Saturday, 29 October 2011

Revalidating the Quadrivium...

"The rector has decided that our beloved Quadrivium is no longer fit for purpose and should be 'revalidated'. I'm sure that Master Boethius wouldn't have sanctioned any of this nonsense! I can't imagine how our Rector reached his conclusion: last year's results in arithmetic and geometry were particularly good - Brother Keynes's project on the "Economics of the crusades" was particularly well received - especially in our overseas Córdoba campus, where Dr. Scotus did such a grand job. There are of course problems.. mostly in music. Dr Solfa gets so carried away.. and there have been complaints which are getting increasingly difficult to bat away (particularly from our beloved sisters in the convent next door!). And then, of course, there are the astronomers! Just making trouble, if you ask me.. and Rome is getting twitchy.

But it's not only the astronomers with some revolutionary zeal about them.. Our rector, Professor Gove, has a vision too. But I can only wonder that in his vision the astronomers are not in harmony.. nor the musicians of Dr Solfa! There's no doubt he worries about our sacred University and the welfare of our Scholars. I wish he'd consider more deeply the significance of our contribution to science and knowledge... but alas my prayers on that count go unanswered. Of course, someone's got to pay for all of this, and our Rector is anxious to make sure that we don't find ourselves in an indefensible position!

So the Quadrivium is going to be 'revalidated' to make it more "attractive and accessible to students" (hopefully to stop them ransacking the town so much... although that has always been a big 'draw' for students of the University, given their immunity from prosecution!). Of course, the other aim is to iron-out the problems of the musicians and the astronomers. Everyone knows the result of this will be the removal of Dr. Solfa and most of the astronomers who have had rather too much contact with radical ideas from the continent. In the old days, we would simply have arranged some sort of 'purge'.. but that's considered old hat now. Yes - revalidation is the only way to go, although it pains me to think of the hours wasted by scribes who once poured over the works of Aristotle, and now find themselves designing 'learning outcomes'... I hope that they at least have the wit to add some exciting Marginalia to keep us amused! 

Apparently, the plan is to make the Quadrivium more "relevant to the practical needs of everyday life". Peter Lombard's sentences - poured over and reproduced for many years by students - are to be re-written to include relevant information about pig farming, crop rotation and the effective treatment of peasants. The doctrine of "immitation" is to be maintained and enforced as a secure means to learning. My heart sinks at the thought of it.. but maybe the students will like it. On the other hand (and perhaps paradoxically), students are also going to be required to keep a 'reflective learning journal' - no doubt not only to record their thoughts on their new sentences, but also their rather less edifying experiences in the town! I can't wait to see that! There are also some interesting ideas on new subjects: Brother Rabelais apparently has a recipe for a new course on "games", for which he has produced an enticing list including "tickle-me-prickle-me", "lusty brown boy" and "Hide the farthing in your bum" all of which look as if they could be winners with students and staff alike!

There will also be some changes in personnel: the scribes are going to be redeployed in the light of new technology (these blasted printing machines!), being required to teach rather than write (they are of course cheaper than our doctors, and so I can see this is an attractive option for the Rector!)

So farewell music, farewell astronomy... welcome pig farming and crop rotation! Will we miss music and astronomy when it is gone? I have to confess, it does rather feel like the end of civilisation at the moment. But maybe a few more pints of ale will sort that out!"

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Universities, Cities and Conviviality

Going to a big city (Manchester) away from home was one of the most significant parts of my university education. Finding ways of adapting to a new environment, getting to know new people all of whom were similarly disorientated.. all this had a profound psychological effect. I took ownership of my new environment, I identified with my new home (perhaps more than with my University): it was an opportunity to redefine myself - to consciously take control of those aspects of my environment which I wanted to be associated with.

But, of course, although I didn't pay, it was expensive. And it was hard to leave - those aspects of my identity including my environment and friends seemed to evaporate after graduation: the 'real world' presented itself as a bit of a shock, and another process of adaptation had to take place (this one rather less pleasant!).

These are the moments that sociologists talk of as "transition": the redefinition of objects of attachment, and the consequent transformation of identity. Divorce, bereavement, new jobs and new houses all present similar challenges: fundamentally, the challenge is one of transformed identity and the renewal of attachments.

Universities facilitate the formation of attachments to cities - and often it is the city that matters because it is the city that presents new opportunities after university. But the city without the university can be a lonely place. University counteracts this. In an era of 'super cities' the relationship between universities and cities is likely to become more integrated. And this is not just a relationship with learners seeking to make attachments; it also carries economic implications for the viability of cities themselves. The flexibility and adaptability of attachment formation and the freedom to move from one attachment to another is facilitated by learning and (to some extent) by qualifications. But might we in education have got it the wrong way round?

All intellectual development involves some change in attachments of individuals - it is through these that communications are shaped (leading to the change in positioning that Harre talks about). But when the city works well, it nurtures attachment too. To what extent is the nurturing of attachment by the city related to the nurturing of attachment in the university? What is the economic relationship between the benefits afforded by the university to the creation of new city-attachments versus the cost of facilitating those city-attachments by Universities? Finally, how can this be measured?

I think this is related to finding an index of 'conviviality'. Nobody wants to live in a city with no conviviality (there are certainly some cities in the US like this). And some cities are booming (like Istanbul) partly through generating high degrees of conviviality. The same goes for Universities. The trick is to understand the relationship between the two, the measures that are effective in increasing conviviality, and the dangers of economic policies which might irreparably damage it both in cities and in Universities.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Indexing Conviviality in Learning and Society

Is it possible to determine the extent to which a learning activity, institution, or maybe even a society is 'convivial'? I've been thinking about this having just returned from Istanbul where I witnessed what struck me as a different way of life where individuals were more inter-dependent and tended to live in close proximity to different properties, moving frequently between them with tools, products, artefacts, etc. There seemed to be an observable pattern of communication which, I wonder, could index a 'degree' of conviviality in the situation.

But to do this, we would have to be more precise about what 'conviviality' means. "Living together without killing each other", which is the definition contained in Alain Caillé's book "De la convivialité: dialogues sur la société conviviale à venir". In that formulation, I think there is something to be looked at with regard to those situations where people live together and do start killing (or at least fighting) each other. In those situations, the emergence of TINA (There Is No Alternative) formations at a social level and the feeling of being trapped or locked-in to particular actions which run counter to the needs of individual identities is something that perhaps we might get a handle on. Certainly, communications data can reveal patterns of co-evolution and lock-in (this is the sort of analysis that Leydesdorff has done).

The follow-on from this is that in a convivial situation people have options because either potential co-evolutionary (lock-in) dynamics are mitigated by a further dynamic which prevents lock-in, or there is no co-evolution. This might be revealed from the data too.

But what might this look like in practice?

Maybe this gives an insight into activities which we might typically consider 'convivial'. For example, in a choir or an orchestra, there is a co-evolutionary and potentially locked-in dynamic established between a conductor and individuals in the choir, but this co-evolutionary dynamic is off-set by a third dynamic where the feedback from collective agency generates rich communications between the participants. Without this feedback dynamic, the experience of singing in choir would feel rather like slavery (Indeed, it is possible that with certain types of poor positioning by conductors, and in particular with heavy attenuation of social communication, this could be induced)

In a very boring lecture in a coercive environment, this lock-in is most evident - again if the social dynamic in the room is attenuated. But sometimes well-meaning attempts at group work can have the same effect. For example, a group is given an ill-defined task, and the members of the group disagree on the nature of the task, the lock-in works at a number of levels: group members cannot leave the group, individuals assert their understanding and attenuate opposition away from the eyes of the teacher, the teacher acts as arbiter of worth, but may ignore the contribution made by each individual in preference to "making their life easier" by just observing the group performance (I've been guilty of this one!). Inquiry-based learning can similarly suffer from this sort of situation.

Text-mediated communications in online forums can develop their own form of lock-in, owing partly to the already attenuated nature of text. In online environments like this, it is hard to establish a third dynamic to offset this lock-in, and for participants in this situation, the easiest way to avoid lock-in is not to participate (which is often what happens).

In the streets of Istanbul there are a rich range of communication dynamics going on. Amongst them are co-evolutionary forces: for example (although I'm not sure if the specifics of this are right, but you get the idea) the cobbler who requires part-finished shoes to be healed where the part-finished shoes are carried up the street to the place where the heals are attached. The rich range of individuals involved in this allow for the lock-in to be off-set with other social dynamics.

If we measured co-occurrence, knowledge transfer and the development of locked-in communication dynamics, it might be possible to put some sort of figure on conviviality.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Learning and a Calculus of Anticipation

The outward manifestation of 'learning' is a change in patterns of communication, or 'positioning': the pattern of communications that exist between people who learn changes as utterances become different, and their social context consequently also changes.

The inward manifestation of 'learning' which makes possible the change in positioning, is a change in an individual's inner 'story', or what Harre calls a 'storyline'. But what is that individual 'story'... I think it is fundamentally anticipatory in nature: the change in storyline is equivalent to a change in the way individuals 'anticipate' things.

There are three questions here:

1. Can we deduce the ways in which anticipation changes through looking at the outward manifestations of learning (this may be what Leydesdorff does with his communications analysis)?
2. Can we model the way anticipation might work such that it produces emerging patterns of communication consistent with changing positions?
3. What is the nature of time in anticipation, and in the way in which shifting patterns of communication might reveal anticipation?

In thinking about anticipation itself, I'm interested in the maths of it. In particular I want to know if a mathematics of anticipation can exclude time a a variable.

It could be argued that anticipation of a sort is the feature of differential calculus, for to know the gradient of a curve at a particular point is to anticipate where it is likely to go next. But in my thinking about anticipation, it isn't so much about looking at the gradient at a particular point, but looking at the  symmetry of a particular point in relation to another point and defining a hierarchy of possible actions from which to move next. At the very least, there are always two possibilities.... that's like two possible gradients at each point... which in a Cartesian system isn't possible.

An alternative idea is to see anticipation as a sort of 'fractal'. The images below suggest how this might work.
First of all, an event sets up a symmetry as a fractal (here using a Mandelbrot set shown below): Within the local symmetry, there are things which can be immediately anticipated because they are within the symmetry.

But there is a larger symmetry that the immediate event symmetry is contained by. There are things which may be less immediately anticipated, but which are nevertheless consistent with the symmetry. The effect of these things happening is to shift the context of what might be forseen.
But as events become focused on one level of a symmetry, so the greater dimensions of the symmetry that contains that symmetry become more possible and anticipation moves out to the greater symmetry - maybe as way of increasing the variety of possible events...

So we zoom out again...
But the symmetries here are 'ideal'.. events do not conform to expectations. They transform expectations, and consequently transform the symmetries. In this way, anticipation is plastic, continually moulding expectations (any musician could tell you this!).. I imagine it might be like stretching these pictures on a sheet of rubber.

So what about a mathematics of anticipation? Partly this has to do with the calculus of fractals, but also I suspect something needs to be done in terms of the 'deformations' of symmetry. (That deformation has some sort of hysteresis, for example). But the fractal metaphor might show a way to think of anticipation and symmetry without time...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Dialectic and Absence

Bhaskar's 'Dialectic - the pulse of freedom' is one of the most difficult books I have read. Yet it has fascinated me - not least because Bhaskar's earlier outlining of 'Critical Realism' (CR) seemed so sensible in the way that brilliant things do, and Dialectic is clearly presented as the successor to that thinking: "Dialectical Critical Realism" (DCR). CR seemed sensible because it simply (!) demanded that we accept the existence of:
causal mechanisms (as an ontological foundation) within which we see:
    1. intransitive mechanisms (existing independently of human agency)
    2. transitive mechanisms (existing through human agency)
All of which seems sensible: physical mechanisms (intransitive) are different from social mechanisms (transitive). Moreover, it allows Bhaskar to formulate the Transformational Model of Social Activity whereby transitive mechanisms exist between agency and structure where agents 'reproduce and transform' social structure, whilst social structure 'conditions and constrains' human agency.

So far so good.

But of the things that this neat formulation doesn't address, in my view the most significant is is time. Bhaskar seems aware that his insistence on mechanisms presupposes an abstracted temporal dimension - a kind of conflation of clock-time of intransitivity and psychological time of society; but the abstraction of clock-time has to stand outside the transitive-intransitive formulation. This is unsatisfactory.

So there must be a deeper thing which drives the mechanism. This seems to be where Dialectic and Absence come in with DCR.

Now it was fairly easy to justify with common sense the existence of intransitivity and transitivity. But it is hard to get a common sense grip on the ontological priority of 'Absence' or 'not-being'... and this is where many people have problems. And certainly I was struggling... until fairly recently when I have been thinking about symmetry and death (see and wondering if there might be something in it which is practical.

The issue is certainly tied-up with the issue of time, but it has occurred to me as I have delved into the work of Luhmann and Leydesdorff that 'being' is inconceivable without 'anticipation'. In fact, and perhaps paradoxically, time is inconceivable without anticipation. Now there's a thought... ;-)

That opens up possibilities for thinking about not-being as opposed to being, and the way in which anticipation changes from possibility to actuality. Bhaskar envisages a materialist dialectic process driving this, much in the way described by Marx, but Bhaskar gives a richer description of the process, making use of his constructs of transitive and intransitive mechanisms, and how intransitive and transitive work together through agency producing a driving emancipatory force through a deeper understanding of scientific progress. This allows him, for example, to describe how theory-practice gaps are dialectical and drive a process of development of scientific paradigms.

In "Dialectic" everything becomes dialecticised: what are conventionally conceived of as concepts are instead shown to be dialectical processes: for example, "truth" is seen as having four dialectical 'moments'. The advantage of this is that history, politics and ethics are shown to be vitally important in scientific as well as social thought. That seems right to me. But what about the common-sense justification for dialectic, and particularly absence? That's where it's let me down (and Bhaskar's own examples have seemed a bit weak too)

I want to propose my solution for this.

Absence is indeed real and ontologically prior. But 'dialectic' is the name we give to moving through a landscape as it is delimited by absence. In fact, what absence does is demarcate a symmetry where there is a hierarchy of possible action: some actions fit the symmetry naturally; others simply don't. In terms of drawing attention to absence in everyday life, we need to draw attention towards death. Its power to demarcate a symmetry is evident and ample examples can be given from music and literature. The twilight fantasy world of the 1001 nights is a classic example of absence working to demarcate the territory between being and an erotic not-being which draws us into the stories (being in Istanbul at the moment is making me think a lot about this!)

But with a postulated symmetrical demarcation of symmetries, there may be some sort of mathematics. I'm particularly intrigued by this at the moment. Whether we are analysing a learning process, or the flow of a piece of music, or the flow of curiosity, I wonder whether a process of absence-demarcated symmetry might provide us with a model of anticipation which is free from Newtonian clock time.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Chronos, Concord and Pask

I'm listening to Britten's choral dances from Gloriana, which have the titles "Time" and "Concord". They are very beautiful, but also very profound and relevant to my current obsession with time and symmetry... These are William Plomer's words to the dances:

Yes, he is time, Lusty and blithe, Time is at his apogee!
Although you thought to see
A bearded ancient with a scythe
No reaper he that cries "Take heed!"
Time is at his apogee.
Young and strong in his prime
Behold the sower of the seed.

Concord is here, our days to bless
And this our land to endue with plenty, peace and happiness.
Concord and time, each needeth each
The ripest fruit hangs where not one but only two can reach

From springs of bounty, Through this county
Streams abundant of thanks shall flow.
Where life was scanty fruits of plenty swell resplendent
No Greek nor Roman Queenly woman knew such favor from Heav'n above
As she whose presence is our pleasance - Gloriana - Hath all our love.

Here we have the 'clock time' of Newton, as well as the Bergsonian time of 'being'. Concord makes time stand still.. it is the essence of harmony and symmetry. There may be perfect and imperfect concord (I'm aware that I'm getting close to medieval theologians here).. does Chronos arise from the imperfections of concord?

In Greek mythology, Chronos's consort was Anake - or "inevitability". It may be that 'inevitability' and 'anticipation' are closely related. And maybe what is inevitable becomes so when Concord is disturbed - a symmetry is broken.

My real interest in all this has to do with the dynamics of learning. I've been studying Pask's work on 'learning curves' which is fascinating me because it looks like a musical score.

In those patterns of rising and falling levels of understanding, there may well be emerging symmetries... fading in periods of concord, and where the concord breaks down, so chronos takes over and drives things forwards...

Might the dynamics of this process be similar to the discursive inter-penetration that is suggested by Leydesdorff? Maybe they are the effects of an inner 'triple helix'? Could these graphs be broken down into three dimensions and then analysed for where the 'knowledge flows' really are?

There's something in this, and I'm wondering if between Pask and Symmetry, there might be something very interesting to study.... maybe OER is good place to start...

Friday, 14 October 2011

Artificial Qualitative Data: From Quants to Quals?

We often go through processes of producing quantitative data from qualitative data - many social science methods essentially aim to do this through coding of data, frequency analysis, etc. But we never think of going from 'quants' to 'quals'. One of the reasons why the question is never raised is that somehow 'quants' are considered more 'solid' and trustworthy than quals: if you can fit an equation to it, it must be right! But in reality, it is the quals which are the most fascinating.. the "any other comments" fields which capture the essence of how people are feeling. But we struggle to abstract this into meaningful and defensible conclusions.

One of the most significant aspects of agent-based modelling approaches to 'artificial psychology' is the prospect of producing a kind of rich 'qualitative data' from quantitative data. How would that work? Well, what is needed is an approach to categorising the data in the first place. I had fantastic meeting with Leydesdorff in Amsterdam yesterday, and he showed me how he looks at quants specifically to identify social dynamics. That stage is simply a statistical stage. But the more interesting thing is to be able to understand the intentional forces behind the dynamics. That, for Leydesdorff, has to do with 'anticipation', or (in his language) a 'hyper-incursion'. This is where the state of the system in the present is dependent on the state of the system in the future. He argues that hyper-incursion amounts to 'social structure', and he writes an equation to express this:
This hyper-incursive dynamic can be compared to what Leydesdorff calls an 'incursive' dynamic, where each state is dependent on the previous state (this is a bit easier to understand that the hyper-incursive dynamic). In effect, this amounts to 'agency'. It is expressed:
Structure and agency operates within a continually emerging information domain, where each state of information is dependent on the previous state. This dynamic Leydesdorff calls 'recursion' and he expresses it as: 
I'm still thinking about this. But I am also thinking about Kadri's artificial psychology and his approach to hysteresis (see How do Leydesdorff's equations relate to Kadri's use of the Volterra series?

Basically, using Leydesdorff's approach to identifying social dynamics, it might be possible to reproduce a dynamic using either a formula (which is what Leydesdorff's formulae do) or using agents. And if the dynamic which produced the data can itself be reproduced (and maybe even the data reproduced), then I think some fascinating opportunities present themselves for using data as a means producing defensible judgements and effective coordination, because what will have been identified is the dynamic mechanism which sits behind the emergence of data. This, in fact, is an approach very similar to Realistic Evaluation.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Anticipation and Meaning

Heinz von Foerster wrote a paper on memory which asked "What is memory that it might have hindsight and foresight as well?". In my recent paper on memory and music (which I received in print today: I consider whether questions such as "what is memory?" or "what is music?" or even "what is foresight?" should be preceded by considering the answer to the political question "what sort of a world do you want to live in?", because the ontological foundations to any questions about memory, consciousness or cognition have causal efficacy in the world that is constructed around those assumptions or theories. In other words, "what is foresight?" needs to be treated as an ethical problem before it is treated as a psychological one. This also means, I think, that any answer to the question is necessarily 'tensed' in history.

But having said all that, I am too curious about the things that I love about life not to want to try to explain them. Above all, I am fascinated by sensual experience. I do not believe I am alone in this!.. although I know many who are either too embarrassed or do not know how to approach talk about the experience of love, sex, music, religion, art or poetry. If I find myself striving to be less coy it is because these are the things that I believe should be talked about because they are simply the things which make life worth living. Talk about engineering, computers, stock markets or economics - fascinating and important though it is - is deficient if it does not build on the foundation of those fundamental sensual experiences.

Sensual experiences are laden with meaning. That's another way of saying they are "the things which make life worth living". In this sense, I believe, they are pregnant with hindsight and foresight. I was interested to note that Leydesdorff (who I'm meeting tomorrow) sees a close relationship between 'meaning' and 'anticipation', drawing on Luhmann's theory. I think that's a sensible alliance.

I also think that sensual experiences represent situations of deep attachment which affirm identity. It may be in this way that they are laden with meaning. Love is the obvious example, where the mechanisms of individual identity become tightly coupled to another person: the attachment relationships between children and their parents is fundamentally about this. But the sexual attraction which preceded the love between their parents presents some deeper paradoxes. I'm inclined to follow Bataille in identifying death (or maybe absence) as the prime mover. Death, I think, also fits the experience of music, art and certainly religion: we are drawn towards not-being.

In the cybernetics of attachment there is a control situation that emerges where the homeostasis of the individual is dependent on the homeostasis of the relationship with the object of attachment. With death, or absence (here I'm increasingly thinking Bhaskar is right about absence.. but that's another post!), the homeostasis of the "here-now" is dependent on the homeostasis of the relationship to the "not-being". But physical objects of attachment move around in the world, and so the individual has to adapt. Does the psychic object of "not-being" also "move around"? Are we constantly having to chase it? I think this is a possibility, and the cause of "not-being" moving around are the physical manifestations through which it reveals itself: the beautiful woman on the other side of the room, the brushwork on a Constable cloud painting, a mellifluous passage of Mozart, the sunset, and so on.

But what's in the chasing? Cybernetically, it's adjustments to the regulating mechanisms. But what adjustments? How can we know? How do we anticipate? Anticipation may simply be the experience of chasing an attachment to "not-being". But then again, we intuit what is likely to happen, and more often than not, we are right. Much depends on the means we have for altering our regulating processes at any moment. Not all options are open to us, some are more to-hand than others. There will be a natural order of response in each situation, and that natural order of response will similarly shift as the situation shifts.

If we looked at the 'natural order of response' in a snapshot, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find some sort of symmetry in what is most available as a regulatory adjustment. Anticipation may simply be a natural ordering of regulatory response to maintain attachments. Anticipation of sensual things then becomes a natural ordering of regulatory response towards death.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Psychotherapy, Education and "free"

Donald Winnicott dedicated his last book "Playing with Reality":
"To my patients who have paid to teach me"
Psychotherapy has rarely been free. Increasingly, education won't be either.  But then again, 'free' is only an illusion - it is probably the wrong word: are things any less 'free' when they are funded from general taxation?

But what funding from general taxation does do is to create a level playing field where income and social position does not affect your life-choices. There are obvious economic reasons for doing this: not least that the talent and creativity in any society is likely to be amongst the many underprivileged, rather than amongst the few at the top. But more than that, individual talent and creativity is rarely truly individual: people of all abilities and backgrounds and socio-economic groups are inter-dependent. 'Selection' misses the point; cohesion is more fundamental - and selection can work against cohesion.

Education and psychotherapy are closely related. They both concern cultivation of capability. The psychotherapist and the educationalist works to develop inner-worlds and rebalance the relationship with the outer world: Harré has said: "learning is a change in positioning" (I got this from Christine Redmond) - and that means the change in what Harré calls the 'storyline' (inner world) of the individual producing changes in their utterances, and ultimately changes in their social circumstances.

But there are obvious differences between psychotherapy and education. Whilst the capability which is cultivated by each amounts to a cultivation of individual identity, the focus of that identity cultivation is directed in different ways. Education directs attachments to the outer-world of discourse, books, knowledge and skilled performances. Psychotherapy directs focus towards the inner-world - the attachment to ones' own mind as a move towards individuation. There are interesting exceptions of course: Family therapy is much more like education in that it is more externally-directed, as are other Batesonian psychotherapeutic ideas like Neuro-linguistic Programming. But in a way it doesn't matter - whether the focus is on outer-world attachment or the inner-world, the result is a respective complementary impact on inner/outer dimensions of experience.

But there are further differences within education itself. Arts courses often have a dual focus, drawing attention to the outer-world of discourse as much as they do to the inner-world of interpretation and experience. This, I believe is the true value of the arts. Science courses are often deficient with regard to the inner-world of experience. They rely for their attachments on similar kinds of minds with similar predispositions to attach to the sometimes cold and abstract formulations of their material. Students studying these may indeed be disposed labour with cold attachments in the expectation of financial rewards for their studies which might not be so forthcoming for artists - but that is another dimension of their storyline (and possibly a source of psychic difficulty later on). For an artistic mind, cold attachments can be rather alienating.

But what of the cost of it all? Looked at as a process of psychic development, money appears to be an irrelevance - it is merely a means for living out ones life. But the realisation of the irrelevance of money is itself a stage of development towards a psychically-balanced attitude. This point was made very strongly in an excellent post I saw on "why educational start-ups don't succeed": Those who have education see it as an investment; those who don't see it as a cost. In other words, those who have it can see the psychic and practical benefits of it. But the challenge is to encourage those who don't. The thrust of this post is that educational businesses should concentrate on price, not quality.

I'm not sure about that. It seems to be a recipe for educational pathology.

With education funded by general taxation, the cost of education was not an issue for those without education. With explicit and high fees for education (whether those fees are payable as 'tax' later on) the cost of education will become a psychological barrier for those who do not have enough insight into the benefits that education can bring. The only people who will have that insight will be the ones who already have education. Cheap education without quality is a very high risk venture for people who are already overburdened with the risks that impaired capability produces.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Capability and Cultivation

Amartya Sen's ideas about capability are useful in presenting a relatively simple way to think about how people 'cope'. And the dimensions of coping include all those aspects of daily life which give us scope for making choices, and steering ourselves through situations. Those who have more capability have more choice. The dimensions of capability might be (I'm still thinking about this...)
1. money
2. skills and competences
3. social capital
4. psychological health (which may be related to education or social capital)
5. physical health

These factors are inter-related. Skill, competences or psychotherapy are often received as services in exchange for money (education). Social capital and attachments can have a strong relationship to psychological health, as well as a big impact on education. Physical health has a bearing on psychological health and the broader networks of care-taking within families, the workplace and social networks. Family attachments can also be a means to financial solutions for individuals.

But to list these factors is to try to get a handle on what 'capability' looks like. It is, I think, the way in which the individual protects themselves from risks, whether those risks are related to finances, employment, psychological or physical health, or indeed the finances, employment, psychological or physical health of those we care about (which in turn has a knock-on effect on individuals).

But most importantly is the fact that capability does not suddenly arise, but emerges over time: it is cultivated by family, school, university, the workplace and society. The central question of education, as Luhmann identified, is one of 'cultivation'. It extends from the cultivation of the home environment, the cultivation of university environment and the cultivation within the working environment. It includes issues like the organisation of learning environment, social and economic policies to support children and parents, and the nurturing of corporations as learning organisations. The central issue of cultivation relates not simply to "what" is done, but to the "way" it is done. In this way, cultivation is a "rhetorical" matter.

Cultivation reflects the interventions and environments which lead to the formation of personal identities and individual psychological health. Central to its concerns are an understanding of the psychology of identity. My particular interest is how this psychology of identity concerns the attachment relationships between individuals. Technology contributes to the formation of attachments and to their maintenance. Technical skills and competencies can be engendered within the home, within formal education or amongst friends. It requires economic access to the tools necessary: technical skills and competences are unlikely to form in the absence of the tools they are performed with. But neither will capability be cultivated in the absence of the meaningful human attachments which will gently coax the development of self.

This is why the 'technology' discussion is the 'education' discussion: because for technology to be useful, it requires capability, but capability only arises through cultivation. This raises the question as to the kinds of social organisation which might best foster cultivation. In a sense, that is a 'pedagogical' question - or at least, it is a question that teachers will often ask themselves when they are planning lessons. But really, it is a question about the organisation of society. For in a world where the cultivation of capability is fundamental to survival, and where cultivation occurs in so many contexts and cuts across traditional institutional boundaries (from family to school to work to university), the challenge remains to find ways in which cultivation, the attachments necessary for it, health, economy and schooling can most effectively work together. The drive for the convivial society has precisely this agenda.

This takes me back to Illich's arguments. But what Illich didn't fully consider is the drivers for economic behaviour in the modern world. I think the issue of the manufacture and distribution of risks is the principal driver. Capability mitigates against risk. The society that most effective cultivates capability is a convivial society. I might ask (if I'm trying to be optimistic) whether technology, increasingly wired into the biology of attachment, provide new ways for people to come together? But what is the risk behind a dream like that? The enframing is so difficult to escape. Perhaps, Heidegger's wish would be for people to live 'poetically'.  That means living more gently and sensibly and in response to local needs and conditions. To use the cultivation analogy: growing tomatoes in Kent is very different from growing tomatoes in the Sahara!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

E-Learning Death and Lock-in

If we say "e-learning is dead" (as I have recently) what does it mean beyond a rather attention-grabbing assertion? The deadness of anything is stasis. That's ironic in a way, because the cybernetics of living things is concerned with their maintenance of homeostasis; but necessarily in a living thing, that is a dynamic process. So when we say "e-learning is dead" we mean "it is static" (and there is no process to maintain its stasis because the process has nothing to act on). The next question is "what brings about stasis in social systems". The answer to that is "lock-in". The graph below based on Arthur's model of Lock-in using random-walks demonstrates the phenomenon using a 'lock-in barrier':
(the article from which this is taken:
Marc R.H. Roedenbeck and Barnas Nothnagel (2008) Rethinking Lock-in and Locking: Adopters Facing Network Effects, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 11, no. 1 4)

At lock-in, the variety of possible strategies drastically reduces. In a communication system of course, it's obvious to see how can amount to 'death': we run out of things to talk about, or endlessly talk about the same thing. The marriage breaks down, people get bored! Of course, one discussion finishes, and another one starts. So, people stopped talking about VHS vs Betamax...

If our history of "e-learning" is of a process of communication where there is increasingly less to talk about, how would that history be characterised? I think there have been a number of dynamics in the e-learning discussion that are interesting and have developed over time. First, there has been a 'technology' discussion, and the 'technology' discussion has affected almost all areas of life. There has also been an 'education' discussion, within which issues like participation, effectiveness, skills, etc have all played their role. Finally, there has been a political discussion - although for much of the last 10 years, the political discussion has been quite weak and taken a back-seat while the technology discussion and the education discussion get on with it. The dynamic between the education discussion and the technology discussion produced in the early days significant areas of difference: e-skills were not what they should be; institutional governance could benefit from technology; VLEs could help rationalise provision, etc. There was big push because there was a lot to talk about.

But now, education is locked into technology. It is as if the education discussion is a technology discussion - indeed, the worrying response of many managers in education is to reach for technology - whether that technology is a new system, or some new bureaucratic process - before they reach for teaching and learning (which is too woolly and difficult) And the lock-in produces some strange effects. The same discussions go round and round; individuals feel the danger of the lock-in and this has existential effects which can cause problems or pathologies within the institution. Projects are established to seek ways out of the crisis - but those projects are symptoms not cures. Individuals want to escape the lock-in  - but they can't. Whatever they come up with (learning analytics, real-time institutions, even WebSockets) simply serves to strengthen the hold of the relationship.

The powerlessness of the political discussion has, I think, contributed to this situation. As Beck says, technology is "legitimated social change without political legitimation". And the "legitimated social change" was simply accepted as being outside politics. A healthy dynamic is between three principle areas of discussion - that can prevent the lock-in because there is always some 'interference' which disrupts the processes of lock-in. It is part of the ultrastability of social systems. With lock-in between technology and education, the danger is that the dynamic with the political discussion is either sidelined, or itself becomes party to the lock-in. That creates not only a lock-in crisis between technology and education, but between technology, education and politics. It is at that point we have successfully 'enframed' ourselves (in Heidegger's phrase)

But I'm more optimistic. I think a new dynamic of conversations is being established. There is:
  1. "technology-education" (which are now coupled) 
  2. political economy
  3. and finally there is 'risk' or anxiety. 
This new dynamic is generating new critiques, but also it draws attention to new realities. The technology discussion is an educational discussion. The 'risk' discussion concerns the options people have - or lack of them. Increasingly, people have no option than to enter into formal education. They have no option but to purchase particular technologies. In having no option, they are exposed to risk. The political-economy discussion is a discussion about what sort of a world people want to live in, how the economy works, and how we organise ourselves.

Those worrying about the future of learning technology are, I think, asking the wrong question. They should be thinking about the future of techno-education, its relation to global and local political economy and the impact of risk. 

Friday, 7 October 2011

More time

This is a rather 'heavy' post, but two things have been fascinating me, both of which relate to the American Cybernetics Society conference. I should say at this point, for both these things, I'm not sure I understand them - particularly because there's a lot of maths; but I'm going to try to explain my fascination and my understanding (or lack of it) as things stand right now. But the main thing about this is that
a. learners and institutions (like all biological organisms) have hysteresis: their states are dependent on the history of what has happened to them.
b. The issue of 'memory', 'history' and 'anticipation' is dependent on 'time', but 'time' is problematic because it is an abstraction (Larry Richards has written a lot about this).

Time is a problem in cybernetics. I think it's a problem because 'time' is generally seen as 'one-headed', and I'm sure that it's 'many-headed' (see  However, critiquing time only gets us so far - I want to find a way through the distinctions to something that can unblock some of the blockages. Ultimately, the goal is a meaningful model of anticipation (but maybe, and paradoxically, one that doesn't depend on 'time' too much..!). We have to grapple with Kant's basic categories, because his categories are effectively one-headed categories, and we may need to rethink these as 'many-headed' categories.

One of the things which is exciting me is Faisal Kadri's work on hysteresis and multiplier feedback. Hysteresis is the key thing. In my model of communicating agents (see, none of my agents have any history or learning; they need hysteresis. But how to create it? One way is to look at the Volterra series. As Kadri explains, there is disagreement over whether the Volterra series can represent hysteresis (although it certainly has 'memory'), but it's sequence of different level integrals clearly means that the output is in some way dependent on the history of the input (it's unlike the Taylor series in this way).

Faisal explains that one way in which it might be able to demonstrate hysteresis is if we replace additive error-correction (i.e. adding direct corrective balances for errors detected) with multiplier error-correction (i.e. multiplying by a coefficient so as to adjust to errors detected). I wasn't sure if I was misunderstanding Faisal, but it struck me that this error-correcting multiplier (which he suggests is basically a decaying linear equation working with the nonlinear Volterra series) worked in a way where the emphasis was on achieving a balance between immediate error correction and some sort of anticipation of likely immediate patterns (does that make sense?).

More broadly, there seems to be something about harmony, symmetry and anticipation in all this. Faisal is particularly interested in how the multiplier feedback can model satiation. The symmetry connection is intriguing. In learning technology, I was fascinated to discover that Sugata Mitra has been thinking along these lines too.. the roots of his thinking can be seen here: In particular, symmetry places much more emphasis on performance.

It helps me to write this down, because I'm still only half-understanding it. When I was dealing with my communication model, the idea of applying a slow linear multiplier did occur to me as a way of giving my agents memory. But my idea was crude, and I hadn't thought about the properties of things like the Volterra series.

Hysteresis also features in the work that Leydesdorff draws attention to - particularly in the ways in which 'hypercycles' emerge. Particular states of a system trigger drastically different types of behaviour (for example, the starvation of Dictyostelium discoideum). Following Prigogine, Leydesdorff argues that there are different levels of chemical clock which trigger changes in this case. Leydesdorff sees the trigger for the change in state caused by a break in symmetry. But I'm not yet entirely clear on what this means, but it seems to resonate with Mitra's concerns. However, there is a fundamental question: can the hysteresis of dictyostelium discoideum and the emergence of the hypercycle be represented through Faisal's multiplier feedback in a Volterra series?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Google trends gadget

I've been playing with Google trends after having a discussion with Tore Hoel about the TEL-MAP project. There's something fascinating about analytics generally. The fact that it gives a concrete representation of what we might suspect (or what might confound our expectations) has a causal effect on the way we think about things. It's another example of how in using computers we seem to be increasingly 'playing with reality' (to use Winnicott's phrase). I'll blog about this in more depth later... But the real-timeness of the interaction between the analytics, thought and action is impressive. And real-time feedback is getting faster and faster (note the second graph comparing 'websockets' with 'nodejs' - both driving forces behind the real-time web).


Heidegger would probably worry about the 'enframing' by technology of human being-in-the-world at this point...

Does he have a point??? well... there's the longer post...!

Mind, Absence and the one-headed myth

Joan Riviere, the psychoanalyst of John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott remarked on what might be called the "myth of the one-headed mind":
"There is no such thing as a single human being, pure and simple, unmixed with other human beings. Each personality is a world in himself, a company of many. That self... is a composite structure ... formed out of countless never-ending influences and exchanges between ourselves and others. These other persons are in fact therefore part of ourselves... we are members of another." (quoted in John Bowlby and Attachment Theory by Jeremy Holmes, p137)
This makes me worry about 'time' and systems thinking. Time is tied up with cybernetics: first-order cybernetics was about time-series (Wiener's book on cybernetics deals with the issue head-on in Chapter 1: "Newtonian vs Bergsonian time"). 2nd order cybernetics turned 1st order concerns onto the observer, but still assumed a 'processing model' with time as the implicit ontological foundation: the observer processes their observations in time, sequentially. But the essential abstraction of time, which is a human construct in itself is never critiqued. That is because it upsets everything. How can you have a difference without time? What's different? This here now? Or this here now? The 'time' of cybernetics is Bergson's idea of 'objective' time (clock time); Objective time is an abstract and rational slicing-up of phenomenological experience. Phenomenological time, on the other hand, is Bergson's 'Temps durée'. It's interesting to think about this, because Ian Kemp told me about it first (see yesterday's post), and that Stravinsky was particularly influenced by the difference between psychological and ontological time.

What I want to say here is that 'objective time' or clock time, is mistakenly believed to be 'one-headed' time. On the other hand, phenomenological time, duration, may be accepted to be many-headed, because it is in the flow of experience of engagement: Merleau-Ponty's expression "the flesh of the world" is an apt description of the relationship of duration with many heads in the world. But clock-time may not be one-headed at all. To me, Ulric Neisser's model of cognition suggests that clock time may be just as many-headed as duration. It only feels like a one-headed construction.

Once we see the one-headed myth for what it is, the idea of "one-headed time" looks shaky and this is a little frightening - because when that goes, so do all logical abstractions which presuppose the rule of logic over lived experience.

I've been thinking about David Chalmer's 'zombie' arguments for consciousness. It occurs to me that we may believe zombies to be logically possible, but we assume that this logic that we believe is a one-headed logic that occurs independently of the objects upon which it operates (i.e. zombies). However, what if the logic we use is not one-headed, but many headed, directly engaged with the environment? That means that the thought of the "logical existence of zombies" may only occur in a world without zombies; after all, this is the only world we know. The existence of a real zombie could conceivably change the logic; indeed, in a world with real zombies, our very conception of a "logical possibility" might be entirely different from what it is in a world without zombies. This is true for most abstractions: their value lies in their reduction of complexity in an apparently one-headed context. But in fact, they reduce complexity in a many-headed context, because the complexity reductions are reductions in communications that are made. This probably boils down to the 'logical possibility' of zombies being a function of a particular set of speech acts.

But a many-headed world-view challenges basic cybernetic principles. Clock time is many-headed; therefore, the processing that occurs in clock-time is dependent on the world being as it is. If the processing changes the world, that in turn changes the logic. Maybe we begin to see how many-headed thinking can pinpoint the essential ontological problems of theory-practice gaps.

But it's not all doom and gloom, is it? Many of those cybernetic abstractions are still useful. "Difference" and "variety" particularly so. But if time is not one-headed, we need to think how it is that difference and variety are useful where abstractions about time and processing are not valid.

My argument here is that the concept which comes to the rescue is 'symmetry'. A symmetry is defined by markers. The most obvious markers are 'being' and 'not being'. Within 'being' and 'not being' there is a field of possibilities. Some possibilities 'fit' better than others; those are said to have symmetry. But symmetry 'just is'; it does not presuppose processing. It is there from any moment. It may be that what cybernetics calls a 'difference' is the realisation of a new symmetry.

This concept of symmetry gets around a few tricky problems. First of all, symmetry might give us a different sort of mechanism for anticipation. Symmetries are 'just there', and because of that, what is 'in the future' is contained within the symmetry of the present. Also, 'absence' becomes a fundamental category of mind, as something which demarcates 'not being'. This makes me think that there's something in Bhaskar's 'Dialectic'; but the dialectic isn't a 'process'; it's a symmetry. Finally, clock time (objective time) and reason in being multi-headed, fundamentally relate to continually shifting inter-relations. In this way, time is not psychological at all; it is sociological.

I'm not yet sure all of this makes sense. But there's something here. And it's seems to becoming more relevant because increasingly our technologies are working in 'real time'. Now there's a Bergsonian phrase if ever there was one!!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A "thank-you" note to Professor Ian Kemp

There are a few teachers to whom I feel a deep gratitude. My music studies at Manchester, which have underpinned my thinking ever since, were so rewarding thanks to the input of Professor Ian Kemp, who sadly died on the 16th September. His intellectual generosity as a teacher - particularly when he would ask his students questions, valuing the answers they gave so much that he noted them down - was a prime example of a philosophy of teaching which I have believed ever since: you know you are teaching well when you learn more from your students than they do from you!

He was refreshingly sensible about music as about education. When I first met him it was on my first day in the University: "all we assume is that you like music". I last saw him when he gave a guest lecture at the final concert of the Lindsay string quartet, with whom he had given so many inspirational sessions when I had been a student - particularly on late Beethoven. He was going deaf: "I'm a little bad at hearing," he said in a slightly humourous way. Surrounded by the 'new breed' of music academic - professionalised, strategic, rather-too-clever - he drew attention to a particularly intricate passage of a Tippett quartet. "How could you explain that?"... and a few clever explanations were offered by the clever staff: "altered dominant chords, suspensions, etc".. "well, it could be," he said, "but maybe it's just a nice noise!". A nice noise indeed - a I felt a little sad that nobody else has the courage or the wisdom to say that - but that's where academia has got us now. Not that his own approach to music analysis lacked rigour - but it was always sensible. Somehow, the detail never got in the way of driving at the heart of the music: Schoenberg's harmonic analysis appealed to him, as did Meyer's rhythmic analysis. He was sympathetic to Schenker, although I suspect dubious about the Schenker 'specialists'.

Then there was Tippett. I never met Tippett personally, although I did attend a couple of events where he was present before I went to University. But Ian Kemp was in many ways more accessible, and brought out in Tippett more than just the music. It was through Ian that I engaged with Jung and psychoanalysis - so important to Tippett (thinking back, I wonder if he had undergone some sort of individuation process himself). He presented Tippett in the context of the musical cannon. Through Tippett I came to Beethoven, Berlioz (Kemp's other great love), Hindemith (another passion), Janacek and 16th century English keyboard music. And most importantly, it connected-up; it made sense. That was the most important thing: his musical knowledge was not 'specialised'; it was integral. That meant that when he recommended something, it meant something more than it at first appeared. I remember that at the end of my studies, he worried that we hadn't been taught anything about Verdi. That was enough for me to go off and study Verdi after graduating. And he was right on a number of other counts: Porgy and Bess was the greatest opera of the 20th century; minimalism was the only new thing in music in the last 30 years; much modernist music was deficient; and Shostakovich was much greater than I thought at the time. And it wasn't just music: the 17th century mask, the Bauhaus, Bergsonian time.. all of which became enthusiasms of mine.

The most lovely thing was that, as with all great professors, he wasn't afraid of being silly. For his farewell concert on his retirement, the music department came together to perform Peter and the Wolf, with Kemp being the narrator. He did it very well, whilst also pointing out "the best tune in the piece" (Peter's triumphant march home after killing the wolf).

My only regret is that I didn't write this a bit sooner.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Digital divides, Play and Object relations

My daughter, who is 11, belongs to a generation who do not know a world without the internet. Along with her classmates, much of her private social life is online. But, then again, so is her dad's! There is a lot of modelling practice going on, and many of her friends seem to be joining in too. But of course, there are those that don't.

There has been much discussion about digital natives/digital immigrants. If I prefer Dave White's version of "residents" and "visitors" it's because "living with dad" for my daughter means being continually exposed to the online world as 'normal' in a way where in many other cases, this simply isn't the case. But actually, what's rather unsatisfying about all these distinctions is their superficiality - their inability to express more deeply the biological, social and psychological mechanisms that lead to observable changes in behaviour.

The central issue is not to do with online behaviour: transforming immigrants to natives, or visitors to residents all-too-often has a justificatory ring about it as learning technologists chase their next round of funding. Instead, I think the issue is to do with human identity and the cultivation of personality, and that has a much deeper tradition of thought than skin-deep socio-technical distinctions.

The tradition belongs to psychoanalysis. In particular, those aspects of psychoanalysis which have focused on the developing child, their play, their relationships, the objects they play with and the emergence of self. In this territory we find work going back to Freud, and that of his daughter. Bowlby also saw himself going 'back to Freud' in that he wanted to re-establish psychoanalysis on the grounds of observable phenomena. For Bowlby, attachments were observable manifestations of the outer-world from which the inner-world might be theoretically explored. Winnicott, whose emphasis on objects and play is distinct from Bowlby's concerns, speculates about inner-world mechanisms which have an impact on outer-world behaviours. Then there are the larger-scale concerns about selfhood and individuation which occupy the thoughts of Jung, Fromm and, from the social perspective, Illich.

Computers for children are largely play-things. As with other play-things, child engagement with them is a process of the development of self. Children 'play with reality' with computers: their facebook pages and Skype messages explore differences between different identities. They discover the inter-relationship between online action and real behaviour in the playground. However, as we all know, play with the internet is not risk-free in the sense that play with Lego is. Unlike play in a group, play on the internet is deeply individualised. In playing with the internet, children are exposed to the individual risks of public action. It may be that the discovery of self in this way can be existentially challenging in ways which might be harmful.

The presence of risk in online play is something new. Although risk has always accompanied childrens' games to some extent (the childrens' games explored by the Opie's are not always risk-free), the risks are usually of cuts and bruises, not psychological trauma.

I am interested in the creation of environments for online play which manage risk by being genuinely convivial. These environments are not individualised, but collaborative: the interactions that individuals make with objects are always in the context of a shared creative space. I wonder if creating environments for risk-free play for children, we might increase the chances that adults themselves might find ways of harnessing their own creativity. The digital divide is a division of self: the self that can play, and the self that is burdened with risk.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Mind, Death and Vitalism

There are some obvious questions concerning consciousness. "What  is in the bee that drives it to the flower?"; "What is in the stem that leads it towards the sun?"; "What is in the spermatozoa that drives it towards the egg?"; "What is in the molecule which causes it to self-organise?"; "What is in the dissonance that drives towards resolution?"; and so on... Only children ask these sorts of questions: in a recent discussion about sex education with my daughter for example, the issue of the consciousness of a sperm arose!

My suspicion is that the imputation of causal mechanisms based of sequences of events to explain these things is inadequate. In the case of the bee, it leads to 'mentalism'; in the case of the stem and the sperm it leads to 'biologism'. In the molecule, is it 'physicalism'. The musical case is in fact the most interesting, because it is the one with the greatest number of possible explanations: 'culturalism', 'physicalism', 'biologism' being a few possibilities, about which arguments have raged. However, whilst criticising these reductions, I want to avoid the other pitfall which is 'vitalism' (although I much prefer the ambitious thinking of vitalists like Bergson over mentalists, biologists, etc).

At one level, the problem is cause. More deeply the problem is ethical and political. The very point of attempting a new answer to these fundamental questions is to find a new way of looking at the world which might, I might hope, lead to a world that I would want to live in. Rather than digging into the detail to begin with (only to discover an implicit world-view which is untenable), it's probably better to be clear about what the world that I want to live in looks like.

Fundamentally here, I am Catholic (although perhaps Marxist as far as many Catholics are in fact Marxists), and as such and being most concerned with education, I am Illichian. Illich's concern with human dignity was directly linked to his appeal for conviviality: human beings are not islands; their psychic wellbeing is entirely interdependent. And amongst Catholic writers, Illich's position is broadly supported: Maritain adopted Bergson's ideas to make a similar point, and Scheler, whose concern with 'personalism' particularly emphasised the collective within the individual as the route to individuation.

But the ethical and political point behind this rests on concerns about consciousness and perception. Aquinas's philosophy of mind is remarkable, and represents perhaps the most complete attempt to address early modern awareness of consciousness with an Aristotelian causal model. Once that model was thrown out with the enlightenment, the attempt really stopped.. until Bergson changed the way we thought about time. Maritain marries Bergson with Aquinas and Aristotelianism as a way of linking human experience with politics.

Death, I wonder, may the hidden mover in all of this. I'm tempted to answer each of the questions I asked at the beginning with 'death'. Is this 'explanatory principle' any more helpful than the one suggested by the vitalists? It is the converse of the vitalist position. Death demarcates what there is and what there can be. Whilst it is abstract from me being here, now, in this moment writing this, it is still 'there'. And from me here to that "there" is the range of possible action that I might 'consider' taking next. My 'consideration' is a process which determines the realisation of possibilities. We call this process "mind". The realisation of possibilities is something that occurs in each of the questions I mentioned. But it does not seem reasonable to suggest that the "realisation of possibilities" requires a 'mind', or at least a 'brain' as we understand it.

Vitalism presents a positivising force which brings order, but its positive nature brings philosophical problems  since the capacity to apprehend such a force is dependent on the action of such a force in the first place. With such circularity, vitalism presents a situation similar to Moliere's 'domitive principle' of opium.

A death-oriented approach is a negative approach. It is a prioritisation of what Bhaskar might call "determinate absence". I've really struggled with Bhaskar's work on absence, and I'm not sure he's completely right about dialectic and absence, which is his main thrust, BUT I now think that the boundary between what is there and what is not presents some new opportunities for thinking about the function of mind and the role of brain.

I wonder if it might be like the idea of 'potential difference' in electronics, or perhaps like the length of a vibrating string. A wheatstone bridge is rather like a vibrating string, in the sense that it presents a field for exploring proportions. My central thesis at the moment is that the function of mind is to explore proportions between what is and what is not. In other words, the death which sits behind each of my questions demarcates a symmetry.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Managerialism, Conviviality and Technology (A revised version)

The opponents of ‘managerialism’ do not necessarily oppose ‘management’: only anarchists might object to the idea that some sort of regulation or control of institutions is necessary. Managerialism is distinct from ‘management’ in the sense that managerialism is a particular ideology of management. It is an ideology which states that the regulatory functions of management are common and similar techniques can be effective whether applied to a telecommunications business, a university or a hospital. However, in its ‘strong’ form, managerialism asserts its position as the only effective ideology of management. In this way, managerialism presents what Bhaskar (1979) calls a TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) formation: in effect we are told, "either accept the tenets of the ideology of managerialism, or face economic and social collapse"

There are two questions here:
  1.  How is the ideology of managerialism distinct from the more general principles of organisation and management?
  2. How does the TINA formation of managerialism arise to make managerialism unassailable in the management of institutions?
Managerialism isn’t new. However, the extent to which it dominates most large-scale social institutions – particularly health and education – is. Orwell would have recognised this managerialism as having the same characteristics as his dystopian world presented in Nineteen Eighty-four (2008). Conversely, many academics and managers in education, or doctors in the health system recognise Orwell’s description in the increasing degree of ‘newspeak’ jargon within their institutions, tied often to increasing specialisation and demarcation within practice and discourse. At the same time, the increasing inability to critique the foundations of academic practice, government policy, and sometimes even research practice testifies to what looks suspiciously like ‘doublethink’. An example can be found in Alasdair MacIntyre's (2009) recent critique of the culture of modern research universities, where the concept of 'universe' - fundamental to university - becomes lost in a haze of specialised disciplines: in MacIntyre's view, "The contemporary research university is, therefore, by and large a place in which certain questions go unasked or rather, if they are asked, it is only by individuals and in settings such that as few as possible hear them being asked".

According to Orwell’s fictional author of "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchic Collectivism", which explains to Winston Smith the functioning of the Party and the political organisation of the world in Nineteen Eighty-four, the machinations of the state, including newspeak, doublethink and the ever-present war with Eurasia or Eastasia was to ensure that the party member...
"is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. The discontents produced by his bare, unsatisfying life are deliberately turned outwards and dissipated by such devices as the Two Minutes Hate..."

Orwell’s ‘managerialism’ is the institutionalised creation of anxiety. This resonates I believe with the sociological analysis of modernity presented by Beck in his ‘Risk Society’ (1991). Beck considers that modern society manufactures and distributes ‘risk’, the individual experience of which is anxiety:
"The driving force in the class society can be summarized in the phrase: I am hungry! The movement set in motion by the risk society, on the other hand, is expressed in the statement: I am afraid! Instead of common interest through need, modern society represents common interest through anxiety"

In the large institutions of state, the risks have multiplied in ways that suggest that Beck is right. Not just increasing threats of litigation, but new anxieties concerning compliance with ever-emerging standards of practice, fulfilling ever-changing funding formulae, coping with increasingly detailed audit procedures, and so on. Every new such managerial intervention creates disruption in current practices and inevitably anxiety in individuals. Managerialism is the institutionalised creation of risks.

But managerialism is seen to be effective across a range of contexts. This is because it is individuals who become anxious, and managerialism’s risks are always ultimately threats to continued employment and career progression: “if I don’t comply with this new rule, I will lose my job”. Consequently, the individual reacts. But managerialism at its worst manipulates individual insecurities in cruel ways which only through the guile and cunning of clever higher-level risk management avoids the accusation of ‘victimisation’.

In order to understand the success of managerialism in its manipulation, it is important to understand the extent to which biology and psychology render the individual susceptible to this sort of manipulation. In essence, managerialism is a very successful manipulation of the outer-worlds of individuals which have deep and predictable consequences on their inner-worlds. Psychology and Sociology have a variety of different theoretical approaches which can help to unpick the mechanisms involved. Harré’s ‘Positioning Theory’ (1999), for example, would argue that the inner-world ‘storyline’ of an individual is partly constituted by the outer-world ‘positioning’ produced by the communications of others and normative social conditions. Looking deeper at the specific aspects of identity, Bowlby (1969) would focus on the attachment relationships between individuals and the systemic balance of control systems between the inner-world of the individual and the outer-world of meaningful attachments which are frequently undermined through the actions of managerialism. In a related way, Winnicott (1971) might focus on the relation between individual identity and practices, objects and play - also subject to continual managerial intervention. In essence, the continual disruption of the relationship between inner and outer worlds is an assault on the identity of individuals.

But focus on attachments, creativity and practice suggest that there might be an alternative to managerialism. Children with strong attachments in families, friends and schools usually thrive where those who have experienced family or social attachment problems struggle. A secure balance between inner and outer-worlds that is brought about through strong attachments to people, objects and practices gives rise to the capability to manage the risks that managerialism (and the modern world in general) presents. But by definition, an environment which at once supports rich capability and strong attachments is not an environment of isolated individuals beset by personal anxieties: where attachments and capabilities are strongest, society is at its most convivial. For Illich (1971), such situations are the epitome of dignified humanity.

But managerialism seeks to disrupt and sometimes sever individual attachments to one another. It has found ways of leveraging technology to help it to do this. It has found in the internet radical ways of rationalising and organising individualised risk, asserting ‘realities’ which are not ontologically grounded. It has exploited the resulting alienation to further its risk-produced manipulations. As Beck argues, the economy also appears to be organised in this way: as such, individuals seem helpless in the face of these forces. The mechanism of 'risk' is that they are deprived of ways of being together because their attachments are subject to managerialism's interference. Not least the individuals who work or study in modern higher education - particularly in the risk-laden environment of rising fees and economic uncertainty.

But technology has a surprising knack of upsetting the applecart. Enthusiastic technologists have always sought to fly beneath the radar of institutional systems. The teachers who in the 1980s enthused a generation of children by bringing their newly-acquired personal computers into the classroom saw this: for a moment, everything seemed possible. As Illich explains, every new technical innovation has had this sort of moment. To many teachers in the mid 1990s, the web represented the closest thing to realising Illich’s ‘learning webs’ that he thought would bring about ‘deschooling’. Even after managerialism had effectively colonised the web by the early 2000s with restrictions and firewalls, new ‘Web Services’ enabled the connecting of the functionalities of different systems together in ways which would once again create new possibilities for doing things that were once unimaginable: the resulting blogs, wikis and social networking sites characterise the web as we now know it. Of course, the cycle is that corporate managerialism consumes most of these ideas, using them to find new ways of producing risk for individuals in the form of the big global social network enterprises: the increasing global power of corporations like Google and Facebook only serve to shift the locus of risk-creation. But might there be a special case where this does not happen?

Managerialism relies on the anxiety of the individual. In a convivial environment, the capability of individuals to manage the anxieties that managerialism throws at it is increased. But a convivial environment means the capacity to form attachments, to play and create. The online text-based environments we currently know cannot support this. For all the talk of ‘friends’ on Facebook and other social media, online social engagement amounts to strategic manipulation of social connections through selective public communications. But the next wave of technology will have different affordances.

The speed of internet connections is increasingly allowing for rich interactive and real-time social engagements. Driven by new technical developments like HTML5 and WebSockets (, new capabilities are emerging to create direct communication protocols between web pages without necessarily interfering with any high-level institutional barriers. The affordance of much richer real-time communications enables those communications to be served and managed not by corporate or institutional services, but by ordinary individuals: setting-up a real-time communications server will become as easy as setting up a blog.

The experiments of Konrad Lorenz (1973) in establishing 'relationships' between new-born geese and inanimate 'mother' figures suggests something in the regulatory biological wiring which connects outer-world to inner-world. As our technological sophistication makes it possible for rich real-time interactions online, the ability to ‘imprint’ or (as Bowlby would have it) ‘attach’ to people and objects through technology remains an important question. Given rich attachments and new kinds of online activity, the central question is whether convivial environments for play, creativity and identity-construction can be established online. If the technology can genuinely support environments for rich attachments, then the risk culture of managerialism is undermined: the collective that looks after each other is more immune to individual risk manipulation than the fragmented social landscape we all-too-often see around us. We might ask, in the face of convivial self-organisation, will managerialism cease to coerce behaviour through the creation of risks, or merely find new ways to disrupt attachments and assail identity? Our hope might be that instead of the coercing of behaviour, the coordination of social organisation might instead embrace the inherent value-pluralism of convivial society through the coordination of creative activity rather than the manufacture of risk.

Beck, U (1992) The Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity Sage
Bhaskar, R (1979) A Possibility of Naturalism Sage
Bowlby, J (1969) Attachment. Attachment and Loss vol 1 Basic Books
Harré, R; Langenhov, L (1999) Positioning Theory: Moral contexts of intentional action Wiley-Blackwell
Illich, I (1971) Tools for Conviviality Marion Boyars
Orwell, G (2008) Nineteen Eighty-Four Penguin
Macintyre, A (2009) God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition Continuum
Winnicott, D (1971) Playing with Reality Routledge