Friday 14 August 2020

An Online Space for Operating Thought

The most exciting thing that has happened since the lockdown is the reorganisation of intellectual engagement among scholars from all kinds of disciplines. When everyone, of all ages, was stuck at home in front of their computers, all over the world, it became easy to say "let's meet up in zoom and talk about all those things which we never got to discuss properly in the 20 minute slots in conferences". There are a number of groups now operating, and they need to be catalogued. I would mention John Williamson's QuiCycle for discussion around  physics (, and the "Important Things Group" featuring the encounter between physics and biology, courtesy of John Torday and Peter Rowlands, and many others. Now I have been organising the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association (ANPA) conference online along similar lines - one presentation per day, lots of space for discussion:

We have reached the end of the first week of ANPA, and I have found it richly rewarding. We have had profound presentations by Peter Rowlands, Mike Horner, Louis Kauffman and Dino Buzzetti. More importantly, all these presentations have been revolving around a single idea which relates back to Peter Rowland's seminal contribution to quantum mechanics, and Lou Kauffman's beautiful topology which draws on cybernetics and Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form. More impressive still is the fact that, as Dino Buzzetti and Mike Horner reminded us, these current ideas are closely related to the original ideas that caused ANPA to be formed 41 years ago,  alongside Margaret Masterman's Cambridge Language Research Unit. A key figure was Gordon Pask, who not only contributed to the theory but also made a machine (this helps explain how Pask's thought extended from education to consciousness and physics). 

I was wondering what Pask would have made of our zoom conference. Perhaps he would have suggested richer shared spaces for activity other than the conference chat. But at the same time, I don't think anyone who has built on Pask's work in educational technology has really considered the situation of eminent thinkers really coming together through technology, thinking together through that technology, and thinking together about a common set of ideas. 

I'll say something about Dino Buzzetti's presentation in a future post, but this point about thinking together was most evident in Lou Kauffman's presentation. It was beautiful partly because of its theatre. David Bohm always argued that "theory" was a kind of "theatre" - the words have the same etymological root. There is a process that occurs in the interplay between pictures, words, logic and structure whereby the interference between those parameters mixes with the interferences of everyone else's constructions of those parameters, to reproduce these structures in other minds. Bohm called this process "dialogue" and says that its purpose is to "operate thought". Thought, he said, is a bit like a machine, and we have to learn how to use it, which we can only do by coming together like this. 

Lou used beautiful hand-drawn equations and diagrams to illustrate his point that the point was nothing. And perhaps its nothing which is the result of all those interference patterns. Or it's nothing that permeates the patterning of those interference patterns. Either way, it seems if we want to see "wholes", we should look for "holes".


Wednesday 12 August 2020

The Exams Crisis: The Establishment Crumbles from Society's Children Upwards

Coronavirus is exposing the poverty of understanding of what really matters in society. If education  has been seen to be a priority at all, it is because the function of school in "keeping the kids off the streets" has been prioritised (behind lots of bluster about "learning"). 

In its ongoing development, like any organic entity, a society must exercise ways of making distinctions about things. Most of all, it must make distinctions about its own components as old components die, and new ones are born. Societies are autopoietic. Unfortunately, the ways that society conceives of its components, its structures, its purpose are determined by the established "components", most of whom have a vested interest in sticking to the old ways of making distinctions, and the old ways of structuring things.  Education is the vehicle by which nothing changes: it is supremely resistant to the demand for change, however much the world changes. While "Innovation" might be thought of as an engine for change, in fact this is education's immune system. But it's ok - because the world doesn't change too much.

Well, you can guess what's coming. 

It's not just societies that are autopoietic. People are too. Each of us, as biological entities is continually regenerating our cells in order to maintain our viable functioning in a changing environment. This is where what we call "learning" is happening. For the most part, the most important environmental phenomenon to which we have to adapt is our cultural environment - the world of jobs, money, mortgages, etc. This cultural environment sits on a substrate of the natural world which is biological and physical, but for the most part, the substrate is ignored by those busy with maintaining the culture milieu and making lots of money. 

Ignoring things is dangerous. Universities used to take the natural environment far more seriously than they do now. Fundamental inquiries into nature drove the scientific revolution. But today, nature is merely a "subject", some words on the curriculum, alongside all the other words like "accountancy" and "architecture". Its boxed-off, compartmentalised, separate. But this is the lie from where the ignorance comes.  

Our children are our natural inheritance. Their biology will come to dominate the cultural milieu when we are dead. Because of the rigidness of our thinking about our societal components, we are killing the very resource that offers hope for the future. It's as if we can't help ourselves - and that is one of the most frightening things about coronavirus - the threat of positive feedback in the biological and social system.

This isn't about kids getting into medical school or not, or kids getting grades they were awarded for exams that weren't taken terribly seriously by anyone. It's about how we conceive of the components and organisation of society, and how we create the conditions for development of its ongoing functioning. Everything that is called "Establishment" stems from the selection processes which operate on children in school. Everything is programmed for conservation of a rigid way of doing things, and this conservative impulse gets stronger the more uncertain the world gets. A number of Tory politicians (including the PM)  are saying that we need more exams. This is precisely the phenomenon of ramped-up conservatism in the light of increased uncertainty - positive feedback. 

We may be close to a breaking point. Just as the intense heat of the last few days is finally giving way to thunder and rain, so the anger of young people against a political class which is clearly incompetent may lead to a breath of fresh air. This anger has an existential and biological root, which doesn't just speak for the individual, but for the species. 

Who gets to be a doctor or a teacher? Who gets to be an artist or a thinker?  Who doesn't want to go to university? Who wants to serve in cafes or design space rockets? 

The answer must be: anyone who wants to. Equally, nobody should have to get the mental health problems, eating disorders or suicide attempts. 

Society then must organise itself to make this happen, and what it will take will be a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between nature - including the nature of our biology as sentient organisms - and culture, as the world of language and the speech acts that give us money, presidents, corporations and football matches. 

But this can only happen if society finds a new way to think about itself. It needs a language to express its use of language, in the context of the language it uses to describe its biology, physiology, and the material contents of the planet and the universe. A way of understanding the way we build things, and a way of understanding how we can build things differently. 

The establishment is crumbling. We need a meta-language to escape the trap of positive feedback which will otherwise finish us all off.  

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Alternative Natural Philosophy Association Online

The Alternative Natural Philosophy Association is a scholarly society which began in Cambridge 41 years ago, established by Ted Bastin (see, Frederick Parker-Rhodes (see, Clive Kilmister (see, David McGoveran (see, John Amson and H. Pierre-Noyes (see . Whilst the academic background of its founders lay in theoretical physics - and one particular theory called the "combinatorial hierarchy" (see dominated the early meetings - the intellectual ambition was always much broader than physics. Figures on the periphery of ANPA included Gordon Pask (Bastin worked extensively with Pask) and David Bohm (Basil Hiley, Bohm's collaborator in London, sometimes attended ANPA), and Roger Penrose (who collaborated on a book with Bastin about quantum theory).

This is Bastin, Kilminster and McGoveran discussing the combinatorial hierarchy in December 1992:

I got involved with ANPA 4 years ago, invited by physicist Peter Rowlands who I met at Liverpool university. I had been involved with the American Society for Cybernetics, and realised Peter and I knew some of the same people. I had got to know people through cybernetics, and he through physics. My meeting Peter occurred because I asked Loet Leydesdorff if he knew of anybody who was doing anything around anticipatory systems in Liverpool. Loet sent me a conference proceedings which mentioned Daniel Dubois (who work in anticipatory systems in seminal), and Peter Rowlands from Liverpool. Loet had worked with Daniel in developing anticipatory systems in the social sciences, and Peter (it turned out) knew Daniel well. And then the pieces started falling together. Peter also knew Louis Kauffman very well, who is one of the leading figures in cybernetics.

Last year, ANPA took place in Liverpool University, following a conference on Laws of Form, which is a mathematical theory which is closely related to approaches to physics. This year ANPA is online, hosted courtesy of Liverpool's Zoom account, and I'm organising it. Normally, this is a conference lasting a week. This year, I thought that nobody wants to spend all day staring at Zoom, so we could do one presentation per day, for a number of weeks - more like a festival than a conference. We started yesterday, with a presentation on the history of ANPA from Mike Horner, followed by a discussion where some of the older members of ANPA shared their memories and thoughts. For anyone interested in the history of ANPA, this is an excellent introduction.


It worked well, barring the usual technical glitches of Zoom. 

There's something very important happening with this online stuff. It would have been difficult to convince many academics to put up with online engagement before the pandemic. Now everyone's online - and more than that, people who haven't seen each other for decades because of difficulties travelling are not only meeting up and sharing memories and ideas, but creating a video resource which will exist for future generations.  

These kinds of discussions used to happen in universities (although ANPA was always a bit esoteric). But today, even in Cambridge, discussions of this nature won't be found. All universities, without exception, are now businesses. The academics have gone in search of a new forum for exploring deep ideas - and it is online. My betting is that students will follow in the fullness of time.

In the phase of development in online learning since the web, the focus was very much on teaching and learning rather than disciplinary scholarly engagement. I wonder if this led to some errors of thinking which require deeper inspection that is only possible with the kind of scholarship that manifests in things like ANPA. Educational research, by and large, provides only a very pale representation of scholarly thought about consciousness, communication and learning. If we want to get closer, we need to talk to the people looking at nature from the deepest perspectives. 

When their discussions start to embrace the technology which we have had for 20 years or so, and they make their deliberations available to everyone else, there is an opportunity not only to move things forwards in education, but to rethink how we organise intellectual engagement and academic apprenticeship more generally: the very things that universities are there to do. 

The ANPA programme is available here:

It is open to anyone, so if you would like to come, please contact me and I'll send you the Zoom link.

Sunday 9 August 2020

Luhmann and Biology

Niklas Luhmann's social systems theory is one of the most impressive achievements in the social sciences in the second half of the 20th century. Widely appreciated and mainstream in Germany and across mainland Europe, it remains far less well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world, beyond the realms of systems theorists who knew about Luhmann's hinterland, cybernetics, Maturana, etc. 

Loet Leydesdorff is about to publish a new book detailing the intellectual relationships that Luhmann had with Habermas and the intellectual elite in the 60s and 70s. This history is important because its not just our institutions that are in a mess at the moment, but our disciplines - not least, sociology. 

For those who want to critique Luhmann, his dependence first on the biological cybernetics of Maturana and Varela is a cause to claim "biological reductionism", or his later fascination with Spencer-Brown as a kind of sophistry which doesn't convince Leydesdorff.  It's remarkable that despite these criticisms, and indeed the criticism by Maturana that Luhmannn had misappropriated his theory, that Luhmann is the only figure from mainstream cybernetics to have had a major transformative impact on a discipline, with important work drawing on it - from Kittler's media theory (again, pretty much unknown to Anglo-Saxon media departments) to Yuk Hui's recent and brilliant "Recursivity and Contingency" which is spreading around the world. People reading Hui will learn about Ashby, Maturana, Von Foerster, Simondon, etc from this. 

Luhmann, like Stafford Beer, grounded his theory in biology. Autopoietic theory said that organisms maintain their structure by reproducing their components. Luhmann said that communications and discourses were the same. His project was to detail the mechanisms of reproduction in the discourses of economics, law, education, art and so on. It was a biological metaphor applied to a historical sociological analysis. Leydesdorff has impressively (but sometime impenetrably) operationalised this. By going back to Luhmann's intellectual foundations in phenomenology (Husserl, Schutz, Parsons), and drawing this together with biological work that Maturana didn't consider in detail (Robert Rosen, Daniel Dubois) and information theory (Shannon), Leydesdorff has created powerful analytical techniques for analysing discourses and identifying the mechanisms of autopoiesis by looking for "anticipatory systems" in the imprint of communications.   

At the heart of Leydesdorff's techniques has been the analysis of "mutual redundancy" - something which I have played a part in too. Redundancy is so useful and powerful because it exists at all levels of communication, from cellular organisation to language. The technologies that allow us to make comparisons between different levels of analysis are becoming more available. Leydesdorff was able to exploit the internet to make measurements of discourses. But now we have so much more - physiological data is available to anyone with a FitBit or an Apple watch, and more sophisticated techniques for analysing other facets of communication like prosody, body movement, etc are all becoming easier to operate. 

These physiological data points throw the spotlight back on Luhmann's drawing on Maturana. What is the relation between cell-talk and people talk? Cell learning and organisation and people learning and organisation? More to the point, people are aggregates of cells which have a history both in the ontogeny of the person, and in the phylogeny of the species. 

We know that developmental history is fundamental to present behaviour and learning. We know that developmental history was informed by environmental conditions. We're not clear about exactly how this works. How should our education policy progress if it turns out that (as we suspect) the history of environmental conditions are inseparable from individual development. Poverty, austerity, unemployment, stress, etc will all contribute to developmental problems - an uneven playing field which serves nobody well.   

Eugenics is generally considered a dirty word even in right-wing educational thinking. But it permeates a lot of educational thinking on the right and the left. The idea that individual merit and achievement is purely down to individual "effort" - Blair's "meritocracy" (which he never saw the irony in) is implicitly eugenic. It is implicit in the awful video that UniversitiesUK sent out that I commented on in my previous post. 

It is gaps in our theory which lead to this. The grasp of environment and history in the understanding of educational development is urgent if we are to make things better in education. In a sense the theoretical project is an extension of Piaget's "genetic epistemology" - but we've got to look beyond manifest biological structures and more towards their ontogeny and phylogeny. Mass education is about as old as the last pandemic. Perhaps it's about time we used the anniversary (and the current pandemic) positively. 

Friday 7 August 2020

Taking Stock of Epigenetics and Universities

I've had some nice things happen recently, including publication of a paper with Loet Leydesdorff on musical communication and anticipatory systems in the journal Systems Research and Behavioural Science. The techniques I developed in this music paper have also been used in another paper which is getting published in the journal Interactive Learning Environments extending work on anticipatory systems into studying learning conversations and concept formation (work which I did in Russia - it would have been impossible to do in the UK). After having not published very much since my book last year (which I keep meaning to revisit but never get the time), it's quite nice to have two papers in good journals published at once. 

My day job is not academic. Like many working in educational technology, we tend to spend our time chasing problems in systems that are designed by corporations, herding staff into new (sometimes uncomfortable) practices, dealing with the political can of worms that has become institutional IT, and now with the added intensity of COVID, there is no time to think. Which is a bad thing in a university. 

It seems that in modern universities (particularly in the market-obsessed UK) thinking is regarded as inessential - something of a luxury. It's more important to "deliver" than to think. Good staff, under pressure to deliver, will know that delivery without thought is madness, and will spend much of their own time (unpaid) doing the thinking work, often in isolation. It will exhaust them as they then try to deliver something meaningful on top. It will exhaust them more that nobody around them actually sees the importance of thinking, or acknowledges that this is so critical and requires time and space. 

I suppose my deep question here (which I ask when I do have time to think) is "Why have we become so stupid?" My answer to this is that Universities have convinced themselves that the environment they operate in is entirely cultural - it's a world of the "knowledge economy" and "markets", learning outcomes, institutional brands and certificates (ironically, this is what Loet Leydesdorff's work has concerned itself with!). COVID has shocked us all because it has reminded us of the fundamental importance of the natural environment - not just the world around us, but our own biology. As evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris wrote "First there were bacteria, now there is New York"

Stupidity comes from failing to understand one's environment.

We are biological organisms. We are not technical systems. Our biological constitution right down to the microbiome really matters. Many think the microbiome is deeply connected to our thinking and educational processes, but at the very least thought and consciousness sits on a biological substrate. We are at the beginning of discovering the extent of the connection between the microbiome, thought and consciousness as COVID transforms the natural environment of education. 

The simple fact is that the epigenetic landscape of the campus - the biological markers which affect the ongoing development of each of us - is different from the epigenetic landscape of online learning. Ironically, this can help explain why and how universities have become somewhat thoughtless places. In many ways educational practices have become increasingly transactional over the last 20 years, whilst universities have spent their increasing income on new buildings - coffee bars, sports halls, students accommodation, learning spaces. It's as if the somewhat cold transactional processes of education for which the institution charged increasingly large fees needed to be compensated for with new spaces which were more biologically connected (and epigenetically rich) to make the transactional stuff bearable. Disneyland operates on a similar principle: generate enough oxytocin in the place, and nobody will complain about queuing for hours to buy a burger for $20. 

Take the campus away - what happens? We're left with the cold transactional stuff administered by learning platforms, but no compensation. That's not going to work. The experience will be similar this account of a person who was living in a plush new flat in Battersea during lockdown:

The complex included restaurants, spas and bars. But when all those closed down because of the pandemic, the reality of her environment dawned on her.

"I spent seven weeks isolated there and realised that I absolutely hated it," she told the BBC. When you take away all the amenities that these developments advertise, then you realise you're just living in a glass box. It was a ghost town. It was just very soul-destroying living in this enormous development with no life going on."

That's the difference a change to the epigenetic environment makes. Education is meant to nourish the soul - but if the only soul nourishment took place in the campus bars and clubs (and the actual education was cold and transactional), then we're heading for trouble.

As if to underline the point and the folly of the educational establishment in believing they can ignore the biological environment, this rather shocking student-blaming video appeared from UniversitiesUK, promoting universities and exhorting students to cough-up, study online, and "stay strong":

The professoriate have, however, been reorganising themselves online. My "Important things group" (I ought to think of a better name) continues to meet (this is now week 13), discussing epigenetics (thanks to John Torday from UCLA) and physics (thanks to Peter Rowlands and his important nilpotent quantum mechanics). There are important contributions from Marc Pierson with his insights into systems theory, Richard Heiberger from Temple University with his brilliant insights into statistics, Andrew Crompton's  (Liverpool) polymathery, Steve Watson's insights into education (Cambridge), Elizabeth Maitland's (Liverpool) work in management, Vinca Bigo's work on meditation (Kedge Management School, Marseille), Kerry Turner's knowledge of General Systems Theory and Sebastian Fiedler from Nurtingen and Geislingen University who brings insights into educational technology and psychology. 

As biological organisms, we need to think. Universities were formed as places for thinking. The deep thinking is now happening online. 

Does deep thought produce epigenetic markers which promote a confluence of ideas which is enjoyable and rewarding to participate in? My experience of comparing mindless managerial zoom meetings with this zoom meeting suggests to me that it does. Exploring the physiology, communication, environment, epigenetics, and technological activity seems to me to be an important research opportunity. 

Monday 3 August 2020

Why Nothing Matters

We tend not to aspire to amount to nothing! To conceive of nothing as the absence the present, of time, space, my dinner, etc, is of course not new – all religions postulate an afterlife in this way. But to conceive of present nature as being nothing, amounting to nothing, is much harder for us to bear. We all want to probe the:
“frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes.” (Carlo Rovelli)
So we start from us, here now, and we look back and speculate about origins. Somehow, it seems to help how we feel about ourselves. But our journey from our present state back to past is reasoning after the fact of our own evolution. Evolution itself has its own logic, but this logic is obscured from us. 

All scientists are a bit like a Neanderthal cave dweller, who (as Rovelli discusses) mapped antelope tracks in the snow. They understood the existential threats of starvation and predation. Antelope tracks are essentially negative, nothing – they are the absence of snow or earth. With the benefits of intelligence and observation of this “nothing”, our forebears could eat, fight predators, and we are here. Even Raquel Welch survived! Without this, none of them would have survived, and we wouldn’t be here.  

Today, we understand the existential threats to our survival as a species on this planet. Where are the antelope tracks we need to map and understand now so that we survive? Where is the imprint of nothing from which we can organize ourselves into effective collective action for survival? These imprints of nothing lie in our biology, our language, our institutions, our economies, and in the relation between our cells and their evolutionary development from the beginning of time. 

Where perhaps we might have once seen a distinction between the "scientific" Neanderthal analysing tracks and the "artistic" Neanderthal telling stories about the tracks, now our looking for tracks looks to see those tracks both in the scientific marks of cellular communication, and in the linguistic marks of our language as we make stories, music and other forms of human activity - all the imprints of nothing produce a bigger map, which we need to follow.  

When we go looking for the imprint of nothing, we see a pattern which connects our human world of language and culture, to a biological substrate of cells and communication, disease and health, to a quantum world where established theories of quantum mechanics allow for confirmation that this indeed is an “antelope”, whose journey across time we need build new kinds of maps for, and whose journey into the future can be determined by our collective intelligent action.

This is what me and a few colleagues from different universities across the world have been doing online for some weeks now. This last week, there was a powerful discussion which started about nothing and energy, and gradually evolved into a discussion about physiological monitoring, fitness trackers, etc. Is there something there? 

Is there nothing there? might be a better question.