creates the transformed organisational context which can address problems or cause reorganisations further up the system (for example, a Widget might address an individual need, but create the context for an AppStore, which might  then provide new ways of thinking about the international coordination of education)

It may be that increasing real-timeness in the technology will make a difference both to the process of standards identification and needs, and to the processes of responding to end-user feedback. The issues over high-level breakdowns producing out-of-touch standards with end-users is really a problem of communication where transparency and timeliness of communication is the major factor. The real-time web might start to close the gap between individual practice and high-level management, where individual breakdowns become more transparent and available for inspection at a strategic level. In such an environment, the way we approach standardisation may have to change...

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Contemplation, Attachment and Technology

Imagine you are in the most elegant library. There is a smell of books; leather bindings; dust. There is a hushed atmosphere as people process solemnly through dusty bookshelves, stopping occasionally to inspect the volumes. The sounds are of distance footsteps and the occasional turn of pages. And each sound echoes through the vastness of the building. Dark corners catch your eye and entice you in to explore some undiscovered treasure that has not had hands laid on it for many decades, if not centuries.

Now imagine you are in a modern library with computers and sparsely separated bookshelves. Many of the books are in store, and many are now only available as electronic copies. The atmosphere, whilst respectful, is busy; databases are searched, results displayed, links clicked, leads followed-up.

I think the first example provides a context for a contemplative form of life; the second example provides a context for an active form of life. In my paper with Oleg on the Personal Learning Environment (see, I drew attention to Arendt's 'vita activa' and the 'vita contemplativa'. Technology practice, as practice, is more related to vita activa than vita contemplativa. The challenge of the PLE was for the active and passive aspects of technological engagement to be balanced. In truth, I now think this balance to be impossible with the PLE as we described it: the active life is dominant, to the detriment of contemplation.

At the heart of the contemplative life is the conviviality of 'being together' (like scholars are together in hushed communion in the library), and our hope with the PLE was that it should lead to conviviality. It hasn't. It has instead led what Habermas would call 'strategic action': a very active pursuit.

I'm thinking that with my current interest in Von Foerster's Eigenform, I can put more meat on this idea. The contemplative state is much closer to the 'pure eigenform' which folds in on itself. It is a rapturous, timeless, close-to-death-like state which embraces everything: it is a state of total love. The active state, by contrast, is a broken eigenform, where successive recursions lead to the continuously driven generation of new eigenforms. In the process, time is created which drives forwards further processes of asymmetry. This is consistent with what I argued in the PLE paper about System 5 and 4 being effectively more contemplative, and systems 3, 2 and 1 being more active. System 5, as I said yesterday, is responsible for steering towards the perfect eigenform.

But here I think it is important to recognise the importance of attachment. The first library provides a context for contemplation because of the potential stability of a eigenform in this environment. That stability depends partly on the shared experience of all who are there. And here, there might be some symmetrical magic which relates the physical environment with the psychological cognitive processes whereby the eigenforms which are generated are indeed relatively stable and fold in on themselves. It is through this state that we might say that there are "attachments" (but maybe not in Bowlby's language of course) to place and other people.

In the second library, as the eigenform is disrupted, so is attachment. System 5 seeks to chase attachments as a way of seeking the pure eigenform, but in this case it is elusive. As the individual chases the objects and people of attachment, so the symmetry is broken and often objects of attachment are lost.

This latter case seems to me to be the experience of computers: a shifting environment wherein attachments are lost and symmetries broken, but time continuously being generated. It may be that we need to recognise that this is a problem for learning, knowledge and society. To address it, I believe that the best approach is to go for the 'conviviality' card: it is the lack of convivial attachments which leads directly to the loss of the contemplative mode. If we could find some way of putting this back, then maybe we would get somewhere less alienating.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Powerful Symmetries and Eigenforms

I'm contemplating the conclusion of a wonderful paper by Louis Kauffman on Von Foerster's concept of Eigenform (see Von Foerster's concept of an eigenform is that it is a patterning of the behaviour of observation: in other words, to talk of eigenforms is to avoid seeing 'observation' as a 'seeing' of 'objects', and instead to see observation as a process which has trajectories which unite observer and observed. Emphasising this, Kauffman's conclusion states:

"The simple idea of iterating an operation upon itself is seen to be a key to understanding the nature of objects and the relationship of an observer and the apparent world of the observer. In this view, the observer does not stand outside the world and “see” it. Rather, what is seen is a token, an eigenform, of the recursive participation of the observer in a world where there is no separation of the observer and the observed. The experience of separation can just as well be an experience of joining in that participation. Objects become our own creations and EigenForm the world is the theatre of our actions upon it, which is us."
At the Von Foerster conference this year, I asked Louis whether there can be observation without anticipation, and if not, what the role of the abstraction of time was in the process of observation. I discussed with him later about the experience of music. As my understanding of Eigenforms has developed, it may be I am closer to answering my own question, and I am wondering to what extent Von Foerster's notion of eigenform and Kauffman's arguments about time and observation fit with my current interpretation.

There is something very powerful in the Eigenform idea. Clearly, observation is a process. Indeed, it may be possible as Kauffman and von Foerster argue that to see an object is to apprehend an eigenform: in other words, we detect a patterning in the process of our being which tells us "there is an x there". But then again, I think there are questions.

The Eigenform idea, as Bernard Scott pointed out at the conference, is closely related to Pask's concept of M-individuals and P-individuals. The M-individual is the 'machine' of the individual: their biological make-up. The P-individual is the psychological component, which, crucially for Pask, may exist not only within a person's head, but between peoples' heads. But.. but.. but.. isn't this saying "it's all psychology!"? isn't it saying "there's no such thing as society!"??? it looks like a kind of methodological individualism to me, and that carries ethical problems as Mrs Thatcher so clearly showed us.

So what about the experience of music and eigenform? What I want to suggest is that there are 'powerful symmetries' in aesthetic experience, and a powerful symmetry may well be encountered in experiencing a particular kind of eigenform where the recursions of experience lead into the form in a perfect way. In musical experience, at these moments time may appear to stand still in the way it did for St Augustine during his visions. But such powerful symmetries are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time we live with different forms of asymmetry. I wonder whether it is this asymmetry of experience which creates our sense of time: that any sort of patterning of recursive experience leads not into its own form, but into continually emergent eigenforms.

But there is more to this. because it may be here that the object components of experience show themselves to be real and external to the observer.

Because it is not just an object that is experienced, but the experience of other observers. And the experience of observing becomes behaviour which is experienced by others. And each of these experiences and observations of experiences has their own asymmetry: each of us drives each others time; each of us shifts each others eigenforms; and in this process, each of us makes choices.

But what is to steer us? By what criteria do we choose how to experience? There is a slightly abstract answer to this which is tickling me. It is that our tendency is to seek the state of timelessness which lies inherent in the pure eigenform which closes in on itself. This "ultimate stability" is at least present in death, but also in moments of rapture and transcendence. There is, I think, some justification for arguing that these things too are death.

Here there may be something to say about the Viable System Model and the Eigenform. If a person is a VSM, then the steering mechanism (System 5) is seeking to find experience of the pure eigenform: but it attempts it in a messy, asymmetrical world, where the process of regulation is never-ending until the moment of death. System 4 is the apprehension of the eigenform and the coordination of agency; System 3 is the provision of resources for keeping within the eigenform; System 2 is the immediate braking as alignment is maintained... maybe...

But what about my questions to Louis? Is observation possible without anticipation? and what does this mean for time? Most observation is asymmetrical: we may well detect eigenforms, but they continually emerge, and we continually seek to make them 'pure' powerful symmetries. The observation is made because our appreciation of the eigenform is ever-incomplete. That means our anticipation is wrong and so we are surprised. The by-product of the process is the creation of time: it is the dialectical pulse of adjustment (to nod towards Bhaskar!). Within the pure eigenform of a powerful symmetry, there is no observation; only being.

Of course, this is only an allegory. It may have a powerful symmetry of its own; it may take us closer to death. But the most fascinating thing is that whilst I create time through a process of breaking symmetries, the time of the process is still abstract... yet that itself, as I think about my mechanism, falls into another level of recursion and another asymmetrical eigenform...

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Visualisation and Allegory

The most powerful way of coordinating the attention of a large number of individuals is to tell a story. In a highly complex world however, it is often difficult to identify the story to tell: there are indeed so many stories, and often the narrator is tied up in the narrative. But at any moment, I think it is not impossible to identify the story. This is, after all, what great artists (particularly novelists and play-writes) do. When an artist creates a story, they create a thing of beauty which has a life of its own, but whose inner life resonates with the life that we see around us. For example, the political situation in a local university was described to me as being like 'King Lear'. Immediately the questions arise: who is Regan? who is Goneril? Gloucester? or the fool? These are particularly powerful questions because they invite a deep entry into a form of life (in the play) and the reflection on the form of life of the real. And the invitation is powerful enough to draw in a wide range of stakeholders, to whom the story can be told, and the comparisons made. There are two questions which I think emerge from this:
a. can the coordinated engagement with such a story result in control?
b. if we are not to summon up Shakespearean allegories, what other forms of story telling are there that might also impact decision-making?

In response to the second question, I have been thinking about visualisation. Increasingly visualisations are being used to tell stories about the dynamics of communications in the social web. Typically these take the form of "such-and-such is 'hot' or 'not'" or "an emerging trend", etc. Clearly such stories can be useful for decision and control: what to invest in, what to drop, how to steer policy, etc all become decisions that arise from examining such trend data.

All of which raises the question as to the stories we might tell about the day-to-day management of institutions. As I pointed out in a previous post ( the challenge of decision and control is that it has requisite variety in its flexibility to adapt to fast changing, technologically-driven environmental changes. But Shakespearean plays won't do for the sort of fast-changing environment that management faces (despite King Lear being useful in unpicking university politics). But the visual data from real-time systems might provide a way of linking a kind of visual allegory to real-time decision and control.

Visual data reveals symmetries in the same way that symmetries are revealed in artistic creations like plays. It may be in the symmetry that the sense and coordination between allegory and reality occurs. An allegory is in essence a 'powerful symmetry'. And this is what I think a visualisation of complex real-time data might also be. As our practice increasingly revolves around computers, and the data of our behaviour becomes richer and richer, something deeply creative emerges in our capacity to realise 'powerful symmetries' in the form of allegorical interpretations of what is happening and what needs to be done. The creative aspect in particular is important. The neuroscientists would have us believe this is a right-brain function. Ian McGilchrist would argue that most of what transpires within our techno-educational environment makes demands on our left-brains. Therefore, perhaps the most interesting thing about allegories expressed through visualisations is that in some way they might be corrective.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Creativity, Value and Technology

Any e-learning project which aims to 'increase creativity' faces a central challenge: how can it be measured? For all the innovative computer software that might be developed, and all the initiatives to try and get (often reluctant) users to use it, at some point a judgement has to be made "is it any good?"; "are there any new 'creative' ideas emerging?"; "is there 'creative' behaviour that can be causally attributed to the interventions of the software?". These are incredibly difficult and possibly impossible questions.

Questions about the 'goodness' of interventions, or questions about causal attribution of project interventions tend only to be asked in the context of methodological practices in the social sciences which themselves demand deeper questions about the goodness of methodologies and causal attribution of their use: creativity, value and cause all contain aspects of infinite regress. Indeed the infinite regress of 'creativity' is closely related to the infinite regress of 'value': there appears to be a strong family resemblance between them.

We need practical ways around these problems. One solution is to focus on evaluation methodology and its associated ontology, rather than focusing on 'value' itself, or 'creativity'. This is an approach that emerges from  the philosophy of Critical Realism. Critical Realism presents a critique of causality - particularly in the form that has been handed down to social science from the philosophy of David Hume. Thinking about value, causality and creativity in this way means thinking about the possible deep mechanisms that might lie behind observed phenomena. Creative acts present observable phenomena in various ways: communicative acts, aesthetic products, behaviours and impacts. What I suspect is presented in a creative act is a particular 'form of life'. There may be ways of characterising such a form of life in terms of descriptions of relations of mechanisms. From a Critical Realist point of view, such mechanisms may have components which are transitive (i.e. continually changing through human agency) and intransitive (existing independently of human agency - for example, physical mechanisms).

In this way, a focus on methodology of evaluation allows for deep observation and analysis of behaviour. Technologies increasingly form the context and background for that behaviour. The bringing closer-to-hand of new technologies with widgets and apps means that the disruption to existing forms of life can be minimised. On the other hand, new tools provide opportunities for collecting rich data about creative behaviour - particularly those tools which embrace the emerging real-time web. Real-time data of creative behaviour in shared spaces provides the richest opportunities we have so far had for studying forms of life which might be deemed creative. It is an important 'personal' counterpart to the increasing significance of 'big data' within institutions.

To do this is not to attribute causal significance to any technological intervention. It is instead to use technological interventions to expose causal significances as a way of increasing our understanding of the subtle forms of agency which can have dramatic emancipatory effects on the soul.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

How could a "form of life" be visualised? (and why ought we to do it?)

I think of all the questions I've come back from the Heinz von Foerster Congress in Vienna with, this is the one which fascinates me most. After wonderful presentations by Louis Kauffmann on time and observation, Alfred Inselberg on Parallel Coordinates (see picture above), Pille Bunnell on distinctions and domains and Bernard Scott on Pask's contribution to psychology (in which he also talked about von Foerster's analysis in response to Luhmann's question "how recursive is communication?"), I'm trying to connect issues concerning time, anticipation and visualisation in a way which might be practical and applicable to learning technology and other areas.

First of all, we would have to ask "why visualise?". I don't think "because we can" is a good enough answer. A better answer is to connect visualisation with the issues of decision and control. Astrid was reading on Wikipedia about the reasons why the first world war was so destructive the other day, and read that
"More than 9 million combatants were killed, largely because of great technological advances in firepower without corresponding advances in mobility".
Now we have even greater technological power in the form of trading systems and global finance which is "firing" on mechanisms of national governance and coordination which are too slow-moving to react: consequence = crisis and destruction. The solution must be better mechanisms of governance and control, and that means better and quicker ways of reaching informed judgements. Currently, our methods for presenting data attenuate its complexity, and consequently this increases the complexity of decision-making because  the attenuated data is open to so many interpretations; politics and ego then win out in terms of the favoured interpretation and favoured decision.

The visualisation of complex data tries to address this social coordination problem by presenting something very complex without attenuating its subtleties whilst providing people with tools for exploring its complexity and reaching consensus more quickly than at present. Hans Rosling's 'Gap Minder' is perhaps the best example of this sort of process.

But to what level of complexity should we go? I think our aim should be to visualise a "form of life" because only by appreciating the rich diversity of "forms of life" and their relationship to individual action and the 'family resemblances' (another Wittgenstein phrase) between different aspects of life can we get a sufficiently rich picture of the world that meaningful decisions might be made.

But a 'form of life' is a nebulous thing. There are many aspects of the form of my life which are in my head, and which nobody else could possibly inspect. On the other hand, those things which are in my inner life do have an effect on the communications that I make and the actions I take, and these things are observable. In an online world, the amount of 'behavioural' and 'communicational' data is vast. Leydesdorff has brought techniques from cybernetics to try and make sense out of this, and I wonder that there may well be a way forwards here. Also I suspect that modelling a form of life is closely related to identifying the degree of 'conviviality' in a society.

Current approaches to visualisation don't I think address the deeper issues of coordination and control. They tend to wonder in self-amazement at the degree of interconnections between things (twitter feeds, facebook posts, etc) without really thinking:
a. what does it mean?
b. how might it be useful?
Those are the central questions, and now the thinking needs to be done to really exploit the visualisation tools we have at out disposa to give ourselves better mechanisms of human control so that the balance between technologies of the market and globalisation and the technologies of governance and control once more have requisite variety.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Compulsory redundancies, Attachments and Forms of life in Education and Industry

Clearly, with at least a year-on-year reduction in funding of 8%, universities are having to shed staff. In the main, this is being achieved through the euphemistically-labelled "natural wastage": those close to retirement are being presented with "offers they can't refuse". However, there are a number of cases emerging nationally of compulsory redundancies achieved through the game of 'musical chairs' which I talked about in a previous post (see There are real human tragedies emerging from this, responsibility for which the managerialism within institutions is wishing (understandably!) to distance itself. In the process of distancing, the metaphor of "University as Business" is employed: Universities are businesses; businesses hire and fire regularly; Universities cannot afford to  be any different.

There are serious problems with this position, and they underpin the human tragedies that are currently emerging. However, it is a grey moral area and getting close to some clarity on the issue which goes beyond belly-aching is challenging. I think a possible way of examining it is to take a closer look at those individuals who are on the receiving end of losing their jobs.

Academic jobs have never been, to this point, short-term. The form of life of being in an educational institution has been one of accomodating the range of personal skills and attributes which make up the university with a forgiving and compassionate sense of community. This contributes to a prevailing atmosphere which is supportive to students, and (importantly) conveys values which are to be aspired to (although rarely achieved) in the outside world of industry.

The form of life in industry, on the other hand, often is high-risk and short-term. I remember my time working for a range of companies from small family businesses to large international corporations. The smaller the business (particularly if it was a family firm which often was characterised by an authoritarian structure) the higher the risk. Everybody knew that, so everybody was prepared for the moment when it was pulled away (and perhaps secretly hoped for that moment to come!). I personally remember being permanently terrified as a young software developer of losing my job (I didn't think I was very good at it!!).

So the difference is between a form of life which is generous and accommodating, and a form of life which is threatening and risky. What happens to individuals in each form of life is drastically different when compulsory redundancy follows. To understand how they are different, it is useful to appreciate how personal identities form in tandem with the form of life that is lived.

Bowlby's work on attachment and care is useful here and can help go deeper in the understanding of these different forms of life. Bowlby documents the reticence of children to attach who have had attachments rejected or withdrawn in the past: they acquire strategies for not letting themselves get hurt and become more reliant for their identity on other resources which they find they can control more effectively (for example, objects). In adulthood, it is reasonable to expect this to manifest as various types of fetishism, and an emphasis on strategic action as a means of protection. Is it too far fetched to suggest that such behaviours are characterised by those who work in industries which are high-risk and insecure?

Most people who work in education have had good educations themselves, and often their educational success has depended on strong family relationships and attachments in their upbringing. University traditionally has continued an environment of strong attachments, and its forgiving and compassionate nature has been very similar to the family environment. This is the environment that academics go to work in, and aspiring students aim for. It is attachment that nurtures knowledge.

On the other side of Bowlby's equation, however, is loss. All individuals experience loss in the form of bereavement at some point in their lives. Some losses are expected; some not - and those can have particularly devastating consequences. This is because when an object of attachment is lost, so is part of the identity of the person who was attached to it. The damage is often irreperable.

Now perhaps its easier to see the impact of compulsory redundancies in Universities in comparison to those in industry. The compulsory redundancy in a university is more like an unexpected bereavement. It is the loss of something which had become part of an individual's identity, and which always gave reassurance to the individual that the attachment was compassionate, forgiving, and likely to be always there. Were the university a business, the attachment wouldn't have formed so strongly in the beginning, because the individual would have sought to protect themselves from the risk of loss.

Managerialism wants to make the university more like a business. But there is an inherent contradiction here. This is because of the relationship between knowledge and love, and means of giving love is through the provision of an environment where strong attachments can form. I cannot see how the environment of the future 'corporate universities' can possibly do this: unable to provide attachments either for staff or students, they will instead fall back on anonymised "processes", which themselves will present enough risks and pitfalls for both staff and students to inspire the most inauthentic and strategic learning practices. In the corporate university with its business efficiencies and unfavourable working conditions, who would ever dare to attach?

Adaptive Comparative Judgement and Conviviality in Assessment

For all the talk about teaching and learning which dominates e-learning discourse, the principal strategic problem that Universities face is assessment. It is at the moment of  assessment, when an individual teacher passes judgement on the worthiness of a student's work that the problems begin. And whilst we try to 'moderate' that judgement (with a second opinion), ultimately it still is a high-risk unpredictable situation for students, who can often be placed in a position where they find it hard to tell whether their work will pass with flying colours or fail miserably, putting their investment of time, money and effort in jeopardy. Added to this, there are increasing organisational pressures which make the problem worse:
1. the pressure of student 'consumer' demands in the light of fees
2. increasing cultural and organisational distribution of teaching, learning and assessment
3. institutional difficulties in separating quality management from delivery (exacerbated by 2)

In other sectors of education (in further education or school), teaching and assessment are separated. Assessment is conducted  usually by examination boards, who publish clear criteria for the expected standard of work and the grades it will receive. There are still problems here, but it does mean that the person doing the teaching is not the person doing the final assessment, and this can create greater uniformity and predictability for students. Some FE courses work on the basis of publishing clear learning outcomes, leaving the design of assessments (in the form of coursework) to lecturers. This design is then moderated by external examiners. This is more open to problems, although it has operated successfully for many years.

However, an approach to the separation of assessment and teaching is being presented by technology in the form of Adaptive Comparative Judgement (ACJ - see ACJ is a different approach to separation of assessment and teaching, where there are not distinct groups of people doing assessment (independently of teaching), but rather the workload of assessment is spread across teachers working for the organisation. The cognitive load of assessment is spread much more widely, with an overall judgement being dependent on a large number of small 'comparative judgements'. These amount to comparisons between like-pairs of sections of work, with the judgement task being simply to say which of a pair is better.

This can only really become practically useful with computer support. With the computer support, the workflow of judgements that are required to be made, the distribution of work, the continual adaptation of the judgements that are required can all be managed. What emerges is a distribution of 'merit', upon which grading boundaries can be laid.

Obviously this would fit some areas assessed work more than others, but its organisational benefits go deeper than simply greater objectivity in assessment. I think it could be a way of making the whole business of assessment more convivial and community-driven. I could be wrong here (it could be something horrible!!), but the spreading of the cognitive burden of assessment means that collective coordinated small efforts of teachers can be seen to contribute to much greater transparency for students: that the universal benefit of working together coordinated through technology can be greater than the super-human efforts of a few individual judgements. 

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Understanding Inauthenticity and Technology

In drawing attention to individuation, attachment and conviviality, I have been pursuing ideas about how engagement with learning technology can be as deeply authentic (if not more authentic) than face-to-face engagement. At the back of my mind are the sort of convivial experiences that people have in choirs or team sports - those moments where life is given meaning through being together.

But our world, and the education system in particular, is not full of people 'being together'. Instead, there are many whose practices are currently focused on reducing the conviviality in institutions through restructurings of various kinds, the apportionment of increased pressure and stress on individuals as they are asked to "work harder" or whose idea of 'teamwork' is "do as I say". What I want to understand here is, having begun to identify a cybernetics of symmetry relating the inner-world to the outer-world (using attachment theory, fractals, absence, etc), how can these same mechanisms lead to the sort of inauthentic pathology that is present in the bully, the psychopath or the loner?

For these sorts of people, perhaps Habermas provides us with a good starting point. His description of "strategic action" is a description of inauthentic speech acts which are calculated to achieve a particular end in the outer-world, but which do not make a rich connection to the inner world. I've often thought that NLP training can be taken as a recipe for strategic action (although it doesn't have to be). At worst, people can be taught to numb their emotional responses, put on protective 'masks' which both intimidate others and hide emotions (this manifests often as a dead-pan expression which can sometimes be witnessed in politicians or senior managers), 'listen' carefully to communications in the environment, spotting key interventions that they might make to their own advantage, giving themselves maximum flexibility of action whilst restricting the flexibility of action of those around them. These are the techniques of bullies and psychopaths of all kinds!

Interestingly (and related to this) Erich Fromm worried about what he called 'cybernetic religion' - adherents to which were characterised by a view that states:
"success depends largely on how well persons sell themselves on the market, how well they get their personalities across, how nice a "package" they are; whether they are "cheerful", "sound", "aggressive", "reliable", "ambitious""
he argued
"people of the cybernetic religion constantly adapt their egos according to the principle: "I am as you desire me"" (To have or To Be, p121)
Ironically, this is very much NLP-man that Fromm descibes (and of course NLP owes its roots to the anthropological cybernetics of Gregory Bateson)

What is wrong with this is the lack of individuation, of authenticity, of creativity and freedom. It is characterised by slavery to the 'communications machine' that is the modern world. The communications machine offers that "if you push the right buttons, you will be ok". Speech acts, emails, telephone conversations, reports and accounts may fly by with the best practices of Fromm's cybernetic religion. But those who submit forget they are lost, and with their loss is a broader human loss - not just in the people they shaft on their way to success, but in the real good that they don't do, and the love that they don't show either for the world or for themselves.

C.S. Lewis called these people "men with empty chests" (in "The abolition of man"). Ultimately, I believe it is fear of death that creates this hollowness. But it is the mechanism I am interested in.

It may be a mechanism of 'death substitution' or 'absence substitution'. The nexus of sin lies in these 'death substitutes'. It is either 'success', or 'acquisition', or 'status' or the 'object of lust', or 'hatred' which fills the void. And as the void is filled with these things, an uneven symmetry emerges which unbalances the relationship between inner and outer worlds. The result is almost always narrow obsession. That suggests a kind of symmetry which continually turns in on itself in ever-decreasing circles, that never experiences the kind of total transformation brought about through transcendence. There may be a positive-feedback relationship between getting hooked into an obsessive symmetry and dependence of ego-identity on particular objects of attachment. That would certainly explain the obsessiveness: the car, the woman, the job, the house, the title that has to be 'had'...

Individuation, by contrast, is characterised by choice of attachment and deep awareness of the relationship between inner and outer worlds. In my model, this can only come about through true recognition of death and absence, because only this can give rise to an aesthetic sense of the 'symmetry of being' that can guide individuation to its most characteristic act: the divestment of possessions.

Monday, 7 November 2011

An Allegory of Time

If cybernetics is stuck it is possibly because there was some unfinished business at its inception. Norbert Wiener must have had an inkling of this because on the one hand, he knew he was founding a discipline that was concerned with emergent phenomena over time, whilst at the same time he was introducing a method of analysis of time-series which was based on a particular way of looking at time which owed more to the thing he wished to overturn: the Newtonian classical view of time as 'clock time'. His attempt to grapple with the issue is contained in the first chapter of his book "Cybernetics" where he addressed the issue of "Newtonian and Bergsonian" time. Drawing on Bergson's description of time, which concerns evolution and psychology more than the clocks of Newton, he argues that
"the modern automaton exists in the same sort of Bergsonian time as the living organism; and hence there is no reason in Bergson's considerations why the essential mode of functioning of the living organism should not be the same as that of the automaton of this type. Vitalism has won to the extent that even mechanisms correspond to the time-structure of vitalism; but as we have said, this victory is a complete defeat, for from every point of view which has the slightest relation to morality or religion, the new mechanics is fully as mechanistic as the old. Whether we should call the new point of view materialistic is largely a question of words: the ascendency of matter characterizes a phase of nineteenth-century physics far more than the present age, and "materialism" has come to be but little more than a loose synonym for "mechanism". In fact, the whole mechanist-vitalist controversy has been relegates to the limbo of badly posed questions"

For Wiener Newtonian time is 'reversible' because it is an abstraction. Bergsonian time, related (for Wiener) to evolution, is not reversible but continually emergent. (Bergson himself would have had something to say about this, but he was dead by this stage and his work was quickly being eclipsed by the phenomenologists). Wiener argues that Cybernetics is much more closely associated with Bergsonian emergent time rather than the Newtonian time of classical physics. In a way, this can be seen to be an attempt to make a clear distinction between the classical enlightenment thinking and the 'new age' that Wiener wanted to draw attention to, and an age of thinking about complex systems with feedback. The problem that Wiener didn't address was that the methods of analysis of his Bergsonian time were still inescapable Newtonian, and this set up a contradiction which was well buried within a discipline which had enough early and important successes in technology, communications and computing to allow this contradiction to be unexplored.

The fact that within it there lurked a problem became apparent with Von Foerster's identification of a need for a 'Cybernetics of Cybernetics', or 2nd order cybernetics: the cybernetics of observing systems. Supported by a philosophical critique of Wiener's 'engineering cybernetics', the question of observation and the psychological factors involving the feedback between the making of distinctions about the world and the unknowable nature of the world itself, led to a renewed theoretical effort in the 1960s and 70s. Spurred on by biological cybernetic theories and philosophical constructivism, this led to developments in psychological theory (from family therapy to Neuro-linguistic programming), pedagogy and teaching machines (Pask and Von Glasersfeld), groupware and workflow (Winograd and Flores), and many of the theories that have underpinned the development of the web.

But whilst the biological theories and Von Foerster's constructivism critiqued Wiener's focus on cybernetics and engineering (and certainly acted as a necessary corrective to engineering hubris!), it didn't critique the underlying paradox of time which Wiener himself was aware of right at the beginning.

Of the cyberneticians who were aware of the problem, I think Stafford Beer is the most perceptive. He resisted 2nd order cybernetics because, he argued, the issues it drew attention to were always in cybernetics deep down from the beginning. It concerned the nature of models. Beer understood models not as metaphors or analogies, but as ways of understanding the world. In effect, they were ways of telling stories about it. The essence of the model was in the story-telling, not in the universal isomorphism of its parts to the world (1st order cybernetics), or in the personally-constructed isomorphism of 2nd order cybernetics. It is the stories that change the world, and that was what Beer was interested in.

In this way, we can understand models as more like allegories than analogies or metaphors. Seen as allegories, there is no reason why the Newtonian conception of time needs to remain at all. But what we need is an allegorical view of time, rather than an analytic one. But what would this look like?

I think an allegory of time must concern at the very least 'beginnings' and 'endings': birth and death. Between birth and death is the thing that matters. For this we have to think of that "thing that really matters" which only concerns the bit between being born and dying (so 'life' won't do). The best I can think of is 'love'. So birth, love and death are the constituents of an allegory of time. But also it is worth considering that the cycle birth, love and death is recursive: that within the love of any one, is the birth love and death of many others. Moreover, love appears to us as a movement towards something - it has an object, and that there are many myriads of other objects "moving-towards" something within any "motion-towards" of any particular object: it is recursive. Moreover, the "motion-towardsness" of other objects within the horizon of love are themselves part of that horizon. Finally, love has a strong family resemblance (to use Wittgenstein's idea) to beauty, as beauty in turn is related to symmetry. So all of this "motion-towardsness" has a harmony and a symmetry about it.

But this is getting a bit poetic! More concretely, cybernetics has given us powerful ways of telling stories through the logic of mathematics and systems. The problem is that these "systems" have hidden their treatment of time. I think the time is right for time to be made explicit, and that this will reveal a different sort of cybernetics which will allow for a way to be found out of the impasse. The question to ask is how this new mathematics and logic of cybernetics relates to the ways which cyberneticians think at the moment, which they've inherited from Wiener, Shannon, Ashby, Bateson, etc.

There is much more work to do on this, but to begin with a simple mapping is a useful beginnning.
First, DIFFERENCE can be seen to correspond to 'BIRTH'. In this way, difference is still an 'event', but it is not an event on a horizon of time, but on the horizon of another entity which is similarly between birth and death: difference is an event on the horizon of love.

The biology of love itself is something which has already drawn the attention of the cybernetics of living things (notably Maturana). Autopoiesis and Structural coupling are good starting points for thinking about love. But they suffer from the inherent time-laden mechanicism where time is uninspected. I've always thought that regarding love, Luhmann got closer. And indeed, Bowlby's attachment theory provides a rich way of thinking about the inter-relationship between inner and outer worlds. There may well be ways of expressing these without using time, or explicitly formulating time where it isn't glossed over.

Finally, DEATH is generally not inspected, apart from the understanding of the pathological processes of system oscillation. I think death is key to understanding time: there can be no understanding of time without an understanding of death. And what death represents is ABSENCE.

I see these working together. ABSENCE creates a motion towards, and as such is a driver for LOVE (through maintaining attachments and establishing balance between inner and outer worlds), and within that process gives rise to BIRTH. I think this process can be expressed in terms of symmetry, and that fractals may be the best mathematical foundation for doing this.

...that's all a bit intense!
... I guess I won't really know until I really get stuck in to try and do it!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Google Real-time Analytics

There is something fascinating (and slightly narcissistic) about watching user stats accumulate in real-time using Google's new real-time analytics feature. I've been discussing with David Sherlock how the immediacy of this might affect individual behaviour - that we get caught into a cycle of 'stat-chasing'. It strikes me that the fast feedback mechanism between agency and environmental feedback through the technology is pretty similar to the mechanism described by John Bowlby for attachment formation and maintenance.

(and part of our exploration of this will be to watch what happens when I post this.. I post up a video later...)