Friday, 31 May 2013

Wavelets and Expectations

Pinpointing something interesting in a stream of information is a big challenge. Recently, wavelets have provided a means by which temporal changes in structure can be identified. This provides a way of making distinctions in continuous data automatically using a fairly simple algorithm. With image data, video and sound, the techniques promise remarkable data processing capabilities, making things like automatic video description a reality - YouTube's recently acquired ability to pattern-match video content from computer games indicates where things are going (and how new areas of copyright infringement will emerge that we hadn't even thought of!)

Video is essentially a continuous function, and wavelet analysis requires this. Sound waves are ideal, and the data of pixels in a picture will also do quite nicely. But what about text? And, what about music represented in the form of notation? This kind of data is not continuous. There is, however, a continuous ebb and flow of expectation, but that ebb and flow is dependent on redundancies and entropies in the text. Text presents different problems because it is the result of decisions, which deep down in our consciousness may be a continuous function (although we don't know), but even if it is, it's a continuous function that we do not have direct access to. Indeed, musical decisions might be the closest we can get to the continuous function of consciousness.

We can speculate what happens in the continuous function with things like text. Mostly, with text it is redundancy. Mostly I think it serves to prolong expectations. The continuous function serves to structure expectations in some way. Sometimes expectations are transformed by some new event. The transformation of expectations is accompanied by new redundancies which in turn feeds new expectations. An expectation maintains itself over shifting redundancies. This is the essence of the art of variation as practiced by artists and composers.

The central question is whether there a way of charting the continuity. Is there a way of mapping the relationship between tension and release? I wonder if there might be a correlation between the length of the path of recursive meta-game tree and the degree of tension that is experienced. In essence that might  map onto the length of a branch of a structure which is maintained by the continuous process. This might equate to entropy levels in choosing a next possible act. High entropy means tension. Low entropy means release. Similarly high tension would mean stimulating the creation of redundancy, and low tension would mean easing-off the creation of redundancy (after all, with the lowest entropy, there is little scope for redundancy).

Wavelets are good for removing redundancy. In compression algorithms like JPEG, wavelet analysis is used to remove the repetitions of bits in a process whereby those repetitions are coded as transformations of the wavelet. What it leaves behind are the 'edges' where distrinctions can be made. There are remakable advances currently underway in the analysis of sound waves and the recognition of patterns. And wavelet analysis is an important feature of more advanced data mining techniques like granular computing.

Because a wavelets repeat throughout the structure, its distortions indicate where the redundancy has really changed. That is an indication of where expectations may similarly have changed. At those moments where it does change, we can expect information transfer and meaningfulness to occur. Maybe.

The question is "which way round to look at this?". We could, for example, go down the route of an artificial psychology (actually, I would prefer an artificial sociology!), and model candidates for the continuous function and compare the utterances that it makes. If the morphogenetic process map onto things we see in reality, then it might be worth pursuing. But the most  pressing issue is how we understand the information around us, and how we organise ourselves. The most pressing issues are political not epistemological!

That means sorting out a model of the continuous process which discounts those models of the process which lead to social pathologies. I think that many of our social pathologies stem from bad theory about cognition. A better theory demonstrably shows the nature of cognition as inherently convivial.

If such a model could be established, then we would run our institutions and governments differently...

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Experience of Information and Symbol Grounding

In the theory of information, the symbol grounding problem refers to the inability to account for the emergence of signs and tokens (words) with referents from basic principles ( without recourse to apriori distinctions. The description of abstract mechanisms which show how structures of data can emerge and form the basis of proto-languages has been elusive, although there have been some interesting attempts by Holland (see his "echo" model) and Floridi. The symbol grounding problem is fundamentally a problem within the broader topic of morphogenesis, and indeed, the emergence of discrete symbols from basic principles is not dissimilar from the emergence of discrete forms from basic principles. They might well be one and the same!

There is, I think, a problem beneath the symbol grounding problem, and that is the problem of data itself. We tend to see data as essentially a synchronically structured facet of experience: it is never perceived to be diachronic. Yet, when I see '1.2345' there is a process of perception which is both synchronic and diachronic. "1.2345" must remain in my consciousness long enough for me to recognise it as data. Indeed, "1.2345"  may well appear as meaningful to me before I recognise it as data.

The matters that need to be considered include:

  1. Whether I expect to see "1.2345"
  2. How my expectation of seeing "1.2345" relates to my expectation of what might come next

There is a suggestion in 1. that if I didn't expect to see "1.2345" then I might not perceive it at all: it would be a difference that didn't make a difference because there was no anticipatory mechanism to pick it up and be changed by it. But this isn't so simple. I may not have expected to see "1.2345", but "1.2345" might be a possible well-formed statement within the realm of my expectations, and so it would make a difference to me.

I think there may be a problem with Bateson's idea of information as "a difference that makes a difference".
A diachronic view of information would instead look at the expectations of an observer and the prolongation of those expectations through 'differences'. Information as difference serves to prolong the expectations that it makes a difference to.

There are clearly some pieces of information which are completely outside current expectations and yet have an enormous impact: a shocking piece of news, for example. To consider these means we have to consider a gradation in transformation of expectation. Some differences are small, others are big, others don't register at all.

What is important is the understanding of the medium through which information is gained. My information expectation is a combination of an expectation of possible differences (i.e. utterances) in the light of the possibilities of the medium. This means that expectation is partly ontological speculation: our concern is partly the nature of what is possible within what we believe to be reality.

There are always messages that are possible which transform the way we think about the medium, that change the way we think about reality. These messages have a transformative effect. The old expectations of the medium are overturned. There is a radical restructuring of expectation which we feel quite viscerally. Artists and terrorists have this capacity to "transform the medium" in common! What shocks us also compels us to engage with it. It is this basic fact that makes art and terrorism possible.

Expectations ebb and flow as the properties of the medium and its messages are discovered. Information is more like the substrate within which this happens rather than the main show: it is more ground than figure. The figure is expectation.

But the central question of the symbol grounding problem is how it is that increasingly sophisticated symbols are developed and form the basis of proto-languages.

If expectations are considered as structures which are maintained through being immersed in the substrate of information, then we should consider what happens when those structures are radically reorganised. In a brain, reorganisation effectively means that a particular network of neurons which fired in anticipation of a set of events now (in the light of a new transformative event) is either discarded or radically reorganised to fire in a different way. The question is, what happened to the old set of events? Because our experience of phenomena like music is that whilst transformation takes us somewhere new, at some point the thing that was discarded comes back ("we will not cease from exploration...")

So the structure must persist in some form. Yet I am uncomfortable in following Floridi in suggesting a 'memory' because I do not think that it is the 'informational content' which is preserved (as bits), but rather it is the discarded structure of decision-making which is somehow preserved. Is it possible that one branch of tree may wither, whilst another flourishes, but at the same time the ermergent conditions of the flourishing of the second branch create the conditions for the resurrection of the first? Modelling this kind of oscillation ought to be possible. Each branch produces the information as the substrate for the growth and development of the other.

What is distinct about a particular structure of decision-making and a person's anticipations? If a particular structure reflects the choosing of the appropriate next act, the structure will determine the implications of different acts according to their likely effects, and the effects of those effects, etc. The agency for particular effects need not be memorised as 'code', but need only be 'wired' into reflex actions (like singing for example). If such a structure loses its privilege to another structure (through radical reorganisation of expectations), then the wiring will be maintained but the capacity to fire not called upon until some new point of development whereby the old structure of anticipation might be reintegrated within the network for active decision-making.  This moment might occur if an older structure becomes a shortcut for restructuring a newer structure. In this way, it is not surprising that 'eternal recurrence' is a feature of most art.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Ontogeny and Symmetry

Gregory Bateson's description of symmetry in his paper "A re-examination of Bateson's Rule" provides a way of thinking about the way things grow in relation to other things. The relations are not just between  fingers on a hand, or the divisions in a Beetle's leg, but also the relationship between the processes of reproduction within cells, and the 'informational' context within which that reproduction takes place. Basically, from the environment information is gained or lost which causes particular patterns of growth over time. D'arcy Thompson, many years before, had made this connection between ontogeny and symmetry by demonstrating how symmetrical forms resulted from varying rates of growth within a cellular structure. Indeed, William Bateson (whose 'rule' Bateson is talking about), was a contemporary of Thompson, and there are many overlapping themes in their work. Thompson is worth quoting here:
"The differences of form, and changes of form, which are brought about by varying rates (or 'laws') of growth, are essentially the same phenomenon whether they be, so to speak, episodes in the life-history of the individual, or manifest themselves as the normal and distinctive characteristics of what we call separate species of the race. From one form, or ratio of magnitude, to another there is but one straight and direct road of transformation, be the journey taken fast or slow; and if the transformation take place at all, it will in all likelihood proceed in the self-same way, whether it occur  within the life-time of an individual or during the long ancestral history of a race." (Growth and Form)
I have been recently working on the 'form of thought', looking particularly at the way expectations are structured. Taking the ideas about physical ontogeny and growth metaphorically can help to think about the mechanisms of mental processes. I agree with Bateson that processes of organic growth and processes of mental life both count as 'mental process'.  So it doesn't seem unreasonable to consider them together.

The problem is that unlike looking at a crab, we cannot see a form of thinking. All we can see are the results of actions which are taken in the light of that thinking. One of the key features of action in a society is that the focus of our attention shifts between thinking about what might be going on in peoples' heads and the communication dynamics that exist between people. There's very little we  can see of the former, although perhaps MRI scans and the like might help us to peer into physiological transformations - but it is still a huge organisational task, and methodologically tricky because it is easy to get carried away with our inferences! In  the environment, we have what we call 'information'. But as I argued yesterday, we have to be careful with 'information', because it is really only a bi-product of the expectations of individuals.

A while ago I tried to model communication dynamics assuming that each individual is a viable system communicating with other viable systems, using as a basis for this Beer's Viable System Model. I produced an agent-based model of this (see and All interesting stuff. But also a bit unsatisfactory because, whilst there was an effective model of communication between agents, none of my agents reflected on their communications. Eveything happened instantaneously, and so whilst there is much realism in the dynamics, something is missing.

More recently, the problem of reflection has led me to consider the way we reason about communications in order to select an utterance. Luhmann called this the 'psychic system' and is the least well-elaborated aspect of his theory. I used Nigel Howard's  metagame theory as a way of talking about this and presenting the challenges involved. There are two key points which have emerged from this:
  1. That absences are causally efficacious in determining the choices we make
  2. That anticipated communication dynamics are fundamental to the construction of choices
I've spent a whilst recently talking about 1) - and really, that is also the topic of Bateson's paper, and much work in the information sciences besides (especially Deacon).

But what about 2? What it means is that my growth is dependent on your growth. In mental life, where we seek to make communications, that is obvious. But is it a general 'formal principle'? 

When we consider a petal, or the branches on a stem, or the fingers on a hand, we tend to think about the cellular process occurring within an information environment. Missing from this are all the other petals, branches, fingers,  etc. Increasingly, thinking about the ontogeny of a single entity seems to be a mistake. When are we ever looking at a single entity? 

In mental life, my growth is dependent on the growth of others around me. There is a dynamics of communication which feeds a dynamics of expectation which coordinates particular ontogenetic processes. This raises the question that when we see a cell, are we  not seeing "pairs of processes"? Between a pair, there is a communicational dynamics which establishes the patterns of growth in each pair. In other words, symmetry is born out of communication between pairs. 

As I write this, I am reminded of Douglas Hoffstadter's  thought experiment in "I  am a strange loop". There he considers the possibility that each of us individuals is not a 'person' but a 'pairson'. I don't entirely agree with Hodstadter's thinking, but this is highly revealing as a word-play joke because it cuts underneath some fundamental assumptions we have about life. 

So there is a new model to build. One which combines the kind of co-creating communication dynamics of my earlier model, with a model of the growth processes of mental life within an information context. For the latter, I think the Diffusion Limited Aggregation model (see is not a bad place to start. In essence, the question is what  happens when two DLA models communicate with each other, and whose growth processes are determined by the absences which are created as a bi-product of their communications...

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Expectation and Redundancy

Defining or describing 'information' is perhaps one of the most pressing challenges in the social sciences today. In the need to get to grips with our 'information society', scholars in the management sciences, economics, cybernetics, etc all worry about information.

I cannot determine whether what is at stake is an experience (the experience of you reading this, for example), or whether it is some kind of substance (like material substances). Living in a digital world is certainly an experience. And the environment of 'information' (whatever it might be) certainly produces constraints on peoples' actions in a way comparable to material constraints (the abusive email, the diktat from management, the news).

But I think thinking about substances and experiences may be a red herring. What we have experientially in an  'information environment' are expectations of what might happen next. It is these which are continually shifting, often in response to new pieces of 'information'. But whatever the nature of the environment, it is our continually shifting expectations that indicates its (the information environment's) presence. But expectations are strange things. An expectation doesn't exist at an instant. It exists over a period, gradually transforming into some other expectation. All expectations are prolonged in some way. Information needs to be seen from the perspective of the process of prolonging expectations.

The active ingredient in the business of prolonging an expectation (I think) is redundancy. Redundancy is produced by the patterning of lived experience. We only know redundancy through the fact that our expectations are prolonged (after all, to know a pattern is to confirm one's expectations).
When you look at these patterns, think about your expectations. It is my expectation that lasts, and it lasts because the redundancy is there. Were it not for the regularities we would not have the expectation...

So the relationship between expectation and redundancy is like that between Figure and Ground.
Expectation means that there is a figure in our seeing a figure. And our seeing the figure is dependent on the "ground of our seeing" as well as the "ground of the figure". 

But when expectations change, what happens to old expectations? In music, expectations shift, but old melodies, themes, harmonies somehow 'stick around' to be re-cognised later on in the structure. Somehow, larger stuctures are prolonged over time. It's like the dead branch of a tree that suddenly sprouts leaves again. 

So expectations may form themselves into structures. The redundancy in "information" maintains those structures and creates the conditions for novelty. At  moments of novelty new structures emerge, and old structures may be restructured. As new structures emerge, so they produce new redundancies.  Some of those redundancies may create the conditions for the reappearance of older structures. (I'm not sure how though, yet)

I'm currently looking at NetLogo models of Diffusion Limited Aggregation as a starting point for thinking about how this might work. 
The diffuse environment can be seen as 'redundancy'. The patterning of the structures that form can be seen as 'expection'  - particularly if we see this from the perspective of Nigel Howard's metagame trees.

But this is only the start. The structures may themselves be autopoietic in some form. And the structures will have different properties in terms of producing new redundancies as they grow (this would be a bit like Deacon's 'autocell')

But this is a good starting point...

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Mutual Redundancies and Entropy in Online Discussion and Music

There is a problem when analysing information transfer insofar as a particular 'item' of information that is to be transferred must be identified first. This might then be used as an index of the success of failure of a particular communication network. However, when we communicate, it may not be the transfer of particular items of information which is the best measure, but rather the coordination around shared redundancy. Where shared redundancy can be measured, then this might provide a better way in which expectations are managed.

Measuring redundancy is easy enough. We can look at the maximal lossless ecoding of a message and compare it to its uncompressed version to see those things which are most redundant. In a Huffman code, the lowest value items (which occupy the least number of bits) will be the most redundant. Where the redundancy relation between two speakers online is a set pattern, then we might say there is no information transfer. However, there are moments when the redundancies change. What's important in this process is the process of chunking sections to find those section where the redundancies change. These are the most significant moments.

When redundancies change, it is a sign that something new has been discovered. There is a sign that there is a restructuring of expectations. I think this is because there is a relationship between expectations and  redundancy. Basically, I think redundancy serves to prolong (or retain) expectations. Expectation is not only a synchronic feature (a structured set of probabilities); it is a living diachronic  process. The thing that keeps the diachronic aspect of expectation alive is redundancy.

As with any new idea like this, I think "what does this mean in music?" Basically, I am talking about the relationship between a melody (which can be thought of as a set of expectations) and its accompaniment. The accompaniment serves to prolong the melody. Most accompaniments generate redundancy (think of the Alberti bass). The redundancies punctuate the expectations of the melody to keep it alive (see below)

What about in a dialogue? How might we spot the melody? How might we spot the accompaniment? Redundancies are easier to spot than expectations. In fact, if we can see the redundancies, then what isn't redundant can be seen to be prolonged. At a very simple level, text analysis tools like illustrate the point nicely. By using a simple entropy calculation on Wikipedia text, wikisummarizer is able to pick out passages that are of key importance. Everything else punctuates it...

Now the key question is whether such techniques can tell us something about online discussion list communication (or even, large-scale discussion within MOOC forums). The key issue is where expectations change. This might occur where a particular set of expectations entertained by one person and prolonged by one set of redundancies, becomes transformed as a set of similar expectations prolonged by the redundancies of another person.

How could we test for this? Well, identifying the redundancies of an individual's utterances is fairly easy. Guessing the set of expectations might be possible by looking for common patterns. But what is most important is examining the relationship between the set of expectations and the set of redundancies. Where these is  a common pattern, where the pattern changes for each person, these are (I think) the moments we should look for in the data.

In order to think about this clearly we need some sort of concrete example to play with. Music fits the bill most effectively. It appears that different aspects of redundancy (motif, rhythm, harmony, tonality, dynamics, articulation, etc) create different prolongational and expectation structures. It is through the interplay of these that expectations shift. As they shift, so we can talk about 'information transfer'. In an online discussion, the lack of redundancy means that expectations shift  less easily. New redundancies have to be generated by individuals consciously. If no new redundancies are created, there is effectively no communication. There is more redundancy in face-to-face communication, much of it unconscious.

But it will take another post to look at this in more detail....

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Notes on Abstraction, Information theory and Stories

I want to explore three statements about information theory I made in a post last week (see They are:
  1. "abstraction is the removal of redundancy from the flow of experience" 
  2. "learning an abstraction is a process of recreating the redundancy that was removed in the abstracting process" 
  3. "teaching is the process of creating the conditions for the production of redundancies related to a particular abstraction"
The statements are guesses. I find them tantalising because they present the prospect of a more analytical approach to learning. Because online learning presents many measurable factors, it is particularly amenable to this kind of analytical approach (although I will stop short of saying 'quantitative' - that would be going too far!).

There is a complex relationship between abstraction and cognition. Our daily existence would be impossible were if not for the fact that we create abstractions and largely coordinate ourselves through the world with them. Sometimes we believe  our abstractions more than the evidence of our own eyes, ears or hearts - and then we find ourselves in a kind of 'false consciousness'. The abstracting process, whatever it may consist of, is fundamental. In the cybernetics of the Viable System Model, abstraction in this sense is simply an attentuation process as part of an effort to maintain requisite variety.

I don't think its going too far to suggest that learning is essentially a process of engagement with abstractions. Most academic knowledge (the stuff that we go to school to learn) exists in essentially abstract forms that we call "subjects". In the process of learning, we often have to abstract from the experience of engaging with subjects - for Bateson this would be 'learning to learn'. And Bateson is probably right that the process of abstracting from the flow of experience leads to "levels" of learning. (Although I think I might prefer 'stratification')

But the question is "what's driving the show?" Could it be Ashby's (and Beer's) concept of "Variety"? In this sense, Beer's ideas of amplification of variety might amount to 'reproducing redundancy from abstractions'; attenuation is the process of abstraction. But I think this is too flat. The stratification of abstractions and the way that variety appears to get 'chunked' at the higher levels of learning do not, to my mind, get satifactorily explained by this process. Neither does the production of new abstractions to account for new experiences. Finally, the production of novelty seems poorly accounted for.

For these reason, I think looking at redundancy itself makes more sense. In Shannon's theory, redundancy seems to have at least two meanings: on the one hand there is the idea of 'excess bits' to carry messages; on the other hand, there is the simpler notion of repetition of messages. At some level, these may be the same - although they do not immediately appear to be related. But the point is that redundancy seems to do something.

If I continuously repeat a message to somebody, they are likely to get bored. What is boredom? My first inclination is to say the boredom is a response to low variety, and to say that my "variety" must be low if I am simply repeating the same message over and over again. But now I'm not so sure. Indeed, all human beings probably have very high variety (a large number of possible states) irrespective of whether they say the same thing over and over again or not. The boredom is more likely to be poor variety management - between myself and my environment. I am in oscillation - I don't know what to do because the complexity is overwhelming. I see many students like this!

But the redundancy produced in oscillation is important. The unmanaged variety in a sender that might produce the redundancy also might produce unmanaged variety in receivers. In this way it may be possible to say that the redundancy has a causal bearing in a social dynamic which increased the probability that some novelty emerges which serves to "mop up" the unmanaged variety - the mopping up is done by new concepts which change expectations within the social dynamic. Redundancy causes expectations to be attenuated in such a way that variety is unmanaged.

When expectations are attenuated because of high redundancy then it is unlikely that there is much information transfer between people. It is interesting that the idea of 'attenuated expectations' is highly compatible with the notion of absences in a metagame tree. The high redundancy produced results from the few strategies that are available for inspection - this becomes a self-perpetuatng mechanism. But eventually, there must be some 'determination' of absence. And it is at this moment that expectations are adjusted. At this moment, there is high information transfer.

Sometimes I find that I become too abstact. At that moment, it is useful to 'tell stories' (I often do this through music). What happens here is the deliberate production of redundancy. My blogging activity often has this form: most of what I write is redundant!! But through the telling of stories, through the production of redundancy there is a process by which the "deep absence" can be identified. The story itself is in itself a flow of redundancy and abstraction. Like the play within a play, this appears to be a necessary process to keep the wheels moving.

The brief retreat into a fantasy world is the move that I need to find the thing that is missing from the 'real' world. Is our response to unmanaged variety to "generate redundancy?"

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Trades Unions and Education: Some fundamental questions

There is little doubt that the government's "reforms" of higher education have caused a terrible mess. The characteristics of the mess are confusion, competing agendas, loss of clarity of purpose and pockets of managerial opportunism which exploit all the distractions. It is a terrible situation for everyone. For staff, the threat to jobs which they had imagined would see them to a reasonably well-funded retirement mean that expectations dramatically have to readjust to the circumstances. Vice Chancellors find themselves in a catch-22 situation: I imagine that few of them in their ambitions for running a university would ever have forseen themselves having to disembowel their institutions in this manner (I'm grateful to a friend for this graphic description!). Whatever staff may think, this is an unenviable task. Faced with this, VCs have tended to react to the unpleasant job by surrounding themselves with (often sufficiently unpleasant) people to carry it through. There is little that is particular in this situation that distinguishes any one institution from any other: the pattern tends to be the same (as indeed it is in the corporate sector when faced with difficult choices).

The targets of cuts are academics. That's because they are very expensive. Their salaries used to be competitive because there was a market (supported by the state) for lecturers in Higher Education. But the state support has evaporated, the market disappeared, and individuals left on relatively high salaries (for the education sector as a whole) as a time of downward pressure on salaries generally and increasingly high unemployment. Moreover, salaries which used to be funded through general taxation, are now funded directly by the students themselves. This all leaves academics vulnerable, particularly as there is no shortage of young enthusiastic post-docs who are keen to get their first teaching experience for a fraction of the salary.

Faced with this, the Trades Unions are in a difficult situation. In traditional industries, Trades Unions represented the workers' interests by forming collectives whereby management couldn't bully individuals or make changes to working conditions by sleight of hand manoeuvres on the shop floor. The nature of the industrial situation within which collectives formed was that each individual was in themselves dispensible and that any individual could be replaced easily. The collective prevented the easy replacement of the individual by threatening a strike.

'Replacement' of individuals in such an individualised job as education is not the same as replacement in coal mining. In Universities particularly, each individual establishes their own market value through individual reputation, publication, project funding, etc. This means that the collective is never equal. Whilst the avowed intent of the collective is to protect the members' interests as a group, some members will inevitably see their interests served best by the disappearance of other members!

But in education, there is a further complication. Whilst the Union is meant to serve the members' interests, arguments for doing this will be based on 'protecting the future of education'. However, it would not follow that the future of education is best served by all the members keeping their jobs. By any logic, with tightened budgets, all members cannot possibly expect to keep their jobs (or at least their current salary levels). This sets up a contradiction: serving the members interests will put the future of education in a more perilous position, and indeed the future generation of students who will be left with the bill for protecting the members interests.

In terms of "protecting the future of education", management may well claim the higher ground, arguing that it is not for members of staff to profiteer from students, who will be beholden to debt for at least the next 20 years. They will argue that education has to be affordable, that technologies must be allowed to play their role in making learning and teaching efficient. All of these things stand to threaten the 'members interests'.

So, are Trades Unions in education about "Protecting their members' interests" or are they about "Protecting the  future of education"? Here we can ask "What if Trades Unions were specifically dedicated to protecting education? What would they do?"

The Union's strength is that it represents the voice of the staff. In an economic crisis, the dynamics of organisations are remarkably similar. Typically, management goes deaf. The classic recent case is the HBOS failure (see The fear of making the wrong decision creates the conditions for making the wrong decision. In situations like HBOS, management becomes increasingly allergic to criticism; it prefers to hears positive feedback from those close to it (in whose interests it is to provide positive feedback!!); it will actively avoid contact with those on the ground who know the  organisation better, and who might criticise current policy. These are the classic pathologies of communication in organisations in crisis.

Making the voice of the staff heard in these circumstances requires great skill. Shouting and berating management usually only stimulates the antibodies. What is needed is good teaching. The collective knowledge that the unions represent is vital to good decision-making. But it needs to be presented in a way which is unthreatening to those who will otherwise ignore it and make worse decisions. At the same time, a pedagogical approach can help in the other direction - for members of Unions to appreciate the gravity of the situation faced and the importance of careful positioning. Whatever suspicions exist concerning the probity of managerial conduct, it is unlikely ill-doing will be exposed through confrontation. And if there is wrong-doing, the logic upon which it is based can be properly inspected and shown to be counter-productive. It is in the interests of everyone that this is done carefully.

Most importantly, a pedagogical approach is precisely about "protecting the future of education". For it is with effective teaching and learning in the management of Universities, as with their practice and mission, that there is the guarantee of good decisions. And it is good decisions that will ultimately serve to protect the education system for future generations.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Why am I so slow? (or "redundancy to the rescue?")

I've been writing a particular paper for a very very long time. Since the inception of the idea of the paper (which is written with a friend), it has taken nearly 2 years! My friend is very quick, and I have been incredibly slow. I simply haven't been able to do it any quicker - and that makes me think about my experience, and why I have felt unable to move any quicker. [I have to say that other friends of mine with very prestigious careers will say "2 years is nothing!"]

In many creative endeavours, it is important that time passes. 'Wasting' time serves a function. For what appears to be a waste seems to prepare the ground for the moment when something can finally be 'put to bed' and something new is produced.

Given my thinking about redundancy in my last few posts, I'm interested in the business of 'wasting' time. I think that time wasted is time spent on "manufacturing redundancy". If we consider that redundant data, or 'absence', is causal, then the production of redundant data will eventually have an effect.

Of course, there's a lot of a different kind of redundancy around at the moment. People with no jobs. The experience of loss, and more importantly the fear of loss is everywhere. "How will I pay the mortgage?", "Will I have to move?", "what about my pension?" and so on. What is the fear really? Would we be so scared if we knew our lives would change, that others lives would change around us, that we need to keep together? Would we be so scared if a new war destroyed our cities? I think it would be a different kind of fear. We would probably be terrified about the threat to life of those we love. But the loss of homes, loss of jobs is not so dissimilar in a war to the kind of economic readjustment we are living through at the moment. But what is missing now is a sense of solidarity - war affects everyone. What is dehumanising now is the sense that individuals are 'picked off' and cast out of the community. The fear is of rejection and alienation - and it appears that it might strike anywhere. Perhaps this is closer to the kind of existential fear that Camus wrote about in "La Peste"...

But how have we made ourselves vulnerable to being 'picked off'? Answer: we half did the job before the crisis hit! We alienated ourselves, we lived inauthentically, we behaved in a dehumanising way, and we were often only too happy to see other people 'picked off'. But as we treated each other, we treated ourselves. We became alienated, and as we did, we became more vulnerable.

But this is really about waste. When the redundancy letter actually arrives, it means changes. It obviously means waking up and not going to work. It means lots of daytime telly. It means time passes without any sense of achievement. It means worrying about time passing without any sense of achievement (or income!). But perhaps most importantly, it means having fewer people to talk to, and having nothing to talk about.

But is the passing of time without any sense of achievement really a problem? I doubt it. If it is characterised as a collapse in the social network, what actually happens is an attenuation in the bandwidth of one's communication channels. That means redundancy of communication goes up (we say the same thing to fewer people). But it is all part of the transition. It is part of the process whereby creativity gradually takes root again in a new way. It is not the employed who change societies in an economic slump; it is the unemployed.

But, as with writing my paper, the death-trap with wasting time is worrying about wasting time. There is a need for a change of focus on individual achievement (which is part of inauthentic living and alienation) towards a greater sense of being within the flow of history. That's where the unemployed are are at the moment. That's where the 'time wasters' could be if they stopped worrying about wasting time. In the long run, it may be a better place to be.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Grounds for Critique in the "Hole in the Wall Experiment"?

Donald Clark recently wrote a critical post about Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiments (see This prompted a vigorous discussion, in which Sugata Mitra participated. There was a considerable amount of academic ping-pong, whose objective appeared to be defence of the rightness of one position against another. I found all of this rather depressing - but perhaps not for the reasons that Mitra did.

The problem with the debate was that only ground upon which the argument was based appears to be individual ego differences ("I'm right"). Never is there any attempt at critical inquiry in looking at what happens (or appears to happen) and then to ask "why?" Instead, evidence is produced (empty holes in the wall) which appear to conflict earlier evidence and the claims of Mitra. Yet, since Mitra's underlying theoretical concern is "self-organising behaviour in learning", the empty holes in the wall hardly refute the theory of self-organising behaviour. Indeed, they rather add a bit more spice to the mixture. What might this mean? How might it change what we originally thought? How might our theory need to change? It's unfortunate that many people find thinking hard and unpleasant, and where the thinking gives up, ego kicks in.

The empty holes in the wall are telling us something. Personally I wasn't particularly satisfied with Mitra's original conception of self-organisation (I discussed this with him). In particular, viewing the technology as having causal powers per-se in producing the behaviour of the children seemed teleologically-focused. I doubt technologies have purposes. But I think people have agendas, and their agency with technologies reflects this. (Indeed, I have a friend who vehemently denies the reality of technology, preferring to simply call  it an "artefact" - he may be right)

The agency behind the hole in the wall was Sugata Mitra. He established the conditions for a self-organising activity. There is something complex in the way that we conduct activities with people: without the continual care and coordination, things tend to fall apart. Mitra's computers were his means of coordinating the activity. My view is that his agency was mediated through them. The children's engagement was a function of the technology (which framed the activity) and the agency which coordinated it. Take the coordination away, and things will fall apart (in cybernetic terms, they go into oscillation). In effect, Mitra taught the students. But he taught in a very imaginative way. An experiment to be applauded, in my view.

But there's much more to get out of this - particularly about the mechanisms of activity and self-organisation. One of the mistakes in thinking about the hole in the wall is that it is an addition to the environment - some additional complexity which generates self-organisation. This isn't correct, in my view. Indeed, it is the opposite. The computer is an attenuator: it attenuates the sheer diversity of the childrens' daily concerns and focuses them on a particular task (playing with the computer).

Most learning activities are attenuations of one sort or another - indeed most games (think of the attenuation of table tennis!). But what does the attenuation do? Why is it that the attenuation of a learning activity sponsors creativity and self-organisation?

I can only speculate on a possible answer to this. It has to do with redundant action - those actions which are simple, repetitive and recursive. A high-variety channel can carry many different signals - the probability that one signal is the same as another is low. A low-variety channel carries only a few signals. The probability that signals recur is higher. Recurring signals are effectively redundant signals. In the computer, the idea of 'clicking' is a good example. But redundancy serves a purpose. I think it catalyses new forms of communication.  This may be the mechanism that Mitra had uncovered. A low variety activity stimulated rich social interaction and new forms of communication. If the redundancy of the communication is catalytic on the production of new communications, then this process can be accounted for.

But the attenuator (the computer) had to be managed. Teachers manage the attenuators of their activities (they remind children of the rules). Mitra had to manage the attenuation of his computer. When this was no longer managed, what happens to all complex systems in their natural environment occurred: