Tuesday 31 October 2017

Is Life Simple or Complex? Some reflections on John Torday's Evolutionary Biology

Recently, I've been studying the work of evolutionary biologist John Torday, after he posted a fascinating contribution to the Foundations of Information Science (http://fis.sciforum.net) mailing list. I wasn't alone among my friends in seeing this as something different, and potentially important: the conversations between friends when they say to each other "do you see...?" are very important indicators of what needs to be investigated further. This has been followed with a rich email exchange with Torday, prompted by my pointing out the similarities between his position and Stafford Beer's arguments for a copernican shift in the way that institutions organise themselves, which he wrote about in Platform for Change (and which I blogged about here: http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/beer-and-illich-on-institutional-change.html)

Torday insists:
"Life is simple. We complicate it due to our subjectively evolved senses". 
A more comprehensive articulation of this is contained in http://www.mdpi.com/2079-7737/5/2/17 (importantly, this is open access!). The second sentence above might be changed to "We complicate it due to our discursively evolved sense", but I haven't yet encountered a systems view which states that the discursive environment in which we all operate is epiphenomenal to more fundamental underlying mechanisms. Having said this, I suspected that with all the complexity of Luhmann's theory or Pask's conversation theory, etc (and their manifest failure to really make a better world), we were missing something.

Torday thinks that the fundamental thing that we miss is cellular communication. In saying this, he is saying something also articulated by "bio-semioticians" like Jesper Hoffmeyer. But Torday's theory is not the same as Hoffmeyer. He is a physiologist, and the empirical work he cites in support of his argument seems compelling to me. He cites the evolution of cholesterol from lipids carried to earth by asteroids, argues for a fundamental role of cholesterol in consciousness, and the connection between the skin and the brain. He argues that:
"All of the neurodegenerative diseases have skin homologs. And the Defensin mutation that causes asthma also causes atopic dermatitis in the skin."
These claims are referenced in the empirical literature. Torday's basic mechanism of cellular organisation through cell-cell communication is specifically a response to environmental ambiguity. This may be the same as a cybernetician would say: cybernetically, cells self-organise to mop up variety - at least if we can say that variety is ambiguity (is it? - it might be...). 

Doesn't the same thing happen in economics? Don't institutions reorganise their components to mop up the extra variety (new options) created by technological development and a discourse which reflects this? In other words, its not a direct causal connection between increased options and discourse and transformations of practice in institutions. It's an indirect connection where innovation increases options, and institutions self-organise in response to the increased variety (and uncertainty).

Discourse, then, is an epiphenomenon of cellular evolutionary mechanisms which are much deeper than our exchange of messages. Torday says complexity itself is an epiphenomenon: he's theorising at a much deeper level than Luhmann, but in a related cybernetic/mechanistic way. The current state of academic Babel would support his arguments, wouldn't it?

The work marks a scientific advance on the work of Bateson, Maturana and Robert Rosen who are the main cybernetic figures in biology. It's a reminder (to me) of the importance of the systems sciences staying close to field work in biology, physics, maths and technology.

Monday 30 October 2017

MozFest Technology Coolness!

I attended Mozfest in London at the weekend, at the suggestion of Beck Pitt from the OU. There wasn't a large contingent of educational technologists there (although I did bump into Maren Deepwell (who did an ALT-themed session with Martin Hawksey) and Josie Fraser). There really should be more educational technologists at this kind of thing - and the odd institutional manager ought to take note.

Not that there was much room - the place was packed, mostly with the young: the average age was about 20, and there was a very large and encouraging contingent of school age kids, getting wired-up on the decentralised web, blockchain, fighting surveillance and injustice, and feeding the world. There was a real buzz about the place.

MozFest took over 9 floors of the Ravensbourne college building opposite the O2. It felt like an occupation. I haven't seen anything quite like this since I saw the University of Amsterdam occupation in 2015 (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/in-light-of-recent-press-coverage.html)
There was a distinctly low-tech approach to coordination and organisation. Walls and stairwells were full of hand-drawn posters for different events and talks:

Future of scientific publishing? There was a clear technological move away from the established practices of publishers and institutions.

Worried about Fake News? What might technology be able to do about it?

Blockchain for bug fixing?

Google docs with IPFS?! Cool!

I asked some of the people doing these things why they didn't just use the technology without doing all the practical badge-making, stamp printing, type-writing (yes, there was a typewriter!) stuff. The response basically pointed out the immediacy of experience, the importance of physical contact, and so on.

Whatever the reason, it was the right decision. The physical activities were a social and fun way of contextualising more complex technical discussions.

The most important technical themes were about web decentralisation. The drive for this is partly technical, partly practical (how to distribute internet access to parts of the world where building vast infrastructure isn't viable), but mostly political (fighting surveillance). It's not just Blockchain, but the Inter-planetary file system (http://ipfs.io), and a few similar decentralising protocols like DAT (https://datproject.org/).

The hardware to support decentralisation is also developing. The Gotenna device (see https://www.gotenna.com/pages/mesh) is a small radio repeater which carries a signal for 4 miles, and can easily form a mesh network with other Gotenna recievers in the neighbourhood.  I found this incredibly exciting. Basically, we're heading for an off-grid internet.

As with all of these things, the question for an educational technologist is "What does this mean for institutions?"

The answer is, "We don't know", except that what it will spell out is "Change". The decentralised web is a threat to institutions. That's a message educational institutions need to hear right now, because they all are behaving as if technology has been "done", that it's all about MOOCs and the VLE and that all they need to worry about is "policy" with regard to technology.

Frankly, that's bollocks - ask any 14 year-old at MozFest!

Tuesday 24 October 2017

The Physics of Learning and the Learning of Physics

An alternative title for this might be "the physics of metaphysics and the metaphysics of physics". But I want to talk to educationalists, not philosophers. The division between metaphysics and physics is an unfortunate inheritance from antiquity.

There are some terms from physics which we use continually and assume we all know what they mean. Education is the process by which our questioning of these basic terms is attenuated. In order to get a clearer picture of physics, we need better education. But in order to get better education, we need to grapple with learning, and its closely related concept, "Information".

I'm taking my cue from Peter Rowland's physics - see http://anpa.onl/pdf/S36/rowlands.pdf - in asking some fundamental questions not only about information, but about physics itself. We are kidding ourselves if we think a good theory of learning can be established without thinking how such a theory might relate to what we know about the physical world. Most educational researchers are kidding themselves. We are also kidding ourselves if we think good physical theories can be established without considering the educational context within which they are produced and reproduced.

So here are a few core concepts which start to unravel once we dig into them:

  1. "Dimension" - what is a dimension? We are told in school that height, width and depth are three "dimensions", or that time is a fourth. At the same time, we understand that a value in one dimension is called a "scalar", and that in two dimensions we have "vectors" (and also in more dimensions). 
  2. "Vector" - this gets used in all sorts of contexts from cartography to text analysis. But we have bivectors, trivectors, psuedovectors and then the weird rotational asymmetry of quaternions, octonions, nonions (see Peirce's work on these in the collected papers: his emphasis on triadic forms seems to derive from his interest in quaternions). It's important to be clear about what we mean by "vector". 
  3. "Matter" and "Mass" - do we mean "mass" when we say "matter"? It's worth noting that mass is a scalar value. 
  4. "Energy" - isn't this a combination of mass, space and time? (e.g. 1/2mv^2) So... a scalar, a vector and.... time? 
  5. "Time" - Is time "real" in the same way as we might consider mass to be real?... It is perhaps surprising that mass and energy are connected: Nuclear reactors turn scalars into vectors! Is time imaginary?.... is time i? That would make it a pseudoscalar. 
  6. "Conservation" - some things are conserved and other things aren't. Time isn't conserved. Mass is. Energy is conserved. Space isn't conserved, is it? Something weird happens with conservation...maybe this is agency? Is information conserved?  
  7. "Information" - Shannon information involves counting things. On the face of it, it's a scalar value - but in the counting process, there is work done - both by the thing observed and by the body that observes it. Work, like energy, is (at least) a combination of mass, time and space. This applies to *any* counting: there is an imaginary component, the dimensions of space and scalar mass. It probably involves charge too. 
  8. "Agency" - Terry Deacon has a definition of agency (from which this post began): 
    2. Turning to Terry's definition of "agency", it involves "work", "conservation" and "organisation". The definition hides some complexities relating to the nature of work, and the ways in which mass and charge might be conserved, but time and space isn't. Implicit in the relation between extrinsic and intrinsic tendencies (what are they?) is symmetry. Is agency a principle of conservation which unfolds the symmetry between conserved and non-conserved dimensions? That means we are in a symmetry: "a pattern that connects" - to quote Bateson. 

Personally, I find the value of these questions is that they render less certain the dogmatically asserted principles of modern physics. Maybe we need this uncertainty in order to get closer to "information", and consequently, to get closer to learning.

Thursday 19 October 2017

Things we talk about and things we don't talk about in Educational Technology

There are plenty of things we talk about in educational technology: MOOCs, e-portfolio, open educational resources, open education (open everything...), learning analytics, learning design, and so on. We've created 'specialists' in each of these fields - as if each field was separable from the others - or even that the field of educational technology is itself specifically identifiable (is it?). Why have we created these distinctions? Why have we separated things out like this? Well, that's what the education system we are in does. What is its effect? It creates scarcity, and with scarcity comes a market. In the case of many of the trends of educational technology, the market is in individuals with enhanced status as "experts" in specific areas.

You want an expert in OER? - you have to talk to x. They're the "expert" - they'll tell you all you need to know. You want learning analytics, talk to y. An expert.  Or MOOCs? Well, who do you think really gained out of the MOOC experiment? Of course, the big winners were the experts who talked about them!

Education is very confusing. Who isn't confused? Would an expert in education be any more credible than an expert in parenting? (yes, there are a few of those, and I find their blind faith that they know the right way to do it perplexing).

Deep down, I'm interested in the confusion education creates, and the things that this confusion does - like creating a breed of people who pretend not be confused: vice-chancellors, education ministers... and experts in educational technology. I'm interested in how technology seems to be increasing the confusion of education - partly by challenging established hierarchies... the kind of hierarchies which promote experts in the first place. What we never talk about is our confusion.

The first sign of being blind to the confusion we are all in is the apparent omission of engaging with fundamental questions, or the washing-over of basic assumptions. This isn't new in academia. Alfred North Whitehead pointed out in his book "Science and the Modern World" (1926) that:
"When you are criticising the philosophy of an epoch do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch" (p.61)
Tony Lawson (who is somebody more educationalists should know about) quoted this in a paper he presented to the Cambridge Realist Workshop this week (this group has over more than 20 years been an excellent example of openness). His title was "What's wrong with modern economics and why does it stay wrong?". A similar question can be asked of education: "What's wrong with modern education and why does it stay wrong?"

It stays wrong because it's defended by "experts" whose vested interest is to hide the confusion they feel and instead pontificate.

Am I pontificating in saying that? I deeply worry about that question. The problem with blogging is that it's not a very good medium for listening. 

Monday 16 October 2017

A Transdisciplinary Synthesis for Educational Technology Theory

I've been very critical of the current state of theory in educational technology. When comparing the theoretical and scientific work on learning and technology today with that of the 1970s, it doesn't look very good.

A lot of today's e-learning academics are happy to promote rhetoric about what we should and shouldn't do (social media, yeah! open access, yeah! learning analyics, yawn!), but are silent when addressing the really difficult questions about learning, consciousness, society, institutions, technology and systems.

Part of the problem is an unwarranted consensus about educational theory being "established": Critical pedagogy, constructivism, open education, etc have all become 'real' things (ironically in the case of constructivism), alongside more pernicious real things like "modules" and "learning outcomes". Their effect is to provide an anchor for education academics. Each hides numerous implicit ontological assumptions which are never critiqued. On more than one occasion, I have attempted to challenge people who ought to know better with questions like "but what do you mean by..." and then I'm met with silence. I think this is indicative of professional insecurity rather than a general ignorance of the fundamental questions. There's plenty of insecurity out there.

I want to change this - but to change it means to escape the educational consensus. We have to do what the originators of our current consensus (Piaget, Vygotsky, von Glasersfeld, Freire) did - engage in a truly interdisciplinary inquiry which engages at the forefront of current scientific, political, philosophical, technological and artistic knowledge.

What is happening in physics today which is relevant to learning? What is happening in biology? What about philosophy? Or maths? Or logic? Or systems? Or the arts?

This isn't just a trawl for new theory. We need a new accommodation between theory and experiment. Our empirical foundation in education is dreadful - "8 out of 10 learners preferred..." We must do better.
In any empirical enterprise we need:

  • A logic for expressing what we think might happen
  • A means of measuring what actually happens
  • A method for restructuring our logic in the light of experience.

Our logic depends fundamentally on mathematics. At the forefront of pure mathematics are inquiries about complex topologies, explored through techniques like category theory. In maths today, the very issue of "categorisation" is a question - perhaps the central question which is exercising minds. So what of our categories of "education" or "learning"? At the heart of these investigations is the pursuit of better ways of understanding recursion (our categories about most things - and certainly education - are recursive).

On measurement, perhaps we should look to the physicists exploring the properties of quantum mechanical systems, where their focus is on the measurement of uncertainty, symmetry and contingency. After all, it is these systems which will form the basis of our next generation of computers. Or we could look to biologists who are examining the ways in which cells organise themselves in their environment. At the forefront of research, the physicists and the biologists may be looking at the same thing, and often with similar tools taken from information theory.

Finally, what of our method for adjusting our knowledge? This goes to the heart of a technological and organisational question. To change what we know is to change our structure. Where does the structure of an individual's knowledge end and the structure of the society in which the individual exists begin? Doing science entails social structural change. Doing uncertain science - which seems to be what we now need to do - entails doing this continuously. Our hierarchical social structures of education and science do not provide sufficient flexibility. Only heterarchical structures will be able to absorb the variety of the environment in which they operate. In its favour, OER is heterarchical.

What we have now in education is not scientific, but scientistic. Stupid applications of technology in education like Learning Analytics adopt the pretence of science to give it kudos. The stupidity is upheld (and exacerbated) by institutional hierarchy. We need to move on all three fronts: the logical, the empirical and the structural. But it is the structural which, currently, is our biggest problem - but one that can't be addressed without the other two.

Monday 9 October 2017

An Ashby Growth Machine

Imagine studying the dynamics of Ashby's homeostat where each unit produces a string of numbers which accord to the various values of each dial. The machine comes to its solution when the entropies of the dials are each 0 (redundancy 1). At this moment, the machine 'dies' - there's nothing else left to do.  

As the machine approaches its equilibrium, the constraint of each dial on every other can be explored by the relative entropies between the dials. If we wanted the machine to keep on searching (and living!) and not to settle, it's conceivable that we might add more dials into the mechanism as its relative entropy started to approach 0. What would this do? It would maintain a counterpoint in the relative entropies within the ensemble. 

So there's a kind of pattern: machine with n dials gradually approaches equilibrium. An observer measuring the relative entropy of the machine adds new dials when the relative entropy approaches 0. So, say there's n+1 dials, and the process is repeated. But growth also entails the death of parts of the machine. Maybe the same observer looks at the relative entropies between sub-sections of components. Maybe they decide that some subsections can be removed also as a way of increasing the relative entropy of the ensemble. 

But what about the entropy of the observer's actions in adding and taking away dials? Since this action is triggered by the relative entropy of the ensemble, the relative entropy between the relative entropy of the machine and the entropy of the observer should approach 0. What if we add observers? What would the relative entropy between the observers be?

Each observer might be called a "second-order" observer. Each dial in the homeostat is a first-order observer of the other dials. Each second-order observer sees the ensemble of first-order observers as if it was a single dial. A second second-order observer would also see this, and would see the other second-order observer. A third-order observer could add or remove a second-order observer. And so on. 

Does the growth of this Ashby organism display an emergent symmetry?