Saturday, 24 June 2017

Government as Steering: Cybernetics and the Coming Labour Government

The joy surrounding Jeremy Corbyn's success in the election masks a need to do some very difficult work if a left wing labour government is going to deliver on the promise to transform society. There is muddle-headedness about the practicalities of government, the way events can overtake good intentions (no politician would have wanted a Grenfell on their watch), or the sheer challenge of keeping a political machine together which always seems hell-bent on self-destruction (all political parties seem to have this tendency).

Now is a golden opportunity to do this. Corbyn has the luxury of opposition where his grip on the party has been strengthened, and public expectation of a Corbyn victory (unthinkable before the election) has shifted significantly. These are real achievements.

Labour, and Corbyn, have got here because the Tories don't know how to govern. They see the world in a linear and hierarchical way, where simple "strong and stable" solutions can solve intractable problems. When things don't work out the way they wished (like the deficit coming down), the Tories tend to carry on regardless: strong and stable. This isn't government. It is ideological extremism.

"Government" and "governor" come from the same latin root: Gubernator. The Watt governor is the simplest idea of governing:

The Watt governor 'steers' the engine, by increasing the flow of steam if the engine runs too slow, and decreases it if it runs to fast. The Greek word for governor is kybernetes, from which we get cybernetics.

Stafford Beer is the cybernetic thinker who considers the problems of government (and its related problem, management) in most detail. I have thought about the Viable System Model (see for many years, and the Cybersyn experiment in Chile of 1971-3 (see remains the most significant attempt to rethink government (apart from some promising experiments in the Soviet Union which didn't get off the ground properly - see

There is a fundamental problem that the VSM addresses: the problem of attenuating descriptions of the world. In hierarchical power structures like governments, or bosses of universities, hospitals or any institution for that matter, the "top" relies on filters to give them the most important information from the ground. This is where the pathology starts, because the filter entails removing most of the other descriptions which are not considered important. This is why the election opinion polls got it so wrong - because they didn't listen to the variety of description that was out there. Technology has made the situation worse - it can filter more effectively than anything else - although this is a stupid way to use technology!

The VSM is a set of nested loops within which there is attenuation of description (there has to be), but at the same time the attenuated descriptions are organised into the production of a generative model whose engagements with the organisation (or country) that is being managed is continually monitored. The circular loop continually asks "Are we right?", "In what ways are we wrong?", "What have we learnt about the world that we didn't know before?", "How should the model be changed?". In other words, there is attenuation, and there is amplification of the abstracted model in a continual process of organic adaptation (Beer described his model using the metaphor of the human body). This is steering.

In theory, this is fine, and the VSM is often used in management consultancy to help heal organisational pathology: I'm hosting a conference in November at Liverpool on this very topic:

But apart from Cybersyn, there has been no real-time empirical attempt to exploit this thinking in government or management. We should do it, because our existing models of government cannot deal with the obvious circular causality which is endemic in our world, from overseas wars and local terrorism to austerity and burning tower blocks.  We have to have a practical way of dealing with circular causation, and I worry that Corbyn's labour isn't prepared.

Beer's Cybersyn was a data-driven operation in a world where data was hard to come by (they transmitted it with Telex machines). Today, we have data everywhere - but we don't know how to use it. Most approaches to "big data" seek to amplify automatic "filters" of complexity - this is basically what machine learning does. That's fine up to a point, but whatever filters are produced, are used to create a model which must be tested and improved. The human thinking about the rightness of the models used doesn't appear to happen. All "big data" results are the opportunity for humans to produce new descriptions of the world, and for these new descriptions to feed into higher level steering processes. But it doesn't happen. Consequently, we allow the "big data" to dictate how the world should become without thinking about what we've missed.

One of the critical signs that any government or management should worry about is a decrease in the variety of description about something. This is usually the harbinger of catastrophe. Our Universities are heading straight for this, because they are removing vast chunks of variety in the conversations and descriptions which are made within them as they close departments, sack staff, become fixated on metrics of academic performance which mean nothing, or chase government targets for "teaching excellence" in the hope of getting more money. Nobody is monitoring the richness of conversation in Universities. Yet, the true strength of any university is the richness of the conversations which it maintains.

The same goes for a healthy society. The urgency of thinking about this was impressed upon me a couple of days ago when I received a text message from a bright and brilliant academic and friend in my old institution (one of only a few in that awful place). It's a dismal reminder of how much trouble we are in: "I've just been told I'm being made redundant". So that's another conversation killed.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Technology, Forms and the Loss of Description

When rich descriptions are difficult to bear, methods of attenuating description become attractive. They restrict the mode of expression to that which is permitted by whatever medium is devised for conveying 'standard' messages. We have become so used to this that we barely even notice it.  Paul Fussell identified in "The Great War and Modern Memory", that the means by which descriptions are attenuated emerged from the most brutal and traumatic of events where it was barely possible to articulate how people felt. Before the first world war, there were no "forms" to fill in.

The military authorities did their best to ensure that richer descriptions of the soldier's experiences were not conveyed home, lest it lead to unrest or loss of morale. Fussell describes a letter sent by a young boy in a platoon which went:

Dear Mum and Dad, and dear loving sisters Rosie, Letty, and our Gladys, -
I am very pleased to write you another welcome letter as this leaves me. Dear Mum and Dad and loving sisters, I hope you keeps the home fires burning. Not arf. The boys are in the pink. Not arf. Dear Loving sisters Rosie, Letty, and our Gladys, keep merry and bright. Not arf. 

Today our whole lives are ruled by forms, and even the scope for protesting the restrictions of the medium are curtailed. The best one can do is not fill it in. Such 'data gathering' processes have become part of normal life. We even conduct social research like this. 

Fussell describes the "Form A. 2042" shown above. The Field Service Post Card was sent 
with everything crossed out except "I am quite well" - immediately after a battle which relatives might suspect their soldiers had been in. Such were the hazards of occupying newly blown mine-craters that, according to George Coppard, "Before starting a twelve-hour shift in a crater, each man had to complete a field postcard for his next of kin, leaving the terse message "I am quite well" undeleted."
Soldiers found ways of using the medium to convey messages that the cards were not meant to convey. Fussell notes:
the implicit optimism of the post card is worth noting - the way it offers no provision for transmitting news like "I have lost my left leg" or "I have been admitted into hospital wonded and do not expect to recover".  Because it provided no way of saying "I am going up the line again" its users had to improvise. Wilfred Owen had an understanding with his mother that when he used a double line to cross out "I am being sent down to base" he meant he was at the front again. (Fussell, "The Great War and Modern Memory", p185)
Fussell claims that the Field Service Post Card is the first "form": "It is the progenitor of of all modern forms on which you fill in things or cross out things or check off things, from police fraffic summonses to "questionnaires" and income-tax blanks. When the Field Service Post Cardwas devised, the novelty of its brassy self-sufficiency, as well as its implications about the uniform identity of human creatures, amused the sophisticated and the gentle alike, and they delighted to parody it..."

Today we have video, which has, in many ways, levelled the playing field of testimony: one does not have to be a great poet or writer to convey the complex reality of a situation - anyone can do it. Yet the form remains. How could one summarise the complexity were it not for the tick-boxes?

There is a better answer to this question than tick boxes. The form amplifies a particular set of descriptions as a series of choices. Whatever actual descriptions might be made by individuals, these somehow have to fit the provided descriptions. The interpretation of the fit to the provided descriptions adds a further layer of attenuation.

Institutions and governments fail because they fail to listen to the rich variety of descriptions made within the organisations they oversee. Instead, they collect "data" which they attenuate into "preferred descriptions", and implement policy according to their conclusions. Crisis emerges when the effects of policy are the production of more descriptions which are also ignored. 

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Open Educational Resources and Book Printing Machines

"Being open" has been a major theme in educational technology for many years. It goes to the heart of why many have been drawn to education technology in the first place: "let's transform education, make it available to all, liberate ourselves from constraints", and so on. There is an associated economic narrative which speaks of "re-use" and highlights the apparent ridiculousness in the redundancy of so much content - why have 100 videos about the eye when one would do?

The opportunity of technology is always to present people with new options for acting: blogging presents new options for publishing, for example. In effect, new options for acting are new ways of overcoming existing constraints. When looking at any innovation, it is useful to examine the new options it provides, and the constraints it overcomes. Sometimes new technologies introduce new constraints.

What new options does OER provide? What constraints does it overcome?

These are not easy questions to answer - and perhaps because of this, there is much confusion about OER. However, these are important questions to ask, and by exploring them more fully, some insight can be gained into how OER might be transformative.

Enormous amounts of money have been spent on repositories of stuff which are presented as lego bricks for teachers to assemble their teaching. Remember learning objects? Remember widgets? Remember JORUM? The rationale behind much of this was that educational content could be assembled by teachers and incorporated as ready-made chunks of knowledge into new courses. So the constraint was the labour of teachers? Or the cost of resources? OER to the rescue!?

But actually none of this addressed the deep constraint: the course. Who cares about courses? Well, universities do... Courses = Assessment = Money.

Of course, away from courses, there are Open Educational Resources on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Stackoverflow, Listservs, blogs, wikis, and various other specialised disciplinary forums. Moreover, the tools for searching and retrieving this stuff have got better and better. Email histories are now a major resource of information thanks to vast storage of google and the capabilities of their search tools. All of these things have circumvented the constraint of the course.

Universities care about courses. Open Educational Resources cut the costs of setting courses up. And of course, the skill requirements of the teacher might be seen to be lowered to that of curators where the cost saving implications are attractive to university managers: we don't need teachers - we can get this stuff for free, and pay cheap adjuncts to deliver it! So the constraints are financial and organisational.

But... nobody really understands what happens in teaching and learning. Whilst there are ways in which a video on YouTube might be said to "teach", generally teaching happens within courses. But what does the teacher do?

What happens in teaching and learning is conversation. Ideally, in that conversation, teachers reveal their understanding of something, and learners expose their curiosity. This can happen away from formal courses - most notably on email listservs, where (perhaps) somebody posts a video or a paper, and then people discuss it, but it is something that clearly is meant to happen in formal education.

"Revealing understanding" of something is not the same as presenting somebody with ready-made resources and activities (although someone can reveal their understanding of a subject in a video or a book - or indeed, a blog post!). Teachers have always used textbooks, but conversations usually revolve around a negotiation of the teacher's understanding of the textbook. Most textbooks are sufficiently rich in their content to throw up interesting questions for discussion.

Ready-made resources represent someone else's understanding. They can sometimes present an unwelcome extra barrier for the teacher, since the teacher is trying to reveal their understanding of the subject, but are caught trying to reveal their understanding of somebody else's understanding.

Teachers produce resources to help them articulate their understanding. Some very experienced teachers may even write books about their understanding of a subject. When resources are publishable at this level, things get interesting and a new set of constraints emerges. The big constraint is the publishers.

Let's say a teacher writes a book. They send it to a publisher and sign away their rights to it. In signing away their rights to the content, they are restricted in what they might do with the content in future. The book might be very expensive and so the people who a teacher wants to read it, cannot afford it. There may be chunks of text which they might want to extract and republish for a different audience. They can't do it.

I think this is about to change. One of the exciting developments in recent years has been print-on-demand self-publishing. Alongside this, professional typesetting has become within easy reach of anyone. LaTeX-driven tools like Overleaf ( make a once-esoteric skill accessible to all. And the book printing machines like Xerox's Espresso Book Machine are the most powerful exemplars of 3D printing:

Why will academics exploit this? Because, whilst publishing with a respectable publishing house is often seen as a 'status marker', it also constrains the freedom of the academic to manage their own resources and engagement with their academic community.

A self-published open book can exist on GitHub as a LaTeX file, which an academic can fork, republish, reframe, etc. And why not allow others to do the same? And if copies can be printed for very little, why not do your own print run and distribute your book to your academic community yourself? For all teachers, and for all academics, the point of the exercise is conversation.

More importantly, with the production of high quality resources that can be exploited in different ways, the teacher is able to express their understanding of not just one but potentially many subjects. What is the difference between a book on methodology in education research to a book on methodology on health research? Might not the same person have something to say about both? Why shouldn't the resources or the book produced for one not be exploited to do the other?

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Albert Atkin on Peirce

I have always been a little bit reticent about Peirce's semiotics. It's become another kind of theoretical 'coat-hanger' which media theorists, communication scholars, educationalists, informational scholars, musicologists, and much postmodern theory has draped 'explanations' which, it seems to me, don't explain very much. My suspicion, as with many social and psychological theories, is that the clergy are a pale imitation of the high-priests. It's the same story with James Gibson and affordance theory. And whilst believing that there's much more to Peirce than meets the eye of someone surveying this academic noise, I haven't yet found a way into it. Until now.

I'm reading Albert Atkin's recent book on Peirce. He articulates exactly how I feel about the sign theory, when he first of all points out that philosophy has largely ignored the sign theory - partly due to unreflective criticisms of analytic philosophers (most notably Quine), whereas

"Interest is much livelier outside of philosophy, but a similar problem lurks nearby. One finds interest in and mention of Peirce's sign theories in such wide-ranging disciplines as art history, literary theory, psychology and linguistics. There are even entire disciplinary approaches and sub-fields - semiotics, bio-semiotics, cognitive semiotics - which rest squarely on Peirce's work. Whilst this greater appreciation of Peirce's semiotic marks a happier state of affiars than that which we find in philosophy, there is still a worry that, as the leading scholar of Peirce's sign theory, T.L. Short, puts it, 'Peirce's semiotics has gotten in amongst the wrong  crowd'. Short's complaint may be a little hyperbolic, but his concern is well founded considering the piecemeal and selective use of Peirce's ideas in certain areas. From a cursory reading of much work in these areas, one might think Perice had only ever identified his early tripartite division of signs into icons, indexes and symbols." (Atkin, "Peirce", p126)
Peirce's biography, which Atkin covers elegantly, is extremely important in understanding how Peirce's logic, mathematics, sign theory and metaphysics fit together. A combination of intellectual isolation - he lost his University position in 1884 and never gained another one - and a unique inheritance from his mathematician father Benjamin Peirce, together with power intellectual life in the family home, set the scene for a radical redescription of logic, mathematics, cognition and science. The simple fact is that the extent to which this redescription is truly radical remains underappreciated - not helped by noisy dismissals by the academic establishment - not only of Peirce himself, but also of some of the foundational work which Peirce built on (he gained his interest in Hamilton's Quaternions from his father; Hamilton's work too suffered some careless dismissals).

If people think they know Peirce, or they know the semiotics, they should think again. I strongly suspect the time for this true original is yet to come. 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017


This is gradually coming together... It helps me to post on here - it's a multiple description!