Sunday 4 August 2013

American Society for Cybernetics Conference at the University of Bolton

The ASC's discussion conference at the University of Bolton has just finished (see What a week it's been! Right now, I feel very proud of my University and its town. Bolton doesn't often see this kind of international influx of Americans plus a good number of other nationalities, and for a whole gang of them to descend onto the town's bars and restaurants and have a really great time was very heart warming. Their presence lit up the University: in the foyer in the mornings, groups of people with strange english accents were discussing interactive art, improvisation, sentient computing, big data, psychosis, education, learning, economics, music and sociology. This is the discussion that cybernetics is.

It was the most intense conference I've ever been to. I'm only glad that I didn't have the jet-lag that most of the delegates had. It was also the most creative conference. The ASC's discussion conferences began in 2010 in Troy, NY at Rensselaer Polytechnic University. That conference was a remarkable experiment. In the presence of Ernst Von Glasersfeld, three days were devoted to discussing Mathematics, Art and Design, with artistic performances and paper presentations built around in the evenings. Many of the group at Rensselaer also came to Bolton: the feeling was that the dynamic creative energy from upstate New York had been transported to this little part of industrial northern England. I had to confess, I didn't think it would be possible before the conference.

When the conference started, things started to fall in place. Risks that were taken in designing tasks for the participants (like "make your own musical instrument") turned into wonderfully rich expressions of creativity that set the tone for the discussions which followed. Then, having been given the (pretty difficult!) task of asking how acting, learning and understanding can be distinguished and are related, groups set about exploring the issues, often getting into deep water and finding their way out of it through heightened creativity and playful performances. The plenary sessions were where each group presented their findings. This was a driver for real innovation in the ways ideas were expressed.

In the evening of the first day, there were artistic performances by some of the delegates who included Bill Seaman (, Graham Clarke (, a fascinatingly theatrical demonstration of Jennifer Kanary's psychosis simulator ( and Ranulph Glanville's electronic piece 'Blind'.

Discussions continued the following day, with groups changing round and the focus shifting from Understanding to Acting. In the evening, papers were given. I saw presentations by Loet Leydesdorff on his work with Inga Ivanova on information redundancy and meaning (work which I have been fascinated by for a long time), Jerome Carson gave a revealing presentation about workplace stress, Faisal Kadri talked about artificial intelligence and emotion, and Narayana Mandaleeka from TATA spoke about value and quality improvement processes, and Tirumala Vinacotta (also from TATA) spoke of holistic thinking in business.

There was a balance struck between the discussions and the academic content. Not everyone knew cybernetics to the same extent (there were tutorials on the day before the main conference). The overall impression of the conference was that it was a kind of retreat where cyberneticians could talk with each other at depth and seriousness about some very difficult topics. The difficulty of the topics meant that many discussions kept coming round to the same issues, but the repetition of this - rather than becoming boring - inspired greater creativity and playfulness. I find this the most interesting feature of the conference.

Most conferences generate variety: lots of different papers, lots of topics - delegates have to attenuate the information by selecting what they are interested in. This conference generated redundancy: an extended (and sometimes repeated) conversation about a single topic - delegates had to be creative to deal with the redundancy. My thinking (drawing on Leydesdorff's thinking) is that redundancy is in some way autocatalytic: it creates the conditions where growth can occur. It may be too early to tell, but there was both personal growth and intellectual growth within the discipline occuring over the three days.

A post-conference visit to Blackpool sealed what had been a very special time for those who were there. The University of Bolton will be fondly remembered by this group of remarkable thinkers as the place where many of their new ideas took root. 

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