Saturday 28 February 2015

Beer's Team Syntegrity, Information and the Politics of Decision

In the early 1990s Stafford Beer developed a protocol for problem resolution called Team Syntegrity. It involved an agenda-less meeting for 30 people over three days over which time, an agenda emerged from a series of initial Statements of Importance which would be honed down (through a process of a 'problem jostle') into Topics which would then be discussed, finally resulting in 12 final Statements of Importance. The tensions between different positions would be resolved by use of a geometric device, the Icosahedron.  This facilitated the organisation of combinations of encounters between the 30 people whereby each person became a member of two teams within which they would perform roles of supporting different positions under discussion whilst being a critic of opposite teams, and observing other team discussions. These teams were termed by Beer "Infosets" - effectively a 'discourse': he explains
"What makes a group out of a random assortment of people? It surely has to do with motivation, and with what I had earlier been calling morale. I proposed that what brought people into cohesive groups was the shared infomration that had changed them into purposive individuals"
This appears to me to be similar to Luhmann's concept of a social system.

In conceiving the idea, Beer talks about his experiences in Chile and says that President Allende had asked him to "reconsider the tenets of the government's political philosophy  [Marxism] in cybernetic terms" He says:

"My idea was to replace the Marxist 'classes' (where the ruling class exploits the proletariat) with a richer and less tendentious categorization based on shared information. 'Exploitation' then becomes the deprivation of information; and the text [Beer's submission to Allende] points out that what are (laughably) called 'the mass media' very often carry:

'not zero, but negative information - insofar as they take away the opportunity to acquire positive infomration. (The concept is the same as 'opportunity cost' in capitalist economics)
Now information, in cybernetic term, is negative entropy; the infosets operate in terms of selection entropy, which absorbs information. If the information is not there, the selections are not possible - that is obvious. What is less obvious is that to feed the people what is effectively negative information, is to feed them negative negative entropy, which is to say 'pure' entropy. 
If follows that the exploited and alienated classes, with which we began, will lose any sense of revolutionary ferment - because their entropy as a class is rising to the limit of unity... The new sets, however, identified as they are by their informational characteristics, are negentropy pumps - which is to say, by cybernetic definition, potentially revolutionary forces in society'"
Here we should reflect on 'social media'. Negative negative entropy? I fear it might be: indeed it is worse - it increases entropy on the individual, but may feed information (negentropy) to the powerful controllers of the network!

So what about the geometry?

Fundamentally, Beer's rationale for the Icosahedron concerns the balancing of limits. He drew on Buckminster Fuller's idea that "nature exists in an equilibrial balance between the forces of compression and tension", It should be said that Beer has a tendency towards cosmology, and admires other cosmologists like Teilhard de Chardin. However, the intricacies of the Icosahedron are fascinating. First of all, its relationship with the golden section is something I had not before appreciated. Secondly, the notion of limits is something which category theorists have been considering since the 1940s, and the geometric structures of the Icosohedron look not unlike the limits and colimits of category theory (what would Badiou make of the Icosahedron?).

What Beer is searching for in this structure (indeed the whole point of the process) is what he calls 'reverberation'. In effect this is the same idea as Von Foerster's 'eigenform':  the identification of stabilities in a recursive function. The point of the exercise is to identify the reverberation points among a group concerning issues of importance to that group.

Fundamentally the issue that concerned him was Decision. We might read Team Syntegrity as a way of trying to address the problems that Cohen and March identified in their description of the garbage can ( : where problems were rarely resolved, but instead either avoided, or a solution was produced (from the garbage can) which did not fit the problem  concerned. Beer's Syntegrity is precisely about identifying, digging into and solving problems.

In his description of the process, Beer emphasises the importance of redundancy. He refers to the concept of "redundancy of potential command" which was first used by Warren McCulloch. McCulloch in characterising the brain argued that it is redundant in the order of 20000:1. Beer says "neurons are organisationally redundant - highly redundant. This is not to disparage individual worth. It is only to say that graveyards are full of indispensable people" He goes on to say:
"It interested McCulloch, and me in turn, that the most successful human organizations, be they never so hierarchical in appearance, operate on an understanding of the redundancy of potential command. He analysed old battles, particularly those of Nelson, to demonstrate this. Sea mists and the smog of cannon fire made direct orders impossible to convey by signal flags and Nelson's [...] ship's captains took command of whatever local situation they could actually see and interpret in terms of the strategic pre-battle briefing"
I think I might rephrase this a bit. I think the dissipative dynamics of waste are the fundamental organising principle in the tensioning of positions: or rather, the tensioning of positions gives rise to redundancy, and this in turn gives rise to growth which can either be encouraged, managed or suppressed. If growth of redundant capacity is properly ordered, then the situation of Nelson's ship's captains can arise: they act independently in accordance with the ethos of the Navy under Nelson's leadership. If it is suppressed, the tension between positions can only increase, and will eventually break the structure.

If we want to characterise how broken our politics is, what a dangerous period we are living through, and how dysfunctional our institutions are, there is no better metaphor. Our institutions suppress individual growth and our society suppresses redundancy with austerity. Our structures will soon break.

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