Friday 18 December 2015

Theory-Practice Gaps in Educational Technology: Why Cybernetics matters

There is a gap between the conceptual discourse about education and the practical stuff which people do with each other in teaching and learning. Conceptual theorists ask what we want from education; teachers, educational technologists and designers ask about the best ways of organising teaching and learning using the available tools and resources. Conceptual meta-theories do not often translate well into practical activity, and practical people are less concerned with thinking about the state of education. Yet both sides of this are important. There is one discipline which fits between the gaps, and that is the discipline of cybernetics.

To say “cybernetics” today is to invite some puzzled looks – “is that about robots?” (ask people who think of the “Cybermen” in Dr. Who), or perhaps people who associate it with “cyberspace” and assume it’s about the internet. In fact, it has some relation to both robots and the internet, neither of which would be possible were it not for the pioneering work of cyberneticians in the 1940s and 50s like John Von Neumann (whose computer architecture set the blueprint for every computer, mobile phone and smartwatch we use today), or Claude Shannon, whose reasoning about data transmission in networks lay the foundations for today’s computer networks, data compression algorithms, encryption, and without which there would be no internet. 

People are less likely to associate ‘cybernetics’ with psychotherapy or anthropology: and yet within these far more human disciplines, cybernetics made transformative contributions through the work of anthropologists like Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, and psychologist R. D. Laing, whose ‘family therapy’ (now a mainstay of psychotherapeutic services) was based in cybernetic theory, or the deep understanding of the developing child in the work on ‘attachment’ by John Bowlby. The connection of cybernetics to management and business is also unlikely, yet key thinkers from the business community have been deeply influenced by cybernetics, from Stafford Beer’s Management Cybernetics, through to George Soros’s economic reflexivity. The connection of cybernetics to biology is also unlikely to be acknowledged, even though it is through biology that the first identification of a ‘system’ was established long before the cybernetic revolution, and where biological cybernetics has inspired not only new thinking about biological development, but ecology and epistemology. Neither will people think that cybernetics has had any influence on our understanding of society, despite considerable impact of sociologist like Niklas Luhmann. Perhaps least likely will be any awareness of the importance of cybernetics in theories of learning and education. Yet learning theories from Piaget to Bruner to Mezirow adopt systemic cybernetic ideas. In education, perhaps more than in any other field, there is a deep need to connect the questions about WHY things are the way they are, HOW things operate in the way they do, with practical inquiry about WHAT IF things were done differently.

One of the more challenging responses to the mention of the word “cybernetics” is the response (possibly from those who know something about it) that it is DEAD, that it was something people talked about in the 60s and 70s, that it was utopian, control-oriented, philosophically-ungrounded – something to be treated with suspicion. Today, people talk about ‘big data’ and surveillance, economic inequality is rife, violent extremism harnesses technologies to terrorise the people, exclusive university education becomes increasingly expensive, and the ecological balance of the planet is under threat. Under these conditions it is hard to see how a subject which offers a genuine transdisciplinary approach to looking at the world's problems could be seen to be dead: except to say that the perception of its death is a symptom of the terrible mess we are in. 

Then of course, there are the other sciences which have emerged from cybernetics, and those sciences which transformed themselves in its shadow. From Artificial Intelligence to Complexity science, ecology to neuroscience, each took a small part of what existed in cybernetics that was of interest to them and developed it, in the process, losing sight of what they left behind. The whole of cybernetics is greater than the sum of these parts; indeed the existence of the parts instead of the whole thing is symptomatic of the pathologies of reductionism within the education system.

Cybernetics is a way of thinking which isn't hide-bound by disciplines. It is for this reason that cyberneticians have rarely found comfortable places in Universities. But then perhaps "comfortable" places in universities are not the places to be in universities in the first place! Cybernetics belongs in the awkward places between things - and it is possibly for this reason that a number of cyberneticians have taken an interest in educational technology. 


David K said...

Though you frequently talk about cybernetics, and I frequently listen, I'm still not sure I quite understand what it is and why I don't like it. Which I suspect is why I am interested. What I've taken from you (thank you!) is the idea of cybernetics as a lens which helps to categorise contemporary issues and thus begin to make sense of what is actually going on and what it means.

I've seen cybernetics, in the past, as a short-hand for a "study of systems". Is cybernetics a study of systems, or is it something else?

(p.s: very many congrats on the new role!)

Mark Johnson said...

For me (and this is inevitably personal) cybernetics is the name I give to the thing that I struggle with intellectually more than anything else. It seems at once enlightening, incredibly practical and sensible, and at the same time obfuscating, intoxicating, politically dubious and potentially dangerous. That is the intellectual space that thinking about education, technology, music, emotion and politics (the things I think most about) has drawn me to. I was there before I knew about cybernetics. Knowing cybernetics helps me to know who I am.

What is it? It's a way of thinking... It's the way I think and the way others who call themselves cyberneticians think. If there's a central difficulty with it, it's because attempts to codify it as a discipline inevitably lead to misrepresentations - but that's not to say there isn't a body of knowledge and some powerful tools. These at the very least help us to ask powerful and awkward questions about things that conventional science is lazy about and overlooks.

I continue to be critical of cybernetics. Second-order cybernetics (the cybernetics of cybernetics) was I think an unnecessary and confused invention which has set things back.

Education is as important to cybernetics as an empirical domain as cybernetics is to education as a compass...

Don't know if any of that helps....

Mark Johnson said...

P.s. I don't really know what a system is! There is quite a gap between cybernetics and systems theory...

Seb Fiedler said...

Hi Mark,

you wrote "I continue to be critical of cybernetics. Second-order cybernetics (the cybernetics of cybernetics) was I think an unnecessary and confused invention which has set things back."

Could you possibly elaborate on that thought?



Seb Fiedler said...

Fair enough that you don't know what a "system is". However, I think you (or we) could very well construct a system (of inquiry/observation) through the explication of a certain set of "boundary judgements" that constrain what we model and what we want to look at,... couldn't you? ;-)



Mark Johnson said...

Hi Seb,

re. second-order cybernetics, I've just written a paper about this which I'll send you. Basically, everything that's important in 2nd-order is in the work of Ross Ashby (a first-order cybernetician), certainly Bateson (who is an in-between figure) and to some extent Warren McCulloch - who was Stafford Beer's mentor (Beer was another 2nd-order sceptic). There are also some important inconsistencies in the second-order stuff. The problem is to do with the extent of its scepticism: sceptical about reality/objectivism? fine. sceptical about universal laws and mechanisms? maybe.. sometimes.. depends... sceptical about induction? Ah! well absolutely not! How could 2nd-order be sceptical about induction?! Indeed, what is learning without 'real' induction. The problem is, as David Hume knew long ago, induction is by no means certain, and we should be highly sceptical of it.

Re. systems and boundary judgements, the notion of 'system' and its associated "causation" needs to be separated from that of constraint. Cybernetics is really a science of constraint. Yes, this involves boundary judgements - I've speculated on these as Searle's 'status functions'. The trick is to count the positive, but look at the negative image that's left behind. I think Robert Ulanowicz is doing something like this in ecology - it's important work. So I agree with you - and we should get cracking on it!

Also worth mentioning that we shouldn't lose sight of technology. Peer-to-peer is making important advances in things like Blockchain (this is important: What does it mean? Oleg thinks it's Colloquia2! (his peer-to-peer educational system - very influential on the PLE)

Seb Fiedler said...

Hey Mark,
thanks for your additional thoughts...
I have also sent you some emails in the meantime.
Hope that we find a way to do some proper work together in 2016... ;-)