Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Problem with Cybernetics and the Cybernetics still worth hoping for

I'm wrestling with a paper about cybernetics in education at the moment. The problem I find with the cybernetic territory is that there's so much of it, yet mostly it rehearses the same set of ideas. However the personalities involved would (and still do) argue fiercely between themselves about finer points where they could be shown to be correct in some detail or other. Essentially whilst certain ideas are common between them, there are differences about foundations: and since foundations are really important to a transdisciplinary theory, people can get pretty upset. Personally, I've given up on foundations: it's all conjecture. This is a real problem in the social sciences generally. Alexander Wendt complains in his recent "Quantum Mind and Social Science" that
"In contrast to physical sciences like chemistry or geology, where there is broad agreement on the nature of reality and how we should study it, in the social sciences there is no such consensus. As a result scientific theories rarely die, and if they do, like zombies they inevitably come back to life later." (Wendt, 2015)
As I wrote yesterday, the tension in cybernetics is that as a transdisciplinary science of everything (and so necessitating common foundations, just as earlier cosmologies did), cybernetics is caught between being a late outpost of German idealism (a Naturphilosophie or a kind of neo-enlightenment mechanical philosophy) or to be a radical scientific method as it was embodied in the practice of Ross Ashby. It's this latter 'cybernetics as method' which I'm interested in. The foundationalism serves a function: it is generative of ideas; but then we need to look at what actually happens, examining the constraints that apply to the ideal cases of cybernetic models and reflecting on the knowledge about the world that those constraints reveal. A number of cybernetic thinkers get this: Bateson's 'pattern' ('that connects') is another word for constraint; another name for it is "redundancy"... and 'absence' too. Watzlawick comments that:

"The search for pattern is the basis of all scientific investigation. Where there is pattern there is significance - this epistemological maxim also holds for the study of human interactions."
But what this actually means is that the process is essentially negative. We are not informed by what works; we are informed by what doesn't work. The things that surprise us do so because constraints are in operation of which we were previously ignorant. Having got the signal of new constraints, science proceeds to comprehend this new pattern. Except a lot of the time it doesn't - especially in educational technology. I've always thought about engagements with educational technology innovation as being like using a 'torch' to shine a new light onto ancient practices. I've encountered many educational technologists who don't bother to look to see what shows up and instead blame the places where the torch inconveniently shines!

Most cybernetically-inspired interventions fail. If not at an immediate operational level, there are deeper problems systemically to do with power relationships or sustainability or unpleasant unforseen consequences (all the pathologies of functionalism).  Wiener was quite sceptical about the prospects for cybernetics:
As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.
What we learn through intervention is understanding how the social world constrains the ideals of our models. But the constraints are much harder to describe than the original models, and a major constraint may be contained within the thinking that produced the theory in the first place (and so the theory is wrong). Nobody likes to think their theory is wrong, and so educational technologists tend to use theories, models and technologies to create problems they believe they can explain. Whether we look at the Pask/Laurillard conversation model, the Downes/Siemens connectivism, Vygotskian ZPDs, Activity theory, dialogic learning, etc... the story is the same: each creates problems they can explain. But reality presents the problems they cannot explain. These are the interesting bits!

So what do we do in the light of something that doesn't work? Firstly, few theorists really spell out in detail what they might really expect or wish to see in the light of their theory. Pask was far too abstruse to do this. But the late Gary Boyd at Concordia University did do it. He gave the following scenario to illustrate conversation theory:

"A is a medical student and B is an engineering student. The modeling facility they have to work with might be Pask’s CASTE (Course Assembly System and Tutorial Environment, Pask,1975); equally possibly now one might prefer STELLA or prepared workspaces based on Maple, MathCad, or Jaworski’s j-Maps. The recording and playback system may conveniently be on the same computers as the modeling facility, and can keep track of everything done and said, very systematically. (If not those parts of a CASTE system, a version of Pask’s tutorial recorder THOUGHTSTICKER (Pask, 1984) could well be used).
Level 0–Both participants are doing some actions in, say, CASTE (or, say, STELLATM), and observing results (with, say, THOUGHTSTICKER) all the while noting the actions and the results.
Level 1—The participants are naming and stating WHAT action is being done, and what is observed, to each other (and to THOUGHTSTICKER, possibly positioned as a computer mediated communication interface between them).
Level 2—They are asking and explaining WHY to each other, learning why it works.
Level 3—Methodological discussion about why particular explanatory/predictive models were and are chosen, why particular simulation parameters are changed, etc..
Level 4—When necessary the participants are trying to figure out WHY unexpected results actually occurred, by consulting (THOUGHTSTICKER and) each other to debug their own thinking.

The actual conversation might go as follows. In reply to some question by A such as, “HOW do engineers make closed loop control work without ‘hunting’?” B acts on the modelling facility to choose a model and set it running as a simulation. At the same time B explains to A how B is doing this. They both observe what is going on and what the graph of the systems behaviour over time looks like. A asks B, “WHY does it oscillate like that?” B explains to A, “BECAUSE of the negative feedback loop parameters we put in.” Then from the other perspective B asks A, “How do you model locomotor ataxia?” A sets up a model of that in STELLA and explains How A chose the variables used. After running simulations on that model, A and B discuss WHY it works that way, and HOW it is similar to the engineering example, and HOW and WHY they differ. And so on and on until they both agree about what generates the activity, and why, and what everything should be called." 

Boyd is wonderfully specific in the detail of the different levels of engagement which are inherent in Pask's model. However, this scenario doesn't feel very real. So what about a less successful scenario to balance things out. This is a parody of conversation theory and I have tried to stick to the different levels and their meaning:

The medical student A and the engineering student B have been told to engage in this exercise as part of their assessment. The modeling facility is unfamiliar to A but familiar to B. A has already spent some time trying to log-in. Slightly stressed, A is not happy about the recording facility, since he feels quite vulnerable in the environment. He requests that the recording facility is turned off. 
Level 0– B is playing with stuff in the environment. A is staring at the screen tentatively clicking things without knowing what he is doing. There is a marked difference in their behaviours in response to stimuli.
Level 1—B names processes illustrated on the screen. A stares at the screen listening, rather perplexed. He tries to give the impress she understands by repeating the words B uses, and saying "yes" a lot.
Level 2—B attempts to explain dynamic processes in the environment. A tries to understand, transfixed by the animations, but really isn't interested.
Level 3—A considers WHY they are doing this. B explains the assessment schedule. A worries about his assessment and reckons this is WHY he ought to pay some attention.
Level 4—A is trying to figure out WHY he is in this ridiculous situation. Finally he asks B "what do I need to do to pass the assignment". B tries to figure out WHY he is asking the question.

The levels of conversation in my parody, as with Boyd's original, are meant to be simultaneous regulating mechanism. The problem is that in the parody, there is little regulation occurring in the way that was anticipated. In fact, if there is communication happening at all it is about the broader educational context within which it is all happening. So we can ask of the parody, What is the constraint that causes a deviation from the ideal situation that Boyd presented?

Constraints in the Parody

The first constraint is that A isn't interested in the topic. There is a fundamental question within conversation theory as to where an "interest" lies, and how it is articulated. Pask assumes (along with every MOOC) that an interest lies within the individual mind, is conceptual in focus, and is expressed in language. Why should interests be like this? Why can't they themselves be relational or intersubjective? Are they really only articulated in language? What about childhood experiences? What about play?

A second constraint is that the technology gets in the way of A. The physical presence of technologies is not a neutral medium for the transmission of messages. The technologies encode expectations of behaviour, power relationships and so on. These affect A and B asymmetrically.

A third constraint is the institutional regulations that produce the situation which A and B find themselves. The interesting thing about these constraints is that they are shared between A and B. It's interesting that in the parody, the institutional regulations occur in the higher levels, where there is a crisis in the lower levels.

A fourth constraint is B's communication skills. B struggles to understand A's situation. A knows that they are not understood. A's attempt to address this by asking "what's it all about?" because the question they ask is really "What's constraining you to behave like this?"

Watslawick on Communication 

Reflecting on this parody raises the question as to what a 'cybernetic method' would do if it truly considered the constraints revealed in implementation. First of all, it would consider the constraints in the formulation of the theory: there is something wrong with conversation theory. Watslawick explains that:
"Once it is realized that statements cannot always be taken at face value, least of all in the presence of psychopathology - that people can very well say something and mean something else - and, [...] that there are questions the answers to which may be totally outside their awareness, then the need for different approaches becomes obvious."
Saying and meaning are very different things. The latter has to do with expectations and is a much deeper level function. Watslawick quotes Bateson saying:
"as we go up the scale of orders of learning, we come into regions of more and more abstract patterning, which are less and less subject to conscious inspection. The more abstract - the more general and formal the premises upon which we put our patterns together - the more deeply sunk these are in the neurological or psychological levels and the less accessible they are to conscious control."
Secondly, the parody does at least identify a moment of communication when A and B identify a common constraint (the assessment). Might refinements be made to the model that embraced the idea of common constraints as a counterbalance to the exchange of messages? Might we further explore the relationship between common constraints and messages exchanged? Could this be measured?

Is time a constraint? Were A and B under pressure to hold their discussion? What about the flow of time in their interactions?

Such questions result from "becoming informed" about constraints in the real world. With greater information, the reflexive processes of theory creation and model generation can be enhanced and new interventions developed.

For reasons which have to do with deeply ingrained constraints in the education system, we seem to have got stuck with educational technology.

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