Wednesday 26 September 2012

Attachments, Metagames and Anxiety in the University

I have argued previously (see that anxiety can be interpreted in terms of attachments, or at least, awareness of the risks posed to maintaining existing attachments: taking care of your children, keeping your job, paying the mortgage, running the car, and so on. In each of these situations, there are networks of people to whom attachments are formed and the maintenance of those attachments are deeply interconnected: the attachments to colleagues is connected indirectly to your attachments to your family - if one breaks down, the other become severely threatened too. The argument I presented was similar to Bowlby's argument that internal viability or homeostasis was deeply connected to a network of relationships with other people (and possibly other things - for example, possessions).

This model of attachment can help to explain economic behaviour which appears at first sight irrational. My particular interest in this is that I can think of no greater irrational economic behaviour than to spend money one hasn't earned yet on expensive education! The risks are huge, and yet the decision is made (student numbers have not collapsed despite the most gloomy predictions). Why not? Probably because individuals judge that they have no choice. That is what I am interested in here.

The metagame that students engage in as they decide to go to university is one which we are only vaguely aware of. I've argued before that the University which really understands this metagame will transform the market (and wipe away a good deal of the competition). It is a complex metagame and I think it has to do with attachment.

With the theory of absence and metagames that I have presented in the last week or so, I have argued that conviviality is necessary for the shared identification of absences, and consequently the creation of new recursive concepts which can simply the metagame tree and help decision-making. But what if the convivial situation was completely unstable? One minute, there is one set of individuals with whom I have a relationship, next minute a completely different set? How is shared absence ever going to be determined then? How can meaningful recursive concepts be identified? How can learning happen? What is the emotional response?

The answer to the last question is easy: the response is anxiety and trauma. The individual is trapped in their metagame with no means of digging themselves out of it, because for that to happen they need shared absence which is stable.

It's not unknown for 18 year-olds to have somewhat turbulent emotional lives where attachments are in flux. Turmoil and anxiety usually accompany this. Their metagame tree is highly complex, and students' means for simplifying it are very restricted simply because of the attachment situation they find themselves in. My thesis would be that education stabilises attachments by providing what is in effect a surrogate 'family'. The students may have no choice but to pay money for this, not only because they might fear their chances of employment without a degree, but because the community they join in education is the best thing they can get in terms of finding a way of dealing with their own complexity. Frankly, it may be either that or a religious cult or gang.

This means that Universities, if they are to succeed with these students, must create stable social environments where students feel part of something. Where that doesn't happen, students will most likely drop out - but in a worse position because they will have incurred fees and other costs. They are likely also to be in a deeper emotional crisis, for which I think the University must bear some responsibility (I'm sure we'll see some law suits around this at some point in the future).

The organisational challenge for universities is that if they are to do this, they need a strong and stable staff body. It is unlikely that a move towards greater staff turnover in Universities (as has increasingly been the pattern in schools) will lead to this kind of security, despite the wishes of some University managements. It also means that the ultimate success of any online learning depends on the richness of the attachments that are formed through engaging with the technology. Given that communication online is usually by text, and such text communications tend to be more 'strategic' in nature than authentic, there are some big questions about the capability of any text-driven online platform to really provide meaningful educational experiences. It's not impossible, but I think it is very challenging in ways that are rarely appreciated.

What I am really saying here is that learning itself, the grasping of new concepts, the imbuing of the world with meaning, is not an 'individual brain' thing. It is necessarily social. However, the precise nature of the social environment - particularly its stability - is of fundamental importance in the discovery of new concepts. But this conclusion arises not from a positive description of what learning is; it arises from a deeper awareness of the limits of our rational engagement with the world.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Recursion and Proportion in Music

The composer Alan Bush wrote an introduction to Erno Lendvai's book "Bela Bartok: an analysis of his music" which is particularly assertive. Welcoming the analysis of Lendvai, and situating it with the analytical work of Asaviev (about whom I will post soon - he's important), Hindemith, Cooke and Ansermet, he forcefully rejects the inclusion of Schoenberg into this canon of music theorists. Citing Schoenberg in Style and Idea, where he says:
"the term emancipation of the dissonance refers to its comprehensibility, which is considered equivalent to the consonances's comprehensibility. A style based on this treats dissonances like consonances and renounces a tonal centre"
Bush argues that this is nonsense. He says:
"dissonance is not the same as consonance; it has different acoustical and physiological effects. Therefore dissonance ought not to be treated as if it were identical with consonance. And in any case the renunciation of a tonal centre does not follow from an previously stated proposition and is merely a dogmatic assertion of the composer's [Schoenberg's] belief."
Bush's objection to this is on scientific grounds. There is no proof for the assertion that Schoenberg makes. Indeed there may be more scientific evidence for the opposite.

I find myself in a curious position here, because I love Schoenberg's music. I also think that Schoenberg was one of the more sensible theorists of tonal music. To me, it feels like Brahms (big fist-fulls of notes) and has the same passionate intensity. Although not serial, the Op.11 piano pieces are as great as any Brahms intermezzo.

But Bush's point is made in the context of supporting Lendvai, who has a thesis about proportion, and in particular Golden Section, Fibonacci proportion, in the music of Bartok. 

The Fibonacci numbers are clearly audible in Bartok - and indeed all those 3, 5, 8, 13s  all create the sense of driving vitality which is the hallmark of his music. But I don't really find Schoenberg's piano pieces any less well-proportioned. Is it Fibonacci? Are there Golden Sections in those wild cadenza-like passages in the opening? Probably not. But there is something which in the hands of a skilled performer, gives the things passionate consistency.

Recalling my last three posts on metagames and absence and conviviality,  the Golden Section analysis of Lendvai has been fascinating me. Since I have made so much of the point of the recursion of concepts which help to simplify the metagame tree and so lead to understanding, I have begun to think that Bartok's Golden Section rhythms and harmonies are also recursive in a similar way. The music explains itself by revealing the recursive principles which underlie it. As those principles are grasped by the listener, and the composer plays around with expectations, so a sense of finality and satisfaction is gradually generated. 

But the recursions in music are much deeper that simple numerical sequences. I might be tempted to argue that in the Schoenberg, the phrasing and the contour of the melodies (yes, they are melodies - and rather beautiful ones at that), sets up its own pattern. Little motifs are suggested in the opening, only to become important in the music's close (for example, the motif below)
But then there are also the levels of recursion between the melodic form, the phrasing and articulation, and the overall structure. Remembering that I have argued that new concepts (recursions) arise out of perceived absences, I wonder how it is that those moments of melodic suggestion and sudden bursts of emotion in the opening give rise to absences in the listener, which the composer then suggests simple formulae (like the  one above) that might serve to simply the complex web of metagame possibilities that the listener is grappling with.

I don't yet have a more precise mathematical analysis of this. But I am not unconvinced of the possibility that one might be found.

Monday 24 September 2012

A Mathematical Case for Conviviality

My last blog post dealt with the ways in which concepts work to simplify a metagame tree so as to reveal equilibrium points which in turn help the making of decisions. I have argued that it is at the moment of discovery of concepts that the release of tension of descending into complex metagame trees occurs, and that this equates to meaningful experience, resolution and understanding - conceived broadly as a "restructuring of anticipations".

But I have not explained how such concepts are discovered.

The emphasis on absence is particularly important in the discovery of new concepts. Informally we intuit that concepts are discovered (gravity, negative numbers, etc) because explanatory absences of existing concepts necessitate new ones with better explanatory and predictive power. However, I want to suggest that this process of awareness of absence is necessarily social. In insisting on this, I think I am probably making a kind of 'private language' argument for concept formation. But I'm comfortable with that!

Everyday social interaction has a negative imprint which lies behind the actualised acts that individuals undertake. As I explained here, each act, each decision is shaped by absences bearing upon an individual: it is the absences which shape the equilibrium points so that decisions can be made.

Moments of tension in social interaction can arise from a failure to identify effective equilibria: the absences of other individuals are not discernable, and so their action is not predictable, leading to difficulties in constructing the meta-game trees. In such moments, recourse to identifying absences that unite individuals is one strategy which can help to simply the metagame tree and identify an equilibrium (i.e. one course of action which is likely to work). This is where I think new concepts emerge from. They emerge from the need to pinpoint absences, to concretise them as ways of binding people together, and creating a new framework and new coalitions for constructive social engagement.

This is very much the Critical Realist position with regard to what Bhaskar calls 'determinate absence'. For example, conflict and inequality in multicultural societies gradually leads to the determination of previously absent mechanisms which are brought to light under the label of 'racism'. With the identification of the concept, so each individual's metagame tree can be restructured, leading to new grounds for discourse (and racism is a recursive concept, with some power).

A humourous example of this is the beginning of the movie Airplane! where the two announcers, one male the other female, compete on whether parking is permitted in the 'red zone' or the 'white zone'. The argument heats up to such a point like this:
P.A. SYSTEM (female v.o.)
There's just no stopping in the white zone.
P.A. SYSTEM (male v.o.)
Christ, you're as bad as your mother!
P.A. SYSTEM (female v.o.)
Oh, really, Vernon! Why pretend? We both know perfectly well what it is you're talking about. You want me to have an abortion.
That's the game-changer in the conversation. And it literally does 'change the game' because the new concept identified through shared absence, cuts through the other strategic possibilities in the conversation.

What I believe is deeply important in all this is the fact that individuals often group themselves around people who are like them, who tell them things they want to hear. Managers are notorious for this (even the occasional University Vice Chancellor!). The theory of shared absence shows how this is catastrophic. If the absences of the people who are managed are excluded from the conversation then the concepts which are inferred by those who hear only what they want to hear will be ineffective, likely to only introduce more tension and a potential pathological conflict.

This is perhaps a more technical, and mathematically-supportable articulation of the dangers of positive-feedback in management. Conversely, effective concepts will arise from social diversity. Indeed, the greater the social tension, the more scope there is for the identification of new concepts. This may help  to explain how difficult times (for example, 16th century England, or Soviet Russia) can be remarkably fertile for creative imagination.

Saturday 22 September 2012

"Release", Concepts and Understanding: More Mathematical Speculations

To summarise from yesterday, I have argued that 'tension', the feeling of questioning, curiosity, anxiety in the face of problems, is a product of entrenchment in meta-games where we lose our way, or struggle to cope with the proliferation of options as we try to consider what we should do (see I have argued that it is what we lose, what we forget, what is absent, which has the primal causal bearing on what we choose to do. For so many in academia in the UK at the moment, the classic example of this thinking would be to ask yourself (in the face of uncertainty and insane managerialism), "should I get another job?"

Now I come to consider the fact that in the face of immense confusion, we do find ways of making decisions. We do, in fact, find a way of satisfactorily simplifying the endless complexity of meta-games and meta-meta-games in order to identify clear 'equilibrium points' from which we can make a decision. The moment at which we manage to collapse the complexity of meta-game trees and see the entirety more simply is the moment when we have 'understood' something. I will argue that this moment depends on us 'grasping a concept'. Indeed, it is this moment which appears to us as 'meaningful': it is the moment when our expectations (in the form of meta-strategies, and meta-meta-strategies) are restructured.

Given the immense complexity of the higher-level metagames (see M4 above), and M5 would be another power of 2, and M6 a further power bigger, how can this ever be navigated?

But the complexity is overwhelming if strategies a and b are fundamentally different. But what if they were conceptually connected? And what if the strategy a/a or a/b was essentially the same as strategy a or strategy b? And what if the strategy a/a/a/a or a/a/b/a was also essentially the same as strategy a?

This kind of a strategy would be a recursive strategy. A strategy that was applicable to many layers of recursion of the metagame. Cybernetics, in fact, is a discipline which specialises in recursive strategies. Beer's Viable System Model is a classic example of a  recursive strategy: it's concepts are applicable whether questions are asked about the organisation, the individuals, or even the cells that make up the individuals. It is clear that were such a recursive strategy to be discovered, then the tree of games and metagames becomes simplified greatly. That means that the equilibrium points are more easily discernable in the light of the recursive strategy that is used.

The moment at which a recursive strategy is discovered and applied, is the moment at which new understanding is realised. It is the moment at which tension is released (although briefly). It is where the complexity of the meta-game tree collapses through the application of a recursive strategy, to reveal clear equilibrium points.

Our next question is to consider how such recursive strategies are discovered. Tomorrow, I will argue that recursive strategies grow from the realisation of shared absence, and that as the metagame tree for each individual reveals itself, so too do the absences which contribute to the communicative decisions for each individual.

Friday 21 September 2012

Tension and Thinking: A game-theoretical speculation

There's a lot of tension around at the moment! Maybe that's a good excuse to start thinking about what 'tension' might be, and what happens when it is released. I've previously remarked that I see this process as musical. I'm currently in the process of trying to characterise the process as a mathematical one.

Nigel Howard's work presents a picture of rational thought which progresses up levels of meta-games in pursuit of effective decisions. Howard describes how the outcomes from decisions, at the basic level, and at the meta-level, can be ordinal (so one outcome is quantifiably better or worse than another) or non-ordinal, or even semi-ordinal. This reflects the different kinds of decisions we have to make in different situations: playing Monopoly is different from playing politics.

The other difference in these situations is the role of coalitions. Coalitions do not occur in Monopoly; but they are a key part of strategy in politics (as Nick Clegg will tell you!). The games I'm really interested in are games of discourse - and they are essentially political: I utter an opinion; I seek your agreement; I aim to build a movement around my ideas; I challenge ideas I do not agree with; and so on. That would suggest that outcomes for games of discourse are related to the probability that coalitions will be established. In Niklas Luhmann's language, that means the outcome relates to the probability that my communication will be successful.

The only way I can judge if my communication will successful is to try to anticipate the likely response of others around me. That will inform the communication I make (I will judge it to fit the audience) and will lead me to think carefully and strategically about the coalition I might aim for. Anticipating means going up the meta-game tree. It means thinking "if I say this, x may say this, then I will respond; or if I say this, x may say this, and ..." All of those possibilities must be considered. But of course, there are too many of them!

When we think like this, some possibilities get explored, others do not. Why do we forget the ones we don't explore? Maybe it's because of things that have happened to us in the past which blinker us in some way. Attachments in childhood are always a good indicator of what isn't thought about. But here comes the rub: I think it is what we miss out that determines the course of action we eventually choose. This is because preferences in the metagame and the metametagame propagate downwards and produce a pattern of equilibrium points from which decisions are construed. It is the missing stuff, the stuff we don't consider, which is the determining factor in the establishment of these equilibrium points.

So it looks like this:
As the different levels of recursion increase (from M1 to M4), so things start to drop off. As things start to drop off, so a pattern of emphasis reveals certain equilibrium points at M1, and so determines the choice of action.

To me, this helps explain tension. Tension lies in the descending into meta-games and pursuing options at a meta-level. The deeper the tension, the more difficult it becomes to keep track of all the metagames. This is where things get forgotten. 

It is tension which produces the absence which is causal on the choice of action.

Tomorrow I shall talk about release, and the role of concepts and rationality in simplifying this game-tree and helping to manage the process of thinking.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Appetite, Will and Intellect: A journey of recursion?

When I understand something, there is a feeling of resolution, coming back down to earth, repose, satisfaction. The experience can feel like post-coital satisfaction - a (fleeting) sense of finality. But then things move again with some  new challenge or assertion that doesn't fit and demands more effort. The tension builds once more. A new moment of understanding might be reached at some point in the future, but like all appetites, it isn't something that is really within my control, although I may choose to act in particular ways to manage it.

I find the patterns of intellectual appetite musical: the rising and falling of tension, the rhythmic drive in pursuit of thought, the mellifluousness of arguments. But maybe that's because much of what I concern myself with is music. But intellectual appetite is curious. Is it distinct from other appetites? (I may be suggesting, against Aquinas's distinction between appetite, will and intellect, that they are one and the same: all is, to some extent, related to appetite). If appetite, will and intellect are connected, how? I think that recursive thinking can reveal new levels of depth in this relationship.

Recursion is a 20th century concept and would not have been available to Aquinas. The closest the scholastics got to recursion I suspect, is in their spiritual practice, and (I'm speculating here) in their obsession with copying and immitation. Certainly the quest to 'become like Jesus' has some powerful recursive properties, and this was an important part of their thinking.

But only within the last 50 years (and particularly within the last 30) has recursion become more available to us in everyday experience. And we have needed computers to appreciate it. The hidden patterns of the logistic map and the astonishing symmetry of fractals has opened up a polyvalent universe to us which at the very least provides a new lens through which to view ancient problems.

Is the difference between appetite and will one of recursive depth? And it may not just be appetites, but fears too. When I am hungry, 'instinct' doesn't lead me to 'reflect' on my hunger, but rather to act on it. My behaviour in this sense is 'rational' in the way that the game theorists assume (wrongly) that all behaviour is rational: there is an objective to be achieved and a game to be played to achieve that objective which may be seen to have graspable ordinal outcomes. In games like chess, there can be a lust for victory which can be comparable to this aspect of appetite. But these two cases are different: being physically hungry is debilitating in a way that not winning a game of tiddlywinks is not.

With tiddlywinks, there are deeper levels of recursion. The metagame of tiddlywinks involves thinking about strategies and outcomes which do not pertain to the actual game, but to its context. "Do I want to beat this person?", "What will the consequences of that be?", "Is losing a good thing?", and so on. The permutations of this are potentially endless. The meta-metagame and the meta-meta-metagame might conceivably be invoked as a player decides either what strategy to play, or what attitude to adopt regarding the game in general. Given that particular complexity, the fact that we do just 'play the game' appears more remarkable than the fact that we might reflect on it.

This is where I wonder if the work of the intellect is particularly important (at least, what Aquinas calls the 'agent intellect' - I'm not sure about his concept of the 'passive intellect'). In short, the intellect helps us to navigate the levels of recursion and manage the complexity thrown up by ever-bewildering arrays of choices and levels of thinking. How does it do that? It identifies concepts whose function is the limit the variety of the metagame tree. 'Successful' concepts are applicable at a variety of levels of recursion. In cybernetics, we are quite familiar with this: the concepts of Beer's Viable System Model are a perfect example. Maturana's 'autopoiesis' is another one. Such concepts may relate to 'will' and self-determination; their nature is often in some way moral - or at least, morality is an important consideration of their worth (Maturana's work may be suspect in this regard, since his 'biological reductionism' may in fact be potentially fascist!). One more thing to say about this aspect of the will and recursion is that it might be negative in function rather than positive. Concepts emerge through an awareness of absence left out through the exploration of levels of recursion: it is the space between the Mandelbrot forms. This is what I was getting at when I designed this poster for the ASC conference this year.. absence gives rise to recursive concepts that emerge from recursive processes (this may be related to Deacon's 'teleodynamics')

But the pattern of ebb-and-flow of intellectual life remains a puzzle. I believe tension builds with the accumulation of complexity in the metagame tree. At some point this becomes exasperating. What can release it? Intellect produces the recursive concept which comes to the rescue in simplifying the game tree. Tension is released.

What is fascinating me about this is the way that intellect works in the unfolding of a piece of music. It may be that motivic patterns and tonal motion become the recursive 'concepts' through which music "explains itself".

Saturday 15 September 2012

The sad case of Hubert Twotter's analytics

Hubert Twotter hadn't been particularly lucky in life. The strings of failed relationships, lost jobs and general meandering through life had left its mark in his lugubrious personality. Failure was an expectation.

Unbeknown to Hubert, his erratic path in life had left its mark in a string of relationships whose existence appeared on electronic maps. What appeared there were not the faded photographs of smiling women, or the crumpled love letters now splashed with coffee stains and kebab sauce. On the maps, everything was fresh and new as if it had only just happened - indeed, as if it was still happening. Short messages on Twitter (of course Hubert's name elicited frequent mentions!) and Facebook had meant that he continuously acquired a large number of connections, who briefly engaged with him until realising he was deeply uninteresting, and then left him. But it all  left a mark on the map, and the map didn't show the crucial moments of miserable disappointment, creeping boredom, irritation and eventual disdain which was the pattern of all of these engagements. On the shiny pixels of the map, everything was fresh, new, exciting - as Hubert might have wished it really was.

Hubert Twotter said very little on Twitter: "I'm eating toast"; "Traffic Jam on the M296"; "going to bed".  The technology compensated for the lack of anyone real to say these things to. But where in real life the meaning of such utterances is never contained in the words but in the space between people that the words flow, all that appeared on the internet were the words themselves; the 'space between people' was a void. Voids, as Hubert was to discover, are dangerous.

On the internet, the 'space between people' had been filled with an unruly bunch of industrialists, technologists, politicians and the security services. They were the ones looking at maps. This was now their business. It didn't used to be. Nobody seemed to plan it to become this way. It just happened. But once the bad people saw what was possible, there was no stopping them, and more and more people got sucked in. This was to be Hubert's fate.

Twitter, to the vast majority in the world, started (and still seemed) as a simple way of sending short messages: "I'm eating toast". Sometimes they were funny: "I'm going to rewrite history. History.". 'Social networks' were built, individual reputations established. For many individuals - particularly academics, politicians, celebrities, Twitter became essential for career viability. If you weren't communicating, you wouldn't survive. So everybody did it. It was a huge success.

When everybody does a thing, that thing is hard to stop. Twitter accumulated vast amounts of data. Not just "how many people have toast for breakfast?", but more importantly, "who do they tell about their breakfast habits?", "what else do they tell them?". The map was a map of connections. Marketing groups could identify rich shoals of fish in oceans of confused consumers; floating voters flashed up like fireflies; intellectual leaders behaved like magnets, with patterns of flux swirling around them like galaxies; and political pressure groups glowed like beacons, warning of incipient rebellion. Even terrorist cells were finding their cover blown. This was Twitter's (and everyone else's) business. It was big business.

The richer the service they offered free to online consumers, the more engagement there was, and the more data could be collected. The analytics services they sold became more sophisticated, and premium analytics products were so expensive, they were only within the reach of the very rich and powerful: usually large corporations and national governments. In protecting these revenue streams, access to analytics for ordinary users was increasingly restricted: only 'official' data streams could be engaged with, and they revealed increasingly little. Expensive litigation was meted-out to anyone trying to subvert the rules.

Hubert was in bed. There was a loud bang. He stared, horrified, as ten masked men armed with sub-machine guns stormed in. He couldn't see their eyes. Only the gleam of their weapons in the sun that  streamed through the window. It made patterns of light in the room as they shouted, aimed. The absence of humanity and the dots of light clustered around his bed was the last thing he would see. But it had been clusters of lights and an absence of humanity which had brought them there in the first place.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Conviviality, Explanation and Metagames of Data Analysis

There appear to be two fundamentally different approaches to data analytics: one which seeks to identify the latent content of communications through statistical methods (using information theory, Baysian analysis, etc); and the other which seeks to create shared contexts for the exploration of data. The context within which both these techniques aim to intervene is the highly-charged political environment of businesses and institutions. The reasons why there is so much attention being paid to the topic is because of the impact of information and the technologies which generate it on the working practices, governance and viability of businesses and institutions (including of course, educational institutions!)

Information in an institutional context can be seen in a variety of ways. In my thinking about games and metagames in institutional politics (from Nigel Howard's work), I have been trying to decide whether information provides the context for making decisions (as traditional game theory would suggest), or whether in fact information is in some way a 'player' generating potentially unpredictable 'moves' to which all the other players have to react. Certainly in thinking how politicians can get 'caught out' by a set of 'bad statistics' suggests that information indeed can appear like a 'player', tripping up whoever  has been in the game of making assertions that the information's "move" denies. In fact, when we play Monopoly, much of the 'information' which changes the game is contained in 'chance' card or the roll of the dice.

If the objective of a political game concerns the maintaining of coalitions, then the ways in which information is conceived within that overall game is important. One thing that can be done is to try to predict the "roll of the dice", so that plans can be made for the maintenance of the coalition on the basis of some analysis of what information might throw up. It may be that data analytics may provide indications as the what the information might contain next (certainly, it isn't a random entity - it's behaviour is more like a Markov series). However, the problem with an anlytical approach in a game context is that the analysis itself is a move in the game: players have to be convinced of the rationale for the analysis, significant intervention is required to gather the right data (and decide on what the right data is), and resources need to be put in place to analyse that data in the right way. The data analytical game is a meta-game, but one which may serve to divide allegiances rather than unite people. The payoffs of the data analytical game may not, in the final analysis, be sufficient for it to be truly realised.

But there is another way and one which I think might carry more weight. This is the 'activity' route. Or rather, the 'activity+technology' route. Information in this situation is both context and player. Technology can be used to amplify the information environment as a shared context for an activity, or a kind of artificial game, the purpose of which is to reveal deeper understanding into the meanings of and explanations for the information between each individual who engages with the activity. Unlike the data analytical approach, the activity approach assumes that the meaning of data is in the people who examine it, and not the data itself. It puts emphasis on the way things are explained. But more importantly, it focuses on the key goal of the games as being the maintaining of coalitions, and rather that trying to predict the next "move" of information as a vehicle for maintaining coalitions, it creates an artificial context for the building of a coalition and through that context, allows individuals to explore and express the meaning they see in the information they encounter.

There are many things that fascinate me about this latter approach. Not least, because it highlights the importance of  togetherness and convivial experience in the identification of meaning and the coordination of action. It also strikes me as interesting that such an artifical activity context looks remarkably like Beer's Syntegrity (see Integrating such approaches with a deep understanding of information, and the political games that are played in institutions produces a fascinating practical approach which addresses some of the problems that institutions face in a rapidly moving information environment.

Monday 10 September 2012

Games of Sociological Theory and "Limits" (and the Paralympics)

When I studied music at Manchester (a long time ago now), I became interested in sociological and psychological theories of various sorts. From psychology (or rather, psychotherapy) I was fascinated by Jung (the importance of whom for Michael Tippett really interested me), but I was also interested in Piaget, Lacan and Freud. Then there were the structuralists (Piaget was a link there, but mainly Levi-Strauss) which also took in the semioticians/semiologists (Pierce and Saussure). I was interested in the ways that sociological and anthropological applications of structuralism could be applied to thinking about music (Jean Jacques Nattiez was particularly important in this regard). But I remember gradually getting a bit disillusioned with all of them. There was so much to read - so many words - and ultimately, each individual asserted they had the answer (which I was searching at the time), but ultimately failed to deliver - usually through ignoring really fundamental and obvious things because of a particular ideological bias.

I had a second-wave of interest in social theory when I began looking at learning technology. That took me to Critical Realism and Cybernetics. Too many people to mention, but again, lots of words, lots of books, but something ultimately unsatisfying (although something of value in both of these). This time, however, I realised that I could express my dissatisfaction by going to conferences and delivering papers and asking awkward questions. I didn't do much for my own dissatisfaction beyond getting something off my chest! I realised, a bit later on, that this was the job of an academic in the social sciences, as many academics (who I met at these conferences) saw it. It was talking about what pissed them off. It was like going "down the pub" with your mates, but without alcohol and taking it in turns to stand on a podium and be slightly (sometimes extremely!) rude about each other. Academic reputations in the social sciences, it appeared, are made like this.

It has gradually dawned on me that many academics are happy simply to live like this. More so because they get quite well paid for it! But I cannot get over the fact that all the theory, all the books, all the powerpoints leave me disappointed and disillusioned - and not just about the ideas, but about academia in general. It's as if some very silly (but exploitative) game is going on, played by clever and often manipulative people, which pretends to be advancing knowledge, but which in fact only feeds individual egos. Students are lured into this, and education works its reproductive magic. That's not to say that there isn't important work going on in academia - but not, I fear, in the social sciences. Maybe Alan Sokal has a point - although of course, his 'intellectual impostures' is a classic case of writing about what pisses him off! (see if you don't know it)

I think there's a human game going on. I want to be able to describe the game of academic sociology (and maybe academia in general) because I think being able to describe the game is the first step to being able to decide whether the emperor has got any clothes on or not. Ultimately something has to stand up that is beyond individual ego and posturing. The problem is that any attempt to define the game is a meta-game of the game that is played and will share many of its characteristics. There can be posturing in the meta-game (I'm doing it now!). And it's not inconceivable that there's a meta-metagame - the game that is played in describing the games that are played in academic sociology. And there too there is posturing, ego, and so on.

I believe what matters in the end are the limits of things: the points at which the rationality we believe ourselves to inhabit breaks down. In probing limits, the contours of what's not there can be more clearly and socially determined. Maths is successful at doing because its rationality is well described in formal systems in a common language that everyone shares: when its logic breaks down (as it always will at some point), we can all see it. Music (as all art) is always about limits - the work always has a frame, and the work always draws attention to the difference between its own internal consistency and the frame which demarcates it. Sociology doesn't have a formal system (despite some assertions by some sociologists). But nevertheless, the game (and metagame, and metametagame) of sociology may have some formal representation which will help towards the collective identification of the limits of rationality.

The identification of limits is not about a positive assertion of a 'theory of everything'. It is about a shared identification of where we agree we know nothing. Academic sociology's failure has been to clumsily tread on territory about which we can know nothing and assert false (and dissatisfying) knowledge for it. Its failure is borne out by its simple failure to achieve agreement over what it positively asserts. To understand the game of academic sociology is to aim for agreement over what it negatively reveals.

Having watched the closing ceremony of the Paralympics last night, and having been bowled-over by the spectacular success of the Olympics in general (like many in the UK, I thought it would be a disaster!), I have been thinking about another aspect of 'limits'. Sporting excellence is all about finding limits. Sport on an open (global) stage is a demonstration of 'limit'. The impact of this on society should not be underestimated (maybe the Greeks understood this better than we do). It is not about celebrity. It is about limitation and collective ambition.

It is in defining, studying and agreeing limits we can work together in realising what is possible.

Sunday 9 September 2012

The Alberti Bass and Perception

This is a post about music. I haven't done one of those for ages, and having been deeply tied up in abstractions about economics, perception, learning, explanation, etc., the time has come to step back and think about something concrete. To me there is nothing more concrete than music.

The Aberti bass is a musical accompanimental pattern found predominantly in classical music (that is, the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven). It's looks (and sounds) like this (it's the left hand that matters!):
There are a number of fundamental questions which I would like to ask about this pattern. The first concerns a comment made by Charles Rosen in his book "The Classical Style". He talks about Schumann's Op17 Fantasy:
At the end of the his book, he says of this music that:
"The excitement of Schumann's first measures is unparalleled in a classical work, and its emotional turbulence is conveyed by the accompaniment's shapeless version of the theme above. In performance it is not easy to define even the rhythm of this accompaniment clearly, and there is no reason to suppose that Schumann expected a clear definition. The defining rhythmic framework of the classical style is rejected in favor of a more open sonority out of which the theme gradually assumes a shape." 
I find this interesting because visually, Mozart and Schumann look similar. These repetitive figures which lie under the hand so well create a sonic backdrop to whatever melody is played above them. Yet Rosen is right about the rhythmic clarity: Schumann produces an extraordinary rumbling at the opening of his Fantasy quite unlike any other classical opening. Certainly quite unlike anything in Mozart or Beethoven (and the piece, Rosen tells us, was a homage to Beethoven).

The question I want to ask is how Schumann's accompanimental pattern is fundamentally different from the classical alberti bass. My intuition is that there is something essential about both accompaniments which is common. Before considering that, perhaps it is useful to examine a few other examples.

Below I have two extracts from Janacek's 1st movement of "In the Mists". The opening of the piece features an accompanimental pattern similar to a classical accompaniment:
But this develops into something more florid and (perhaps) more like the Schumann:
In the second movement (which is my favourite), he seems to play more with these accompanimental figures, but this time using them thematically:
But later in that movement, an eiree but melodic reappearance of the accompanimental figure occurs:
What am I getting at here?

The point of commonality has to do with a kind of gesture which has the form of a 'wave'. Janacek's 

 has the same formal pattern as Mozart's 

which has the same pattern as Schumann's

it is basically a cyclic motion, or perhaps can be thought of as a kind of (simple) harmonic motion (in a physics sense). Its form is
There is a starting point. Something adds to complement it and then there is a letting-go. It is a caress. Seen like that, the experience of Schumann's frantic accompaniment perhaps make more sense - he's going at it hammer-and-tongs, whilst Mozart is still teasing! Both are having a good time!

But is there more we can say beyond allusions to a sexual undercurrent in these works? I would hope so. I think (with Kant and Gadamer) that our senses are always in the midst of a kind of game with the world and the other people in it. It's the game that interests me. Changes to artistic style depend not just on the sensibility of artists, but on the social conditions within which art is produced. Schumann lived in a time where  a more open expression of love was acceptable. It is the mentality of the world in the classical period that meant that Mozart wouldn't really have considered doing the same thing: it wouldn't have been recognised. 

So maybe that's one level of game the senses play: a game of social acceptability. But there are deeper levels to this game. Because social acceptability depends on deep prediction and insight into the strategies and senses of others. Here things change: we acquire new strategies and sensibilities throughout history (and lose old ones). In this game, as its complexity increases, the paradoxes of rationality lead to new norms of behaviour and expression.

Where are we now? An infinitely complex game of strategies upon strategies, and bewildering possibilities for expression? Where might that lead? What's next? What's fundamental? 

I think there are fundamental things which unite forms of expression over history. But understanding why those fundamental things get expressed in different ways and how they change may be an important way of understanding where we are now.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Objectified Processes and Objects as Processes

Within cybernetics (or at least, what is called 2nd-order cybernetics - see there has been a long discussion about the nature of objects, and the way that what we think are 'objects' (cats, cars, bricks, people) are in fact 'processes' existing between biological entities (us). Berkeley's question of whether there is a world 'out there' acquires a new (and much more technical) guise in this line of thought. Avoiding the temptation to go and kick stones in the manner of Dr Johnson (!) and say "I refute it thus!", I would say there may be something of value in this line of thought. However, I don't think anything of value can come from going around denying reality - that tends only to upset people, and often appeals only to those constructivists and post-modernists who have an almost religious devotion to being awkward.

But what is in the object-as-process work which might really give us something new? One of the key concepts in this thinking is Von Foerster's idea of Eigenvalues of perception which Louis Kaufmann has developed into a mathematical expression of an eigenform. It's the mathematical representation here which is valuable. The reason why I believe it's valuable is not to do with it providing any radical new representation of reality - like some sort of ontological argument for God (no doubt constructivists yearn for a defensible mathematical expression of their religion just as the scholastics did for theirs!). It is because it challenges us to reflect on some of the concepts for objects that have already suffused our academic disciplines and sciences.

The most fascinating one, I think, is the concept of a wave. For most physicists waves are physical processes whose objectivisation is beyond question. But if my little finger is not actually concretely my little finger, but the result of a process (just imagine for the sake of argument), what might a wave be? For a wave we already recognise as a process. And somehow our processes of objectifying it also rely on a process. How do we know which process is which? How do we know that the wave actually exists as a process? How can we be sure that we are not actually 'seeing' some manifestation of our own process of seeing? Rather like the strobe effect on a bicycle wheel, what we may see as moving backwards slowly, is the result of the interaction of two processes: one of perception, the other of motion.

But questioning waves like this gets us into trouble where even the cyberneticians can't afford to feel smug. Because if we've got waves wrong, we've also got a lot of physics wrong too. "But it can't be wrong! It works!" will, rightly, come the reply. Here we must be challenged to deeply ask what 'working' means. It probably has to do with anticipation and control of our physical environment. The question then is, is anticipation and control only produced as a result of objectifying waves, or can what we regard as anticipation and control ('working') also be produced through some other process. I don't know the answer to that. But I think it is worth reflecting on the conceptual understanding of the world which derives from our concept of the wave (and oscillation in general). It is so fundamental it is hard to appreciate.

First, let's start with clocks. And from clocks we have measurable time. And from measurable time, we have studied circular movements of planets, and from that we have derived infinitesimal calculus. And from this we have created complex machines - even complex machines with feedback!  (maybe you can see where I'm going here...). Those complex machines with feedback have underpinned our concepts of cybernetics whichin turn have undermined the certainty of the conceptualisations upon which they were based.

It appears to be a loop.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Dusapin's "Passion", Bataille and Nigel Howard

I'm in Brussels at the moment for the iTEC project, but I managed to take in a performance of "Passion", a fairly new opera by Pascal Dusapin. I very much like his music, and musically this was an interesting evening - although in the end I thought it was all over-long and took itself far too seriously. There was one moment where three pink telly-tubby looking creatures all rolled around on the floor: I  wasn't sure if this was supposed to be funny.

The opera is a curious mix of a re-framing of Monteverdi's operas (especially Orfeo), a philosophical nod to Descartes's Traité des Passions and a study of melancholia in women. Sung it Italian, it nevertheless felt very French with octatonic melodies reminiscent of Messaien. There were other borrowings I suspect - long-held organ chords which reminded me of Britten's Church canticles, and some baroquesque harsichord interludes to remind us of the Monteverdi connection.

But death and eroticism suffused the piece. It made me think of my dad's experience (if it could ever be called 'experience') in dying. It also made me think of Bataille, and I'd like to focus on Bataille's work and his take of 'passion' for the rest of this post.

I've blogged elsewhere on Bataille's emphasis on exhuberance and waste - particularly as it might apply to education (see I think Bataille's economic theory in privileging waste over rational equilibrium is extremely important, not least because there is no other theory out there like it. There are others (plenty of them) who have challenged homo economicus. But ultimately, they end up reinventing homo-economicus from a different standpoint (for example, Kahneman reinvents homo economicus from the standpoint of neuro-psychology). Only Bataille is there to point out that rationality itself is an epiphenomenon of passion, waste, exuberance and destruction. Given that world history provides him with some compelling evidence for this view, it is astonishing that nobody else (especially in economics) has really picked up on it.

The problem with talking about Bataille's theory is that it is difficult to get hold of anything concrete - and economists (on the whole) like concrete things. But of course the theory itself shies away from concreteness. It isn't that Bataille is being irrational: he had one of the most penetrating and analytical minds on difficult issues like sex, eroticism and religion. But his reliance on anthropological concepts like 'potlatch' immediately cause problems for those starting from the perspective of the contemporary economist.

This is where I wonder if Nigel Howard's "Paradoxes of Rationality" might help. When Bataille talks about waste, he is talking about a divestment of attachments: it is the moment when we say "to hell with it!".  For Howard, that might be seen as a particular meta-strategy in a game. Howard quotes Russell who said that the epitome of irrational action was "to become so agitated at the airport as to jump on the first plane that I see". Howard would then frame the question: "What's the game?"

This  is an important question, and Howard provides some very powerful tools for addressing it. Currently I am in the process of exploring how those mathematical tools might help understand the divestments of attachments that seem to lie at the heart of Bataille's 'waste'. In short, I believe there is a logic to it, but paradoxically, it is a logic which exists as a recursive process where meta-strategy is piled on meta-strategy (or meta-meta-strategy). It is Howard's genius to have unpicked the logic that sits behind classical game theory, and follow it to its logical conclusions, and show it to lead to irrationality. But nevertheless, this is an irrationality which can be situated through analysis, and in doing such an analysis, I believe new life can be breathed into "passion".

Monday 3 September 2012

Teaching students from RAK campus and demonstrating Google Analytics

I'm currently talking to some students from the University of Bolton's Ras Al Khaimah campus about how the web is changing, and in particular how real-time communications are giving much greater information about the way the world changes in response to the communications that individuals make. I think this promises that businesses and institutions can take much greater control of their activities. But really, people have to see it in action to see how it works! So in posting this, I am able to demonstrate exactly what I'm talking about...