Sunday 17 May 2020

Modelling Government Failure

I've just been watching Andrew Marr's interview with Michael Gove. It's easy to criticise the obvious, but it is much harder to ask scientific questions as to the underlying reasons for what is patently a collapse in the effective functioning of the institution of government. Government has spent so long modelling the dynamics of a virus that nobody fully understands, and making policy decisions on the back of the fairy-stories which emerged from red and green dots on a screen, that they failed to ask questions about themselves.  But in the final analysis, and in the light of international comparison, the story will be that the horrifying death toll was caused by government failure. It's little consolation that Johnson, Gove, Vallance, Cummings and co will be seen as tragically lethal lunatics to future historians.

Systems collapse when they are overwhelmed by complexity. Another way of thinking about complexity is to consider that it is the aggregate of the variety of different problems that must be managed: "variety" is sometimes used as a unit of complexity.

In asking about government failure, we should consider the mechanisms which produce the variety that the system cannot absorb. What COVID-19 actually did was increase the variety in the natural environment of society in a way which meant that existing structures of social organisation are no longer viable. Therefore, the thing that has to change is the organisation of society to something which is viable under the new conditions. Understanding and acknowledging the potential of the threat to the social environment so that there is readiness to drastically restructure society will obviously be the best way to absorb this kind of shock. It is not surprising that those countries who had recent experience with epidemics like SARS were well-equipped to change their social structures. But the first question to ask of the UK is, despite the "world-leading" research in public health, and ample work on the risks of a pandemic, nothing existed in the mechanism of government to enact a radical social reorganisation in a timely fashion.

It seems that many of the mechanisms that might have permitted this were dismantled for short-term economic reasons in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

But this only explains the delays in acting. It doesn't explain the further chaos that has ensued, and which still appears to be apparent in government actions. Understanding that can shed more light on the lack of foresight in the beginning.

One of the most interesting phenomena from both the UK and the US has been the "daily government briefings". It's been more obvious in the US than the UK, but these have effectively been vehicles for government propaganda, reinforced by many media outlets with close ties to government. This info-war is at the root of government failure. It's basically the equivalent of the ENRON shareholder meetings where everyone is told "We're doing great!" when the opposite is happening. The financial crash of 2008 resulted from similar mechanisms of misplaced trust and political expediency.

The fundamental role of government is to maintain the viability of society. In order to maintain viability one has to understand the nature of the complexity that has to be managed, where it comes from, and what one must do to adapt so that it can be effectively absorbed by the inter-relationships of the government machine. But one has to study complexity to understand it, and particularly to take care that one is monitoring the right signals. All complex systems produce a vast array of different signals - think about how a heart condition might lead one to think that one has indigestion. If we track the wrong signals, we will reach the wrong conclusion.  If we act on the conclusions we reach from tracking the wrong signals, we are likely to make things worse. This is what's happened to the UK government.

So the question is "How has the government tracked the wrong signals, and how has its capacity to recognise its errors been compromised?"

I suspect there's an uncomfortable narrative that joins up a lot of the pathologies of the current UK government and its predecessors. It was the Blair government that discovered the power of managing the information flows from government to the people. By exploiting technology, governments realised they could use sophisticated techniques for making themselves look good, and remain electable. It is noteworthy that the Labour government was brought down by another environmental disaster in the financial crisis which arose because the same approaches had been used in the relationship between banks, investors and governments.

The Brexit campaign and the last two elections were the high watermark in the info-war, where not only UK actors like Dominic Cummings, Cambridge Analytica, etc were monitoring the infostreams, but mischievous foreign actors were in the mix too. The message was clear: manipulate the message and you'll stay in power (and you may get very rich). The underlying message to that was that it was the infostream which was the signal from which to monitor the health of the nation. It is the wrong signal.

So what happens when you monitor the wrong signal? You believe you have indigestion when you are about to have a heart attack. So you act to control the signal, and you make the problem worse.

The outward manifestion of this is the "announcement of progress". Every day, the government briefing has been full of initiatives: locking down, producing ventilators, financial support, ordering PPE, rates of testing, vaccines, bleach, international comparisons ("ooh we're better than x" - until we're not), opening schools, the app, the Isle of Wight, sunbathing, and so on. Whilst not wanting to draw attention away from the substance of some of these (like the lockdown or the financial support), each is an attempt to control the information stream. But it's chaos because the PPE doesn't arrive, the testing falls below target, the international comparisons don't work any more, and the app almost certainly won't work. But they knew these were likely risks before they made the announcement - so the announcement could only have been made in a desperate attempt to control the information stream, and maintain a sense that "We're doing great!" in the face of obviously contradictory evidence. The result is that the thing they wish to control - the information stream - actually becomes more complex to manage. It's positive feedback - the root of all system failure.

What this points to is a fundamental lack of variety and intellectual capacity at the heart of the government operation. It's pretty much what was said in a powerful article in BMJ last week (, criticising the constitution of the SAGE committee and the government's chief scientific advisers. There was nobody to say "You're monitoring the wrong signals" because "monitoring the wrong signals" is not a thinkable thought in a government whose main objective is to stay in power by manipulating the information flows between itself and the public. Government has effectively become a toxic monoculture.

What is actually needed right now is a restructuring of government. But it is very hard to see how this might happen. The monoculture is feeding itself, and many more thousands of people are going to die. The long term damage to the UK is going to be disastrous. In particular, the loss of so-called "soft power" (a deeper facet of information management) will have a huge cost on all our institutions - particularly universities.

So what is going to happen? A government machine hell-bent on its own survival at all costs, for which it sees the management of information as the principal guide to its success, will tie itself into increasingly complex knots. Its attempts to manage information will drive it to hide inconvenient figures, in the same way that we see in other countries. It will invent legalistic ruses to force people back to work in dangerous situations, and it may begin to prosecute those who oppose it. But at some point it will all snap.

Coronavirus has drastically changed our environment. But it is not the crisis. The real crisis is the systemic collapse of government.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

In the Disruptive Light of COVID-19

There was a bit of an unkind fuss when Clayton Christensen died, with a number of people criticising/blaming him for some of the unfortunate pathologies of recent educational technology. "Disruption" was a dangerous idea, it was claimed (although many of us got lots of funding for claiming our kind of disruption would be good!) Christensen's work certainly wasn't very deep (although nobody complains about that!), but if we had looked deeper, we would have seen a whole education system which sought Christensen's kind of "disruption" as a way of maintaining its existing structures and practices. It was a convenient foil for essentially conservative institutions to appear to be radical, whilst at the same time cutting-back on personnel and resources in the name of innovation. What they claimed to be "disruptive" was basically conservative neoliberalism - and it was bullshit.

Now, however, we have real disruption. Not Christensen's fairy stories, but a real monster turning everything, including our institutions, upside down. I'm not sure Christensen had a pandemic in mind, but what could be more disruptive? And in the light of this disruption, all those "disruptive innovations" are revealed in their true conservative light!

The point about these conservative disruptions is that they are not disruptive - they essentially reinforce an old order. They exist to serve a market of existing institutions, structured in a traditional way. Basically, they are parasites, and at the heart of their parasitic attachment are uninspected assumptions about education, certification, educational markets, institutional status, and learning.

What everyone is realising very rapidly is that you can't teach effectively online using the same practices that you might use face-to-face. But it is not just a matter of exploiting particular tools, or changing the structure of activities. The ethos of the whole educational enterprise is transformed when we move online. While it might have been enough to run through a few Powerpoints, exercises, or even do a little groupwork, where the intellectual depth of the engagement was often a little bit shallow, going online means the intellectual depth really matters.

We rarely talk about the intellectual depth of our engagements with students. The curriculum effectively sidelined intellectual depth in the name of measurable learning outcomes and the uniformity of educational "products": this was the end of thinking in our universities. But thinking really matters because it is only through depth of thought that real connections are made between people - between learners and each other, and between learners and teachers. It is only through depth of thought that we "tune in" to the inner worlds of each other, as Alfred Schutz put it.

Intellectual depth is not an epiphenomenon of doing assignments and getting a degree. It is an essential parameter in the establishment of relationships with each other and with the world. While the distractions and comforts of the campus might provide alternative ways in which relationships might form - in the coffee bar or the pub - compensating for the dull bureaucracy of the assessment machine, online the compensations are absent. The intellectual connection must happen between teachers and learners, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart. It was the real weakness of the MOOCs that this didn't happen.

The organisational problem for universities is that the space for teachers to establish meaningful connections has been removed and replaced with a one-size-fits-all curriculum jam-packed with textbook nonsense, assessments with rigid criteria that encourage shallow strategic learning, and vast over-recruitment which leaves everyone gasping for air. These are the real problems that universities will face in September. It's really got nothing to do with technology.

As for technology, really the simplest stuff will do. Intellectual depth doesn't require rich media, although the powerful digital artifacts that we can now make can be a spur to intellectually deep conversations.  However, because we think of artifacts like Powerpoint slides or videos as conveyors of information, we miss their essential relational effect: their power lies as objects in a shared lifeworld between the teacher and the learners. The learning is not in the object. It is in the depth of the intellectual conversation that we can have about the object.

COVID-19 is the most powerful and all-encompassing "object" to have invaded all our lifeworlds for as long as any of us can remember. This is what we should be talking about now. But I fear that come September, universities will try to ignore it. Of course they will do their social distancing, and online meetings, etc, but they will try to talk about curriculum objects which they always talked about (and many lecturers will hide behind their Powerpoints in Zoom, like they did in the classroom).

It's a weird situation really. Imagine War of the Worlds, where the Martians have landed, zapping people at regular intervals. In society, everyone is talking about it. Except in the universities - where they have Core Study Skills and Employability 101, and worry about whether there'll be enough humans left to fill their courses.

Monday 11 May 2020

Beyond Homeostasis: Some thoughts on biology, physics and cybernetics

John Torday, Peter Rowlands, Andrew Crompton and myself had a Zoom meeting today in which we talked about some fundamental issues in physics and biology. These have a bearing on thinking about education and development, and a particularly strong association to cybernetics.

Both Peter and John have theories about nature which reference a kind of recursive recapitulating symmetry in nature, from a fundamental original order, through to complex manifest biological and physical reality. There are differences between them in terms of defining what this original order might be: for John, it is a historical event, the Big Bang, and its associated singularity (although I gather from Peter that the singularness of the Big Bang is now contested). For Peter, original order means a totality of nothing in the universe (from Newton's 3rd Law), with the recursive and recapitulating mechanism driving a process of complexification in nature through successive levels of expressing the original nothingness at different orders of organisation.

Of particular interest in the discussion was John's view of epigenetics as a fundamental mechanism of evolutionary development through continual interaction and absorption of the environment by cells which exhibit levels of homeostasis at different orders of complexity. As cells seek to maintain homeostasis, they absorb epigenetic marks from the environment which steers the evolution of the species. The epigenetic marks themselves found their way into the environment from biological reproductive processes, fundamentally involving the sex organs. In other words, the old generation's expressions of epigenetic marks will lie in the environment to be picked up by the next generation, and in so doing, the ontogeny of the individual organism recapitulates the phylogeny of the species.

With regard to certain hormones this is very interesting. The balance between the androgens and oxytocin - the former causing "fight or flight" behaviour, the latter fundamentally related to generosity and love - shifts from youth to old age. The dominance of oxytocin in later years may help explain the growing warmth of the elderly - particularly in their attitude to the young. This, John argues, is not simply a behavioural shift - it is an evolutionary balance that serves to nurture the future of the species. I can think of many examples of particularly aggressive men who, in old age, find a new warmth of tone in dealing with the world (and people forget what complete bastards they were when they were younger!)

If this recapitulation of phylogeny is a kind of regulatory mechanism, then it raises questions as to how we are to think about things like homeostasis at all. Homeostasis is the maintenance of a stable state in a system in its environment - but it is a local phenomenon: homeostasis in maintained in local biological systems. But with epigenetics we are not talking about a local situation, but a broad historical situation where biological processes are spanning generations.

Piaget preferred Waddington's term homeorhesis - which is the tendency to maintain a stable flow, rather than a stable state. But that doesn't quite do either, because it lacks any explanation as to what might be driving a processes of homeorhesis.

This is where Peter's theory is so powerful. If totality is zero (or nilpotent in Peter's terminology), and local phenomena recapitulate this zero-ness by seeking to cancel themselves out, then it is possible to imagine that both the expression of epigenetic marks like oxytocin or the androgens driven by a principle of nilpotency at one stage in one context, and where their absorption at a later stage by a different generation is similarly part of a local process of trying to "cancel oneself out". And that process can then reproduce what appears to be a regulating mechanism connecting ontogeny and phylogeny. The key mechanism in this process is the creation of a selection mechanism for the organism that determines its behaviour according to how it believes its survival will be most likely: in other words, an anticipatory system.

More deeply, this means that our concept of homeostasis is too flat to describe these inter-generational historical processes.  As Conant and Ashby noted, every good regulator of a system is a model of that system. The third dimension of homeostasis, or indeed homeorhesis is anticipation. In their normal cybernetic conception, neither concepts have it, and because of this, neither can explain the underlying force for regulation. Moreover, anticipation itself can be driven by a nilpotent principle.

So we have to get beyond homeostasis. In the three dimensions that Peter's work takes us towards, our systems concepts look very different.

Sunday 3 May 2020

Technology and the many-brain problems of science and education - a response to @Czernie

Our current world of edtech is not the only technological world for education that is possible. That is the most important point in a great piece by Laura Czerniewicz, which catalogues the challenges institutions currently face:

As Laura points out, our institutions are now in a deep state of crisis. There's no need to repeat the statistics. The livelihoods of academics, like the livelihoods of everyone else, are under threat. Academics are lucky not to face the immediate redundancies faced by many. This is what a dramatic change to the environment does to any organism (and people and institutions are organisms - things which maintain their existence in an environment) which has no capacity to adapt. The virus kills by starving people of oxygen. Our institutions and people will be starved of money.

But we knew our institutions were in deep trouble, we knew our economy was unsustainable, we knew the planet was dying long before any of this. But somehow our daily practices, whilst perhaps acknowledging some doubts, confirmed to us that things would go on as normal and the world would continue to be safe for us and our children. But deep down we worried.

So what is knowledge to an organism that helps it survive and adapt? And what happens to an organism that suddenly realises that it was listening to the wrong signals, and signals which it discarded were the really important ones? As people, we have this experience continually in our lives. We reflect, change course, change jobs, get married, get divorced, study, etc. None of these changes are easy. They demand deep contemplation, and as individuals, the greatest strength of humanity is that we possess the capacity to do this, and we instill this capacity in our children.

What about the organism of the institution? With globalisation, all our institutions towered over the world like colossi: banks, airlines, governments and universities. They were the environment for individual people. We had replaced nature with markets and bureaucracy. Wasn't it only a matter of time before nature reminded who was boss?

That universities followed the path of the global colossus believing that the global demand for certificates would fill their classrooms and lucrative accommodation in the name of "preparing for the future" will be seen as the greatest mistake in the history of the universities. The paradox is obvious. The institution that existed to engender the contemplation of nature should believe itself and other institutions to be "natural", and therefore to be the only environment to which adaptation was necessary. Moreover, that adaptation to an environment of institutions merely required a certificate by a trusted university.

So that's the crisis. But now the challenge.

The complexity of the natural challenges that face humanity is enormous. The scientific response to this will have to have an equivalent complexity in order to be able to manage it. In distilling the essence of the inquiry into nature to a process of regurgitating things that were already known and certifying them, our universities have largely narrowed the complexity with which science is able to tackle complex problems.  Anyone who thinks against the prevailing winds of discourse finds themselves on the outside. That is a problem: A.N. Whitehead noted that if you want to know where the next scientific advance will come from, look at what people are not talking about. Our research establishment works in the opposite direction, increasingly feeding the interests of politicians and corporations. This must stop - and perhaps now it will.

But if we are to increase the complexity of our scientific imagination to meet the challenges of nature, then we have to create the conditions within which our scientific imagination can be enlarged. This is the university's job. It is to create contexts for conversations of sufficient variety that feed a scientific imagination of sufficient richness that it will be able guide humanity to new ways to organise ourselves.

In the scientific revolution, there was a similar demand to increase the variety in scientific discourse. The academic journal was a way of using technology to democratise science. Over time, as with all institutions, what was originally well-intentioned, became pathological, exclusive, and subsumed into a market logic.

As Laura rightly says, today's technologies are extraordinary. The capacity to organise global conversation, contemplation and action is with us. Politicians and corporations across the world know this and fear it. It is a threat to their own institutional arrangements - which are probably as doomed as our current institutional arrangements for universities. But the coffee houses of the 17th century are now online.

A technological rebirth will require fundamental questions to be asked about people, collectives and brains. We may ask about the "future of universities", but universities are institutions, and we need to understand institutions first: those organisational entities which comprise many brains, and somehow coordinate the thoughts in many brains. How do they work? How can they work better?

Heinz von Foerster argued that brain research is essentially a "one-brain" problem, while education is essentially a "two-brain" problem, and the issue of society and institutions is a "many-brain" problem. Von Foerster's colleague Ross Ashby, whose Law of Requisite Variety frames the essence of the problem I've been discussing (a complex system can only be controlled by a system of equal complexity), wrote a book called "Design for a brain". Now we need a "Design for an institution". 

The many-brain problem is the problem of organising institutions. The two-brain problem is the essence of the conversations which institutions have to create contexts for. The context for the conversation about both of these is the internet. It is conversation that has to happen - and will.

Facebook, Twitter and the media giants (which are largely politicised now) will try to distort any kind of coherent conversation in order to sell things, or deliver a kind of brain-washing to their clients. Eventually we will be able to mitigate for their disruption and organise our contemplative processes in ways that will provide stability in the relationship between humanity and nature once more.