Saturday, 26 January 2013

Towards Negative Cybernetics - A home for serious thinking about Educational Technology?

At his talk to the American Society for Cybernetics in 2012 in Asilomar, Terry Deacon asserted that 'Cybernetics isn't enough', as he attempted to argue the case for absence to be taken seriously in information theory. This didn't go down terribly well, with one very eminent member of the ASC heard to mutter "what you just heard was a sham!" - despite much of what Deacon was arguing for being prefigured in the work of Bateson and a few others.

To me, Deacon was uttering a statement that was a reaction to a peculiar kind of stasis that has struck the cybernetic discourse in recent years - really in the years following the deaths of the most significant thinkers in the discipline: Heinz von Foerster (died 2002), Gordon Pask (died 1996), Stafford Beer (died 2002), Niklas Luhmann (died 1998), Bateson (died 1980) and Ernst von Glasersfeld (died 2010). It's unfortunate that stasis has set in alongside the biggest global economic crisis since the 2nd world war... in fact, since the very original crisis which was the source of the remarkable synergistic, trans-disciplinary creativity of the Macy conferences. But exactly what "isn't enough?".

My view is that what "isn't enough" for Deacon is what might be called "positive cybernetics". That is the study of theoretically-proposed actual feedback mechanisms which are seen to be responsible for the phenomena of the world. In 2nd order cybernetics, the existence of these mechanisms calls into question the ontological status of matter. Biologically-inspired totalisations characterise material experience and psychological phenomena  with individual mechanisms of coordination of coordinations (so my coordinations coordinate your coordinations - and vice-versa - and the dynamics of these coordinations produce the experience of a shared reality). However, despite these mechanistic operations calling into question the nature of reality, the ontological status of the mechanisms themselves remains untouched. They merely assert themselves by their capacity to reduce highly complex phenomena to highly logical recursive formulae.

There is much of value in these ideas. They are ingenious, rich and fascinating. But at root, there is an assumption that reasoned abstraction of all the complexity of life is conceivable by an individual but operates at a deeper ontological level than individual perception. This is a heavy-duty metaphysical assertion, and Deacon finds this hard to swallow - and so do I. As Wiener put it over 60 years ago,
"the whole mechanist-vitalist controversy has been relegated to the limbo of badly posed questions"
The problem lies, I believe, in concentrating on the 'actual' operation of mechanisms. There is simply more to life than what is 'actually' there. Our whole yearning to know more, to be curious, to explore is driven by a sense of incompleteness - of something missing. Whatever we can actually see - be it traffic jams, or economic forecasts, or disease symptoms or exam grades - we sense questions within ourselves "what more? what's missing?" Importantly, our interpretation of the actual always takes into account "the missing": we read more into the learner's absences than anything else; the messages that aren't there are causal.

My reaction to the mechanistic totalisations of cybernetics has always been "what more?" For me, this sense of incompleteness has come from a lifetime being fascinated by and thinking about music. Music is the epitome of incompleteness - waves of rich questions which interlock with one another eventually reaching some sort of reconciliation - but always a reconciliation that raises many more new questions.

But we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater: actual mechanisms are important! We have made remarkable machines through our understanding of them; some policy interventions actually work! But is there a way of situating the actual mechanisms of cybernetics against the context of missingness that surrounds them?

This is where I've started to think about the possibility of a 'Negative Cybernetics'. I'm consciously thinking of Adorno's 'Negative Dialectics' as I suggest this and it is first worth saying a bit about that. Adorno was reacting to two poles in German philosophy: On the one hand, he saw Kant's "negative" critical endeavour and Hegel's negative aspects of dialectic, on the other the overall totalizing and positive tendency in Hegel's dialectical method. Alain Badiou argues (in "Five Lessons on Wagner") that Adorno was interested in purging the positivising, identity-producing forces in this, by removing the positive aspects of Hegelian dialectic and refocusing those aspects of Kantian critique which determine the limits of thought. Badiou makes the point that what became known as 'critical theory'
"was given the name "negative dialectics" by Adorno as a yoking together of critical theory and negative dialectics, of Kant and Hegel now transcended." 
Cybernetics is essentially also a child of German idealism. A negative cybernetics demands transcending the positive identification of a mechanism. Critical cybernetics demands consideration of the limits of conceiving a mechanism, of the impact both of the context on the action of a mechanism and on its abstraction and conceptualisation. There emerge a range of questions, which for starters, might include:
  1. How might absence be constitutive of an abstract description of a mechanism? (for example in a theory)
  2. What are the social implications of a mechanistric metaphysics?
  3. What are the causal relations between absence and presence as a constitutive force on being?
  4. How can the causal relationships between absence and presence be known?
  5. Do these problems force us to consider the relationship between reason and experience?
  6. At an experiential level, what is the place of technology and how should we approach it?
  7. At an experiential level, what is the place of teaching and learning and how should it be approached?
I think a "negative cybernetics" may be a good starting point for the serious study of educational technology. This is because both technology and education are concerned with experience - they are both places where abstractions are 'played out' in society. In educational technological practice, whilst idealised abstractions epitomise positive identities, the essence of experience with technologies in education is nonidentitical - it emphasizes absence. Educational Technology cannot be content with abstraction alone. Asserting the ontological privilege of abstract mechanism (such as those suggested in 'positive cybernetics') quickly reveals itself to be a mistake.

There is a balance between abstraction and experience. Technology and education are at the pivot point. But in order to see this as a living process, we have to make ourselves vulnerable enough to see that our ideas and abstractions are no more than "comfort blankets" veiling nothingness. Indeed, they may do harm.

It is interesting to reflect that the driving force behind Adorno's theorising was the 'break in history'. I'm wondering whether in our daily experimentation with educational technology, there aren't continuous small 'breaks with history', except that we've chosen to overlook the discontinuity in favour of an identity-bound, rational narrative. Bourdieu would call such pedagogic moments acts of 'symbolic violence'. We should take these seriously. Certainly letting a runaway identity principle loose in education is unlikely to do anyone any favours. 

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