Sunday, 3 May 2020

Technology and the many-brain problems of science and education - a response to @Czernie

Our current world of edtech is not the only technological world for education that is possible. That is the most important point in a great piece by Laura Czerniewicz, which catalogues the challenges institutions currently face:

As Laura points out, our institutions are now in a deep state of crisis. There's no need to repeat the statistics. The livelihoods of academics, like the livelihoods of everyone else, are under threat. Academics are lucky not to face the immediate redundancies faced by many. This is what a dramatic change to the environment does to any organism (and people and institutions are organisms - things which maintain their existence in an environment) which has no capacity to adapt. The virus kills by starving people of oxygen. Our institutions and people will be starved of money.

But we knew our institutions were in deep trouble, we knew our economy was unsustainable, we knew the planet was dying long before any of this. But somehow our daily practices, whilst perhaps acknowledging some doubts, confirmed to us that things would go on as normal and the world would continue to be safe for us and our children. But deep down we worried.

So what is knowledge to an organism that helps it survive and adapt? And what happens to an organism that suddenly realises that it was listening to the wrong signals, and signals which it discarded were the really important ones? As people, we have this experience continually in our lives. We reflect, change course, change jobs, get married, get divorced, study, etc. None of these changes are easy. They demand deep contemplation, and as individuals, the greatest strength of humanity is that we possess the capacity to do this, and we instill this capacity in our children.

What about the organism of the institution? With globalisation, all our institutions towered over the world like colossi: banks, airlines, governments and universities. They were the environment for individual people. We had replaced nature with markets and bureaucracy. Wasn't it only a matter of time before nature reminded who was boss?

That universities followed the path of the global colossus believing that the global demand for certificates would fill their classrooms and lucrative accommodation in the name of "preparing for the future" will be seen as the greatest mistake in the history of the universities. The paradox is obvious. The institution that existed to engender the contemplation of nature should believe itself and other institutions to be "natural", and therefore to be the only environment to which adaptation was necessary. Moreover, that adaptation to an environment of institutions merely required a certificate by a trusted university.

So that's the crisis. But now the challenge.

The complexity of the natural challenges that face humanity is enormous. The scientific response to this will have to have an equivalent complexity in order to be able to manage it. In distilling the essence of the inquiry into nature to a process of regurgitating things that were already known and certifying them, our universities have largely narrowed the complexity with which science is able to tackle complex problems.  Anyone who thinks against the prevailing winds of discourse finds themselves on the outside. That is a problem: A.N. Whitehead noted that if you want to know where the next scientific advance will come from, look at what people are not talking about. Our research establishment works in the opposite direction, increasingly feeding the interests of politicians and corporations. This must stop - and perhaps now it will.

But if we are to increase the complexity of our scientific imagination to meet the challenges of nature, then we have to create the conditions within which our scientific imagination can be enlarged. This is the university's job. It is to create contexts for conversations of sufficient variety that feed a scientific imagination of sufficient richness that it will be able guide humanity to new ways to organise ourselves.

In the scientific revolution, there was a similar demand to increase the variety in scientific discourse. The academic journal was a way of using technology to democratise science. Over time, as with all institutions, what was originally well-intentioned, became pathological, exclusive, and subsumed into a market logic.

As Laura rightly says, today's technologies are extraordinary. The capacity to organise global conversation, contemplation and action is with us. Politicians and corporations across the world know this and fear it. It is a threat to their own institutional arrangements - which are probably as doomed as our current institutional arrangements for universities. But the coffee houses of the 17th century are now online.

A technological rebirth will require fundamental questions to be asked about people, collectives and brains. We may ask about the "future of universities", but universities are institutions, and we need to understand institutions first: those organisational entities which comprise many brains, and somehow coordinate the thoughts in many brains. How do they work? How can they work better?

Heinz von Foerster argued that brain research is essentially a "one-brain" problem, while education is essentially a "two-brain" problem, and the issue of society and institutions is a "many-brain" problem. Von Foerster's colleague Ross Ashby, whose Law of Requisite Variety frames the essence of the problem I've been discussing (a complex system can only be controlled by a system of equal complexity), wrote a book called "Design for a brain". Now we need a "Design for an institution". 

The many-brain problem is the problem of organising institutions. The two-brain problem is the essence of the conversations which institutions have to create contexts for. The context for the conversation about both of these is the internet. It is conversation that has to happen - and will.

Facebook, Twitter and the media giants (which are largely politicised now) will try to distort any kind of coherent conversation in order to sell things, or deliver a kind of brain-washing to their clients. Eventually we will be able to mitigate for their disruption and organise our contemplative processes in ways that will provide stability in the relationship between humanity and nature once more.

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