Sunday, 7 April 2019

Natural information processing and Digital information processing in Education

In my book, I said:

"Educational institutions and their technology are important because they sit at the crossroads between the ‘natural’ computation which is inherent in conversation and our search for knowledge, and the technocratic approach to hierarchy which typifies all institutions."

I don’t mean to say that education institutions have to be hierarchical – but they clearly are. Nor do I mean to say that they have to be technocratic – but, increasingly and inevitably, they clearly are. It’s more about a distinction between the kind of “computing” that goes on in technocratic hierarchies, and the kind of “computing” that goes on in individuals as they have conversations with one another. And education seems to have to negotiate these two kinds of computing.

Without conversations, education is nothing. Without organisation, coherent conversation is almost impossible.

It’s as if one form of information – the information of the computer, of binary choice, or logistical control – has to complement the information of nature, organic growth and emotional flux. When the balance is right, things work. At the moment, the technocratic idea of information and its technologies dominate, squeezing out the space for conversation. And that’s why we are in trouble.
We know how our silicon machines work (although we may be a bit confused by machine learning!), but we don’t know how “natural” computing works. But we have some insights.

Natural computing seems to work on the basis of pattern – or, in information theoretical terms, redundancy. Only through the production of pattern do things acquire coherence in their structure. And without coherence, nothing makes sense: “can you say that again?”… We do this all the time as teachers – we make redundancy in our learning conversations.

Silicon, digital, information conveys messages in the form of bits, and while redundancy is a necessary part of that communication process, it is the “background” to the message. It is, in the simplest way, the “0” to the information’s “1”.

So is natural computing all about “0”? Is it “Much ado about nothing”? I find this an attractive idea, given that all natural systems are born from nothing, become something, and eventually decay back to nothing again. A sound comes from silence, wiggles around a bit, and then fades to silence again. All nature is like this. The diachronic structure of nature is about nothing.

Moreover, in the universe, Newton’s third law tells us that the universe taken as a totality must essentially be nothing too. There may have been a “big bang”, but there was also an “equal and opposite reaction”. Somewhere. And this is not to say anything about spiritual practices which are amongst always focused on nothingness.

When we learn and grow, we do so in the knowledge that one day we will die. But we do this in the understanding that others will live and die after us, and that how we convey experience from one generation to the next can help to keep a spirit of ongoing life alive.

Schroedinger’s “What is Life” considered that living systems exhibit negative entropy, producing order, and working against the forces of nature which produce entropy or decay. I think this picture needs refinement. Negative entropy can be “information” which in Shannon’s sense is measured in “bits” – or 1s and 0s. But negative entropy may also be an “order of nothings”. So life is an order of nothing from which an order of bits is an epiphenomenon?

Our “order of bits” has made it increasingly difficult to establish a coherent order of nothing. Our digital technologies have enforced an “order of bits” everywhere, not least in our educational institutions. But the relationship between digital information and natural information can be reorganised. Our digital information may help us to gain deeper insight into how natural information works.

To do this, we must turn our digital information systems on our natural information systems, to help us steer our natural information systems more effectively. But the key to getting this to work is to use our digital technologies to help us understand redundancy, not information.

Techniques like big data focus on information in terms of 1s and 0s: they take natural information systems and turn them into digital information. This is positive feedback, from which we seek an “answer” – a key piece of information which we can then make a decision. But we are looking for the wrong thing in looking for an answer. We need instead to create coherence.

Our digital information may be turned to identify patterns in nature: the mutually occurring patterns at different levels of organisation. It can present these things to us not in the form of an answer, but in the form of a more focused question. Our job, then, is to generate more redundancy – to talk to each other, to do more analysis – to help to bring coherence to the patterns and questions which are presented to us. At some point, the articulation of redundancies will bring coherence to the whole living system.

I think this is what we really need our educational technology to do. It is not about learning maths, technology, science, or AI (although all those things may be the result of creating new redundancies). It is about creating ongoing coherence in our whole living system.

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