Monday, 28 March 2016

Stafford Beer's comments on a societal meta-language

As I've been contemplating the impact of Block Chain on education, and thinking about how new kinds of transactional systems might transform the way we think about our institutions, my attention has been drawn back to Stafford Beer's book "Platform for Change'. Beer attempted to articulate a cybernetic social transformation where he speculated on the move from old institutions to new, cybernetic, institutions. At the heart of a new world was the development of a "meta-language" which would describe the new society in terms of ecological dynamics. That brings new categories of thinking about society, work, institutions, etc. and it brings new kinds of metrics. Beer's motivation was driven by the existential fears of the 1970s. Much of the catastrophe which he predicts is playing itself out around us now - he would only be surprised that it has taken this long (which is an interesting point to consider). Here he describes the meta-language (Platform for Change p.39):

Stereotypes are often useful concepts to deploy
Indeed it seems likely that we cannot manage without them.
What is wrong with the ones that we have
is that they relate to a vanished world.

In a changes world, the old stereotypes
give rise to undecidable propositions.

For example, if the means of livelihood
must be emoluments derived from work put in
to enterprises which themselves must make a profit
social workers
cannot be paid at all unless
everyone agrees to pretend
that the work they do is profitable
not in the general sense of the word
but as having a measurable monetary value.

But this remains a pretence.

The question : what are teachers, policemen, nurses worth?
is strictly undecidable within the language
of the stereotype.

That is why none of them is properly paid.

And as the world moves steadily away from the Homo Faber culture,
which it is doing because the production of goods
becomes more and more automated,
not only individual decisions but whole policies
become undecidable within the language.

The answer is not to invest bogus measures of benefit
but to devise a metalanguage
in which questions of value can be set and answered
in quantified but not monetary terms.

Note that this remark is meaningless
rather than merely puzzling
inside the existing language:
that language decreates the measures we need.

Any new argument must be competent to describe
new kinds of organization too.
The Argument for Change declared that such organisations
would look like 'anything organic'.
The passage as spoken entails the existence
of commonalities between all organic systems.

That there are such commonalities
is a fundamental tenet of cybernetic science
(as will be argued later).
The statement of commonality is necessarily metalinguistic.
Thus I see it as something more than a generalisation
of the machinery of particular systems -
for such a generalisation would be a perception
made by a neutral observer.

The metalanguage will be something more than this:
it will be positively generated at the focus of meaning
that lies beyond an entire range of undecidable propositions.

So the second comment is this.

We should try to envisage the developing general thgesis
in systemic terms
so as to show not only how things are connected
but also how the inherent undecidability
of the language used in each system
is expected to generate a metalanguage -
and of what form.


The idea that the metalanguage will be "positively generated at the focus of meaning that lies beyond an entire range of undecidable propositions" is intriguing. I want to say that the metalanguage will be positively produced by the constraints which limit decision-making in the old system. I want to say that those constraints autocatalyse new thinking. The problem is that they do this whilst at the same time destroying the conditions within which any new thinking can flourish.

No comments: