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 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10494820701772652#preview), 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 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1463863&show=html). 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 (http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2011/11/how-could-form-of-life-be-visualised.html) 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 http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2011/11/banality-of-restructuring.html). 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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptive_comparative_judgement). 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...)

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The banality of 'restructuring'

After recommending to a friend that she read Erich Fromm's "The Fear of Freedom", I came across a nice collection of "Fromm quotes".. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/e/erich_fromm.html. The first one struck me as apt for what is happening in education at the moment: "As we ascend the social ladder, viciousness wears a thicker mask.". Managerialism is in full-sway in Universities as they restructure in the light of uncertainty over student fees, and there are numerous reports of a "thick-masked vicousness" being unleashed on academic staff up and down the country. Most often this manifests itself as a game of musical chairs: make everyone re-apply for their jobs, but ensure there are fewer jobs than there are people.

But the 'thicker mask' that managerialism wears in such instances is made from ordinary people doing what appear to be ordinary jobs following procedures determined by senior managers. This makes me think more about Hannah Arendt than Erich Fromm. In 'The banality of Evil' Arendt made a telling analysis of the behaviour of Adolf Eichmann who famously pleaded that he was "only obeying orders". She says:
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
She concludes that
"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”   
Nobody in Higher Education is evil. But individuals nevertheless become ambitious. Ego clouds their judgement, and as it does so can numb their sensibility to what is right. This is more dangerous at a time when sensibility to what is right is already clouded by the sheer complexity of events. At such moments, and particularly for people in power, becoming part of the mask of viciousness increases its appeal simply as a survival strategy.

Under such circumstances, there is a pathological mechanism that can set in. And with it, I fear, there is a distant but distinct possibility of evil amongst those who "never make up their minds to be good or evil". I think this is where we are now in the world. I am frightened.

Fromm would identify in the pathology the failure of individuation - the "Fear of freedom" and the choice of the herd rather than a radical realisation of self through creativity. Ironically, the real mess we are in is only revealed when we consider that the route to a radical realisation of self is education. I don't think it is an over-statement to say that for this to be happening in education is a human tragedy, and one which will have deep repercussions for our children.

Arendt knew the critical significance of education, and I could not possibly do better than quote her on it...
"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”  

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Eliminating 'tools' as a factor in failure of adoption of e-learning

One of the fundamental issues in the adoption of e-learning is that the failure to adopt (which is common) is attributed to the weakness or "lack of usability" of tools. "If only the tools were better, then adoption rates would be improved," we tend to say. This is a very tricky and, I believe, slippery argument.

In the light of this critique, a methodology of elimination might be proposed which goes like this:
1. assume that the failure to adopt a technology has a number of distinct possible causes including the usability of tools, the purpose of tools, and context within which they are used.
2. invest effort in trying to improve the tools as an attempt to rule-out tools from the failure-to-adopt equation
3. having ruled-out tools, pursue other possible causes sequentially in a similarly methodical manner.
At first glance, this seems reasonable. After all, failure to adopt must have multiple causes, and a methodical approach to eliminating each possible cause as a way of identifying what's wrong seems defensible. At least it would be if the individual causes were separable: i.e. the issue of usability was separable from the issue of the purpose that a tool serves, or the context within which it is used. Without separability between the usability of a tool, the purpose that it serves and the context within which it is used, there is no hope of effectively being able to investigate each causal factor in turn, because every causal factor affects every other one.

Logically, therefore, the method is flawed. But it gets worse. Because, if it not accepted that the method is flawed and its stages are followed, the process of 'improving' tools throws yet more murk into the picture. This process ostensibly does nothing to address the purpose or the context within which the tools are used, whilst expending lots of coding effort in improving them.  But in fact because causes of failure of adoption are entwined, what is set in motion is a sort of Zeno's Paradox, where the goal of adoption moves away as new developments in the tools are deployed because they do affect the purpose (things have to be re-explained to users) and change the context of adoption (new functionality addresses different sorts of problems).  We get into an infinite loop of groundless innovation.

I think a more constructive way to deal with this is to accept that in e-learning what we do is not create technology, but attempt to communicate ideas which we believe to be valuable in education. The value of ideas lies in our ability to demonstrate their causal power which we attempt to do through building technologies. In this way, technological acts are rhetorical in the same way that discourse is. Given this understanding, we have to accept that sometimes we simply have bad ideas. How can we tell a bad idea from a good idea? Because the causal power of a bad idea can either be demonstrated to be bad (it makes people confused/angry/depressed) or no evidence of social benefit can be demonstrated from the idea. As part of communicating a bad idea, technologies might be created. Whilst lack of adoption of such technology is not conclusive evidence of a bad idea, it should nevertheless be taken as a strong hint that indeed the idea might not be a good one. In such cases, effort should go into thinking of a better idea, rather than trying to 'fix' technology! Indeed, if there was some hope for the idea, but poor engagement with the technology, then a different pattern of communications would emerge where perhaps users who were excited by the idea might recommend refinements to the technology (this is often the case with agile development of Beta web2.0 tools).

Because we make technology, and making technology is hard and time-consuming, we forget that what we really are doing is communicating ideas and values. Remembering that it is 'just an idea' can help us to reject the bad ones more quickly and move on to different ideas. Technology confuses us because it puts a 'thing' in the place of an idea or a value. The problems start when we confuse the 'thing' for the 'idea'. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Technology and "La Voix Humaine"

I caught Poulenc's La Voix Humaine on the radio yesterday evening. I've always admired it as an intense piece of drama (and wonderful music) and a powerful attempt to portray the human condition in a world of technology. But it impressed me even more this time because I saw it through the eyes of 'attachments' mediated through the technology. The woman sees her identity constituted by her former lover; the loss of the lover is the death of her identity: she tells him (and us) that has already tried to commit suicide once, and we are left in little doubt of her state of mind at the end.

But the identity is constituted through the medium of the telephone. She says at one point that she takes the telephone to bed with her because she wants to feel him near her and the telephone is the closest she can get. Much of the drama relies on the torture of the unreliability of the telephone: at each moment she gets cut-off, her anguish sears through the music.

Of course, if he were alive today, wouldn't Poulenc and Cocteau have thought about the plot line involving Facebook or Skype? They had the sensitivity to understand that behind the facade of these pieces of apparatus, the human condition is unchanged, whilst at the same time the breakdown of the technology tortures human experience. But then again, is part of the torture in La Voix Humaine because the technology is relatively new and immature? Or maybe it is the reaction to it breaking down which is rather new and immature?

Technology has clearly changed. Phone conversations don't get cut-off in the same way (although they do on Skype!). But have we changed? Have we become insensitised to the assault on our identities and the ways that we manage attachments? Do we simply accept that this will happen?

Is there a point at which accepting the vulnerability of the human condition in the face of the edifice of technology is simply too terrifying? But somehow, it needs to be faced. I wonder if that's where our economy is at the moment. The moment of authenticity and the leap of faith required is quite terrifying...