Sunday 20 March 2022

Social Media and Critical Sclerosis

Wanting to read endless critiques of the same thing - whether it's of education, educational technology, the pandemic, the war - is a kind of sclerosis. When we know everyone is basically saying the same thing, there are no new fundamental ideas, nothing constructive to address the deep-seated problems which lie behind the critique, then we have to ask "Why do we continue to look at this stuff?" There must be an explanation. Our (my) critical sclerosis is telling us something.

Double-binds are usually responsible for why we become stuck. The nature of the double-bind is that there is a contradiction at different levels of understanding, and then a prohibition on being able to articulate the contradiction. With "Critical Sclerosis" there is continual search for information - difference - in our environment. The reason why this occurs may be physiological and evolutionary: for some reason (about which there are theories) we are driven to continually seek out information about our environment. While we have become able to create difference for each other online (and desire to do this - so we share, tweet, etc), fundamentally our difference-creating operations are deceptive - the "boasting" online is deception - an intervention to get a reaction (think Trump). We deceive because we seek the information of feedback that our deception creates - it tells us something about those around us - so ties into the need to continually seek information. So the internet is a web of deception. It is interesting to note that those talking about the future of the web want to increase the deception with things like the Metaverse. This is unlikely to be a good idea! 

Selecting deceptions drains us of energy - fundamentally then, this sets up the first bind. We waste energy in articulating deceptions, and being drawn to reading them, which makes us more likely to make more deception. 

The second bind in the double-bind is easy: not only does nobody want to be called a liar (especially us!),  but even if we want to say "you're a liar", we are tempted to do it for the largest audience - i.e. online. But of course, to do that, is to posture and deceive in our communication. Unfortunately, academic status is something which is increasingly tied into this. If we really want to call out someone's deception online, then it must be done personally and intimately. This, of course, is very hard and emotionally difficult and will likely result in "unfollows"  and so closes-down the conversation. So the social media double-bind is very powerful - no wonder critical sclerosis has set in. What it means is that the variety of communications becomes restricted to those communications where the response is predictable by the community: "yes, I agree!". That's the sclerosis. I should hope nobody agrees with me, but of course I don't.  

There's a parallel here with Von Foerster's conjecture (see this brilliant paper: The unlikely encounter between von Foerster and Snowden: When second-order cybernetics sheds light on societal impacts of Big Data ( Von Foerster suggested that education and social systems tend to turn us into "Trivial Machines" - machines where the output is predictable from the input. The more trivial our communications, the more we are inclined to perceive our environment as overwhelmingly complex and alienating. I'm sure some element of this fits the double-bind of social media (as the paper discusses). 

But perhaps Von Foerster is too pessimistic about humans being capable of being turned into trivial machines. We are not really machines at all. Trivial behaviour is anathema to being human, and yet we do engage in trivial behaviour because we become sclerotic. We have sclerotic institutions and a sclerotic communication environment. What is at the root of the sclerosis but deception! The question to ask is why we deceive and what we might do about it. Technologies amplify deception, as does language. But some forms of communication are more authentic where empathy, kindness, generosity are expressions of the truth of relationships. Music does this too. 

In those more authentic communications, there is a healthier psychodynamic balance. Our non-trivial nature lies in our psychodynamics - the pull of the unconscious in our creative dealings with the world. In this terrible time, there is little doubt that we will need psychotherapy - not just the people of Ukraine and Russia, but all of us as we look to understand what has happened to us over the last few years. 

Friday 11 March 2022

Depth Psychology and Computation

One of my favourite books, which I've known but not fully understood for nearly 30 years, is Anton Ehrenzweig's "The Hidden order of Art". It is a Freudian analysis of creativity, drawing on Frazer's Golden Bough, and inspired by Ernst Gombrich and Marion Milner. Ehrenzweig was interested in creativity through the lens of psychodynamic processes which connect the deep "oceanic" layer of the unconscious through processes of "projection", "fragmentation" and "dedifferentiation" where the ego and superego steer action into creative expression. With its Freudian lens, Ehrenzweig talks a lot about the experiences of early childhood and its influence on adult behaviour - particularly anal processes and the ways that the superego seeks to contain defecation, when deeper processes might seek (to put it crudely) to "scatter" shit everywhere. There is a parallel between these psychoanalytic terms and physiology - indeed, "dedifferentiation" has a specific cellular meaning where cells revert to their original states, which I think is clearly related to the Freudian view. 

I am aware of both modes in my technical creativity and in musical creativity - both relate directly to what Ehrenzweig sees as the dynamic between "containment" and "expansion". Death is an important driver for creativity. Ehrenzweig refers to Frazer's "Dying God", and in technical creativity, death is breakdown: the falling-away of established ways of being in the world, where the world as it really is is revealed once more, prompting our psychodynamic processes to reorganise themselves in response to it. Breakdown is one way in which one can descend into the oceanic undifferentiated world. Artists enter this world more willingly, being able to instigate their own breakdowns. But perhaps the sequence of processes which result is the same.

In technical creativity, the role of the superego is most dominant in ensuring that the organisation of the creative forces is socially acceptable and useful. It drives our intervention with software frameworks and established patterns. But not everyone wants to play this kind of game, and hackers are most interesting in getting at the underlying dynamics of established systems and looking for ways of disrupting them. I found myself hacking into the structure of programming documents in Jupyter notebooks the other day. The unconscious fantasy of self-expression and social transformation leads to fragmentation of the world. Moreover, the fragmentation of established systems can lead to fragmentation of the world for others. This is their intent. 

In these technical processes of creativity, there is energy - even when the superego has a tight grip. Fragmentation always brings new perspectives and the generation of possibilities. Even when I hacked the Jupyter notebooks, I was thinking, "wow - what could I do with this?". But at those moments of expansion of possibility, the superego still steps in and finds conventional exploitation of possibilities - usually within the existing social expectations of the society or business. But there is no reason why we could not create something purposeless - something which disturbs the surface of expectation. 

If there is a difference between technical creativity and artistic creativity it is that the dedifferentiation stage in artistic creativity, which finds a new unity and coherence among the scattered and fragmented components of the unconscious, is often missing in technical work. Instead, in technical work, the superego suppresses the unconscious drive to fragment and pull-apart - sometimes for good reason because technical things which are disassembled are difficult to reassemble. So what we have is a forced coherence and suppression which is often felt by those who use the results of this kind of technology. Indeed, Ehrenzweig goes so far as to suggest that there is a fear of dedifferentiation - of reintegration into the depths of the psyche: the psychodynamics is in some way broken.

It may be that the broken psychodynamic processes of technical invention are one of the reasons why we struggle to engage students in deep technical work or inquiry. Effectively we are teaching a kind of madness. But in those most creative periods of industrial creativity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was almost certainly not the case. There was dedifferentiation to some extent - and to some extent the rise of psychoanalysis was part of this process. 

In the wake of the terrible events that the world is experiencing at the moment, we may need to revisit a deep perspective on the technical imagination and its connection to the functioning of viable societies. Trauma and death have always been the seed for these healing processes.