Wednesday 28 May 2014

Family, Politics and Value: The UKIP Question

In large families, siblings can be very different. The advantage this gives to each individual lies in the demand it makes of everyone to take on board the wishes and feelings of those who are fundamentally unlike them, but who they nevertheless love. Recent political events have brought this home to me, and arguing about the UK Independence Party (UKIP)  with close relatives who welcome it has caused me to question my own position and the determination of each of us to "win the argument".

My first question is to myself as to why I find this all so troubling. To me, as to many, UKIP are a nasty bunch of manipulative, privileged Tories who prefer the nastier side of conservatism (and so have found a home outside the conservative party, which is struggling to suppress its militant tendency) and find cynical ways of exploiting hatred among the masses. The arguments of the UK Independence Party are quite powerful: "Let's say we were arguing to join the EU as we know it now: a club costing £55million per day, giving us unfettered immigration, bureaucratic regulation, etc, etc. Who would vote for that?" which was basically the line pursued by Nigel Farage in his first debate with Nick Clegg. Underpinning positions like this are concepts like 'fairness' coupled with discomfort with an invasion from immigration ("I feel like a stranger in my own country"). These are deep worries about personal security and the long-term future.

However, I found myself tending not to listen to the underlying anxieties, but rather tending to oppose the UKIP view (being alarmed that it comes from someone I am so close to) and trying to 'win the argument'. On reflection, I don't think it is possible to 'win the argument' in these circumstances.

The deep problem with the UKIP debate is that it isn't a debate. It is a cultural clash between the self-righteous metropolitan educated elite (i.e. me and people like me) and a social group of largely disenfranchised, fragile and frightened people who are working hard and struggling to cope, with banks, insurers, energy firms, and a manipulative celebrity-soaked media all breathing down their necks.

Why don't they turn on the banks? Why don't they take the 'Occupy' route rather than trying to chase-out Romanians? I think the answer is simple: like the rest of us, they trying to maintain their identity through maintaining equilibrium with their environment. Equally, I might blame the banks, but I haven't yet slapped a banker. Our jobs and mortgages depend on the rich and powerful. And the rich and powerful embody the ethos that the poor hard-workers aspire to. To take on the banks means destabilising the environment that sustains them. Complaining about Romanians (and the EU that brought them here) reinforces stability, whilst establishing solidarity with those who are similarly disenfranchised.

My objection to UKIP is also based on my own desire to maintain a stable state. But my stable state is that of the metropolitan educated elite. This is my discourse and the environment that sustains me. If I thought immigration was the problem, would I dare say so (I'd lose a lot of friends)? UKIP supporters say they "speak the plain truth", and accuse everyone else of not being 'realistic' or even honest. But we are looking at two communities which maintain different discourses which are mutually opposed and which maintain each other through their mutual opposition.

The relationship between an individual's maintenance of a "stable state" and their political values is important. Our contemporary political orthodoxy is strategically anodyne. Politicians of all colours squirm in the face of difficult questions demanding direct answers so as to protect their own identities within the discourse of their party and the newspapers. The rest of us, of course, are not bound by these constraints, and glad to voice our opinion 'freely' (although maintaining our own discursive stability) - leading us to hold our leaders (largely) in contempt. The opposition of these forces is also stable. Double-binds are everywhere.

The "stable state" of discourse is something emergent from childhood. Discourses express values in rationalistic terms, but underneath the rationalism lie deep personal conflicts and insecurities. This is why the sense of belonging to discourse is so strong (UKIP or otherwise): it is a shield from the terror of an uncontrolled and irrational world. It is also probably why challenging anyone's values, no matter how magnanimous they are, will eventually cause an emotional and irrational response. Isaiah Berlin's Value Pluralism begins in the cradle, and I suspect that it is what happens from the cradle to early adulthood that determines the mix of 'values' which each of us hold to, and the communities with whom we associate to reinforce them. The quest for the stable state of the baby leads to ritualised behaviours, which in turn contextualise initial engagements with rational discourse. We all grow up differently - even in the same family - and our values are consequently different, and often incommensurable.

I think it is these mechanisms of discourse and value that underpin our economic life. It is economics and relative poverty that underpins the current rise of the far-right. But to fight UKIP (or their worse incarnations in other countries) we should look at ourselves and at the way we engage in politics. If our politics is broken it is because our economics is broken. The economic fictions that the metropolitan elite tell each other now leave so many unexplained holes that it is not surprising to see unpleasant things growing in the gaps. Most importantly, the narrative is missing that connects economic exchange with personal security, meaningfulness and a sense of purpose.

In a nutshell, we should worry about what people worry about. Not just the UKIP voters, but all of us.

Friday 23 May 2014

Pianos, Consciousness and John Searle's “Chinese Burn”

Like some surreal eruption from the unconscious (the kind you would see in a Buñuel film), a gleaming grand piano has appeared in the office of my Vice-Chancellor. To me, it's a giant question mark - the question being “what is going on in a consciousness that suddenly decides it wants to display (I haven’t heard it played) a grand piano in its environment?” (There’s another question, “Who paid for it?”, but others can ask that!) But regarding the consciousness question, I've been lucky this week to have an authority to help me.

I went to hear John Searle talk about consciousness in Cambridge yesterday. I like Searle’s recent work on social ontology very much, and my feeling from reading “Making the Social World” was that he had softened his analytical, post Wittgensteinian language-centred view to acknowledge that there are things in the world like social institutions, families – and pianos – which have existence independent of intensional processes and about which objective knowledge is possible. The  lecture room in Wolfson college was packed: “good turnout for a philosophy lecture,” said someone sitting behind me, as people crammed in standing at the back and sitting on the floor at the front. Searle is very much the celebrity philosopher: engaging and confident; almost brash.

He spoke about his belief that a proper scientific understanding consciousness is possible, important and urgent. He says clearly (and I agree): "The subjectivity of a domain is not a barrier to objective knowledge". He then talked of the empirical priority to understand the neurocognitive correlates (like MRI scans as people think about elephants), determine regularities and explain them with new theories. [Hmm - not so sure about that.] He discussed his picture of consciousness as a conscious field which is disturbed by events. He spoke about the causality of consciousness, highlighting the failure of the mind-body separation, by saying “if I think of raising my arm, my arm raises” (and he raises his arm). (It’s the closest philosophers get to exploding sodium in water.) He then talked about the coexistence of different levels of description of conscious states. I took him to say that consciousness is a state of coordination between different levels of description (quite a cybernetic idea). If we could understand how these different levels of description inter-relate, we would understand consciousness. He then went on to say how metaphysical mysteries could be scientifically resolved (his conviction reminded me of the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus).

I was beginning to get a bit uncomfortable by this stage – not just because I was sat on the floor. I like the idea of simultaneous different levels of description. But these levels of description are, in effect, discourses: different ways of explaining things by different kinds of scientists. And yes, we live with multiple descriptions of the world and somehow pick our way through them. But the map is not the territory, and a level of description is not the same as the thing described. What a neuron actually does is not the same order of thing as what we think it does. Why does this matter? Because if you conflate the map and the territory in the description of neurons, you exclude the sociological dimension that supports the production of the description in the first place.

Searle engaged in an entertaining presentation of his Chinese Room argument (which challenges the Turing test for artificial intelligence, and also refutes the view that human cognition involves computer-like symbolic manipulation). I've been thinking about an alternative thought experiment to illustrate the problem of the social participation in levels of description: "The Chinese Burn".

It’s very simple: Person A believes they have a perfect understanding of consciousness in themselves and in others. Person A tests this by inflicting a “Chinese burn” on person B. Conscious thought is causal, so consequently, Person A grabs Person B’s arm with both hands and twists and stretches the skin to give them a ‘Chinese Burn’. Person B says “Ouuuch! You bastard!” Person A perceives these sound vibrations, believing them to confirm their theory, and simultaneously resists attempts of Person B to escape. Neurons fire away in Person A, and their conscious field adjusts to the stimulation in ways they expect. “Stop it! You’re really hurting me!” says Person B (loudly, turning red). The different levels of description in Person A readjust their conscious field as they twist harder, gazing intently into Person B’s eyes and picking up new stimuli relating to Person B’s consciousness, further confirming their theory. Satisfied about the correctness of their understanding, Person A eventually releases Person B (now in tears) and Person B runs away clutching their arm.

What does the “Chinese Burn” tell us? There are a number of lessons:
  1. If human beings tune-out any level of description, they become capable of cruelty. 
  2. Tuning-out is a process of forgetting that levels of description are social discourses
  3. The levels of description most commonly tuned-out by science are those levels which relate to human nature, the will, ethics and politics
  4. Tuning-out and tuning-in are practices: Mindlessness is what we call the former; Mindfulness is the name we give to the latter
I suggested to Searle that if a scientific understanding of consciousness was possible, it would introduce new political problems. “Ah, yes – consciousness pills!” he said, “How conscious is your child?!” … “Well, I’m willing to take the risk!” he said. I didn't respond, but that’s exactly what I mean by “tuning out a level of description”.

So what of pianos? The difference between artists and scientists is that artists open themselves to all levels of description. What would the artist Joseph Bueys make of my Vice-Chancellor’s consciousness? His piece of 1966, “Homogenous Infiltration for Piano” says it all – the silencing of a possibility of a voice. I worry that this is also the case with Searle's confidence in consciousness science.

Ironically, it’s the lost voices in consciousness research that Searle is trying to reinvigorate – particularly at his Tucson Consciousness Conferences. But I suspect that in order to get close to what he wants (and I think there is something there), we would have to reframe what we mean by two practices: “scientific” and “artistic”. That might be the best thing to come out of this.

Finally, there is a fundamental question (perhaps the question I should have asked Searle, but I hadn’t thought of it then…):
  • How is a theory of consciousness possible that doesn't tune-out any level of description?
Or more succinctly,
  • How might an understanding of consciousness heal?
Maybe that's what the VC's piano is about...

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Stephen Downes defends Connectivism (again)

It's not uncommon that after failed experiments there is a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth as the rationale which underpinned them is critiqued. This seems to be going on with the MOOC at the moment. Stephen Downes has become famous through innovating with learning technologies. He has defended his innovations with a theory of learning (one feels that it is his theory he is most proud of, not the interventions). He has done a lot of defending of his theory over the last few months, spurred on by some interesting critiques by Marc Clarà and Elena Barberà (see Three problems with the connectivist conception of learning) and Matthias Melcher.

No doubt driven by the apparent failure of MOOCs (which would indicate something is wrong with Downes's theory) critique is good because it can be the impetus for very clear statements about that theory. To his credit, Downes has done this in response to the criticisms made. (see

To start with, Downes defends connectivism as a theory about knowledge-as-pattern. He says:
The claim made by connectivism [...]is that learning is a process of pattern recognition, nothing more or less. The warning inherent in connectivist theory is that there is no apriori privileged set or type of pattern that may be learned: so while you may think that you are presenting shapes to learners, they may be learning to recognize colours. And that any pattern inherent in your teaching - including bad habits, prejudice, whatever - will also be learned by the people watching you.
This is an epistemological position which is consistent with much thinking in cybernetic learning theory. In particular, it can be favourably compared to Pask's epistemology (of which Laurillard's conversation model is a rather superficial representation), Luhmann's theory of communication and (perhaps most usefully) Heinz von Foerster's theory of Eigenforms in perception. What these all indicate, (although what Downes doesn't really say) is that concepts and knowledge are effectively configurations of stabilities within a network structure. Each node within that structure will have a different view (shapes or colours), but what matters are the dynamics between the nodes as this is where the knowledge resides.

He says something like this below, but he is particularly anxious to avoid any kind of Kantian Transcendental Subject:
Finally - to be clear - talk about "recognizing" a pattern does not involve some homunculus inside our head doing some conceptual work. The phenomenon of pattern recognition is a well-known property of neural networks. The point I make is epistemological: what makes something a 'pattern' is the fact that it is recognized by neural nets. There is no apriori set of entities, 'patterns' (or 'concepts', or whatever) that must somehow acquired and placed in the mind.
The allusion to neural nets is (I think) unfortunate: on the one hand, he presents a trans-personal epistemology, and on the other a mentalist biological reduction. He seems particularly insensitive to the "people are neural nets" reduction. Worse for him, however, is that Kant is still there! He's just making a different kind of transcendental argument for epistemology - although its a popular argument among cyberneticians.

But there's interesting stuff here:
A connection is a state. Roughly speaking, it is a communications channel that exists between two entities such that a change in the state of one entity can result in a change in the state of the other entity. Usually, we depict these channels as physical, for example, the axons of a neuron, or a telephone wire carrying signals.

Connections can be extremely complex; there is no requirement whatsoever that they be two-state on-off types of things. Connection strength can vary, the frequency of signals can vary, the nature of signals can vary, there may be multiple strands and different types of connection between two nodes (hence, I can send George an email and a Tweet). The nature of the states of the nodes can be variable as well. A signal from one node to another may have a cumulative effect, triggering a reaction only after a tipping point is reached, for example.
Again, the neuro-biologism here is blind to the accusation of mentalism (that the causes for behaviour are in heads), although we might give him the benefit of the doubt that he means a Paskian P-individual (psychology)/M-individual (Mechanical) set-up. For Pask, the M-individual was an individual brain - the machinery (hardware) upon which thought takes place, whereas a P-individual is the 'software' that runs on the hardware (e.g. consciousness, communication, knowledge, etc). Pask had the idea that a P-individual could straddle many M-individuals. So social institutions and discourses were P-individuals. By contrast, Downes doesn't see real brains in real heads, but instead neural networks. These are "ideal brains", and for Downes, it appears 'brains' that reach out between individuals through their connnections. In Pask's language, a neural net is software, not hardware. I'm not clear where Downes sees the actual hardware of real brains and bodies.

Paskian resonances and Downes's idealism are further exposed when he says:
An interaction is the actual event where a change of state in one entity takes place with the result that a change of state in the second entity takes place. We may also think of an interaction as a mass noun, referring to a set or a series of such changes of states. Again, we usually think of an interaction as something physical, for example, a signal sent down a communications channel.
This gets to the nub of the problem, and it is a problem which affects cybernetic theories of learning as well as Downes's variant. What is an event?

Cybernetics talks of difference; Gregory Bateson talks of a "Difference that makes a difference". But in reality, we never see a difference. It only leaves a trace: it itself is a kind of absence. Our bodies and expectations change in the light of things which aren't there. What we think of as a kind of knock-on 'signalling' process is a post-hoc construction. As Alain Badiou, John Maynard-Smith, Gregory Bateson, Terry Deacon, Jakob von Uexkull and others realise is that the physicalist metaphor of signalling cannot be right. For all of these thinkers, absences become fundamental in the processes associated with 'information', and it is this acknowledgement that begins to help us to make sense of the many uses of that strange word (information) from epigenesis, to learning, to Shannon information, or Hawking radiation or to "digital ontology".

Finally Downes gets to the thorny topic of meaning:
So the criticism is essentially that connectivism doesn't have a built-in semiotics. It doesn't have a sense in which a communication between two entities is about a third entity. And it's true that representation in communication doesn't work this way in connectivism. Rather, connectivism works according to two principles: direct representation, and distributed representation.
  • Direct representation is the idea that the signal is its own message (think of it as a corollary to Gibson's direct perception). We can think of this along the lines of the concept of content addressable memory in computer science. The message is its own content. True, we as a sender may intend the message to refer to or represent some object or entity, but what is in fact received is only the sentence itself, which must carry all its representational content with it. 
  • Distributed representation is concepts (for lack of a better work) are stored not as single entities in the mind, but as sets of connections between entities, so they exist not just in one place, but in many places. What's significant here is that the same set of connections is used to store not one but many concepts (indeed, all concepts). So when the set of connections defining one concept is changed, so also is the set of connections defining many other concepts. 
But the 'signalling' metaphor - that rationalistic construct we've become accustomed to as a way of making sense of the strange things that happen to us - is everywhere. As is the physicalist reduction of consciousness (content-addressable memory!). Downes appears to be struggling here, and he's a long way away from any account of real people. But it's also clear that he doesn't see the connections which aren't there, or there is any space in his theory for absent connections to have causal power.

But absent connections are very real in the MOOC world. They represent the people who didn't engage in his platform, or who dropped-off the course after a couple of weeks. I guess he didn't want to think about them. But in these people are not just accounts of learning, but accounts of aspiration, freedom, injustice, poverty, technocracy and disappointment. It's only in the missing parts that Downes's ideal disembodied network acquires a body.

If he did think a bit more about these people, he might find cause to rethink his theory!

Sunday 18 May 2014

After the Music: Smelling the Privilege

I love music. I don't know why really (but isn't that true of most things - or people - we love?) My parents are not musical - only my grandmother played the piano, but rather badly. But my mum did recognise my passion and sent me to various piano teachers (most of them dreadful) from the age of 6. I eventually did quite well, although not without hiccups, and with fairly frequent changes of teachers. As I got better, so music became a kind of ritualised practice which everyone in the family got used to. I think that you need this ritualised practice for things to really work. It's something that's I've tried to instil in my daughter, and in many ways she is luckier than I was.

I'm very glad that Martin James Bartlett has won Young Musician of the Year (see He's a wonderful pianist, and I look forward to hearing more from him in the future. But something bothers me about this classical music charade. It is the sheer exhibition of privilege and the inability of serious music making to excise itself from exclusive public schools and shed-loads of money which galls. Evelyn Waugh apparently complained that when travelling in a standard class rail compartment that "you could practically smell the poverty!". Well, with Young Musician, you can really smell the privilege. Is this taking music seriously? No, I don't think it is - but there are deep problems in trying to unpick it.

Of course, when we talk about music in this context, we are talking about a set of practices which are, mostly, no more than 300 years old - which would take us back to Bach (Bartlett really showed his mettle playing Bach). That's not a long time. The ontogeny of this music has been laced with privilege and patronage from the beginning. But music itself takes us beyond privilege and patronage: Great music points us towards injustice, poverty, suffering. The elite like to look down the abyss from a safe distance! Some artists, on the other hand, have to go right down there to see the thing as it is. It hasn't just been Orwell who was Down and Out in London and Paris...

What does taking music seriously mean? I don't think it means making a nice noise. Although nice noises are good now and then. It certainly means opening our ears. It also means opening our hearts. But I think it should also mean political radicalism. You cannot really open your ears or open your heart and tune out injustice or ones own complicity in that injustice. That's merely performing a service to the sound-material, but not the social-material which gives the life to the sound. Beethoven quartets brilliantly played to a packed Wigmore Hall full of people paying a fortune for their tickets is hollow Beethoven.

Of course, what's worse (and even less serious music) is pandering to popular taste (I think I'm with Adorno on the pathologies of the culture industry) But the deep problem is that we think music is only about sound. For the Greeks, it was about the Muses in general. Indeed, if this broader idea of music has any equivalent today, it is not what happens in the concert hall (beautiful though it is).

It is probably what happens in the classroom. 

Friday 16 May 2014

The ITEC Project and the Ontology of School

Schools, like other social institutions, incorporate relations of power, roles, responsibilities, obligations, commitments and rights. As learning progresses and as children get older, these relationships change. It is through changes in these relationships – particularly as it is evidenced in discourse with teachers – that we ever really know if someone has learnt anything or not.

I think Veblen’s analysis of higher education as being status-dominated is applicable to schools. Parents now compete to get their children into the schools with the highest status, we increasingly see what Alison Wolf calls ‘super parenting’ (see her book within the middle classes, and nations compare their educational performance according to international league tables. In the process, much depends on tests, scores and certificates. However, the ‘status game’ is never explicitly acknowledged; instead school’s explicit claims are that they are about learning, and that all the scores, tests and certificates are measures of their effectiveness in ‘delivering learning’. But what does this mean?

In recent years, there have been many attempts to ‘enhance learning’ through technological interventions in schools. At the same time, the opportunities for learning provided by the internet have vastly expanded outside schools. Yet despite this, the social status of individuals, and often the status of institutions, is relatively untouched: the social mobility of learners remains low (much lower than it used to be) and teachers labour under increasingly burdensome workloads, bureaucracy, de-skilling, political interference and interference from well-meaning projects - all of which are rhetorically presented as for ‘increasing learning’. 

In approaching the reality of the institution of school and the power relations between individuals and other institutions of society, Searle’s focus on the responsibilities, commitments, obligations and rights of individuals is useful. Using Searle's idea of 'status function' (a kind of social declaration), the social setting of school can be analysed to determine the way that the validity of certificates, league tables, power relations and the curriculum are established. Learning interventions can be analysed according to their impact on the rights, responsibilities and commitments of those involved. The simple question is, Who wins? Who acquires new responsibilities and obligations and who can declare new rights? In asking this, the iTEC ( presents some interesting data for exploration.

From Searle and Veblen’s perspective, projects like iTEC are delivered by people with relatively high social status, and are focused on those with lower status. Whilst the intention is to increase the status of those at the lower end, this rarely happens; however, the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by those responsible for the project are increased irrespective of whether the interventions are successful or not. There are also some finer distinctions regarding instances where the interventions were deemed successful. In iTEC, some interventions in some schools and some countries appear to be more successful than others - but these reveal concrete evidence of changes to patterns of responsibilities, obligations and commitments in local settings (even then, this is more marked for teachers than learners).

I think the lesson from projects like this is that emphasis on ‘learning interventions’ is misleading and serves the interests of those who already have high social status. Searle’s approach reveals the power-relations and changes in positioning to be measurable through analysis of patterns of communication. This provides an alternative to our ‘learning fetish’. We should be asking what schooling does and how it relates to society. Status lies at the heart of  that question, not learning.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Gombrich, Popper and Hayek

I've long been an enthusiast for the work of Ernst Gombrich. When I first encountered "Art and Illusion" I was beginning my journey into learning technology. With Gombrich I found somebody who was articulating the everyday experience of the visual and musical world, seeing it in the same breath as artistic masterpieces, and asking profound questions about perception and experience. I intuited that there was something important here for understanding experience with technology, of learning, of the web, and so on. I wrote a few papers about what interested me about this (which I've now lost!) particularly as I was interested in game-like experiences for stimulating creativity. But I wasn't at a stage in my studies where I knew enough to make deeper connections, and Gombrich wasn't a major figure in educational technology (!) so I let the thread of interest die as I took to cybernetics and critical realism as bodies of work which could be brought in to be more directly relevant to what I was working on.

Now I'm coming back to his work. This has been stimulated by his book "A sense of Order" (1979) which I didn't know before, but which he saw as a sequel to "Art and Illusion". In this book, Gombrich tackles the issue of pattern. In particular, he uses information theory (without direct reference to Shannon) as a way of talking of the effect of pattern, and especially the concept of 'redundancy'.

In the intervening years since first following Gombrich, I immersed myself in the work of Bateson, Beer and Luhmann - all of whom had a lot to say about pattern. Luhmann and Beer both greatly appreciated the work of Shannon, and it is with my interest in Luhmann that I started to engage with the work of Leydesdorff. Leydesdorff's work has made important contributions to the application of Shannon's equations, and in particular in the last year or so, has thrown the spotlight back onto redundancy as a major category of investigation in the understanding of communication processes.  So seeing Gombrich talk about redundancy in art and music in 1979 was a pleasant discovery.

But then there were further connections to be uncovered. In addition to embedding myself in cybernetics, I simultaneously read Roy Bhaskar's work, and started to engage in the Cambridge Realist Workshop headed by Tony Lawson. Cybernetics seemed facile to me, and Critical Realism deepened the cybernetic arguments because it also emphasised mechanisms, but in the context ontology, not epistemology (cybernetics is fundamentally epistemological). I saw Critical Realism as a way of thinking about the world which built on arguments put forwards by earlier 20th century thinkers who had argued against forms of idealism - notably Popper and Berlin. Popper's "The Open Society and its Enemies" carries a strong realist message - a point not missed by Critical Realist thinkers including Pawson and Tilley, whose Realistic Evaluation is portrayed as an example of Popper's 'Piecemeal Social Engineering'.

Popper's book "The Open Society and its Enemies" owed its publication in 1945 to Ernst Gombrich. They were both Viennese, and although they didn't know each other well before arriving in England, became firm friends. Popper's approach to science became the underpinning of Gombrich's approach to art. However, the story of the publication of Popper's book involves another of Gombrich's friends Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek was connected to Routledge and so Gombrich's move, on receiving a request from Popper for help, was to send the manuscript to Hayek. Hayek was impressed enough to offer a readership to Popper at the LSE (those were the days!). But the Hayek-Gombrich connection is fascinating because Hayek major concern in economics was to do with information. In particular the distribution of information among a population, and the way that prices worked as signals within the economy. Stafford Beer apparently met Hayek and declared "at last, an economist who understands cybernetics!" (although he retracted this after learning of Hayek's support for General Pinochet and his endorsement by Mrs. Thatcher).

But Gombrich's interest in information theory seems directly related to his awareness of his friend's interest in information in the economy. Yet, the pieces don't appear to have been assembled. It may be that Gombrich's redundancy theory of art is of great importance in our understanding of the way that information works in the economy. I'm increasingly impressed by a theory of information which privileges the study of redundancies and not messages. The fact that such an approach makes sense in the study of art and music suggests to me that it's wider application and truth are more than possible.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Transcendental Subjects: Stephen Downes and Jon Dron on Connectivism

There's been a fascinating debate between Stephen Downes, whose 'connectivist' theory has underpinned his pioneering of the MOOC (or rather the cMOOC and not the xMOOC, which is a pale travesty of his idea and which has unsurprisingly been a disaster!). It started with Dron's paper on "Connectivism: A learning theory or a theory of how to learn": Personally, I wouldn't say this was a particularly focused critique. It draws attention to other theories which family resemblances to Downes's theory (like distributed cognition) but it seems to me that Dron is expressing a general disquiet with Downes's theory. Nothing wrong with general disquiet (it's often a good instinct!) but unless clarity starts to emerge (maybe in the form of a better theory) its easy to get lost in the gnarly wood.

Downes has responded to Dron here: He quibbles with Dron's characterisation of connectivism, and takes particular issue with his stance regarding what he calls the "physical symbol system" hypothesis - even dismissing distributed cognition as an instance of this mistaken theory (in his view) [I'm not sure I could be so certain here!].

What are these guys talking about? Here it's important to be clear: They are both discussing something metaphysical. They are not alone in this enterprise, to be fair: all theorists of learning have done the same. The problem is that better theorists like Piaget knew he was describing something metaphysical. What does it mean to have an argument about metaphysics? Well, usually this results in varieties of sectarianism - and that is what appears to be on display here!

More deeply, the metaphysical discussion revolves around differing descriptions of a Transcendental Subject (in ordinary language, a Transcendental Subject is a 'make-believe person' who is assumed to lie at the root of us all). This was something that was given to the world by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. Alain Badiou summarises Kant's position elegantly in a short passage in the introduction to Meillasoux's 'After Finitude' (2008):
"Kant grants to Hume that everything we know comes from experience. Yet Kant upholds the necessity of the laws of nature, whose mathematical form and conformity to empirical observation we have known since Newton, concluding that since this necessity cannot have arisen from our sensible receptivity, it must have another source: that of the constituting activity of a universal subject, which Kant calls the "transcendental subject". This distinction between empirical receptivity and transcendental constitution appears to be the obligatory framework for all modern thought" (Meillasoux: After Finitude, p VII)
The nature of the transcendental subject is not just the subject with "categories of understanding" as Kant presented. It is also the cybernetic human's understanding of the world through coordinating conversations (as in Pask's conversation theory - popularised in educational technology by Laurillard), or a transcendental subject formed out of the social communications in society (as in Luhmann's theory)  - and in the connectivist model of knowledge presented by Downes and Siemens (it also affects connectionism too...). The problem is that as transcendental models, they are essentially unprovable.

Kant's reasoning about his transcendental subject was presented in the context of what he called a 'transcendental argument'. This was an argument to address the question: Given this is how the world is, what must be going on? Kant arrived at his transcendental subject through looking at what was happening in the real world, and thinking about how it could be possible. He was, in this respect, absolutely in-line with Hume's thinking about the ways that scientists reason about the world (Hume argued that scientific understanding of causal mechanisms in nature were effectively social constructs created by groups of scientists performing repeatable experiments where there were regular successions of events that required explanation.)

I don't see Downes or Dron (or anyone else in educational technology for that matter) looking at the world as it is and seeing what's there. Instead they tend to see what they want to see. And what they want to see is framed by the particular theory, or particular ego battle they wish to engage with.

Learning is immensely complicated. It is as complicated as music (which I prefer to think about). The great educators like Comenius can offer sound practical advice, and certainly some learning theory is valuable in drawing teachers towards doing sensible things with learners. But equally learning theories can draw people to doing rather silly things too. That's sometimes no bad thing (we've done a lot of silly things in e-learning!) - we should learn from the silly things we do. But if the things we do are silly, we should be prepared to question the underlying assumptions that led us to do them. As I have commented before (see this rarely happens.

There appears to be far greater organicism, multi-dimensional stratification and dialecticism involved in real experiences of learning and teaching than is adequately expressed in any learning theory I know. The weakness of most of these theories lies in their essential 'connecting' nature, where the very idea of 'connecting' is metaphysical. Aesthetic experience and aesthetic understanding does not appear to be about 'making connections'. In some ways this goes back to my thoughts about Lamarck (see and Bateson's comments about the importance of environmental constraint. Mind emerges from nature through absence, constraint, redundancy. Ernst Gombrich in A Sense of Order  (1979) even went as far to highlight the importance of information theory in the analysis of redundancy in artistic experience. That's in the right ball-park; and it has little to do with making connections. Indeed, it's an approach which is much more empirical rather than transcendental. Teaching and learning interventions (like artistic works) punctuate experiences; they do not make connections - although their punctuations may (and often do) lead to growth of the mind.

So both Downes and Dron would do well to look at this post-MOOC world as it is, not as they would like to to see it. xMOOCs and cMOOCs have taught us a lot. Given what has happened, what must be going on? Indeed, given what is happening between Downes and Dron, what must be going on?

Thursday 8 May 2014

The Institution of Status

Education only appears to be about learning; really it's about status. Learning is seen as the route to acquiring increased social status. But we have many ways to learn today. MOOCs are only the most recent manifestation - and it seems, at least for now, they have failed. Why? Well, it might have something to do with the focus of the MOOC on learning, and its failure to address anything to do with social status. In educational technology the failures are more important than than the successes. As I've commented before (see, the only people whose status is increased by a MOOC are those academics who put on the courses. Stephen Downes and George Siemens seem to have done ok out of it too.

I think we've got to throw the spotlight onto the way people find ways of acquiring responsibility, commitments, obligations - and in so doing express new rights and privileges. Educational institutions, when things work well, provide opportunities for learners to do this. New responsibilities and commitments arise from acquiring new skills, and very often from the recognition of skills that students already possess. As rights and responsibilities change, so too do the communications people have with each other: particularly the communication between teachers and learners. It is the changes in the positioning between teachers and learners that we really know that somebody has learnt something. But in fact, what happens is that their network of responsibilities and commitments change. In the process, the student becomes a master.

Institutions have always done this. Indeed, not just educational institutions. The networks of status, of apprenticeship and its relationship to learning are the characteristics of all kinds of social institution: we see it in hospitals as nurses and doctors rise through the ranks and become part of the fabric of the institution; we see in industry; we see it in the church (another classic example of an institution which is not about what it says it is!), in the judiciary, and we see it government. In each case, however, it is not only the expression of skill which gives rise to status. Just as in the economy where individuals may increase their status through the possession of 'status symbols', short-cuts to social status can work within institutions - usually to their detriment. The point about this is that people really want status - possibly more than anything else. It is status that is so closely tied to the meaningfulness of peoples' lives. It may be that what manifests as financial greed is really driven by status-hunger which in turn sits on ontological insecurities that result in behaviour becoming one-dimensional (financially motivated) in the quest to find meaning. What feeds the status-hunger are mechanisms that probably go back to personal relationships and attachments: not just the wife or husband and children, but also the parents. Status goes deep.

The really remarkable thing about technology is that it does provide people with new ways of increasing their status, or hooking into existing status-enhancing mechanisms which bypass institutions. But it's not MOOCs. Artists and open source software developers have been the most effective groups of people to embrace this (these are different ways of acquiring status). YouTube has been remarkable in raising the profile of innovators in the arts. Artists have always had a slightly ambivalent relation to institutions, so this new means of self-promotion has been well-suited. Artworks express commitments and responsibilities in themselves: a commitment to deep engagement with materials, technique, form and idea. Often such works are collaborative, expressing deeper social connections, which the technology can them amplify (the Virtual choir is a good example). Tools like Github and Sourceforge have also been platforms for status raising among software developers. Typically open source platforms are ways into different kinds of institutions and different ways of expressing commitments and responsibilities. The Apache Foundation is an obvious example of such an institution. Ultimately, the ability of being able to demonstrate something with a URL which makes people go 'wow' is a powerful status-enhancer.

There's none of this on MOOCs. But why shouldn't there be? I'm increasingly interested in the idea that technology might be able to provide a way where academic researchers can engage in status-enhancing practices which mirror the YouTube artist. Open Virtual Research Environments like MyExperiment ( provide the opportunity for ordinary people to inquire and explore ideas and make discoveries which can be connected to the work of others. Something like this is happening on (grateful to Keith Smyth for this) - but more focused and rigorous research work is also possible. Such work is also an expression of the commitment and responsibilities of individuals. Recognition of new research findings bring new responsibilities and commitments. All without going near an institution.

Not that I am against institutions. But I do think we should understand them better - this is the best way we can avoid the pathologies that unfold in them. Universities are institutions of status. They portray themselves as institutions of learning and in so doing mask their real function behind a veneer of the 'search for knowledge'. Yet anyone who's had anything to do with Universities knows that they are rarely good places for thinking; they can be remarkably unreflective places! What gets in the way? Well, it's the noisy professor's ego, or the idiot manager, or simply the 'system' that doesn't compute. This isn't new. We know from history that it can be dangerous.

But there are new things we can do about it.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Mind and Nature: Von Uexküll on the Counterpoint of Meaning and the Nature of Counterpoint

Von Uexküll's use of the term 'counterpoint' in 1940 when talking about an organism's perception of its environment (Umwelt) is very striking to a musician. Von Uexküll argues that the organism and its umwelt must be composed in a contrapuntal harmony with those objects that enter the animal's life as meaning-carriers. Hoffmeyer explains that this "contrapuntal harmony lets Uexküll call the flower beelike and the bee flowerlike, or the spider flylike, and the tick mammallike" (Hoffmeyer: Biosemiotics, p 172). For all the accusations that this characterisation is 'vitalistic' (and therefore a reason to reject Von Uexküll), my guess is the rejection is done by people who haven't thought very much about music. It makes sense to a musician - but it poses a bigger question: What is counterpoint?

The essential idea of Von Uexküll is that organisms communicate with their environment. The idea of privileging communication has gained much traction in recent years. Von Uexküll can be seen as the founder of 'biosemiotics', which many others including Jesper Hoffmeyer, Terry Deacon, Susan Oyama and Thomas Seboek have devoted much effort. This issue of communication goes back to the dissonance between Darwinian and Lamarkian evolutionary theory. In my last post, I discussed Gregory Bateson's point that it was Lamark whose project was essentially to describe mind from nature, whilst Darwin's natural selection excluded mind altogether. Bateson's judgement was the Darwin can't be right, and that Lamark's question was a good one not addressed by Darwin, but his (Lamark's) answer was silly (the inheritance of acquired characteristics). Von Uexküll's contribution to this, and it seems to me that this is the essential contribution of Biosemiotics since, is to suggest that mind is somehow immanent in nature in the form of communicative processes. For Hoffmeyer, these communicative processes are semiotic in the way described by C.S. Pierce. If I have doubts about this last move, it's because I've never found Pierce particularly helpful in explaining music. This leads me to a different approach, whilst maintaining Von Uexküll's essential idea.

When I was a music student, the difference between "Counterpoint" and "Harmony" troubled me quite deeply. To a beginner, they are both difficult, and they are distinct - but they are also inter-related. Counterpoint produces harmony. Successive harmonies produce counterpoint. But what are they? What's going on?

The fundamental question is about the relation between figure and ground. The figure is the thing that we attend to at a particular moment (like a melody). The ground is the stuff going on which somehow supports it. Melody and accompaniment are a very simple form of counterpoint. With simple situations, a melody wanders around, and (usually below it) the accompaniment repeats a pattern. I think the repetition is important. In the visual arts, we might have a figure (a reclining nude, say) lying on a green couch. The lines of the figure wander; the couch is continually green, maybe displaying some repeated motif. What is important here is that whilst we are drawn to the figure, the figure exists because of what the ground does. The melody grows because of the fertility of the repetition of the accompaniment. Any improvisation proceeds by establishing pattern and it is from the pattern that growth occurs.

In information theory, pattern and repetition are often termed 'redundancy'. In Shannon's theory, redundancy is the thing that constrains messages that are communicated. Redundancy is the frame for grammar (think about the frequency of words in a grammatically correct English sentence, and how "incorrect" grammar is framed by different redundancies).

In counterpoint, melodies exchange redundancies. One melody will establish a pattern which gives rise to the other's growth. At some point, the other melody will settle into a pattern, giving its counterpart freedom to escape its pattern and grow itself. Furthermore, in music, there are redundancies at many different levels. Tonal structures and harmonic patterns form their own redundancies and drive the emergence of the form of a piece. But the interesting thing is that these things are analysable. It seems to me (particularly from my improvising experience) that the moment of exchange of figure and ground is a particular moment of overlap between the redundancies of each part. These, I think (and I experience) are the meaningful parts of the music: where redundancies overlap.

There's a theory for this which has been developed by Loet Leydesdorff: the redundancies of communication are redundancies of anticipatory systems. What becomes redundant are expectations of future possibilities. When my expectations overlap with your expectations then meaning is communicated: it's the moment when lovers' eyes meet, they smell each other and feel others' breath, and are about to kiss. That's overlapping redundancy (although to say it at that moment would almost certainly be a passion killer!)

When we look at signs and their communications, we look at figures. That, I think, leads down a dead-end. We'd be better looking at the ground. Von Uexküll's poetic metaphor was spot-on I think. Mind is immanent in nature. But the real challenge is to understand the poetry.