Monday, 28 May 2012

Meaning, Emancipation and Forgiveness

I've been wondering if 'meaning' and 'emancipation' are the same. To consider this, there are obvious first questions:
  1. What do I mean by meaning?
  2. What do I mean by emancipation?
I want to start with the concept that I believe links the two: possibility. I have been arguing for a conception of meaning recently as the 'structuring of expectations'. In day-to-day experience, I would explain this as the sensation one gets when confronted with something that appears meaningful as the 'world opening up in front of us': the  revealing of a wealth of possibilities. This is what happens when we fall in love, when we see a beautiful artwork, walk in an ancient city or gaze at the ceiling of a gothic cathedral. At those moments, constraint which bore down on possibility is lifted, fear is gone, and minds are over-run with fabulous avenues of thought, feeling and action of which it was previously oblivious. In music, these moments of meaningful revelation are characterised by a surprising turn in tonality (Schubert is the master of this). But what matters is the transformation of expectation, rather than necessarily an increase in possibility. This is worth saying because evil things carry meaning as well as good things, and if I am to draw a parallel between meaning and emancipation, the meaningfulness of evil, what we do about it and its negative effect on emancipation is of fundamental importance.

So what about emancipation? Does possibility mean freedom? To answer this, it is perhaps worth considering those aspects of unfreedom: fear and oppression. Fear restricts possible actions from within; oppression restricts possible actions from without, whilst also causing fear and inner restriction. The two forms of freedom described by Isaiah Berlin as "freedom from" and "freedom to" may be seen as "freedom from" oppression and its consequent fear; whereas "freedom to" implies a balance between the individual will and the world which empowers action in fulfilment of individual purpose. There are of course instance where "freedom to" can become oppressive for others, so there is a need for positive and negative liberty to exist in a balance. Seen in this way, and in the context of possibility, Von Foerster's ethical imperative makes an interesting comparison:
"Act always so as to increase the number of choices"

Having said this, the constraint of fear in "freedom to" is not explicitly identified. Therefore, one might believe one is acting to increase one's possibilities, but all the time one is burdened by inner fears, or unrecognised oppressions. Von Foerster might say that his 'imperative' is in fact a heuristic: that increasing the number of choices will ultimately mean overcoming fear or oppression. But with what gauge could you measure it? Over what timescale are one's possibilities to be identified? 

I think there is only one index of possibility: it is the visceral response to something meaningful. It is the climax that we search for, the journey's end which marks the beginning of a new journey. Importantly, however, I think it is not something that can be reached through following a heuristic. Instead, meaningfulness arises at moments of significant restructuring of expectation. Given that expectations are build around a set of relations with the world, such a change of expectation results from a transformed relationship with the world. Here the divestment of old attachments and establishing of new ones, expenditure, profligacy, passion and rejection are all aspects of transforming expectation which are also deeply meaningful.

But given this characterisation, something can be meaningful which leads to rejection or even oppression: massacres are meaningful to the perpetrators. How then can meaning and freedom be the same? 

The key to this question (and it is the most important question) lies in the relationship between fear, oppression, love and hate. Murderers constrain themselves deliberately, because without constraint they would not be able to do what they do. Breivik, for example, told the court that he desensitised himself in order to carry out his horrendous crimes. Breivik wants to be feared; he wants to be the oppressor; he wants to be hated, whilst at the same time celebrated by those sympathetic to his cause (and he believes that one day the world will thank him for his courageous acts). Breivik's callousness is oppressive; he horrifies us, and the fear we experience is meaningful to us; behind that meaningfulness is some 'dreadful recognition' that draws attention to our shared humanity and the possibility of horror. But nevertheless, or because of this, our expectations in the presence of such fear are drastically restructured and what emerges is a frightened and narrow world.

But the narrow and frightened world also frightens us because we see it as something which is forced upon us. It is the result of oppression and fear. Only the conquering of fear can relieve the oppressive forces; only a re-restructuring of expectation that finds new possibilities in a fear-dominated landscape can overcome the oppressive force. This re-restructuring may, I think, be the defining characteristic of forgiveness. Forgiveness is meaningful because it reacts to the meaningfulness of evil in the same way that the evil itself imposed its meaning on us: by transforming expectations.

The need to forgive is borne out of care and transformative praxis. It is transformative because of the power of the meaning it conveys. My question about the relationship between meaning and emancipation is perhaps about 'degrees' of meaning and 'degrees' of emancipation. It may be that the degree of meaning is related to the degree of transformation of expections...

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Education as Industry

What sort of an industry is education? Behind that question is a question about industry in the first place. We tend to have a particular view of industry which manufactures or sells goods and services. In doing so, it creates employment and generates profits. The car industry makes cars; the banking industry sells financial services; the building industry builds houses; the supermarket industry sells food (but  increasingly provides banking and other services). A trite continuation of this is that "the education industry sells educational services". But what does that mean? Is an 'educational service' like a financial service? Or is it like manufacturing?

In the sense that advice is sought and benefited from in education, the education industry can be said to be like a financial service. However, in the sense that degrees are printed and coveted by potential customers, the education industry is like manufacturing. In these two aspects, the education industry has an important historical precursor: the selling of indulgences by the Catholic church.

That's perhaps not a good precursor, but really, little else fits in thinking about the kind of industry that education is. And in a business sense, it is highly profitable - until someone smells a rat and does something about it (enter Martin Luther!). However, the rat is there, and education as an industry (which is clearly where it is heading) has a big problem.

But I want to return to nature of industry in the first place. Because, as I discussed in my last post ( Industry does far more that manufactures or sells goods and services. In employing people, the workplace becomes the locus for human relationships and learning. And whilst the nature of the workplace itself has changed drastically in the post-industrial world, we all have someone to say 'good morning' to, or to gossip about the latest misdoings of management. Such exchanges are meaningful to individuals, and in good companies, camaraderie amongst the workers is an essential part of business success, and workers see their identities in the context of their professional and domestic relationships. In bad companies, there will always be pockets (or cliques) or camaraderie, although other workers may become alienated from their work or their role in the organisation.

Educational institutions, as workplaces, are no different. There is someone to say 'good morning' to, and there is plenty to gossip about. But learning is the thing in the educational workplace. Indeed, whilst in the software industry, programmers might say 'good morning' before diving into some code (actually, being programmers, they might not say 'good morning'!), workers in education say 'good morning' to each other before saying 'good morning' or afternoon to their students, and conversations bleed over from the work to gossip to administration and so on. Educational institutions make communications.

In a good educational institution there are individuals who are skilled in the art of making communications with students and staff which light up those students and staff and lead to ever more interesting communications. Such communication is borne out of the conviviality of the environment of the educational institution. Eyes can be looked into, gestures noted, questions asked, emails sent, blogs written and referred to and Skype conversations launched.

Communication is incidental in industries like banking and manufacturing. Whilst good organisations will nurture and exploit it, they will always ensure that it doesn't get in the way of the 'main job'. In education, it is the main job. Yet, in education it is often not recognised as being the main job by those who are not academics (often managers): they do not see the making of communications is an art where academics are masters of this art. They might be more inclined to see it as 'unproductive' and academics as 'lazy'. They may instead, see the education industry either as manufacturing degrees, or providing educational services, or (worse) selling indulgences. A bums-on-seats-retain-at-all-costs mentality is the natural consequence of this. Yet this is a poor way to achieve objectives around both recruitment and retention.

It is here that an Education Industry might be an enlightening operation. An Education Industry that sees its role in the "production of communications" will only focus on those communications that are meaningful (because only meaningful communications can be sustained). Conviviality, flexibility, openness and an embrace of diversity are essential elements to achieving this. But what is needed most of all is a sense of purpose within the industry that this is what it is about.

Education has traditionally seen itself as being about knowledge (just in the same way that religion can see itself as being about faith). Knowledge is tied up with communication; it seeps through the togetherness of people - whether they are in the workplace or the classroom. But with the industrial workplace increasingly not able to supply the pre-requisite conviviality in society, it must be left to education to fill the void, and consequently to nurture knowledge and fulfil the deep yearning for meaning that is felt by every human being.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Social Mobility, Education and Industrialisation

Agreeing with Alison Wolf that "vocational education is a great idea for other peoples' children" won't make me popular since she's become Michael Gove's puppet. But I think on this, she's right. Vocational qualifications are dreamed up by the middle classes as a dewey-eyed guilt-driven solution to what even they can see as a tsunami of lost teenagers (God... there's a thought!) caught out in an employment market determinedly gluing people to their social position if their maths and english (capital E?) isn't any good.

So Gove sets about trying to get their maths and english (I don't care about capitals!) better, with a drive for more traditional education (just like he had!). But it's unlikely to work, and will probably serve to exacerbate their misery. How many times do you need to be told you're no good at something? Try just once more...

I suspect the root of the problem doesn't lie in the education system. I would be tempted to say it lies in the home, but this is not quite the whole picture. Kids who grow up with books and a family that loves reading, will learn to read. Kids whose parents worry about them learning their tables will learn to do maths (actually, kids whose parents don't worry about them learning their tables on ideological grounds, will probably do even better!). But having said all this, I don't believe homes are that different from how they were 50 years ago. Yes, there's more divorce and possibly more emotional chaos in the home - but the nuclear family of 50 years ago was pretty radioactive in different, but equally oppressive, ways. Yes, technology has invaded the home, but it has also given the kids something to talk about when they go to school. But what has changed is the environment of work, and I think the work environment more than any other factor is creating the social mobility problems that we now face.

Mass industrial employment was not predicated on an ability to read and add-up. Physical power and endurance (if you had it) was enough. Teamwork helped, but often social skills and intelligence developed  in the Steel mill or the mine, not the classroom. Physical work provided the step up, acknowledging the basic biological attributes of an individual, but then providing a context from where they might grow. And of course not everyone could hack-it (I would never have survived down a coal mine!) Whatever emotional trauma lay in the childhoods of individuals, some of them could do something that was rewarded and valued.

It is the end of industrialisation that is the end of social mobility. Service jobs self-select the articulate and bright. Service companies are run by the articulate and bright whose parents had books in the home and worried about their kids learning their tables. The end of industrialisation brings a radical split in society between the communicative classes and those whose childhoods are damaged in the home. This, I think, is why the miners' strike is such a critical historical moment. The workers knew what  they were losing. It wasn't the loss of an industry; it was the loss of equity.

The question is, how much of a time-bomb is the lack of social mobility? How worried are we? Do we believe there will be riots? How determined are we to do something about it that actually works, rather than pretending to do something about it 'because we ought to'? But if we were really determined, what should we do?

One thought is to reintroduce industrialisation: (*in a deep 'cinema' voice*) "The return of the industrial revolution - it's back! but this time, it has a social mission!" I can't see that somehow - even with the Hollywood treatment. If a robot can do the work, why not let it? However, "cottage" manufacturing may be possible. But what industrialisation presented socially - in the steel mills and the coal mines - was conviviality. People were together, being themselves and being useful, and being seen to be useful. From there, people could start to grow from basic human relationships and mutual recognition.

The end of industrialisation has brought social atomisation; or maybe it was the other way round. Either way, social atomisation has brought a lack of social mobility because socially-atomised industries (the service industries) require from their workers the inner emotional resources which can only be nurtured in a loving home. Industrial society did not predicate itself on the existence of loving homes. I think the most important lesson taught by industrialisation was that it had nothing to do with what was made. If it was simply about that and nothing else, industrial society should have collapsed as Marx predicted. Instead, it had to do with the fact that the factory was a context for learning and making sense of the world. It hung together not just because it suited capitalists, but because it suited workers too.

In their current form, the vast majority of service sector industries cannot provide an environment for conviviality. There is only one service sector industry which has the possibility of being able to do this. It is EDUCATION. But the nascent education industry faces a drastic choice as to whether to follow the other service industries and become socially atomised (with increasing formalisation of assessment, content, etc) or whether to become a new industry for conviviality.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

What is growth?

Economic growth appears to be over. At least for the time being. Which is a good time to ask "exactly what is over?" For when we think of growth, we think of this:
Over time, we are monetarily richer. Why does that convey meaning? Perhaps because over time we can see ourselves being able to acquire things which we weren't able to do before. But of course, what it is that we might choose to acquire is dependent of economic forces outside our own individual growth. Fundamentally, it may be that growth is an increase in possibilities where more of the world shows potential to us because we see that we can do more with it; we anticipate more. Consequently, growth may be related to an increasing sense of meaningfulness in life.

That is revealing because the experience of contraction is often accompanied by depression, bewilderment and a decreasing sense of meaningfulness: things that were meaningful before, where we anticipated much, now seem less promising; hopes are dashed, and so on. That's pretty much the mood in UK HE at the moment!

I argued here ( that education "is the possibility of an increase in possibilities". What does that have to do with growth (economic or otherwise?). If we see economic growth as an increase in the meaningfulness of the world brought about through increasing capital assets, education presents the possibility of increased meaningfulness through increasing intellectual resources which underpin increased communicative power. Communicative power unlocks new possibilities, including of course, the acquisition of capital assets which themselves can render more meaning in the world.

What I'm arguing is that economic growth and education are very similar: essentially they are existential concerns which seek meaning in life, where meaning is seen as a 'structuring of anticipations' (following Leydesdorff). Intellectual development can off-set capitalist behaviour because it too can render the world meaningful in ways which do not require (or even critique) capitalism. 

What might all this mean in the emerging education industry, where education is subject to capitalism, and where capital become essential to the unlocking of education opportunities? It is perhaps no surprise that this should happen: once the scope for capitalist growth in terms of increasing profits and exploitation has been exhausted, capitalism should turn towards that enterprise which shares its drive for meaning. 

This need not be altogether bad, although no doubt there will be much that's bad in it because there is so much scope for confusion. But a confused education system simply cannot deliver meaning. Confusion is the antithesis of meaning. 

What is required in both our economic thinking and our educational thinking is a deeply critical examination of what they are about and how they inter-relate. In particular, how they relate to the meaningfulness of individual lives is of fundamental importance. 

When people die, they usually leave behind two significant things:
  • the assets they acquired in life
  • the vestiges of the communications they made (in letters, blogs, and in the memories of those they loved)
These are tied up together and they develop together. In a life, there are many threats to both the assets (through catastrophic loss, bankruptcy, etc) and to the communications (breakdown of relationships, poor attachments in childhood, etc). 

The central educational question is an economic one; the central economic question is an educational one. We have looked at the world through one eye only; now we need to open both eyes and perceive the depth of a human life.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Vulnerability and Academic Dynamics

Every now and then I get into a social situation where I feel uncomfortable. It may be that someone says something to me that upsets me, or I'm particularly nervous about saying something, or have my hopes dashed in an exchange with a colleague or a student. In such moments, I can feel exposed and vulnerable: letting show feelings which I'd prefer to be hidden. Over the years I've learnt to be more comfortable with this, and accept vulnerability and feeling uncomfortable as part of a process. I've learnt to value it because the rawness of emotion that arises from such moments can often spur new directions. Vulnerability, to me at least, is important.

Students are often vulnerable in this way. Many try to cover it up - avoiding the uncomfortable issues, trying to do the socially acceptable thing, making it 'look good' and putting on a good show even if underneath it doesn't feel good at all. It's not uncommon in academia to find teachers who play similar games. Over the years they learn bravado and confidence, but with bravado and confidence goes the need to defend their own position (and consequently, an inability to grow). Ironically, I've found that it is often the most vulnerable students who are capable of undermining the greatest confidence in professors and teachers. Academics sometimes don't take well to such challenges, often patronising their students with long words that mean nothing (and the students know it). Tragically, such bravado and defensive behaviour is often the most successfully transmitted knowledge to students.

These are age-old problems. No doubt Socrates patronised Plato when Plato said something that didn't fit Socrates's sense of identity. From those ancient dialogues, we get no sense of the 'positioning' between teacher and student. In modern universities, academics compete with one another as to who is 'top dog'. Once again, bravado and the brass-necked confidence kicks in. Too often it is survival of the most confident and quick-witted, rather than survival of the most sensitive and thoughtful. This dynamic has characterised academic life for centuries.

Learning to embrace vulnerability is to recognise it as meaningful and useful. Indeed, the visceral emotional reaction to an uncomfortable situation is as meaningful as the excited, passionate enthusiasm for some new idea or individual. But whereas excitement and passion lead to new avenues and opportunities, awkwardness and vulnerability lead to retrenchment and insularity. Yet if we learnt to look at awkwardness as a sign for something, and asked ourselves "what does it mean?" then I believe it can be seen as something as positive (if not more so) than excitement and enthusiasm. After all, excitement and enthusiasm rarely leads to a critique of what it is that made us excited, but instead entails an overlooking of the emotion as we look to new opportunities.

I think there are important lessons for academic behaviour and the way we value students here. If vulnerability is seen as a strength rather than a weakness, then it is students who have the greatest advantage, not professors. They have the fresh eyes, ears and brains. Knowledge lies waiting to be revealed in the challenge between fresh perspectives on the world and the established positions of academics. If academics dismiss their students as "no good", or they assert their own confidence over the students' (or colleagues) vulnerability they dismiss not only their students' privileged insight, but also their own opportunities for growth. The job of transmitting culture is precisely the job of opening hearts.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Masques and Technology

I'm going back to early academic enthusiasms - to some of the things that Ian Kemp pointed me towards when I studied music at Manchester. This was at a time when we were studying Tippett's (then quite recent) "Mask of Time". Why call it a mask? What was that all about? In looking for an answer to this my focus turned to the 17th century masque that Ben Johnson, Dryden and others were involved with (Shakespeare was on the fringes of this - although I suspect he was more interested in opening up the popular theatre market, rather than taking commissions from the nobility: interesting stuff here - When I started work at the University of Bolton, I initiated a project using computer games for storytelling writing some fairly simple software that allowed movies to be made of game interation, text added, and music created as players moved through a virtual world ( Now this feels like ancient personal history, but it was from here that I started thinking about cybernetics and issues of technology, control and coordination in experience and educational organisation.

What was interesting about 'Steps to Parnassus' was the rapid feeback between action, storymaking, music making, and then further action and reflection. Many of the movies that the kids produced were fascinating. In many ways I still think this is the most interesting thing I have done in e-learning. But after becoming involved in e-learning 'proper' and doing JISC projects, and focusing on (incredibly boring) things like e-portfolio, and (much more interesting) things like Personal Learning Environments, I moved away from this game-like environment for reflection (although aspects of it still were present in doing things like collaborative mind-mapping and agent-based modelling in the SPLICE project).

Now I'm reassessing things. Not just because it seems that the e-learning thing is over (especially in terms of the generous project funding that gave me freedom to do this stuff), and that I have to find new interesting things to do, but also there is a need to take stock generally.

Where are we? Quite simply: "Too much information - no capability for decision and control"

and some emerging questions from this... What do we mean by 'information'? What sort of decisions should we be taking? What does effective control look like in an environment of run-away information? (but this would be to use a cybernetic perspective on control, which (as so many fail to understand) has nothing to do with fascism).

"What do we mean by information?" is what I have been driving at recently. Where is the distinction between information and meaning? If information and meaning are co-present, does that mean consciousness is implicit in information (as some physicists are beginning to argue)? What is the ontology of information? and so on... lots of fascinating (and I think new) academic debate there!

"What sort of decisions should we be taking?" is related to how those decisions are taken and who takes them. It is dependent on the first question about information and meaning. It depends on how we coordinate knowledge - and what we think knowledge is. I think Hayek is important here, as is the Critical Realist economics. The deep issue is the relationship between axiology and information. Within this, issues of individualism and conviviality need to be addressed - particularly when we consider the locus of knowledge. We need to recognise the atomisation of individuals as something which frames our current experience, and may hamper our attempts to dig ourselves out of the hole we've got ourselves into. Maus's work on giving and 'potlatch' (particularly in the economic interpretation given by Bataille) may also be important here.

"What does effective control look like in an environment of run-away information?" that is a practical question which relates to technology, and an understanding of how technology relates information to experience. In particular, it focuses on how the relationship between technology and experience might be harnessed for the coordination of meaning and values. In other words, this is dependent on an understanding of the other two questions. And here (as I was suggesting yesterday) is where drama, masques and other such participatory devices become important.

I'm blogging a lot at the moment because a lot is happening. There's an opportunity to put things together. But the opportunity is always in the moment. If I don't embrace the moment and get it down, it will be lost. And that, in essence, is what I'm driving at with this issue of real-time feedback and coordination. Maybe I'm "playing with reality" through my blog?

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Games within games and plays within plays

If you could imagine a computer adventure game that was actually 'real' where virtual things on a screen become physical things: things would continually change shape according to the actions of people. Nobody would know where they were. Everything would change. The physical constraints of the environment would be so transitory that everybody's interpretation of "what's going on?" or "where are we?" would be different. No decision could be made as to what to do, and any agreement between individuals would rest on the expediency of mitigating the possibility of disagreement rather than defining shared values and principals. This is what I believe IT does to us, and whilst thinking of a computer game being 'real' is to turn informational constraints into physical constraints, I think information constrains us just like matter.

This is a useful thought experiment to further explore the theme of symmetry and abstraction that I started yesterday: Now I want to consider where information technology fits into the symmetry/abstraction/experience framework. [of course, a framework is already an abstraction, so I guess I'm not off to a good start!]. Thinking about how the reality of a computer game might affect us (actually, maybe a bit like TRON) and the disorientation that ensues highlights the point about the constraints on experience.

The main point I want to explore is that information technology provides experience and constraint simultaneously. Abstraction alone is information, and the information constrains, leads to experience, new experiences are abstracted, and so on - as I discussed yesterday. Technology represents both informational constraint and physical constraint. Any technology results from a process of abstraction in the first place. Someone has an idea for a new tool to build, whether physically or in software. That tool's physical presence changes the environment of experience. The lights on the screen also frame experience, and they are usually presented within an extended informational framework of 'rules for use' which is presented either within the  office where the technology is implemented, or presented within the technology itself ('how to use...'). But technology is a realisation of an abstraction.

What's important about information technology is the ease with which the informational constraints of experience can be manipulated. Our social networks abound with continually emerging informational constraints. As they change, so we change. Of course, this is similar to thinking about the information within a conversation. But within information technology, there are particular kinds of constraint that frame experience which is also constrained by physical constraints of the medium (only text, disembodied). Added to that, there are new constraints which may be applied which have nothing to do with the conversation, like changes to the interface (think of recent changes to Facebook). These themselves affect the constraints of the conversation.

We have never in our history been able to change the constraints of experience with such fluidity as we can with the  manipulation of informational constraints through IT. It is as if we were in a computer game - indeed many of our computer systems feel like giant social games increasingly played out in real time (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc). A despotic baron might once have destroyed a local village, or the local church might have been burnt down, but these are not easy things to organise - even for a despotic baron. The manipulation of experiential constraint of information is achieved with the flick of a switch.

But making effective collective decisions, and deciding upon the principals for those decisions (rather than expediency) is important to avoid catastrophe. Expediency and lack of coordination in decision-making can both steer things over the cliff-edge. But in a shape-shifting world, how do you avoid that?

But technology increasingly is a "play within a play". Whilst it manipulates reality through manipulating information constraints, the action of the manipulation and the manipulation itself is also subject to technology which becomes the material for experience. This is where the 'play within a play' is interesting. For in the "play within a play", there is still experience over time. In the "play within a play", observers are participants observing observations. Players within the shape-shifting information playground may explore their own information-constraining actions. In this "play within a play" what can be revealed is the inherent meaning that lies behind the action of each individual as they engage in continual constraint. In essence what is revealed is a coherent structuring of expectations.

A coherent structuring of expectations is more than 'agreement'. It is more than expediency. It involves a deep shared acknowledgement of what is likely to happen and what to do about it. It affords a deep metacritique on the shape shifting processes of technological constraint, and a self-awareness of each individual's role in that. This experiential identification of shared meaning is a temporal process which has form. It has symmetry much in the way that a piece of music has symmetry. What is sought in the process of bringing people together to explore their experiences is an aesthetic coordination of meaningfulness. It is transformative of the individuals as well as transformative of the action situation.

What is most interesting me in this is that for the ancient Greeks, drama fulfilled a deep sociological function and that there seems to be a parallel with this process of coordinating meaning together. The Greeks invited members of a society into a shared process of observation. Within that process of observation, it allowed for the formulation of meaning. Interestingly, the Greeks similarly had concepts of a shape-shifting universe.

Our information environment is shape-shifting, and in order to manage the environment of huge amounts of information, a way of playing with the reality of the shape-shifting world must be found which invites those within the environment to be observers of the environment's own dynamics. Perhaps only then can a dynamics of meaningful coordination emerge.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Symmetry, Experience and Abstraction

I've had some fascinating discussions with Oleg over the last two days, discussing our book on "Educational Cybernetics" and negotiations with publishers (which are sometimes frustrating), but also dealing with new developments in cybernetics and their possible implications. The most significant of these is the emerging deep critique of 'information' coming from physics and biology. This is currently affecting my thoughts as I write a paper with Leydesdorff on the VSM and Luhmann's social systems theory (I think there's a matter vs. information thing going on there), and my thinking around papers I intend to give at the American Society for Cybernetics on abstraction and time, and a similarly themed paper on abstraction, mechanisms and critical realist economic theory in Marseille next month.

Oleg's view is that Bateson had these same insights into the nature of information a long time ago. My initial reaction is that I wouldn't be at all surprised. But it's useful to do a deep reading of Bateson's arguments to unpick what he means. First of all, the issue of abstraction and experience he's documents very clearly with this diagram:

There is an oscillation between abstraction and experience. From experience emerges a description of the experience, and from the description a form is produced within which new experiences are framed, and then described, and so on. An interesting comparison can be made to a similar oscillating diagram a few pages later which shows the relationship between 'calibration and feedback'.

This I think is significant for the processes of economic control, because in order to calibrate, some knowledge of the ontological mechanisms of the processes must feed into knowledge about what interventions to make. But what's in a mechanism? Mechanism is everywhere, and everywhere it is underpinned by a concept of successionism (which is the topic of my economics paper). Bateson says A->B->A->B,, and within A we describe x->y->z in language. In describing x->y->z, a typology of x', y' and z' emerge at B, with new descriptions of mechanisms x'->y'->z', and so on. But is this it?

What I think is important is the abstraction of successionism: what's implicit in the "->". I remember having a discussion with a mathematician years ago about what "=" meant. For it is one thing to say it means "tautology", but acutally, tautology is itself a process. There is a mental process by which we recognise that a tautology is taking place. And there is succession in the mental process. And there is tautology in the succession. Here I think we get to Von Foerster's Eigenform. In this way, maths is epistemology, not calculation (as Kauffman said on the CYBCOM list today). In its epistemology, there is tied-up, ontology.

But how does symmetry fit with all this? The issue is, I believe, form. In Bateson's paper "A re-examination of Bateson's Rule"  (where Bateson's rule is the biological theory proposed by Gregory's father William, who first coined the term 'genetics'), Bateson makes the now-famous definition of 'information' as "a difference which makes a difference  in some later event". Bateson is interested in the radial and bilateral symmetry of organisms (for example Beetles). He suggests that the process of loss of symmetry - from radial symmetry, to bilateral symmetry to assymetry, is the result of additional information in the environment, since, he argues, it is information which attenuates the self-organising development of the organism.

Bateson develops this idea to expand on his concept of negative causation and constrain. Instead of talking of information necessary to determine asymmetry, he instead talks of information necessary to prohibit bilateral symmetry. In this way, the information environment of the developing organism is an environment of constraint, squeezing the possibilities for development of the organism.

How does this help me understand the nature of abstraction and its relationship to symmetry. Abstraction is information and consequently it is constraint. Experience occurs within constraints. What is generated is new information which constrains future development. The abstraction of time, like the abstraction of abstractions generates information within which experience occurs. But what of the form or symmetry of experience?

On the one hand, we can't grasp it without abstracting; however, technology may allow us to manipulate informational constraints within which our experience is formed. This may be useful in social systems because the relationship between calibration and feedback in society is so nebulous. The free participatory manipulation of informational constraints may reveal shared expectations and means of collective constraints (through collaborative thinking about data for example) which may in turn help in the processes of shared decision-making.

I have to think more about this, but it is the shared decision-making within a complex and ever-changing environment of informational constraints that is the central social and organisational problem we are facing today.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

If selling education was like selling a car...

When thinking about marketing their education products Universities sometimes make the comparison to buying a car. After all, the cost of an undergraduate degree is now £28000 and for that, you could buy a BMW X1, an Audi Q5 or a Ford Mondeo (I'm not Jeremy Clarkson, but I guess that wouldn't be the popular choice)
Of course, the only problem is that the government isn't offering you an attractive loan which you don't have to pay back until you earn enough money, or fake your own death. Actually, why not? Why should the education industry get special treatment in preference to the car industry? (someone at some point in the future is going to ask that question, so I'll beat them to it). 
But the comparison really gets going when we start to look at how cars are sold. They look really sexy. They don't yet come with a 'shag guarantee', but they do their best to suggest it. Is education really that different in the 'come hither' stakes? I suspect not looking at the promotional material for a lot of universities. And let's face it, most young people go to university in the hope that they might have sex. Just as the car manufacturers rarely show their products in endless queues of traffic, or the encrusted popcorn on the back seat, so Universities never show bored faces, or the frantic attempts to find parking or a computer in the library to work on just before an assignment is due.

Sex aside (which sells anything) the similarity between education and a car ends there. When you buy a car, you drive it away from the showroom full of pride and... it works (unless it's a Toyota, in which case you might have trouble stopping). What happens when you buy education? The showroom experience (before you actually get your hands on the product) is not too bad. Lots of new faces! (some of them attractive) You fill in forms. You try hard to avoid the strange looking people handing out free condoms and lollipops. There is a possibility you might get drunk in the first week. 

In your second week, you get your hands on the 'product'. The course. This is where you realise that unlike the car, which worked out of the showroom, with education what you've bought is a do-it-yourself kit. All you have are 'instructions' for how to eventually make your education product 'work', and these instructions are only given out at particular times of day in particular places. Furthermore, none of the instructions you are given carry any guarantee of comprehensibility. Instead they carry threats of sanctions... if you fail to show you've understood the instructions so far delivered, some of the essential parts of your education product will be removed, only to be replaced if you follow new instructions (delivered at a particular time and place).

But everybody's in the same boat, struggling to build their education products. But be careful not to help anyone else because there's a deadly sin called 'plagiarism' which will see your education product go to the crusher! But if you begin to wonder that the 'educational product' wasn't such a good purchase, make sure you've read the small-print before you put pen to paper.

This is because buying an education product isn't really like buying a car. It's more like buying the most expensive mobile phone contract you could possibly imagine. Once you've signed your contract for £9000, deciding you don't like the product is like dropping your incredibly expensive mobile phone down the toilet. No insurance and no refund. You're stuck. You have to pay. Of course, this doesn't make you feel too good, so you start skipping some of the instructions to make your education product work. Consequently, much more than your education product is broken.

The student's problem in all this is that nobody can help them negotiate the risks of buying education. I suspect the first educational business that makes an offer to potential students that does this will revolutionise the market. I think when it happens, it will be such a simple business model that we will be astonished as to why it took so long to happen. Unfortunately, it may take a few bad product reviews before any real appetite for change develops. Only then will the sector wake up to the first rule of business: understand your customers.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Post-autistic economics in the University?

Although Post-Autistic Economics (PAE - see now prefers to call itself 'Real-world economics', the 'autism' word is very useful in describing the kind of economic thinking which the PAE movement reacts against. It at least makes it easy to spot when economists find themselves pouring over graphs and formulae in isolation from the human realities around them.

Critical Realism has played a key role in the critique of this kind of practice and the move towards something more grounded in reality. Tony Lawson's work on 'Reorienting Economics', the Cambridge Journal of Economics, and the Cambridge Realist Workshop have all provided valuable spaces for the exploration of what economics might look like if it actually took account of reality and ontology, rather than simply sought to apply mathematical and abstract tools to problems. There is little doubt in my mind, and the minds of many in the real-world economics group, that such abstraction is largely responsible for the terrible state we find ourselves in now. And those economists who preceded the movement, but similarly complained about formalism (Hayek stands out in this regard) would be tempted to say "I told you so!"

But autistic economic thinking is endemic, not just in government circles. Currently, there is little else in University governance. Yet education urgently demands ontological examination and real-world economics, because autism in University governance clearly will not address the problems of students, and those  problems have to be addressed if students are to continue attending, or at least not to become victims of pathological institutional behaviour. Autistic thinking in University governance will alienate learners who are already alienated by government policy. None of the clever graphs of retention, income, expenditure or fees will warm the hearts of students. All they represent are the inner concerns of the institution. All they express is a cynical disinterest in the real concerns of students. The double-bind is explicit:
"get the students in, keep them there, take their money and block any routes of escape to ensure our (the institution's) survival." 
I think Universities should put students first, not themselves. For all the fear-mongering, institutions will be ok because the students have nowhere else to go (it's interesting that student numbers this year are largely holding up, despite the direst predictions last year... it goes unnoticed, without the slightest questioning of the theory which said they would all disappear!).

But the students now have new and massive problems thanks to the industrialisation of education. They bear risks and anxieties which were unknown to the generation of teachers within institutions. They are subject to government-led manipulation of regulatory frameworks for employment which will force students into education which they will be forced to pay for for most of their working lives. It's like forcing people to buy a car, and consequently forcing them to buy compulsory and exorbitant insurance.  All for the good of the economy.

Successful businesses are successful because they understand their customers. Autistic business which only look at their own operations go bust. All universities at the moment have autistic tendencies in their governance. Someone, sometime, somewhere will crack this. Autistic institutions better watch out!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Education and Alienation

Marx describes four forms of 'alienation':
  • the alienation of the worker from the work he/she produces.
  • alienation from working itself, where working becomes meaningless, mundane. 
  • alienation of the worker from him/herself as a producer.
  • alienation of the worker from other workers.
In the context of Marx's materialism, basically this revolves around who controls of means of production. More fundamentally, Bhaskar argues that alienation is a sign of detotalisation and split.

I've been thinking about how Marx's characterisation of alienation might apply to education, and I've also been deeply affected by arguments for the ontological priority of information (which I wrote about here: So what does a dematerialised alienation look like? And what might it mean for education?

First of all, let's think about the alienation in students. Taking Marx's template, we might say there is:
  1. the alienation of the Student from their work
  2. the alienation from study itself where study become meaningless and mundane
  3. the alienation of the student from him/herself as a social agent
  4. the alienation of the student from other students and teachers
It's not difficult to see how each of these manifests itself in reality. Inauthentic assessment regimes which require meaningless production of material which serves no other function that to keep the student in the system is a classic example of 1. Inauthentic curricula which have no relevance to the political and experiential position of the learner will produce 2. Inauthentic socio-economic circumstances which position the student as a consumer of education rather than a political actor transmitting and transforming culture will produce 3. Radical technologically-driven personalisation and atomisation of every individual within the education will produce 4.

It's all a bit scary.

But of course, the same can be applied to teachers:
  1. the alienation of the Teacher from their work
  2. the alienation from teaching itself where teaching become meaningless and mundane
  3. the alienation of the teacher from him/herself as a social agent
  4. the alienation of the teacher from other students and teachers
Teachers who are regarded merely as vehicles for the delivery of educational products will produce 1. Curricula which serve no purpose other than the opportunity for certification will produce 2. Socio-economic conditions will produce 3... and radical personalisation and the policy-driven burden of artifical risks will produce 4.

But it is not 'matter' which is at the heart of this, and it is not the control of the means of production. I think it is 'risk' presented in the guise of 'information' which lies at the heart of the alienation in education. Risks lie latent in ideas about education, the curriculum, forms of assessment, social policy, educational objectives, health and wellbeing. The means of production of those risks lie within government and the governance of individual institutions. They certainly do not lie in the hands of teachers and learners.

But the risks and alienation of education are creating a pathological self-sustaining mechanism that is driving the industrialisation of education. At some point, it will all fall apart. But not yet. The coming period of educational industrialisation is nearly upon us, with it's consequent corporatism and uncontrolled production of risks. There may be little we can do but...

listen. wait. and be ready.

It may be that what will save us will be the quality of our listening and the extent of our caring for each other.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Growth, Meaning and Lassitude

I feel a certain lassitude towards aspects of work at the moment. I have phases like this. Ironically, they're often times when I get important things done. But it's a struggle.

I also have the feeling of growth at the moment. I don't know if it's connected, but what I'm reading currently (Hayek, Krippendorff, Lawson, Peakcocke, etc) is challenging me, changing me and exhausting me. The old certainties, the inevitable 'smugness' (of 'smugernetics'?!) is no longer tolerable. I no longer know what I think. I must now work harder to refind what I think. But I will be better for it (until it happens again!)

This is fundamentally a creative process. It is a search for meaning. And it is the search for meaning which overrides the meaning that I thought was there. It is the development of one theme to another.

Bur what's it all about?

The framing and discovering... two ways of being. Does that relate to Heidegger's enframing and dwelling? Does the process of discovery enframe or does it dwell? My thoughts in language certainly send me down a particular road. Technology takes me down there faster! I dwell in meaning; in contemplation; in timelessness. The enframing is always trying to frame meaningfulness. There is no other reason to become enframed. But as the frame is put in place, so the meaning can be lost.

I suspect we only lose the frame completely (or find the meaning) at death. There is no need for framing then. Life itself is the frame.

In sleep, the breathing body is the frame for meaning. Awake, and it is the acting social body+environment that is the frame.

Heidegger thought that artists and poets dwell, whereas the technological life of the rest of us is enframing. What he's really talking about is authenticity. And there are different levels of being. The state of unconditional love towards the world is certainly a state of dwelling; it is a loss of ego, of non-duality. But it cannot exist without duality, dialectic, identity, conflict, etc. These are the frame of meaningfulness.

Lassitude is a strange state. Whilst it manifests itself as 'inaction', and might appear to have more to do with 'dwelling', in fact it is a pathological state of inner turmoil.  Lassitude (and boredom) is when we no longer know what it is we are meant to frame. We no longer know what it's all about. We desperately look for the meaning inside ourselves, but cannot find it. But that's because meaningfulness exists between us, not within us. Crisis is brought about through atomisation and isolation.

All you can do is listen. And wait. And be ready.

That pretty much sums up life in the University sector at the moment!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Education and God

This is the start of a big topic, which I have been stimulated to begin after reviewing an extraordinary book of scholarly essays on physics, information, biology and theology edited by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregerson: see I'll post up my review (which is for the Journal of Critical Realism) in the near future. But I'm currently reflecting on the material in the book - which has challenged some of my own underlying assumptions - and am reflecting on what this might mean for education.

It has become unfashionable to assert the importance of God in education, although notable Christian scholars, emphasising the ontological and existential foundations of education, have often drawn attention to it. T.S. Eliot, for example, in arguing that the purpose of education is the "transmission of culture", and that culture can only become what education is able to transmit, complains that:
"In our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the centrals of our culture–of that part of it which is transmissible by education–are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans."
C.S. Lewis made much the same argument in "The abolition of man" - an essay on the vices and hubris of technology. More recently, Alisdair Macintyre has complained of the disappearing 'universality' of University education, complaining that in the modern research university, certain questions cannot be asked. Theological issues, he argues, have become marginalised within schools of divinity (if they exist!), whereas such matters used to form the backbone of all academic study.

Davies and Gregerson's book is a sign that the theological backbone might be reasserting itself (if a backbone can assert itself?!) in surprising ways. Fundamentally, this new movement is bubbling up from physics: one of the disciplines whose logical rationalism might be held partly accountable for the marginalising of theology in the first place. Davies is part of a small group of physicists who, staring at the peculiar complexities of quantum mechanics, are questioning the utility of the mechanistic 'common sense' notions of classical physics. Instead of simple notions of 'primary matter' of Newton's "solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles" physicists are looking at computational, statistical, informational models of the universe. Computer technology becomes an indispensible tool for the apprehension of the nature of matter, and following this, information becomes the bedrock upon which scientific practice can proceed. 

In addition to this informational focus, there is also an emerging critique of physical causality. In the quantum world there are no regular successions of events as Hume was able to distinguish and establish his theory of causation. In the quantum world, causation seems to operate in a different way, leading many of the contributers to the book to talk of 'downward causation', or degrees of circularity in causation.

But this means that the inquiry into matter entails an inquiry into information, and information is a poorly understood phenomenon. We use the term very loosely: information is related to communication in terms of the transmission of 'bits', as Claude Shannon discovered. But communication itself is much more than the transfer of information. Meaning, or the semantic content of information, is also fundamental to the process. Then there are issues relating to biology and the 'information' that we consider to be coded in genes. The causal processes by which genetic 'information' contributes to the emergence of form is another category of thinking about 'information'. Genes do not cause the development of an organism; the 'information' of DNA forms part of a process the vast majority of which is obscure. Yet the concept of 'genetic information' has established itself with little deep critique in popular discourse.

Of the types of information which show themselves to be most significant, however, semantic information is the one which takes us back to theology. For the nature of meaningful information implies some kind of consciousness, and it is difficult to escape the possibility of a consciousness outside the realm of the human intellect when observing informational processes in matter and biology. Issues of care and responsibility go hand-in-hand with issues of downwards causation and purpose.

And here we have a problem. Because these issues are arising from those disciplines around which much of the modern curriculum has been constructed, and much of the academic marginalising of theology has taken place. Yet the scientific necessity for the consideration of circular causality, semantics and consciousness in the deeper consideration of matter and biology seems to be encroaching upon us. As computers and 'information' increase their on our own conscious experience and thoughtful practice, there is every reason to expect further pressure to deepen our understanding and questioning of ontological issues in ways where matters of religion are inescapable.

This is of course not to argue for "belief" (which itself it subject to an analysis of information!). But it is to say that some of the fundamental issues of theology are increasingly difficult to escape in our consideration of science. That this may give greater impetus for deeper and more engaged scientific endeavour may be a driver for a richer cultural transmission (that Eliot wishes for), and ultimately a deeper and more engaged critique of education itself.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Varieties of idealism and Hayek's 'true individualism'

The election of Francois Hollande has been a moment of revelation for a number of reasons. Of course, the hope is that it is a relief for France and perhaps for Europe, but I think that is unlikely in the short-term. The revelation I am most interested in is not actually something that is going to make anything better in the short-term, but may help us to think through the real challenges Europe faces in the medium term. The revelation is one of conflicting idealisms: where there was before only the idealism of 'responsible' monetary control most clearly seen in the  German position, Hollande represents the more obvious (almost traditional) idealism that is associated with socialism. Of course, the surprise is that with Hollande's victory and his overt socialist idealist rhetoric, we look to Merkel and see a similar idealism - the hope for a rational governed exit from the crisis, if only everyone would play by the (German) rules.

It has often been remarked that for all her championing of Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek (neither of whom particularly appreciated her endorsement!), Mrs. Thatcher (whose ghost is clearly with Merkel), was also this kind of idealist: the idealism that the market works on rational principles, that tight monetary control, limited government and the logic of the market will create opportunities and distribute wealth. Of course, that was an ideal which was predicated on the uniformity, rationality and inherent fairness of human action. But (to allude to the work of another of Mrs. Thatcher's favourite philosophers), the crooked timbers of humanity don't work like that.

Hayek's commentary on this kind of idealism - the idealism of what he calls 'false individualism' is particularly telling. He identifies false individualism with an overtly rationalistic approach to the individual. The establishment of 'equality' amongst human beings becomes a function of a rationalised individual: Hayek quotes Descartes as an illustration of the priority that was given by French philosophy to the rational individual:
"there is seldom so much perfection in works composed of many separate parts, upon which different hands had been employed, as in those completed by a single master."
The rationalistic individual is the expert. With a world run by experts with total knowledge about it, individuals may be "free and equal" (so the experts will tell us!). [I'm thinking about the privileged role of 'experts' in the European projects I am currently involved in - if Hayek could see it!] But this of course leads to the familiar theme, not just of the Hayek of the "Road to Serfdom", but also of Popper in "The open society and its enemies" and in the work of Isaiah Berlin.

Hayek's point about this dangerous nonsense is a technical (and almost cybernetic!) one. The point concerns the amount of knowledge any individual is privy to in order to make a judgement. With this kind of idealism, all individuals are assumed to possess perfect knowledge and to act with self-interest. However, Hayek points out of any individual that:
"He cannot know more than a tiny part of the whole of society and that therefore all that can enter into his motives are the immediate effects which his actions will have in the sphere he knows. All the possible differences in men's moral attitudes amount to little, so far as their significance for social organisation is concerned, compared with the fact that all man's mind can effectively comprehend are the facts of the narrow circle of which he is the centre; that, whether he is completely selfish or the most perfect altruist, the human needs for which he can effectively care are an almost negligible fraction of the needs of all members of society."
Looked at like this, Hollande and Merkel are the same. Hollande is an 'expert' - he believes his grand plan for the people of France will rescue the French economy. Merkel also has a grand plan, but unlike Hollande (who frankly appears as a saint in comparison!), her plan is not for her own country so much as for the citizens of other countries to obey.

The people of Greece (and probably not in much time, the people of Italy and Spain) with their imperfect knowledge but raw concerns, unsurprisingly object to the experts. It wouldn't be much of a surprise if the people of France soon object to the grand plan of Hollande. But the deep problem is that the economic abstractions which form the bedrock of these idealisms have a one dimensional human being at their heart.

It might be tempting to suggest that the medicine for this requires richer models of the person. However, this would still be a variety of idealism; the experts might have acquired a better psychology, but their politics might be even poorer (and possibly more dangerous!) as a result. But the suggestion highlights the fundamental problem with idealism: it is abstraction itself - that 'conceptualising' of the world which is designed by a single mind and which can be beheld by another single mind; abstraction which is immediately tied-up with the idealised individual. And how can we escape abstraction? What I believe is needed is for abstraction to be replaced with process; for concepts to be replaced with pedagogy and for pedagogy to be grounded in principles. But I (and Hayek) must be careful - for this begins to sound like my own 'blueprint'! Hayek argued for a general principle for an individualistic system is
"that it uses the universal acceptance of general principles as the means to create order in social affairs. It is the opposite of such government by principles when, for example, a recent blueprint for a controlled economy suggests as "the fundamental principle of organisation .... that in any particular instance the means that serves society best should be the one that prevails"
It is a serious confusion thus to speak of principle when all that is meant is that no principle but only expediency should rule; when everything depends on what authority decrees to be "the interests of society"
As a cybernetician, there are criticisms here of 'planning' which I know will sit badly with many of my friends. Yet, I think Hayek is right in his criticism. He may have been wrong in arguing that the 'market' is one of the core principles that matters (although I am re-assessing this currently). But the power of his analysis is impossible to ignore. The ends of a society governed by Hayek's principles would be to address in a fair, open and serious manner, the observation of Edmund Burke:
I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observation of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business

Thursday, 3 May 2012

What is a Person to whom education is meaningful? And what is Education that it might be meaningful to people?

I'm paraphrasing a paper given by Louis Kauffmann at the Heinz von Foerster congress in Vienna in 2011. His title was "What is an Object that a Person might know It, and a Person that She might know an Object?"  I believe a similar (and related) epistemological problem exists between people and education. Instead of 'knowing' something, I am concerned with something being meaningful. Indeed, even for Kauffman's paper, we might 'know' an object, but if it isn't meaningful, what's the point? (I asked him whether you could have observation without anticipation - I still think that's a good question. Anticipation seems to me to be fundamental to meaning.)

But to come back to my question. First of all, what is a person to whom education is meaningful? Over the years, I've played around with a number of models of the person. The most successful have used Beer's Viable System Model. and this we used to argue for the Personal Learning Environment. I would say, looking back, that the VSM modelling of the person was the best thing to come out of that work. At the same time, I have reflected since we did it, on why it wasn't quite right. After all, whilst many of us are using personal technology within the institution, not everyone is. Institutions haven't been transformed by personal technologies, and the VLE still dominates the e-learning landscape. We were idealistic (rather Illichian - although I now think we misunderstood Illich... see Basically, the VSM of personal organisation presents a model where an individual has to manage their VARIETY (or complexity) through the use of technology. The environment they operate in perturbs the individual with differences that makes a difference, or change the individual in some way (in Bateson's terminology, this is INFORMATION) and this consequently changes the regulatory mechanisms in the individual:

The problem with the VSM model of the person was that it was an individual model. And I have become increasingly convinced that we are not individuals (I'm the one at the back who says "I'm not!" in the scene in the life of Brian when Brian says "you are all individuals!"). So the first thing to say about the person to whom education is meaningful is that there must be a recognition of inter-dependence. This was not elaborated in the in the original VSM model of the person (although it may be implied by the 'environment').

In terms of this aspect of awareness of others, I have increasingly focused on 'ATTACHMENT' as a mechanism of maintaining IDENTITY and viability. The upshot of this is that communications with the environment have a bearing on the regulating mechanisms in the individual. I've recently mentioned the double-contingency of communication that Parsons talks about (I'm grateful to Leydesdorff for that), and this means that the VSM produced a duck-rabbit appearance, where we can either focus on the VSM diagram, or we can look at the communicative effects of using the VSM: one is figure, the other ground. This is the diagram which I explained this phenomenon in my PhD, although it would need more unpacking than I want to do in this post. But the important thing is the correlation between the mechanisms in the individual and the communications between them.

I realised this double-contingency when I was doing the SPLICE project for JISC (see It made me realise two things which have subsequently been very important to me:

  1. Our viability depends on proximity to each other
  2. Luhmann's theory of communication is probably right

But then I can be near the people who are important to me (because I need to be near them); I can communicate because I need to communicate (and it helps me maintain my closeness to those I love, my job, etc). But being near and maintaining attachments doesn't explain how it is I recognise something to which I choose to attach (or maybe forego existing attachments to be close to or to acquire). In short, it doesn't explain how I fall in love, am curious or continually seek new discoveries.

That, I believe, is to do with MEANING. At the level of meaning, I think what needs to be analysed is ANTICIPATION. Meaningful moments occur when anticipations are restructured: that's precisely (I think!) what happens when I gaze at a beautiful woman, artwork, sunset, etc. (Is art the communication of anticipation?? - another blog post there...)

So, to summarise what a person is to whom education is meaningful, I would say there are three levels of interaction between the person and education:

VARIETY   <----------->  INFORMATION
But then to come to the second part of the question: What is education that it is meaningful to people?

There, the answer is perhaps a bit easier. As I write this I am thinking of a definition:
Education is the possibility of increase in possibilities.
In other words, education is how anticipation may increase the things it anticipates. Luhmann say the essence of education is 'cultivation'. Schrodinger says that life feeds on negative entropy. These are the probably the same statements.

Both in the sense that education is cultivation and education is the possibility of increasing possibilities, education is something that individuals do which does something to individuals. The system of education is operationally closed: its inputs are fed by its outputs.

But that is not to say that it can't go wrong. But it will go wrong if we misunderstand the nature of a person. If we instrumentalise education and see it as being about information, then the education system we create no longer creates possibilities because it doesn't see any need for possibilities (or meaning or attachment). It will only create information. What that may do to people and societies is hard to compute.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Improvising and Composing

This blog is about 'improvising'. That's because I can do improvising. I'd love to do composing, but I can do much more improvising. (I do a bit of musical composing, but more composing of papers - which are less interesting, I think). My writing on the blog is improvisatory rather than composed (on the whole) - although some pieces are more composed than others (depending on how much trouble I think I might get into after publishing it). But mostly I just write.

That's the difference between improvising and composing. When improvising I am in a process of searching for something meaningful; when composing, I know the meaning I want to convey, and I spend my time trying to frame it in text or music which brings out the meaning. I'm much more comfortable improvising than composing because most of the time I don't know what I want to say. All I know is that I have techniques for finding something meaningful somewhere, and if I follow those techniques, something will crop up. Most of my improvised music is like this.

As an example of this (in writing, not music), I've just finished 'composing' a paper on economics and attachment theory. With the paper as an academic paper, I know the meaning I have wanted to convey. But I found the meaning through a process of improvising in the form of this blog post last year: But that was a fairly random collection of thoughts which I was trying to string together. Attachment theory and the viable system model seemed important, and the meaningful essence of the argument.  As an academic paper, however, it initially translated rather badly. I have spent a long time jettisoning arguments and trying to polish the bits which I feel are important. This takes time.

I wish I had time to do the same with my music. I don't think composing music is really any different. There are beautiful moments which are meaningful (I reflected on this recently here: and the job in composition is to create a frame for them. But it takes time which I can't really justify with the need to produce papers which support the career of an educational cybernetician.

But the most fascinating thing about improvising, rather than composing, is that I know when my fingers have hit something meaningful. It's a visceral reaction. Somehow, things come together. In Leydesdorff's terminology, my expectations are restructured; the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, and so on. It is as if I've lifted dirty leaves covering a beautiful casket. Meaning matters. But it is part of a process of discovery which needs to  have the expressive freedom to roam and explore, not tied to any particular direction or agenda. Then the discoveries can be made. Then the papers, or the symphonies, can be written.

I'm also thinking about my dad's Alzheimer's disease at the moment, and how communication - the vehicle for exploration of meaning - became so difficult. How he remained relatively uncommunicative apart from certain moments when he lit up and quoted large sections of poetry. The meaning remained for him, even when the machinery to drive the process of discovery didn't work any more. That tells me something about cognition and the way that we work backwards from intense meaningful experiences. Of course, love is at the heart of it. Our struggles to talk about it are struggles to find the frame which brings it out in all its burning intensity.