Tuesday 25 October 2022

Postdigital values, Marion Milner and John Seddon

I'm giving a talk on Thursday at the Carnet Users Conference (https://cuc.carnet.hr/2022/en/programme/) as part of the extensive strand on "postdigital education". My talk has gone under the rather pompous title of "Practical Postdigital Axiology" - which is the title of a book chapter I am writing for the Postdigital group - but really this title is about something very simple. It's about "values" (axiology is the study of value), and values are things which result from processes in which each of us is an active participant. Importantly, technology provides new ways of influencing the processes involved in making and maintaining values. 

It's become fashionable in recent years to worry about the ethics of technology, and to write voluminous papers about what technology ought to be or how we should not use it. In most cases in this kind of discourse, there is an emotional component which is uninspected. It is what MacIntyre calls "emotivism" in ethical inquiry (in After Virtue), and it is part of what he blames for the decline in the intellectual rigour of ethical thought in modern times. 

I wonder if the emotivism that MacIntyre complains of relates more to mechanisms of value which precede ethics. Certainly, emotivist ethical thought is confused with value-based processes. The emotion comes through in expressing something as "unethical" when in fact what has happened is that there is a misalignment of values usually between those who make decisions, and those who are subject to those decisions. More deeply, this occurs because those in power believe they have the right to impose new conditions or technologies on others. This would not happen if we understood the benefit to all of effective organisation as that form of organisation where values are aligned. This suggests to me that the serious study of value - axiology - is what we should be focusing on. 

I think this approach to value is a core principle behind the idea of the "postdigital". This label has resulted from a mix of critique of technology alongside a deeper awareness that we are all now swimming in this stuff. A scientific appreciation of what we are swimming in is needed, and for me, the postdigital science has a key objective in understanding the mechanisms which underpin our social relations in an environment of technology. It is about understanding the "betweenness" of relations, and I think our values are a key things that sit between us. 

This orientation towards the betweenness of value is not new - indeed it predates the digital. In my talk, I am going to begin with Marion Milner, who in the early 1930s studied the education system from a psychoanalytic perspective. In her "The Human Problem in Schools", she sought to uncover the deeper psychodynamics that bound teachers, students and parents together in education. It is brilliant (and very practical) work which in education research has gone largely ignored. In her book, Milner made a striking statement:

"much of the time now spent in exhortation is fruitless; and that the same amount of time given to the attempt to understand what is happening would, very often, make it possible for difficult [students] to become co-operative rather than passively or actively resistant. It seems also to be true that very often it is not necessary to do anything; the implicit change in relationship that results when the adult is sympathetically aware of the child's difficulties is in itself sufficient."

This is a practical axiological strategy. If in our educational research with technology, we sought to manage the "implicit change in relationship that results when the "teacher" or "manager" is sympathetically aware of the "other's" difficulties" then we would achieve far more. Partly this is because we would be aware of the uncertainties and contingencies in our own judgements and the judgements of others, and we would act (or not act) accordingly. What are presented as "ethical" problems are almost always the result unacknowledged uncertainties. Even with things like machine learning and "bias", the problem lies in the overlooking or ignoring of uncertainty in classification, not in any substantive problem of the technology. 

In my new job in the occupational health department at Manchester university (which is turning into something really interesting), there is a similar issue of value-related intervention. One of the emerging challenges in occupational health is the rising levels of stress and burnout - particularly in service industries. A few years ago I invited John Seddon to talk at a conference I organised on "Healthy Organisations". It was a weird, playful but emotional conference (two people cried because it was the first time they had a chance to express how exhausted they were), but Seddon's message struck home. It was that stress is produced by what he calls "Failure demand" - i.e. the system being misaligned and making more work for itself. The actual demand that the system is meant to manage is, according to Seddon, often stable. 

It strikes me that Seddon's call to "study the demand" is much the same idea as contained in Milner's statement. It is not, strictly speaking, to do nothing. But it is to listen to what is actually demanded by the environment and to respond to it appropriately. That way, we can understand the potential value conflicts that exist, and deal with them constructively. 

Friday 14 October 2022

The Structure of Entropy

One of the things I've been doing recently in my academic work is examining the ebb-and-flow of experience as shifts in entropy in different dimensions. It began with a paper with Loet Leydesdorff for Systems Research and Behavioural Science on music: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/sres.2738?af=R, and a paper on the entropy of student reflection and personal learning https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10494820.2020.1799030 and has continued in a recent paper on the sonic environment for Postdigital Science and education. 

I have been fascinated by the visualisations and entropy graphs of different phenomena, partly because it provides a way of comparing the shifts of entropy of different heterogenous variables all in the same scale: so, one can consider sound as frequency together with the entropy of words, together with the entropy of things happening in video. The principal feature of this is that the flow of experience is a counterpoint of different variables, and the fundamental theoretical question I have asked concerns the underlying mechanism which coordinates the dance between entropies.

Another way of talking about this dance is to say that entropy has a "structure". Loet Leydesdorff commented on this in conversation at the weekend after I shared some recent analysis of music with him (see below). Interestingly, to talk of the structure of entropy is to invite a recursion: there must be an entropy of structured entropy. Indeed, Shannon's equation is surprisingly flexible in being able to shed light on a vast range of problems. 

To understand why this might be important, we have to think about what happens in the flow of experience. I think one of the most important things that happens (again, I have got this from Loet) is that we anticipate things: we build models of the world so that we have some idea of what is going to happen next. These anticipatory models work with multiple descriptions of the world - there is "mutual redundancy" between the different variables which represent our experience, and I think Loet is right that this mutual redundancy produces an interference pattern which is a kind of fractal. It makes sense to think that anything anticipatory is fractal because in order to anticipate, we must be able to identify a pattern from past experience and map it on to possible future experience. Also, there is further evidence for this because it is basically how machine learning techniques like convolutional neural networks work.

Fractals are self-segmenting: the distinction between patterns at different orders of scale emerges from the self-referential dynamics which produce them. At certain regular points, the interference between different variables produces "nothing" - some gap in pattern which demarcates it. In the paper on music, I suggested that this production of nothing was related to the production of silence, and how music seems to play with redundancies (which is another way of producing nothing) as a way of eventually constructing an anticipation that a piece is going to end. 

I made this video last week about a Haydn piano sonata as a way of explaining my thinking to Loet:

The entropy graph I displayed here uses a Fast Fourier Transform to analyse the frequency of the sound, identifying the dominant pitch, the richness of the texture and the volume of the sound, and calculates the entropy of those variables. This graph illustrates the "structure of entropy" - and of course, eventually everything stops.

I think learning and curiosity is like this too. It too is full of redundancy, and the entropy of learning has a similar kind of dance to music. Indeed, sound is one of the key variables in learning (this is what my recent PDSE paper is about). But it's not just sound. Light also is critical - it's so interesting that our computer screens basically produce patterns of light, and yet there is so little research on light's impact on learning. And indeed, the entropy of light and the entropy of sound can be related in exactly the same way that I explore the entropy of the frequency in this video.

As to what structures the dance of entropy, I think we have to look to our physiology. It is as if there is a deeper dance going on between our physiology and our interactions with our environment. What drives that? It's probably deep in our cells - in our evolutionary history - but something drives us to shape entropies in the way we do. 

Sunday 2 October 2022

Sleeping and Learning

If learning is about making new distinctions, there is a question about how we know a distinction. Since all distinctions have two sides (an inside and an outside) our knowledge of a new distinction must be able to apprehend both sides of it. So we must be able to cross the thresholds of our distinctions. At the same time, if we are not inside our distinctions - if we are not able to use them as a lens to view the world - they are useless in a practical way. Yet the distinctions which make up our lens are dependent on our being able to cross their threshold and see no distinctions. Is this sleep and dreaming?

We don't understand why we sleep. Except that we know that if we don't sleep, we die. That suggests that it is not just our conscious distinctions that require stepping outside of themselves, but the  physiological distinctions between cells, organs, etc. If they break down, we're dead. 

At the same time, we know - at least anecdotally - that we learn in our sleep. We wake up in the morning having not been able to do something the day before, and find ourselves improved in our performance. Possibly because we've got "more energy" - but what's that? Thinking about distinctions necessitating boundary crossing helps here.

The Freudian "primary process" is the dream world of no distinctions. The world of the new baby. The "secondary process" is the regulating filter which channels the energy from the primary process into useful distinctions which (for adults at least) are conditioned by the social conventions of the "superego". (Talcott Parsons correctly recognised that Freud's superego was sociological). More to the point, this psychodynamic process between ego, id and superego was continual: a kind of pulse between the "oceanic" primary process and the secondary process. 

In education, the superego rules, and technology has ensured that its grip on the imagination of staff and students has become every more brutal. But technology outside education stimulates and suppresses the id: from cat videos to shopping to porn, we can inhabit a simulated oceanic state. Only in sleep itself is there some contact with the reality of the id.  

What have we missed in the way that we think about learning? When we examine our metrics for competency, our "constructive alignments", assessment schemes, etc, we seem to have assumed that the distinctions of learning are fixed: once we learning something it stays there. In conscious experience this looks like a sensible proposition. But to assume this misses the possibility that our distinctions appear persistent precisely because they result from a dynamic process of distinction and undistinction. 

To be clearer about this, the deepest encounter with the oceanic experience comes through an intersubjective acknowledgement of uncertainty. That can be the best teaching - not the delivery of content, or the forcing of distinctions written in textbooks, but the revealing of understanding by a teacher to the point of revealing of uncertainty. "I'm not sure what this means - what do you think?"

I've written about this kind of thing here: Digitalization and Uncertainty in the University: Coherence and Collegiality Through a Metacurriculum (springer.com), and this last week I got a further reminder of the importance of this approach in an EU project which Danielle Hagood and I led around digitalization. In both cases, technology was the stimulus for uncertainty and dialogue. It is the technology which takes us to the oceanic state, from where (and this was quite obvious in my EU project) new distinctions and new thinking emerges. 

The dialogical is the closest thing we have to the primary process in education - it is rather like music because it connects us to more fundamental mechanisms. John Torday suggested in conversation last week that in sleep our cells realign themselves with their evolutionary origins, effectively connecting our waking thoughts (what Bohm calls the "explicate order") with fundamental nature ("implicate order"). That's a wild idea - but I quite like it!