Monday 30 March 2020

Supersize Institutions vs Coronavirus

The principal objective of most coronavirus strategies across the world is to limit the collapse of institutions of health. It is obvious that the effort to protect one giant institution puts other giant institutions at risk. Government itself fears for its future, as politicians go to great pains to claim how "well" they are doing in the crisis: the risk here is loss of public trust. Collapse of the health system would produce catastrophic death rates and the potential for social breakdown. Businesses large and small also feeling the full force of the crisis.

Educational institutions will not be far behind. While moving teaching online has been the emergency measure, it is unlikely that traditional institutions of education can maintain their integrity divorced from the campus on which they established their history, reputation and (more recently) capital investments.

While it is tempting to view this as an environmental crisis which simply blows away everything in its path, such a view is dangerous. It opens the door to authoritarianism where Viktor Orban figures will demand total "control" to do the will of the people while really serving selfish interests. This too is a consequence of institutional crisis. The weaknesses in our institutional fabric have been obvious for decades. So there is a question to be asked about institutions - particularly those institutions which have grown so large and unwieldy, bureaucratic and sometimes dangerous so as to make them vulnerable to this kind of environmental disaster.

The institutionalisation of health is something that has happened the world over. Some thinkers, notably Ivan Illich, were always critical of the institutionalisation of public services, which has gone hand-in-hand with "professionalisation" which disempowered individuals to do things for themselves. It basically revolved around the principle of declaring "scarcity" around issues of health, treatment and technology where professionals were invested with the authority to exclusively make pronouncements around aspects of life where individuals were often perfectly capable of organising themselves to deal with if they had access to the technologies and drugs themselves.

This is particularly true in the light of our information technologies. Criticism of the use of technology for self-diagnosis and treatment is based on legitimate concerns about the results of technology. But the problems with technology are not the fault of technology. They are the fault of institutions of health defending their own structures and greedy tech corporations making profits in the shadows of large medical institutions. Health institutions chose to denigrate "Dr Google" and assert the status of institutional judgement rather that consider how health might be more effectively organised with technology in ways different from institutional hierarchy.

It is the same in education. Online education has been available since the beginning of the web. The story since the web has been one of the institutions defending themselves against technology, commandeering technology to defend their structures and practices. There was never any attempt to reform a viable institution of education online. Had there been, Facebook would have been a very different thing.

The point is that an institution is a kind of technology and coronavirus will break them. We may protect the technology of our health institutions, but in the process we will break the technology of our other institutions. Our institutions are not organised effectively. Their supersized structure is not an effective form of organisation. Unfortunately, the reaction to the current crisis is causing a ramping-up of the scale of health institutions. This is understandable: now is the time to react as best we can. But our institutions were vulnerable because of the way they are organised and the scale on which they operate.

The declarations of scarcity over technologies, treatments, and care are not effective ways of organising health in society. The pandemic genie is out of the bottle. We know that this will happen again, and next time it could be worse. So while we must now react, we will need to think about what "effective organisation" in health and education really means in the future.

Sunday 22 March 2020

Under the Skin of an Institution: Rethinking the Global University and Civil Society

An institution - whether it is a university, school, club, church, government, rock band or orchestra - is essentially a membrane between what an institution sees to be its "identity" and its environment - the world which isn't in the club. Every membrane that exists everywhere requires an active process to maintain it. This active process is the totality of work that institutions do. The coordinated work of maintaining an institution entails the division of labour into differentiated functions, the coordination of those functions with one another, the monitoring of the operation of those functions, the monitoring of the environment, the determining of possible threats or opportunities for maintaining the membrane and the directing of any change to internal organisation should something change in the environment. An institution is a "body" (from which we get "corporation"): functional differentiation applies to bodies too.

Among the most significant changes to the environment for social institutions revolve around getting resource to survive. In modern society, this means money. Money fuels growth in ways in which food fuels metabolism, but money is a socially-determined codification of expectation which means that the same codified techniques can be used to organise internal operations: institutions "restructure". At the root of the monetary codification is confidence in  other related institutions - banks and government - and the general belief that social stability can always be achieved through fiscal means - however drastic and painful those means might be. Since the financial crash, this assumption that social stability can always be delivered by fiscal means has been called into doubt.

A plague is not a typical environmental change. It destabilises the foundations of all institutions including banks and government. It permeates the membrane of cells which lie at the root of everything. Not only the institutional membrane is threatened, but of all the sub-divisions of labour within the institution, and of all the other institutions which exist within the ecology of that institution: few conventional methods of restructuring can help. Attempts to provide fiscal support can be made, but in the process the banks must defend their identity by defending money as a "codification of expectations". But if nobody really believes the bank's defence of the value of the money they issue, this money will carry little value. An economic firestorm may occur when we lose trust in government and the banks: all membranes collapse.

Given the current clutch of world leaders that we currently have, it would not be unreasonable to expect a loss of trust in government and banks.

In society, a loss of trust can be replaced with physical force to reinforce a particular institutional membrane (for example, a totalitarian government). This is basically what happened in China, and increasingly Italy and Spain seem to be heading in the same direction. There is nothing new in this development: it is basically a matter of the institution of government wanting to physically defend its membrane by threatening its people (its "environment"). It will appear to work - temporarily. Just as it has only worked temporarily in so many other parts of the world.

A more intelligent way to think is to reconsider the nature of institutions, bodies and cells as recursively inter-connected membranes. During a time of "lockdown", the primary institution is clearly the household or the family. Like all institutions, families have their membranes and functional differentiation: not just the walls of the house or flat keep things together, but within the family are deep mechanisms of coordinating expectations of one another. In dysfunctional families this is more noticeable than in happy ones (remember: "All happy families are the same..."). The stresses and strains of life together in close proximity with little freedom is the very process of the institution attempting to maintain its cohesion. In many families, as money becomes more scarce, other means of coordinating expectations will arise. Some of these new means of coordinating expectations will reveal things about the nature of all institutions.

While there will undoubtedly be an increase in crime and selfishness, we are likely to see an increase in neighbourly altruism. As internal stresses take their toll, external cooperation will attempt to reorganise social groups for the survival of all. But this can only happen if there is external signalling from groups who want to help or who need help. This signalling will happen online. Our small institutions will become rather like cells producing receptor proteins on the cell-wall facing the environment which interact with "proteins" in the environment in "cell signalling pathways". The cybernetic term is "transduction".

So what of larger institutions like institutions of education? All our educational institutions started small: groups of friends with shared interests would meet and talk. Gradually their discussions and the products of their discussions attracted attention from outside. Gradually that attention and demand for more from the institution provided a foundation upon which the nascent institution could grow.

As academics and students move online, are we going to see an eating-away of the membranes of the traditional university led by individual academics across the world who will find that the best place to meet and talk is online? The online world also provides other ingredients for the growth of new institutions. Most importantly, for an institution to grow it must produce things which its environment finds interesting and attractive. Whether it is the video summaries of conversations, open invitations to observe small group meetings, the creation of online artefacts like models or software, or the concentration of intellectual status and reputation, this is not going to happen within the walls of any particular institution. It is going to happen globally.

Why restrict intellectual discourse to the walls of the campus when everyone everywhere is in one big campus? Since the physical campus is now toxic, it doesn't matter how ancient or beautiful it is - beautiful buildings are not what institutions are about. They are about ideas and people and if new ways of organising ideas and people become possible then they should be embraced.

More importantly, the essence of the nascent online university is trust within the new institution and outside it. The bullshit about graduate premiums has gone and the university bondholders can go at stick their increasingly meaningless money elsewhere. We have something more tangible, more effective, more trustworthy but inherently low-cost.

When the physical threats and surveillance of the population no longer work, then what will matter will be trust, honesty and openness to uncertainty. These are the values that we must build into our online institutions now.

Saturday 21 March 2020

The Problem with Mathematical Modelling in Covid-19 and Economics

"Mathematical modelling" is everywhere at the moment, and it should make us as nervous as medical staff going to work without protective gear. It's a bad tool for policy making in a time of crisis. Models are abstract and never specific, but it is the specifics which determine matters of life and death. Whilst an agent-based model might give some idea of the exponential rise in cases, or the overloading of health systems, there will always be missing variables and causal mechanisms which are misunderstood. Some of those missing variables will account for why nearly 800 people died in Italy yesterday (following the nearly 700 the day before) two weeks after their lockdown, or why half of the 1500 people in France in intensive care are aged under 60. At the same time, the statistics from different countries don't seem to be comparable: China under-reported the extent of the death rate from the virus and Russia is determined to say that it is a "foreign problem", underplaying its significance, while building hospitals on the side.

Epidemiologists trying to predict the consequences of COVID-19 with models will cite the caveat that it is "only a model", but the fact is that it's only "only a model" if it isn't used to inform policy. As soon as policy takes heed of a model, the model becomes part of the situation. Ideas like "herd immunity" arise from models, and have informed policy. The outcry that this policy was effectively eugenics has been sufficient to cause some back-tracking.

Mathematical modelling is affecting policy decisions beyond simplistic models of transmission. At the root of government policy - particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world - is economic thinking which is also underpinned by mathematical modelling. Where do the epidemiological models and the economic models meet? That seems to have been the question puzzling the British and US governments in the last week or so. It is, of course, the wrong question. Herd immunity didn't simply arise from a particular slant on an epidemiological model; it was a compromise between the epidemiological model and the economic model: let the virus sweep through the country, let everyone continue their lives as normal, let people "eat virus", let the old die, let's save on the care and pensions, protect the market and the banks and all will be well. To any country with a "pension reform" headache, I can't believe this thought hasn't crossed the minds of their leaders, and the less scrupulous they are, the less they seem to do about the virus.

Frankly, to the calculating mind of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and a few others, this seems like a good plan. Until you think that it might be your parents in a makeshift hospital with no ventilators. The problem from Cummings and Johnson, and for any modelling geeks out there, is that Coronavirus is not abstract. It's not like a hedge fund whose victims are nameless in far-away countries. It threatens people we love. And much as the logic of capitalism dictates that we are all individuals engaged in a kind of Darwinian struggle for material success, love creates bonds which do not obey the individualist logic of the modeller. There is no variable which can represent its effects.

This is not to say that models are useless. But it is to say that the most sensible attitude to them is to ask how they might be wrong, rather than to ask what they predict. They are useful in the sense that they promote critical discussion among concerned individuals thinking about how to act effectively. So the critical thing is the organisation of human beings around the model. Get a load of politicians who want quick-and-easy answers, and the model could be lethal.

Unfortunately, in economic modelling, they have never been used like this. Much to the dismay of great minds in economics, including Marshall, Keynes and Hayek, bad mathematics took over the discipline of economics promising policy guided by numbers - models presented ways of removing the uncertainty of policy-making. But in removing the uncertainty, they threw away most of the information in the system.

What it left us with was a rationalistic, linear and shallow picture of human life. Looking at the world rather like Harry Lime looks down on those "little dots" from the Ferris Wheel in the Third Man, each of us was reduced to a kind of "variable set", each with our motivations and histories, and each of which could stop moving or disappear at any point without any effect on the others.

Coronavirus tells us what's missing: it cuts to the heart of our mistakes in modelling. The virus reminds us what we always knew but preferred to ignore: "we are all connected". Model-based capitalism told us the opposite. The crisis of this pandemic is only just beginning. Our very understanding of money, the economy, ownership, debt and wealth depend on the modeller's deceit that we are individuals acting with one another according to rules codified in law, executed through a market. Coronavirus takes us back not to social law, but to natural law: the bonds of love across generations matter more than any amount of money. It blows apart what Veblen saw as the atavistic behaviour of the leisure classes once and for all.

Love isn't some new variable which can be factored into the model. What happens in meaningful social interaction is the coordination of expectations, and love plays a powerful role in forming expectations. Money is, by contrast, merely a codification of expectations: artifice. But when "heart speaks to heart" (as Newman put it) - as it surely is now - there is no need to artificially codify expectations. We know the truth of the world. Maybe it is the "implicate order" of nature that we perceive. But we know. And nothing else matters.

There is a modelling question to be asked here. But it is not about extra variables. It is more about what the heart speaking to heart really is. What is it that enables us to tune-in to one another? Indeed, what is it that drives us to modelling in the first place?

The way forwards from Coronavirus will be a meta level of understanding.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

Defining "Defining"

The Foundations of Information Science mailing list are currently trying to define "information". Frankly, that's what they've been trying to do for years (without much success), but recently they've tried to be explicit about it. The problem is that you can't define "information" unless you have some concept of what "defining" itself is. So I suggested a definition of "defining":

"Defining is a process of seeking abstract principles which are generative not only of phenomena themselves, but of our narrative capacities for explaining them and our empirical faculties for exploring them."
Some suggested to me that the word "abstract" is redundant here. Aren't they just "principles"? I'm not sure.

Lou Kauffman said that I was thinking about mathematics when I say "abstract". I am - and this definition arose from a conversation with a mutual friend, Peter Rowlands (I couldn't have had the intellectual insight to come up with something like this without Peter's genius)

Lou said something interesting about empiricism in relation to this.

"Nevertheless, we find something different in the empirical domain. We do not demand that our abstract principles generate the phenomena there. In fact we find that concept and percept arise together in the examination of phenomena and that it is in this arising, with the help of thinking and the fundamental circularity of thought knowing thought, that we come to agree that information is present."
This is precisely it. I would say that concept and percept arise together in a kind of counterpoint. It's like music. The counterpoint contrives to give form and meaning to understanding. But meaning and understanding can only arise if the interactions of the counterpoint contrive to create "nothing".

It's only by creating "nothing" that the patterns upon which meaning and understanding operate can arise. 

This, it seems to me, is new. It's where Peter Rowlands's physics and Lou's mathematics point to a profound new development in our understanding of nature and complexity.

Monday 2 March 2020

Positioning Technology Management in Education

It is hard to imagine that technology in institutions today wasn't "managed". Management is endemic in all organisations: institutions are not so much coherent self-sustaining organisational structures, as managed aggregates of people, tools and activities - which are to varying degrees, sometimes incoherent. Indeed, the form of management which imposes functionalist categories onto all its components has become the hallmark of modern institutions. Yet as repeated institutional crises indicate, this kind of organisation appears unadaptive and brittle: in business, it produces failed banks and corporations; in politics, corruption; in education it produces disquiet, alienation and a ravenous, bottomless appetite for ever more resource from society.

For people working under it, management becomes synonymous with the constraints it imposes on the organisation. Management means making decisions about what tools to use, when, by whom and for what purpose. These decisions are necessarily simple - and far simpler than the situations those who are subject to them are trying to negotiate on the ground.

But here there is a problem: simple decisions which constrain those who are negotiating complex situations make those situations more complex. Simple decisions based on out-of-date information produce organisational oscillations and chaos. The problem is particularly evident in educational technology.

Educational technologies are managed - not merely in the sense of being provisioned and maintained, but in the sense that who is able to do what with them, with whom, how and when. Yet the provisioning of tools is fundamental to empowering individuals to deal with their environment. If a university had no classrooms, organising classes would be impossible; if it had no timetable, clashes between competing interests to access resources would result. If there was no audit of whether resources provisioned were actually utilised, then inefficiency would result. In a world that didn't change, provisioning of resources, coordination of activities (to avoid conflicts) and audit would suffice.

The impact of technology on universities has largely resulted from a change to the environmental conditions universities operate it. Talk of "Technology Enhanced Learning" is usually misplaced - computer technology produces continual world changes, and institutions must change themselves to survive in it. So what might be a largely internally-focused process of provisioning tools and resources, coordination and audit, must become a process  of balancing internal demands with external scanning of the ever-changing environment. Institutions must understand these changes, and have sufficient understanding of their own internal adaptive processes, to change themselves to survive.

These adaptive processes require steering. This is the proper domain of management. Yet if the end result of the efforts by management to govern by binary decision result in increased complexity, then the adaptation process won't work. If management sees its principal role as the balancing of complex demands between inside and outside of the organisation, then the focus of its activities becomes much clearer - and less focused on direct provisioning from the top, but on creating the conditions where dynamic provisioning of tools, educational coordination and monitoring can happen closer to the ground.

So then we must ask, What are the conditions which facilitate dynamic provisioning of tools and resources closer to the ground? In modern technological institutions, there are particular constraints that have to be overcome, the principal one being the difference in languages between different stakeholders in the institution.

These languages might be thought of as:
  1. Structural/administrative 
  2. Technical 
  3. Pedagogical 
The structural language is a language of politics, existent institutional procedures, external demands (from government and society) and power. The technical language is a language of code, systems, procedures, constraints and compliance. The pedagogical language is a language of relationships, learning, personal expression, and freedom. 

One way to coordinate a process of addressing these constraints is a continual programme of experiment and inquiry involving all stakeholders in the institution at the boundaries of these languages. Managers would do well spending less time in meetings, and more time learning to write python code (for example). Technicians would do well spending less time writing python code and more time talking to learners and teachers. Teachers would do well spending less time presenting Powerpoints, and more time engaging with the structural and technical aspects of educational organisation and educational experience.

IT tools can be instantiated anywhere. Their provisioning and control can be brought closer to the users - teachers and learners. That we tend to do technological provisioning of tools at the top of institutions is an indication of the fact that technology is seen as the main environmental threat, and so institutional technology is seen as a means of countering it. But technology is not an environmental threat. The real threat lies in ineffective organisation within the institution itself.