Friday, 24 March 2017

Everett Hughes on Organisational Risk in Health and Education

My work on organisational risk in healthcare has taken me back to the work of Everett Hughes. Hughes was the leading exponent of the Chicago School of Sociology which focused on an ecological approach to social institutions. It seems quite obvious that the problems in all our institutions is ecological - not in the sense of trees, but in the sense of a 'coordinated diversity'. Indeed, in our educational institutions, diversity is becoming scarce - driven by a technologically-mediated metricisation which eliminates difference.

In Hughes's book of collected papers, "The Sociological Eye" there is a paper on "Mistakes at Work" from 1951 which contains some insights from that time which I think remain relevant (but overlooked) today.

He starts by appealing for a comparative study of work - that we should look across fields of professional activity in order to understand them. He says we should study plumbers to understand doctors, and prostitutes to understand psychiatrists (!). He goes on to say:
One of the themes for human work is that of “routine and emergency”. By this I mean that one man’s routine of work is made up of the emergencies of other people. In this respect, the pairs of occupations named above do perhaps have some rather close similarities. The physician and the plumber practise esoteric techniques for the benefit of people in distress. The psychiatrist and the prostitute must both take care not to become too personally involves with clients who come to them with rather intimate problems.
Routine is of particular interest to him. He points out that one person's chaos and distress becomes another person's routine work.
There are psychological, physical, social and economic risks in learning and doing one's work. And since the theoretical probability of making an error some day is increased by the very frequency of the operations by which on makes one’s living, it becomes natural to build up some rationale to carry one through. It is also to be expected that those who are subject to the same work risks will compose a collective rationale which they whistle to one another to keep up their courage, and that they will build up collective defences against the lay world. These rationales and defences contain a logic that is somewhat like that of insurance, in that they tend to spread the risk psychologically (by saying that it might happen to anyone), morally, and financially. A study of these risk-spreading devices is an essential part of comparative study of occupations. They have a counterpart in the devices which the individual finds for shifting some of the sense of guilt form his own shoulders to those of the larger company of this colleagues. Perhaps this is the basis of the strong identification with colleagues in work in which mistakes are fateful, and in which even long training and a sense of high calling do not prevent errors.
But being the social ecologist, Hughes looks at both sides of the equation in negotiating and managing these risks. He suggests that there is a psychological 'division of risk' between worker and client.
In a certain sense, we actually hire people to make our mistakes for us. The division of labor in society is not merely, as is often suggested, technical. It is also psychological and moral. We delegate certain things to other people, not merely because we cannot do them, but because we do not wish to run the risk of error. The guilt of failure would be too great. 
So the question then is one of fault and blame if something goes wrong.
Now this does not mean that the person who delegates work, and hence risk, will calmly accept the mistakes which are made upon him, his family, or his property. He is quick to accuse; and if people are in this respect as psychiatrists say they are in others, the more determined they are to escape responsibility, the quicker they may be to accuse others for real or supposed mistakes.
What are the defences of the professions to this? Ritual is the key thing, Hughes argues. Of psychotherapists, he says:
A part of their art is the reconstruction of the history of the patients’ illness. This may have some instrumental value, but the value put upon it by the practitioners is of another order. The psychotherapists, perhaps just because the standards of cure are so uncertain, apparently find reassurance in being adept at their art of reconstruction (no doubt accompanied by faith that skill in the art will bring good to patients in the long run).
Education is another example of ritualised practice which is seen to mitigate risk. His comment here resonates with much of what we see standing in for "quality" in education:
In teaching, where ends are very ill-defined – and consequently mistakes are equally so – where the lay world is quick to criticise and blame, correct handling becomes ritual as much as or even more than an art. If a teacher can prove that he has followed the ritual, the blame is shifted from himself to the miserable child or student; the failure can be and is put upon them.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Widening Participation and Scientific Necessity

The popular argument for 'widening participation' or 'outreach' in education is about 'giving access' to those who might have at one point been excluded from education. From the institution's point of view, giving access makes good business sense: it might be renamed "Creating potential fee-paying customers". Giving access means providing people with the dispositions and habits of those who succeed in education - Those who can stomach the lecture, the assignment, the group work, the conversation, the reading, and increasingly, the VLE, the blog, the academic tweeting, the O-so-clever (but now rather dull and double-edged) digital media.

We should be clear that this kind of access is in the interests of institutions and the often rather unpleasant characters who run them, but not necessarily in the interests of students. The "loan bounty" which is guaranteed upon the living body of the student will pay for the Vice Chancellor's yacht, the new vanity projects, the racing car design building and the architectural destruction of the local civic environment.

Students from the constituencies which are targetted by widening participation want money, jobs, security, love, fulfilment - indeed, they want the things which were probably denied to them since they were born, and denied to their parents. Education - however much those of us hope for better - wants to financialise their bodies and give them a mark - and, maybe a certificate.

You cannot really blame individual institutions for this (notwithstanding some of the criminals who are running them). To use a cybernetic term, all institutions (education, health, legal, gubernatorial) are autopoietic: they survive by making and remaking their constituent components. Widening partipication is simply the trawling of the environment for new components to be fed into the institution's autopoietic machine. In the process, the institution may claim a "purpose" which is at odds with what it actually does.

The key operation that an educational institution must do in an educational market is what Ivan Illich would call the maintenance of the "regime of scarcity of knowledge". To have the status of a knowledgeable person, one must have a certificate from a respected educational institution.

As Illich pointed out (before the internet) knowledge isn't scarce. It is a remarkable paradox (and an indication of quite how seriously pathological education is) that scarcity of knowledge has been increased with the advent of the web. Institutions have successfully used technology to ramp up the scarcity of knowledge by using the technology to amplify its existing structures. So the MOOC is a giant classroom, assessment can be done by MCQ or (increasingly) automatic essay marking, plagiarism can be statisticised, academic status accorded through bibliometrics, and learning analytics might (universities hope) keep students from dropping out and maintain the fee income (that's the interesting one - it won't work!).

Universities follow an illustrious line of great institutions in commandeering technology like this. The classic example is the Catholic Church in the 15th century who used printing for the production of indulgences. (I think universities are currently in the equivalent of the 1460s... the Catholic hierarchy must have been rubbing their hands!) The moral of the story is that the technology gets you in the end... usually in a way which you weren't expecting.

But there is something else happening which I think is more profound: Computers have transformed the way we do science, the way we make measurements and do experiments, and the way we reason about causes. The university obsession with teaching and learning is recent and market-driven. It won't last. Universities are about scientific inquiry.

Following the impact of printing which produced the reformation, critical attention was focused on education, where universities were sticking to Aristotelian doctrine in their scientific teaching. Printing facilitated a discourse outside the institution which challenged this orthodoxy, which eventually led to Francis Bacon's "The Advancement of Learning". Experiment, observation and an entirely different model of causal reasoning was established. The Cambridge curriculum of 1605 which Bacon attacked was fundamentally transformed by 1700. In between, there was enormous social turmoil - civil war, regicide, republicanism, terror, etc. It affected all forms of communication and production: T.S. Eliot's idea of the "dissociation of sensibility" between the work of Ben Johnson and John Milton is another aspect of this transformation.

This is what happens when science changes. Our science today is no longer Newtonian. It is probabilistic, contingent and uncertain. Yet our modes of communication remain rooted in the model established in the 17th century by the Royal Society, and which were made for communicating empirically objective knowledge (as they saw it). There is an essential paradox when one wants to be an expert in uncertainty - inevitably university academics downplay the uncertainty, contingency, doubt. Nobody wants to look uncertain on the lecture stage.

In an uncertain science, listening counts. The logic of uncertainty means that the more people who are listened to the better. From this perspective, "widening participation" - by which is meant listening, not preaching - is not a marketing exercise, but a scientific necessity.

The point is cybernetic, a discipline which remains the principal scientific foundation for dealing with uncertainty, doubt, and social coordination. Heinz von Foerster stated three principles of education.


  1. Education is not right or a privilege. It is a necessity.
  2. The purpose of education is to ask legitimate questions - that is, questions to which nobody has the answer.
  3. Following these two principles, there is a political principle which cuts against the regime of scarcity of education: A is better off when B is better off




Sunday, 19 March 2017

Sameness and Janacek in Stockholm

I've just returned from Stockholm where I participated in a PhD examination and gave a presentation on the new threats that technology poses to educational institutions. I had a great time, and had some fantastic conversations about education, cybernetics, category theory and technology.

Stockholm is an interesting place in a way which is not immediately apparent. On the face of it, it's rather like many European cities. Stockholm's main shopping street, Drottninggatan, could be anywhere: London's Oxford street, Paris's Rue de Rivoli, Istanbul's Istiklal Cadessi, Cologne's Schildergasse, Amsterdam's Kalverstraat, etc, etc. This is modern global capitalism - and everything's the same. Is there really any point in travelling anywhere?

What I find interesting is that nothing is ever really the same - even in global capitalism. Having said that, Stockholm does its best to epitomise the movement.

At the weekend, Astrid and I went to the opera to see Janacek's Jenufa. Opera is another symptom of globalisation - although a more pleasant one. I enjoy going to the opera in whichever city I'm in - it's usually cheaper than London! But although every city has its opera house, no two performances are ever the same. Classical music is essentially the art of the "small difference". Inflection, intonation, articulation, timbre, etc are basically what it is about. Small differences in music can be deeply meaningful.

Janacek was a master at it. From the rapid ringing of the xylophone at the beginning of Jenufa, to the repeated - but never the same - motifs, he paints the trauma of dysfunctional family life. It's like Eastenders as if it was a Rembrandt painting. But Janacek knew it was all about repetition, and all about the differences we discern in repetition. Being the artist that he was, he not only paints the family trauma of a young woman whose bastard baby is murdered by her stepmother,  but expresses through sound what he knows of the dynamics of human feeling and social tension. These are the dynamics he represents with repetition.

Stockholm is a bit like the tied-up social expectations where everything has to run through rules which ensure cohesion and regularity. Janacek knows that these regularities are an illusion - messy real life seeps through the cracks, and brings the small differences which become most meaningful. We gaze at the cities of global capitalism like we might gaze on many different faces: each face is essentially the same; yet each new face which is subtly different drives us to seek another different one.

Global capitalism offers less difference than human faces. If it is a form of oppression, it is because it leads us to generate the difference which it itself does not provide. It is characterised by a loss of variety. But the consequence of the loss of variety it produces is the production of variety in the gaps which it can't control. Increasingly those gaps are finding political expression.




Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Relative Entropy in Risk Analysis and Education

Sometimes patients die in hospital when they shouldn't have done. When this happens, there is an elaborate process of inquiry which examines all the different causal factors which might have produced the accident. The point of this process is to attempt to mitigate the risk of future incidents.

I've been reading through a number of these reports. The level of detail and the richness of description of different levels of the problem is impressive. I'm left wondering "Where is this level of description in education?". It's simply not there - apart from in fiction. In education, we move from from year to year, with various unfortunate (but rarely deadly) incidents occurring - but no rich description of what happens. We often console ourselves that "Nobody dies in education": but it is probably because nobody dies that there is no serious study of what happens; and it is not true that nobody dies - it's just that nobody dies quickly.

However, a second issue arises from thinking about adverse incidents in healthcare: despite the richness of the description, and the analytical probing of the investigating team and the identification of "root causes" - mitigation of error does not occur. In many cases, serious incidents keep on happening. There appears to be little organisational learning.

In education, a lack of organisational learning is endemic. But whilst this is rarely seen to be a problem at high levels of educational management, there appears to be a greater chance of it being taken seriously in healthcare. The problem lies in ways of thinking about the problem - and I think, if it can be addressed in health, we can use the same techniques in education.

Accidents happen because a system's model of the world is wrong. In ordinary life, when we trip up, or fail to kick a ball in the right direction, we recalibrate our system to correct the error. This is systemic learning. What changes results not from an analysis of all the different components of our knowledge, but of the relations between the different components of our knowledge. Recalibration is a shifting of relations: facts or procedures may change as a result of this, but they are not the thing which is directly changed.

How to measure relations? Shannon entropy gives some way of measuring the surprise in a particular description of the world, but not of its relations to other descriptions. Shannon's "mutual information" is more relational in the sense that it measures the common ground between two descriptions. Right now I'm most interested in the idea of "relational entropy". This measures the distance between two probability distributions. Over time, the distance between two different descriptions can be assessed: sometimes one description will change in pretty much the same way as another - it might be taken as an index for the other. In such a case, the distance between the distributions is very small. At other times the distribution of entropy is large - the two descriptions work independently.

These relations can characterise a situation where one description strongly constrains another - for example, a description of drug administration as against the health of the patient (if the drug is effective). Equally, two descriptions might be independent with the distribution of one having no effect on the other. However, even in this case, each of those descriptions might have constraining factors which connect the two descriptions at a deeper level.

I'm intrigued as to whether management might look at the relational entropy of an organisation as a way of being able to reconfigure the relational entropy, and so recalibrate the organisation in the light of an accident. Health is a good place to explore (and I'm in a good position to do it). If it works, however, it presents new possibilities for thinking about the way educational management should operate.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Status, Trust and Emerging Technological Threats to Universities

Universities appear to have successfully neutralized the existential threat that appeared to be posed by technology. Early debates about technological personalisation and “Personal Learning Environments” envisaged new forms of education where flexible and personalised learning coordinated with new tools would replace traditional educational structures. It was argued that the constraints of classrooms, timetables, curricula and exams would be replaced with approaches to education which would fit learners rather than demanding that learners fit the constraints of institutions.

In history, new technologies are often initially commandeered to reinforce rather than transform existing institutional structures and practices. Printing, for example, was initially seized on by the Catholic Church as a means of mass-producing indulgences. It took 80 years for the impact of the technology to transform (and almost destroy) the institution.

Educational technology is in its “early Guttenberg” phase – it reinforces and amplifies the curriculum structures (the VLE/LMS), assessment practices (Plagiarism detection, Mutliple choice exams, and emerging automatic essay marking), produces giant classrooms (MOOCs), increases institutional authority and status (bibliometrics, QS rankings), and (as with the printing of indulgences) ramps-up a financialisation process where education is increasingly seen as an ‘industry’ with vast profits being made in many areas on the back of student debt. As must have appeared to the Catholic Church hierarchy in the 1460s, the institution seems to have technology fully under its control. So what could possibly go wrong?

Whilst educational technologists have been attempting to transform education for over 50 years, it appears to be not education but employment which is being turned-upside down by technology. Today almost anybody can be a taxi driver (Uber), a postman (Deliveroo) or a hotelier (AirBnB). Similar business models are colonising medicine (e.g. PushDoctor), whilst virtual currencies like BitCoin dispense with the institutional authority of a bank, and the underlying technology of BlockChain looks set to transform contract law, among many other things. What’s happening? What might it mean for education?

What is unfolding is an “internet of trust”. Uber and Bitcoin work because they are trusted technologies. Where trust would once have been invested in the badge of an institution (a bank, a local taxi firm) it is now invested in an algorithm. The traditional structures of education depend on trust and status: a degree from Oxford is not seen in the same way as a degree from Bolton. The stamp of the institution on the status of individuals is acquired by bureaucratic and cumbersome processes of assessment and “quality control”. It is precisely this institutional rigidity which Blockchain and Uber address by reconfiguring the constraints of an operation and transforming the way transactions are managed.

I've been working on this in projects on medical education in China, and organisational risk in hospitals, exploring new technological approaches to assessment and status. It's some of the most interesting and exciting work I've ever been involved in. Cybernetics is important: it clearly demonstrates the seriousness of the threat posed by technology to existing institutional life – and suggests what institutions might do about it.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Trump Supporters and Susanne Langer on Music and Expression

Langer’s “Philosophy in a new Key” has sat on my bookshelf for years, but it’s been one of those books I have always had trouble getting into, whilst at the same time knowing that it is an important book. Although it makes plenty of musical references, not just in the title, it is not a book about music. It is a philosophical book about expression and aesthetic communication. Langer deals with expression in art, religion, primitive society, politics.. and music. She sees the world through a musical lens - and I believe this is very important for our time now - particularly our politics.

This is a fascinating and entertaining interview with two Trump supporters by Evan Davis:


There's a lot of emotion going on there. Now here's Langer:

"Whenever people vehemently reject a proposition, they do so not because it simply does not recommend itself, but because it does, and yet it's acceptance threatens to hamper their thinking in some important way. If they are unable to define the exact mischief it would do, they just call it "degrading", "materialistic", "pernicious" or any other bad name. Their judgement may be fuzzy, but the intuition they are trying to rationalize is right; to accept the opponent's proposition as it stands, would lead to unhappy consequences.
So it is with "significant form" in music: to tie any tonal structure to a specific and speakable meaning would limit musical imagination, and probably substitute a preoccupation with feelings for a whole-hearted attention to music. "An inward singing" says Hanslick, "and not an inward feeling, prompts a gifted person to compose a musical piece". Therefore it does not matter what feelings are afterward attributed to it, or to him; his responsibility is only to articulate the "dynamic tonal form".
It is a peculiar fact that some musical forms seem to bear a sad and a happy interpretation equally well. At first sight that looks paradoxical; but it really has perfectly good reasons, which do not invalidate the notion of emotive significance, but do bear out the right-mindedness of thinkers who recoil from the admission of specific meanings. For what music can actually reflect is only the morphology of feeling; and is it quite plausible that some sad and some happy conditions may have a very similar morphology." (Philosophy in a New Key, p 238)

Langer’s philosophical foundation is the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. She takes Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” of meaning (whereby the logical form of a proposition is seen as a representation of things in the world), and adapts it to say that artistic expression is a “picture of emotion” - or here, a picture of "the morphology of feeling". Of course, this was written before Wittgenstein’s attention shifted to the way that language is used in everyday life – and to the role of expression of language. However, I think Langer makes a contribution which is also helpful in considering Wittgenstein’s later view of communication. For Langer, the logical expression of feeling is not of the individual artist’s feeling; it is an epistemological position about feeling in general. In other words, composers (and other artists) express what they know about how emotions work through the creation of an artefact of homologous form.

I think this could be right – it makes a key distinction about emotion and expression which would take the cry of a baby as “I am feeling unhappy” to the artist’s representation of that cry as “this is what I believe feeling unhappy is”. Artists are epistemologists working below the level of language. Ironically, Langer’s Wittgensteinian approach digs into precisely what he famously said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.

I'm not blaming Wittgenstein for Trump (how unfair would that be?!), but we have passed over too many things in silence, only to concentrate on the rational and technocratic. Trump is a technocratic and rationalised response to the alienation which this silence has produced. 

Of course, many questions remain: What Langer doesn’t deal with is how these artistic epistemological propositions are communicated. How is it that we read the artist’s proposition? How is it that on being moved to tears, we might learn something of what it is to be moved to tears? And, perhaps most importantly, is her theory of the "communication of the morphology of feeling" universally true? It might work for Rigoletto or Beethoven's 9th, but does it work for design or architecture? I might prefer to talk about the "morphology of being" rather than feeling...


Friday, 3 March 2017

Gombrich, Ashby and Seth on Consciousness

I attended the Manchester Intervarsity club last night for a discussion about “The neuroscience of consciousness”. We watched a video of a presentation by Anil Seth. I wouldn’t necessarily have paid much attention to this had it not been for the meeting - I’m glad I went along.



For all the neuro fetishism and misplaced confidence in the ability to create metrics of consciousness (which is partly what Seth is about) – stuff which makes me uneasy – Seth’s deeper theorizing draws on Ross Ashby and Ernst Gombrich. That’s useful, because Seth is a mainstream cognitive psychologist looking at cybernetics, which enables today’s cyberneticians to make references to empirical things which are going on now, rather than stuff which was happening in the 1960s. (He doesn’t mention Bill Powers “Perceptual Control Theory” – but that it perhaps the closest correlate of what he is articulating).
Seth builds on Ashby’s central idea of constraint: that perception involves cognitive processes of prediction of possibilities which are constrained by the senses. In essence, consciousness is cybernetic: we all observe “what might have happened but did not”. Seth applies the principle not only to perception of the external environment, but to the body. This isn’t a new idea. Apart from Ashby, Robert Rosen’s work in biology, and Daniel Dubois’ mathematical articulation of anticipatory systems (not forgetting Loet Leydesdorff’s unfolding of these ideas at the social level) are all fishing in the same pond.

I think this is basically right, but if I was to take issue with him, there is an implicit assumption (highlighted well by Rupert Sheldrake) that the mind is in the head. I also think Seth is unaware of the sophistication of Ashby’s thought with regard to problems like “analogy”, “induction”, “regularity”, “isomorphism” and so on. But that means there’s a discussion here. The problem with ignoring the first point is that consciousness is seen as an apolitical issue. The problem is immediately apparent in Seth’s work on measuring consciousness (John Searle also suffers from the same problem) – the possibility of “consciousness pills”, of tests for “how conscious is your child?”. You don’t have to be Aldous Huxley to work out the implications.

Gombrich’s influence on Seth is perhaps more subtle – but I think it is equally important. Seth takes from Gombrich the basic assumptions of Gestalt psychology, and the role of reflexive processes in “making reality”. But this gets more interesting. Gombrich’s work on pattern directly referenced information theory (particularly in his “A sense of order”), and by implication, the role of information redundancy. Gombrich’s social network included two other Viennese √©migr√©s: Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. I find that all three were very close in their thinking, not just in their friendship.

Hayek also wrote a book about consciousness (his book of 1952 – “The Sensory Order”), and he clearly understood the cybernetic principles which Ashby articulated. Stafford Beer, on meeting him, apparently declared “At last! An economist who understands cybernetics” – only to revoke any approval of Hayek on becoming aware of his right-wing sympathies, and particularly his support for Pinochet and Thatcher. Whilst I share Beer’s disgust for this, Hayek’s work remains of the highest order and sight should not be lost of it.

But Hayek is warning for Seth. Seth’s idea of consciousness leads to fascism. Nick Land, the British philosopher who has become the intellectual voice of the Alt-Right, and who most articulately utters a form of second-order cybernetics, shows us exactly where this stuff leads.

The way out of this is to look more deeply at Ashby and Gombrich. The relationship between constraint, information and description is fundamental. Seth gives us a description of consciousness. Shakespeare does the same – but there is a difference between the two. Gombrich knew very clearly what the difference is; Ashby knew something about how different descriptions interact with one another, which is where that difference lies.