2013-08-03

Conferencing about cybernetics

Posting this here because the CETIS blogs site has gone down - I hope to post it there as well.

The question I shared and took away with me was "how can we find out what we and others need to learn, to reach enough shared understanding to support fruitful and positive collaborative action?"

The occasion was the 2013 conference of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC), unusually held away from America, in Bolton, in virtue of the fact that the University of Bolton has our Institute for Educational Cybernetics, which maintains contact with many cyberneticists (or "cyberneticians") across the world.

The conference theme was "Acting – Learning – Understanding" — my question was formulated to include those three concepts. For me, good action is the goal, and I have developed a personal orientation towards collective or collaborative action, through life's experiences of the limitations and pitfalls of acting alone. Cybernetics (or any other worthy discipline, for that matter) should be helping with that.

The temptation, perhaps with all academic disciplines, is to talk a lot and act only a little, if at all. OK, a conference exists to talk, and a good conference exists to facilitate conversations, not people speaking prearranged words at other people. The ASC 2013 conference managed to be a good conference for me mainly from the way it was arranged – as the two inner days (lunchtime to lunchtime) were extended discussions in groups of between six and eight members, selected by drawing numbers out of a hat.

In the first group, my understanding evolved around the relationship between different kinds of conversation. Acting together needs coordination, through some kind of conversation about what is to be done; but this in turn needs a basis of shared understanding of what is being proposed to be done. There is a tension here between the two respective kinds of conversation. Business people – people of action, one might say ‐ may be tempted to err on the side of communication about acting based on unspoken assumptions: the actions may as a consequence crash and burn, if the assumptions turn out not to be held in common. Academics and philosophers (including cyberneticists) may be tempted to spend all their conversational time proposing ever more supposedly solid foundations of shared understanding. (Now, what was it we were actually going to do? Oops, we forgot that!) For the two sides to function well as a whole system, there must be quite a close coupling. The cyberneticists must focus around the practical issues of the people of action; the people of action must listen and learn from the cyberneticists. This first group I participated in was very rewarding from the point of view of deepening my understanding of the issues that arise in developing enough understanding to support acting.

There were also people of action at the conference. In my group in the second day we shared our personal stories, and it turned out that several people had some kind of engineering background – in contrast to my first day's group's bias towards physics. One of this second group was the CEO of a business of 3000 employees, who maintained a small unit to apply cybernetic thinking in the running of the business. Initially, I was disappointed by the apparent lack of focus in our discussion. We seemed to get lost just talking around the awfully unfathomable topic of social media, not really advancing our understanding. But we did do something that turned out to be highly significant. We got together a group on WhatsApp, which strikes me as filling the gap between Twitter's main mode and their direct messaging.

It was in the afternoon plenary session on the last day that this came into its own. Peter was "having a hard time" with the exercise that was taking place – it didn't seem to be engaging – but he thought he might be the only one. He acted, by putting a message onto the WhatsApp chat. I responded sympathetically; so did Ludmila. We managed not to walk out or go to sleep by having a side conversation on WhatsApp. Another group of people expressed their disengagement by getting up and moving around at the other end of the room. I acted as a channel for expressing this dissent in the session itself, which was then immediately closed for a tea break!

What makes the difference between group discussions where people just give their opinions, and discussions where people feel that new insights are being constructed? I think it's connected with how much people feel able to ask questions. The right use of any media is important here. In the second of the groups I was in, we noted how some social media forums have rejected flame wars, but gone to the other extreme of the "cult of nice". People can't easily act in the role critical friends within this "cult of nice", and critical friends can ask probing or challenging questions.

Now I'll try to put this together and begin to answer my question.

Effective collaborative or collective action needs, I think, not only a shared understanding of the aims and goals, and a shared rationale for the proposed actions, but also a shared understanding of the processes and inherent roles involved both in coordinating action, and acting itself. Our contemporary capitalist society seems to be exploiting an inherent weakness in human nature, to be self-centred and individualistic, and to fill our lives with noise and detached activity, to the extent that we are little able or willing to develop that necessary shared understanding. Sharing personal stories helps towards understanding the richness and complexity of each other's inner lives, which is the start of a remedy. That can underpin the kind of mutual understanding and trust that is needed for more effective communication. That is part of what we need to learn about each other.

Because our culture keeps us in the dark, we need to put extra effort into learning the processes and roles involved in effective (or to use Beer's term, "viable") systems that are partly constituted by ourselves. And, I maintain, these systems cannot any longer be essentially hierarchical – as the world has becomes more complex, hierarchical control becomes less and less effective. If the study of cybernetics can be one force helping us find out what we have to learn about roles in effective non-hierarchical systems, and how to act accordingly, then bring it on! Let us even start to formulate curricula, and work out how to do apprenticeships, in and for a collaborative economy and society where there is more parity between us.

2012-05-12

Values: complementary to knowledge and competence

I was reflecting more on what values are.

I come back more and more strongly to the position that values are what people have in common when they would make the same choices in the same situations. But of course what you do is most often affected by what you know, and certainly also limited by what you are capable of doing, or indeed what you are competent at doing. And yet, the way we use the concept of values indicates that we imagine that we may share values with people of quite different knowledge and skills.

So I think it is perfectly reasonable to say that we share values with people who would make the same choices in the same situations, given the same knowledge and abilities. Because we don't share the same knowledge and abilities, we can never be absolutely certain, but we can imagine, and I think with good reason. Values are complementary to knowledge and ability. It is the three of them together that determine choices of action, to the extent that they are determinable (which is never perfectly.)


2012-01-25

The technological dilemma

A bit less than 20 years ago, when I was working at City University, I started to think through some technology approaches that I initially called "the CHOICE system" (Common Human Online Information Correspondence Enquiry). That developed some time later, through interaction with a couple of collaborators including Bruce Pullman, to "CHOICE Matching". Right at the beginning, I felt that the idea, though not yet quite "ripe", could make someone a lot of money in the next 5 to 10 years. I wrote this in a departmental presentation in 1994.

Why and how? Because essentially such a system would cut through the dilemma of (a) a small amount of verified information giving poor matches (b) the requirement for large amounts of information being impractical, demotivating, and against lazy human nature. Matching people, or person-sized opportunities, becomes really practical, efficient, and motivated. The system can thus facilitate one of the pillars of a choice society — to bring people together who share values, so that they can work, live, or otherwise interact together in ways that are in keeping with their values, making their lives more meaningful and fulfilling in ways that one can only start to imagine.

15 years passed, now nearly 20, and no money, no appearance of any other system that does what CHOICE could do. So where should I go? Seems to me like there are two alternative approaches to choose between — a dilemma for me.

  1. Keep the whole idea under my hat still, but keep my ears ever open for a chance to exploit the idea commercially. The main benefit of attracting income would be to facilitate people to work on the surrounding issues, for the benefit of people in common. Another benefit is that there is money to fend off any large corporate predatory interest that might want to interfere with the idea and its application. On the other hand, the danger is that it will never happen. Even if it happens later, what about all the people who could be helped in the meanwhile? I feel that pressure even now - should I already, say 10 years ago, have put all the ideas in the public domain?
  2. Which brings me to the other alternative. Give up any idea of focusing any kind of financial stream. Publish the ideas, the plans, the methods, the algorithms, as widely as possible, and try to draw people in, perhaps using open source and open standards approaches to ensuring that the IP remains free. The dangers here are both of subversion by commercial interests, and of rapacious claims to the IP (by the kinds of people serving corporate empires supporting SOPA, PIPA, etc.)

Ultimately, I don't know, and I can't tell which way to go. Perhaps it depends on the people who would accompany me on the journey. Who would that be, then? Of course, it would be so useful to have the CHOICE system to find people who have similar values to mine...

2012-01-02

Instilling goodness - a reply to Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson, in a post yesterday "Beyond Good and Evil: Creativity and transversal competency" asked, "What would the educational processes around instilling 'goodness' look like?" What a wonderful question! Thank you, Mark!

OK, maybe there are aspects of goodness, or forms of goodness, that cannot be learned. Let's celebrate that and move on to what may be learned. If it can be learned, then there is value in at least attempting to analyse it, so that we can consider perhaps how it might be built up.

Goodness is about the choices we make. I did a quick search for "choose to do good" and came across this humble account of a particular good choice along with the exhortation to choose to do good. But choice is a matter both of real freedom and of perception. Mark's point about our environment resonates here. Our environment must allow us choice. But also we must see the choices offered by the environment, and seeing the possibility of choosing differently is surely one of the first keys to unlocking goodness. As Mark points out eloquently, an environment in which we can 'play' is one in which we have evident choice. What is a game if not an activity that we can choose to engage in, or not? If we can't escape, it's no longer a game...

In a situation where choice is present, there seem to me a few essential ingredients to goodness, badness, or indeed living up to any personal value.

  • We need to be able to carry out the choices we make. This can depend on to all sorts of things that many people call "competencies". And not having those competencies can affect what we perceive as possible – we may not feel we have an effective choice if we are not confident that we can carry out alternative actions.
  • We need knowledge of the likely consequences of our actions, for ourselves, for others, and for the rest of the world we are taking into consideration. This can be taught. It can also be taught horribly wrongly. And one kind of consideration that weighs very heavily on us is what Richard Wilkinson calls "social-evaluative threat" – threats to our self-esteem or social status.
  • With all the knowledge and ability we might have, we still are left with the weighing up of the different outcomes, as we understand them at the moment of choice. There is a widely-understood attribute of a person about to make a decision, often known as "presence of mind" or something similar. It is to do with how deep we allow the process of consideration of consequences to go. If we decide without consideration (perhaps because there was not time for it) we may miss appreciating consequences that may come back to haunt us later.

Probably everyone would agree with the points above, and surely they can be affected positively by learning, education or training. But they do not guarantee goodness. What is also necessary is, I think, the most essential 'ingredient' of all, simply because it cannot be so easily acquired. What is this?

It is, surely, how we value the consequences we perceive. Do we ultimately care about the environment; about people in distant lands; about society around us; or even about the people we know? Knowledge about the impact of our choice on them can go a long way, but in the end, the amount we care – the amount we love – is not fixed. And can we 'afford' to care? Here, there is room for enlightened self-interest, but this is not enough, particularly when considering long-term consequences.

As an aside, this is where Heaven and Hell come in. So-called religious teachers may tell us about eternal consequences for us, but curiously, that turns the calcuation back onto a self-centred basis. I don't believe that is what we want.

Where love comes in, quite irrespective of heaven and hell, is in valuing the consequences for the Other as much as the consequences for oneself. If that can be taught, I think the only way is by example.

2011-12-27

Choice and value

Choice and value are very closely related. When a person chooses action A over action B, it is because, in that context, the person values the immediately apparent consequences of A over those of B.

People understandably differ in their relative valuation of short-term and long-term consequences. Much of this is due to their beliefs, rather than anything demonstrable. The martyr who sacrifices himself to a cause probably believes either in their personal survival after death, or in the long-term benefits of his sacrifice to the cause.

It may be that what is immediately apparent is more likely to be short-term, but that is not necessarily true.

One of the consequences that people most often take into consideration is their own self-esteem, and their esteem in their social group.

When someone chooses to buy something, this is presumably because they value the immediately apparent consequences of buying the thing more than those of not buying it, or buying something else. But of course, often they have not considered the alternatives.

When someone is choosing to buy one of two or more alternatives, calculating the apparent consequences can be difficult if not practically impossible. People fall back on their "values": this can be thought of as established patterns of actual choice, whether conscious or unconscious; or alternatively as conscious principles that may govern the process of choice.

It is all immensely complex, and that is reassuring, as the topic surely has this immense complexity. People usually find making rational decisions hard, and they will do anything to make this process simpler. People only have a real choice where they are practically able to choose between options, and that means that their values must support that choice.

2011-03-29

Theodore Zeldin on the Pont de l'Europe, Strasbourg

This text appears as one of many by different authors on the Pont de l'Europe, between Strasbourg and Kehl. I was there for an ISO SC36 meeting in March, 2011.
Questions
How shall I know that we have something to say to each other, that we ought to meet? How can I guess that you too believe that humanity's most memorable achievements in extending knowledge or creating beauty have been the result of meetings between people and ideas that have not met before?
How shall I know that you wish to go beyond the language of politeness, beyond repeating what you have said before? How will you reveal that it is not mere information that you would be willing to exchange, but questions, doubts and dreams, the dreams which refuse to die?
How shall I know that, just as this garden is a work of art made out of plants whose history began in distant continents, you too are trying to shape your life into a work of art, however modest? How will you tell me that you welcome into the garden of your mind everything that civilisations all over the world have discovered about wisdom and folly?
How shall I know that busy and stressed though you are, you do sometimes find the time to pause and think, to ask whether they world has to be the way it is?
How shall I know that, just this bridge was built by people who wished to stop ancient enemies hating and fighting each other, you find it rewarding to be a bridge yourself, between individuals who fail to recognise what they have in common, and what they could do better together than alone?
How shall I know that you do not judge people by their religion, or even by their beliefs, and that you are much more impressed by how they put their beliefs into practice, whether with dogmatism, or humility, or compassion?
How shall I know that you applaud people not for their victories over others, but for the thought they have given to their failures, for the courage with which they handle their disappointments, for their ability to continue to laugh and hope?
How shall I know that you are not a prisoner of the prejudice which separates people of different sex and age? Or that you are more interested by what a person's appearance conceals than the first impression it creates?
My answer. We can only discover who we are, and what we would like to be, by having conversations with one another. There are so many possible links between us, and we have to search behind the fashions and facades for them. That is why I rejoice that this garden has been created as a place, I hope, where people will meet to start long conversations, not just to pass the time, but to become clearer about what matters most to them, and what they can achieve together.
What is your answer?
Theodore Zeldin

2011-03-10

towards real change

Had some very interesting discussion in work yesterday, but much of it was about politics rather than the subject area of work itself. It was partly about how to run things, and as that's not my area of work, and I'm not officially a manager, this wouldn't really fit in my work blog.
I was a clarification of my politics and of my vision, and that does contribute towards real choice.
In essence, I found that the route to positive change in society that I advocate is through
  • personal growth and development in consciousness, conceived in similar terms to Robert Kegan's "In Over Our Heads"
  • personal growth happening alongside professional and occupational growth in the workplace
  • the workplace being constituted as a place in which people grow and develop as human beings, finding achievement, satisfaction and fulfilment in "good work"
  • therefore, ethical development happening in the workplace
  • change in society and the world also coming about through the positive effects of change in the workplace
  • people taking their deepened moral faculties into their lives outside work, resulting in civic engagement, volunteering, family life, and all kinds of movements for positive change in the world.
The key to using the vehicle of the workplace for this journey towards positive change must be the practices in the workplace. There are a few that I think may be vital:
  • constructive periodic review and appraisal to articulate the aims and goals of the individual along with the organisation
  • positive argumentation and debate about the value of the individual's contribution to the organisation
  • the use of portfolio-style practices, very much in ways mapped out by Darren Cambridge in his excellent book "e-Portfolios for Lifelong Learning and Assessment", but specifically in the workplace, to play that role in both presenting and debating the value of the individual's contribution
  • transparency in the workplace, as happens in Ricardo Semler's Semco businesses
  • having every individual's work followed closely by a very small number (say 2 to 4) work colleagues who have the role of "critical companions" (I mean a workplace equivalent of "critical friends"), thus providing continual steer between the episodes of periodic review and appraisal.
One way in which every individual can contribute to this process of positive change is by introducing whatever practices they can in the workplace that they have the power to do — which of course may not be much.