Thursday 27 July 2017

Beer and Illich on Institutional Change: Uncertainty at the heart of the system

Stafford Beer's "Platform for Change" is an extraordinary book which sets out  diagrammatically to document the processes by which the world might move from pathological institutions, markets, exploitation and environmental destruction, to a viable world which lives within its means. The diagrams get more complex, as the book goes on, culminating in this:
Which is a bit daunting. However, there are things to notice. Within each of those boxes, there is a smaller box at the bottom with a "U" in it: this is "Undecidability". I think it could equally be called "Uncertainty", but it is worth noting that around every heavy-type box (in bold), there is a lighter type box which is connected to the "U" box, and which is labelled with things like "Metasystem", "conscience", "reform", and so on. 

Beer's point in platform for change is that the way society manages its "undecidability", or uncertainty, causes pathology. This is most clear from his diagram about the difference from old institutions to new institutions:
What manages uncertainty in the pathological "old" institutions at the top? The "Metalanguage of Reform". This is the drive for "restructuring", "privatisation", "outsourcing" and so on. What does structure mean in the first place - it's in the middle of the box - the hierarchical organisation of most institutions. 

Feeding in to the whole thing in the pathological institution is "Homo Faber" - the maker of increasingly powerful tools which dictate how people should live and drive people into increasing technocratisation. On the other side, we clearly see that this comes at the cost of the "Exploitable earth", with exploitable people, and cost-benefit analysis. On the right hand side at the top, Beer sees the "conservation" movement as the management of uncertainty about the exploitable earth with a metalanguage of "conscience" which is managed by the conservationist's discourse. Of course, this is a reaction to the pathology, but it also appears as part of the overall system of the problem. 

What do to about it?

Uncertainty (or undecidability) has to be managed in a different way. In the lower part of the diagram, Beer imagines a different kind of institution which facilitates the coordination of uncertainty among the different people who engage with it. The Undecidability box is connected to a "Metalanguage of Metasystem" - a way of having a conversation about the way we have conversations. 

Technology works with this not as the continual pathological product of Homo Faber who produces ever-more powerful tools, but as an appropriate response to establishing synergy in the system. Feeding it and monitoring it is "Homo Gubernator" - whose actions are dedicated to maintaining viability, providing safeguards and monitoring the eudemony in the system. 

Of course, it all raises question - but they're good questions. But I've been struck by the similarity between Beer's thought and those of Ivan Illich in his Tools for Conviviality.

For Illich, the problem of the pathological institution (the top of the diagram) is the declaration of "regimes of scarcity": the need to maintain institutional structures in the face of environmental uncertainty, which often takes the form of increasing specialisation, educational certification, division between people in society, and the ever increasing power of tools. This is a positive feedback mechanism whereby increasingly powerful tools generate more uncertainty in the environment which entails a need for more institutional defence, more scarcity declarations, and so on. It is this pathological way of dealing with uncertainty which is the underlying mechanism of the appalling inequality which we are now experiencing. 

For Illich, education lies at the heart of the means to transform this into what he calls a "convivial society". The education system we have produces scarcity declarations about knowledge, and supports professionalisation which alienates people and creates division (we've seen this with populism). 

The solution to this is to invert education - to make knowledge and learning abundant rather than scarce, and to create the conditions for conviviality. Conviviality is an alternative way of managing uncertainty. Its diagrammatic representation is in the "New Institution" box at the bottom of Beer's diagram. Quite simply, conviviality is where each person manages their uncertainty by engaging directly with each other person. Intersubjectivity is the most powerful mechanism for dealing with uncertainty that we have. We do not have to create institutions to manage uncertainty, nor do we need to create ever more powerful tools.

Illich closes the system loop because he sees the limiting of tools as the critical factor in the establishment of a viable convivial society. This limiting is a politicising of technology: it is where a convivial society determines through dialogue what tools are needed, what should be limited, and how it should manage its resources. In effect it is a communitarian approach to managing the commons of education, environment, tools and people  - very similar to that which was studied by Eleanor Ostrom. 

To do this, educational technology is a critical component. We need abundance of information and skill. We need open education and open resources for learning. 

But the most important thing is to see that the route to viability (and the root of our current pathology) is understanding uncertainty. 


Chris H said...

Once again you have hit the nail on the head Mark. The thing managers fear the most is that their employees actually know what they're doing and can manage themselves.

jane said...

Chris H, true but note many of the universities and awarding bodies are simply teaching/reiterating 1970s management concepts and ideas