Monday, 10 December 2018

"Sunday evening": My Roli Seaboard is fantastic...

A little over 10 years ago, I did my first post on this blog called "Sunday afternoon", with a video of me playing the piano.

So here's "Sunday Evening" 10 years later, but it's not a piano, but a Roli Seaboard. What an amazing musical instrument this is. I am growing into it more all the time. I have never had this experience with any digital technology before...

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The Digital Computer and the Implicate Order

All living things "compute" (literally, "com-putare"... they "contemplate with"). The human-digital computer system (the whole system of humans and machines), is a system where the computations in people are constrained by the logic circuits in a machine. Since we are allergic to the uncertainty that is produced within our human "computing system", the constraints of the digital computer are welcomed - they provide ways of attenuating our uncertainty and giving us "answers".

But if we look at living things as computers, and seek to contemplate with them, we would, I think, look at the world in a very different way. It is not the attenuation of uncertainty that we should seek from our contemplation. It is instead guidance on how to act to maintain the coherence of life.

This "acting to maintain coherence" is essentially a process of understanding when and how to generate redundancies in our human system. The digital computer can be used to generate redundancies, but a lot of the time it is used to attenuate reality and to generate "information", which is the opposite of redundancy.

What I mean by coherence is, at its most basic level, a hologram, or a fractal. It is a fundamental process which encapsulates totality. When things fall apart, the fractal loses its internal coherence. When this happens, it is necessary to generate new redundancies, and sometimes new variety. But we need to know what to do and how to do it.

The fundamental question we should ask ourselves is how we might apprehend this hologram. It is close to what David Bohm called the "implicate order". Essentially it is unknowable, but some features can be perceived - particularly in the growth of living things, and especially music.

Music is a kind of computation. Music specifically shows the ways in which redundancies are required to be generated to maintain coherent life: a new accompaniment, a new melody, a modulation, are all ways in which music computes the nature of perception. Each new moment is not an accident. It is an expression of the whole, or an intervention to reveal the whole.

Digital computers are powerful enough to give a glimpse into the computations of nature. It is the latter computations which are our best guide for making collective decisions.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

From Topology to Holograms

There's a missing link in my thinking. On the one hand I am seeing holistic approaches to organisation as in Beer's work (in fact most cybernetic approaches are holistic) in a topological way. On the other hand, I am concerned with the fractal encoding of nature in things like holograms, where time and space are enfolded (this comes from Bohm).

The topology side reveals forms like the Mobius strip, trefoil knot, hexaflexagon, etc, where re-entry (which is something I'd not properly understood until quite recently) is a feature of a whole form. The connection with eroticism which I mentioned in my last post is something that puts a new dimension on this - a connection to lived experience, and perhaps psychological dynamics such as the double-bind. More than anything, I find this a productive way of thinking about profound questions such as "what drives the bee towards the flower, or the sperm towards the egg?"

Topologies enfold time in a peculiar way. We have to pass over them to understand them. They are structured space (synchronic), but the time of diachronic exploration is implicit in them.

But a topology is not an encoding - it is a manifest space. However, a topology can be encoded as a hologram.

Whilst a geometric form like a trefoil knot plays with space, music plays with time. The way in which music's playing with time might be encoded is the critical issue. I think this works according to the same principle as an object's encoding of space. Actually, in the case of a hologram, space and time are implicated in both, because a hologram is formed through the interference patterns of light, which implicates frequency, and in turn, time.

Music's interference pattern involves the interactions of redundancies or constraints. It's not just music - it's any diachronic process which involves this... learning and conversation are exactly the same. But where is the connection between the hologram's encoding of space and music's encoding of time?

A holographic encoding combines not only all dimensions - time and space are two of them (but we should also consider mass and charge since these also participate in the interference in light) - but is also able to represent the relation between these different dimensions in different ways. Aesthetic experience relies on this multiplicity of decodings of a hologram: we can be moved in similar ways by Beethoven, Shakespeare and Picasso. They all express something fundamental about the universe.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Seeing systems whole (and topology in Bataille's "Eroticism")

I've been giving a few seminars on the work of Stafford Beer recently. I've tended to concentrate on the work from Platform for Change, working backwards to the viable system model, and forwards to syntegration. One of the things which has really struck me is the topological coherence of Beer's thinking. If I can sum it up in a nutshell, it is simply that every whole system has "undecidables" which require a metasystem whose job it is to maintain the whole. This means that we make a mistake if we conceive of any "whole" as simply a boundary around a system (i.e. a circle). The undecidables are the hole within the whole. To put it most simply, "Every whole has a hole" (this is probably another way of expressing the Conant-Ashby theorem)

Another way of thinking about it is to see a whole as a Möbius strip. One side of the strip is the system and the other is the metasystem. The hole is (obviously) in the middle. If you flatten a Möbius strip, you get a trihexaflexagon which is also a trefoil knot. That's three arms which constrain each other: system, metasystem, environment. But maybe that's stretching things a bit.

A three-dimensional Möbius strip produces a Möbius snail. What a fascinating thing that is!

There are similar objects like "klein bottles", but in each case there is a hole in the whole.

I was looking up a book cover for Bataille's "eroticism" the other day and came across this erotic image which is used as a cover for one of his other books:

There's a strong similarity in these images, isn't there? And in fact there are holes in wholes everywhere we look... Here's one I've spent a lot of time looking at over the last year...

Is the optic nerve a hole within the whole? It certainly connects to the metasystem (the brain)...

Returning to Bataille for a second, he says something in the introduction to Eroticism which is very similar to Beer:

By seeking to present a coherent whole, I am working in contradiction to scientific method. Science studies one question by itself. It accumulates the results of specialised research. Eroticism cannot be discussed unless man too is discussed in the process. 
Bataille is in the hole in more ways than one!

Monday, 26 November 2018

Why has my blogging slowed down? (Some thoughts on holograms, music and machine learning)

I realise that I haven't blogged very much recently. Partly it's because I've been very busy and a bit exhausted. But also I think it's because I've got so much in my head at the moment, I don't know how to get anything out.

What I have been doing is a bit of cybernetic evangelism. It's been great to take people to the Stafford Beer archive and watch their heads explode! It's quite a predictable thing...

But I'm also thinking about Beer's holism, and the way that his approach unfolds from nothing. It's this "unfolding from nothing" which really fascinates me. It's rather like my friend Peter Rowlands's work on physics which expands from the idea of nothing (or his 'nilpotent' formulae). Is everything really nothing? What's real about nothing?

I have some good friends visiting me at the end of the week who also know about this stuff. We're going to do a session in the Beer archive. I'm hoping some colleagues from Liverpool also come along.

It's weird how things start to fit together. I suppose my biggest interest in cybernetics at the moment is coherence: how do things fit together? The mechanistic/stochastic approach of cybernetics doesn't address this question well. But David Bohm's idea of the hologram (which Beer was at least aware of because he had a book on it), does.

All the things that fascinate me most, such as music, or conversation, or narrative, or biological form, are all coherent. Are they all holographic?

This question about holograms - particularly in music - has taken on a new dimension for me. I am also working with machine learning tools for a big medical project. We have a problem: how to adjust the judgement of a trained network without screwing up all the other judgements of the network. It's not really how machine learning is meant to work.

We have a brute-force fix for the problem, but it's rather unsatisfactory (and probably not reliable). It would be much better to have a better understanding of what is happening in a convolutional neural network (CNN)

It turns out that current thinking is that it is a kind of hologram. CNNs encode differences and orders of things in a fractal structure. That means that the nature of the problem we want to solve is "where to change the fractal/hologram so that a specific change in its ordering may be made".

This is rather like asking "where to change the  fractal holographic image so that the hologram changes shape in a particular way". The nature of the challenge can be seen by examining a holographic plate:

What it encodes is the interference pattern of light. That means actually that it encodes distance and time (time because interference involves frequency). Now if we can understand how the interference pattern arises, we might be able to understand where to manipulate it. 

Music, I suspect has a holographic structure. I'm writing a paper at the moment where this structure is considered using the fractal images of anticipatory systems which were developed by Daniel Dubois. His images look like this:
In music's hologram, I think what is encoded is the interference between different redundancies. Like light, this interference means that the hologram encodes time and difference. Because we can play with music in a very practical way, maybe there is a way in which insight gained from music can help with the practical problem of machine learning. 

Let's see. 

In the meantime, I've felt the need to shake up my metasystem...

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Stafford Beer's Critical Holism in Education

I gave a presentation about how Stafford Beer's work relates to education to a small group of people from the education faculty at Cambridge last week. I wanted to avoid presenting Beer's work as a kind of fait-accompli, where the Viable System Model (VSM), or Syntegration is the answer (I think this kind of evangelism is very off-putting). But his work is mind-blowing, and if he didn't "have the answer", he certainly had an important way of asking practical questions which is sorely missing from anything in the educational discourse today.

The problems - the reasons why the VSM or Syntegration isn't the answer - or indeed, any other cybernetic theory cannot provide a full answer - are that fundamental problems of time, meaning, emergence, non-ergodicity and coherence haven't been resolved in any of the systems sciences. This is why, for example, the question of agency in cybernetic descriptions is such a problematic question: "where's the person? They're in the recursions", which leads to a slight air of dissatisfaction. We can work to improve this situation - but this will only happen with a critical engagement with cybernetics.

This is not to take anything away from Beer. He nailed what he was doing and what cybernetics is really about: "Cybernetics is about holism". Yes. There are of course many many definitions of cybernetics, which describe it as "ways of thinking", or "ways of thinking about ways of thinking", "the art and science of defensible metaphors" (!), or "the science of effective organisation" - it all gets rather philosophical, giving a newcomer the feeling that they've arrived in some kind of cult. But, in the end, what unites them all is that they all deal with wholes. They all run counter to reductionism.

Holism has a bad name. It is rather closely associated with cults, with theories of everything. But this isn't what Beer meant. He was after (and indeed possessed) a science of holism (notwithstanding the problems raised above). If it is wholes we have to grapple with, and not parts, then we need to know how wholes work - and they are not simple things, but once opened out, they reveal a structure. It is this structure which can be studied and experimented with.

The structure unfolds because whatever whole is considered contains things which cannot be decided. I have recently preferred simply to talk about uncertainty. The point is that this uncertainty has to be dealt with, and by definition, it cannot be dealt with within the "whole". So any whole requires a metasystem - something which sits outside the whole and mops up the uncertainty. It does it, often, by imposing categories for dealing with the uncertainty. It's the metasystem where the reductionism goes on!

Beer knew that there were good and bad ways in which the relationship between a whole and a metasystem could work. If education is seen to be a "whole", then the metasystem has to mop up things like uncertainties over teacher and student "performance": it invents categories and metrics to measure teaching and learning. It even ties some of these metrics to the pay or job security of teachers. More recently it deploys technologies to reinforce these metrics. What happens? "explosive complexification".

Why do these uncertainties arise in the first place? What is it about the whole which invites pathological metasystemic regulation? There's a simple answer to this. It is the hierarchical structures of organisation which education adopts. These structures themselves are very poor at mopping up their own uncertainty: hierarchies attenuate complexity from their bottom to their top, and from the environment to each individual. The only mechanism they have for managing uncertainty is authoritarianism, and this eventually leads to collapse.

What is required are forms of organisation which manage their uncertainty effectively. In education, the most effective way any individual - whether teacher or learner - can manage their uncertainty is to talk to others: "What do you think?" The best form of educational organisation is one which creates the conditions for conversation. Here, Beer's holism suggests that the way to do this is to disrupt the metasystems of each individual. This is really what he attempted with his Syntegration technique. It's what Von Foerster articulated when he spoke about education's role in learning to ask "legitimate questions", or questions to which nobody knows the answer:

  1. “Education is neither a right nor a privilege: it is a necessity.” 
  1. “Education is learning to ask legitimate questions.” 

A society who has made these two discoveries will ultimately be able to discover the third and most utopian one:
  1. “A is better off when B is better off.” (Von Foerster, Understanding Understanding, p209)
Understanding how Von Foerster gets from 2 to 3 is core to appreciating the power of Beer's Critical Holism. 

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Transforming Education with Science and Creativity

I've had an amazing three weeks in Russia at the Far Eastern Federal University at Vladivostok. I visited in March to deliver training to 20 teachers for a new course which myself and a small team devised called "Global Scientific Dialogue". The plan was to get those 20 teachers to deliver a similar programme to 200 students in October. It was a daunting task: working with teachers in concert with delivering an innovative course to students. The teacher development was very successful, and I was quite euphoric when I came back in March - but well aware that dealing with 200 students was a different kettle of fish. Now, I can say that the whole thing looks like it has been a big success, with some important implications for how we should approach educational development in institutions.

I'm pleased that most of the students (not quite all - but nearly!) really enjoyed the course, and many have expressed a sense of personal transformation through the experience (similar to the teachers in March). But more importantly, the teachers who I met in March have all been extremely positive about their experiences of teaching it - this has been transformative for them too. This is despite numerous technical issues, which bedevil any initiative of this kind, but which somehow has not dented the underlying philosophy or creative approach.

It makes me think that we need to look at the teacher-learner relationship as a "whole system" and make interventions with the whole system. Global Scientific Dialogue was really a cybernetic intervention: conversation drove the whole thing, supported by technology, but importantly, this was not the kind of technologically-supported conversation that dominates thinking about educational technology today (threaded discussions, etc). More importantly, the cybernetics that drove it was also part of the content (although I didn't labour the point!)

A whole system intervention is obviously not an intervention in the "parts" of teaching and learning which we usually attempt with silly things like "curriculum review", "teacher development" or what goes by the name of "technology-enhanced learning". I think there is no point in trying to develop teaching practice (or indeed curriculum) in isolation from the participation of students. Nor is there any point in trying to "bully" teachers into getting the best approval ratings from their students, or using the "latest technology". All of this simply depresses people. What we've done in Vladivostok is different: it was an intervention with everyone - teachers, learners and managers. It was an attempt to transform relationships and create the conditions for conversation. It worked.

How did we bring together teachers from management, economics, biology and tourism together to work on a single module which students could also participate in? Simply by focusing the educational content of the course on current scientific developments and questions "to which nobody currently knows the answer". So students and teachers passed through sessions focusing on "wicked problems", on current developments in quantum mechanics (and quantum biology), in AI, in social software, in intersubjectivity and interdisciplinarity. With there being no answer to any of this stuff, students and staff were encouraged to engage in creative activities. We used all sorts of things, from Mary Flannagan's brilliant "grow a game", to drama, music, art, data analysis and product innovation. We also had a special day where expert practitioners from biology, soil science, drama, music, genetics and many other disciplines, could be freely consulted by the students. This day was particularly successful because it opened the eyes of students too often imprisoned by subjects like management or economics which lose sight of the technological and scientific developments which fundamentally affect the context within which any management is conducted. This is a nice post written in English by one of the students the experts' session:

As in March, teaching activities were coordinated with a kind of video lesson plan - which worked very well in coordinating large numbers of students doing the same kinds of activities coordinated by different teachers. We also supplied the students with some comparative judgement software and a range of texts which were assembled around the different themes of the course. The software asked the students to simply say which of two texts (chosen at random) were most interesting to them: it was really an activity designed to encourage the student to read and think.

Assessment was a combination of this comparison activity and the presentation of a "patchwork text" which produced highly individualised work in presentation sessions which were some of the most uplifting things I have seen in education. Not all students liked it ("it was too much like kindergarten," was a common comment from those who didn't), but it seems the vast majority found the experience of being focused on collaborative activity with people they didn't know before was truly liberating and built a foundation for future collaboration.

I've been incredibly lucky in Russia: not simply that immediate colleagues have run with crazy ideas, but that we had powerful backing from the senior management in the school, who have not just been supportive, but have taken an active interest in the development of the course. Russia has yet to feel the full force of the ravages of marketisation (although there's plenty of it, of course). But it doesn't seem to have been paralysed by reductionist metrics in the way that many UK institutions seem to have become.

That's a worry for the UK HE sector. Personally, as someone who simply wants to make education better, I don't think it matters where positive interventions occur. Young people of all countries are the future of the world, and I am both deeply impressed and grateful for the wonderful work of colleagues and students at the Far Eastern Federal University.