Tuesday 27 October 2015

Information Theory's Necessary Empirics of Second-Order Cybernetics

Second-order cybernetic theory is diverse in its orientation towards its foundations: what it sees as its stance towards objectivity and subjectivity, and what it sees as an orientation towards 'universal' principles. Yet all second-order cybernetic theories are united in their adherence to the foundational role of induction in the process of adaptation. More precisely, inductive process is always in response to the determination of 'similar' events - effectively the determination of 'regularity'. Yet, how it is that similarity between events is established (the analogy between events) is poorly inspected, and second-order cybernetics differs in the different domains where it perceives its analogies.

The combination of universal acceptance of induction as a foundation together with difference as to where analogies are to be determined within different second-order cybernetic theories is a recipe for dispute. The situation is further complicated by the fact that in being observer-oriented, second order cybernetic theory requires the determination of two analogies: on the one hand there are analogies to be determined by events, or perturbations (for example, disturbances from the environment, or regularities in discourse); but then there is also the determination of analogies within the perceiving system: induction occurs through the organisational transformation of the perceiver, and in any given perception situation, there is 'sameness' of the perceivers structure, and differences. Any account of induction must also account for the sameness and difference of the perceiver. When am I 'the same'? When am I 'different'?

At its heart, second-order cybernetics aims to escape an objectivist viewpoint and proposes a relational one. However, the link between relationality and objectivism cannot be entirely broken: relations depend on some degree of objectivity, and without consistent grounding of shared objectivity the coherence of the second-order cybernetic discourse is challenged. Information theory, in the broadest sense, presents a model of the relation between events and observations. As such, it provides a measurable counterpart to Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety. Its utilisation can be compared to the work of cyberneticians like Stafford Beer, who counted the variety of different components in an organisation in order to determine the most effective way of organising them. Measuring the entropy in a message is a way of measuring the variety of the producer of the message; measuring the mutual information between sender and receiver is a way of measuring the requisite variety between them.

Like all measurements, this is an imperfect representation. Additionally, as some commentators have noted, Shannon's equations confuse issues of analogy with induction. Having said this, Shannon's approach presents an opportunity for developing and refining the techniques. It provides for an approach to modelling the relationship between events and observers where measurement of events in the lifeworld can be defended and a calculus of relations between observers and events be used to generate patterns and theories which can further be investigated. No approach to second-order cybernetics challenges the principles of Ashby's Law, and so establishing a measure of the variety of a system, whether the system is biological, communicative, or physical remains defensible across a range of different second-order cybernetic approaches, even if the assertion of the 'objectivity' of such a measurement may invite legitimate criticism.

In a discursive situation where second-order cybernetics is divided between different approaches to objectivism, universalism, and its foundations of induction and analogy, finding an orientation which reintroduces measurement into the study of a shared lifeworld can help coordinate second-order approaches and strengthen the relationship between second-order cybernetics and second-order science. 

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