Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Diabetic Retinopathy and Adaptive Comparative Judgement Grant Success

Very shortly after I started at Liverpool University, I was invited to a meeting with a doctor from the Eye and Vision Science department of the University who was also a surgeon in the hospital. He explained his passionate desire to do something to prevent blindness in China by implementing a proper diabetic retinopathy screening programme. No such programme currently exists, and there is much ignorance about the condition where there are no symptoms (only a retinal scan can reveal problems) and blindness is sudden and irreversible. The scale of the problem is staggering: there are 110 million people with diabetes in China.

Discussions had got as far as thinking that a MOOC might be the thing to do to train people to diagnose the condition by grading retinal scans. I said this probably wouldn't work, and that the real issue was finding an effective way to deal with the complexities of scale of the problem. The challenge of diabetic retinopathy grading is a straight-forward cognitive problem. There are numerous initiatives (including in Liverpool) to use machine learning to do it - but these attempts have limited success. The sensitivity and specificity  of the diagnosis is critical (i.e. ensuring that false positive and false negative results are minimised) - and the machine learning does not always perform well - although it can improve if it is effectively connected to human learning.

The problem of grading is one of assessment on the one hand, and hierarchy on the other. Experts do grading, and experts have to be trained. The scale at which educational assessment now operates has led to a search for new models of assessment and creative uses of technology. Adaptive Comparative Judgement is one of the most interesting. It enlists a large group of assessors to make simple, low-stakes judgements about which of a pair of artefacts (student work) is better. It produces a ranking from which grades can be established. I asked whether grading by an expert could instead be ranking by a group. I suggested that if this was the case, then the complexity of scale of China could be managed by a crowd-based approach using Adaptive Comparative Judgement. Fortunately for me, this idea completely transformed the discussion - particularly in the vision of the doctor leading the project.

An EU bid followed in 2015 which was unsuccessful, but served to stimulate interest across a consortium, and made the connection between the ACJ, Blockchain and xAPI. This year, I joined a group in Liverpool going for a "long-shot" bid to the EPSRC for £1m to develop a training programme based on ACJ, coupled with machine learning and the development of a new low-cost scanning device. The EPSRC had 150 submission to work through and could only fund a handful of projects. It was a long shot.

Well, it looks like it wasn't such a long-shot after all! I suppose what this is making me think is that thinking remains the most important thing in universities. Universities need thinkers, not people who are going to tow a corporate line. The disaster of managerialism and marketisation have done their best to turn many universities (I think particularly of my former institution, Bolton) into fiefdoms where thinkers are sacrificed like heretics of the "corporate religion".

A powerful and simple idea can go a long way. 

Monday, 20 November 2017

Technology, Objects and Dialogue: Using technology to keep things simple

Technology usually makes things complicated... Over the last couple of weeks, the power of simplicity in education has impressed itself upon me.

First up, I organised a conference on "healing organisations" (see for the Metaphorum group - a research group formed around the work of Stafford Beer. Beer warned about the "Homo Faber" mode of being where innovation is seen as the answer to problems. During the conference, there were a number of "innovative" approaches to the problems of health which were suggested: each innovation would ultimately lead to increased complexity. In other words, it would feed the pathology from which the innovation attempted to escape. This kind of positive feedback is symptomatic of the "iatrogenic disease" (healer-induced sickness) which Illich (and John Seddon, who spoke at the conference) warn about. Education suffers from its own disease of complexification through innovation.

The conference was organised over three days, with day 1 focused on critique ("what's wrong with the system?" - there was a lot of that); day 2 on possible solutions to address problems; and day 3 focused on conversation. For both days 2 and 3 I asked presenters to do activities with delegates rather than simply talk. The best presentations did precisely this. Day 3 was particularly great - we sat in a circle and explained the meaning of various objects which we had brought to the conference (I asked people to bring an object which illustrated their understanding of "healing organisations").

For a while now, I've been interested in how objects illuminate the understanding of the individual talking about them. Since conversations (con-versare - "to turn together") depends on our understanding of each other, objects are a powerful prop to self-revealing. The conversation was visceral, and the revealing of one another was in some cases deeply emotional. There were tears.

Maturana said (in a conference at Asilomar in 2012) that "What we learn, we learn about each other". It is a beautiful summary of things which he has said before - but never so clearly. I don't think he's ever written it down! But it's right.

We learn maths... we learn about a maths teacher or somebody else who does maths. We learn the piano, we learn about a pianist (or a number of them). We learn sociology, we learn about other sociologists.... and so on.

The key to teaching and learning is self-revealing of the teacher. This self-revealing is usually accompanied by objects. Bad teachers will hide behind their powerpoints. Good ones will reveal who they are as people through them. Such teachers embrace a critical principle: that any object is subject to multiple descriptions. There are always many possible interpretations.

A teacher may generate many possible descriptions of an object: "you can think about quadratic equations like this... or like this... or alternatively...". Equally, they may invite descriptions of others: "what do you think?". The point is that the truth of any object - whether a body of knowledge or skilled performance is that it is a multiplicity of different descriptions. To understand is to acquire the capacity to generate multiple descriptions. Teaching is a performance of understanding.

Last Thursday, I led a session at the Ragged University on Objects, Perception and Communication (see It was, in many ways, the same idea as the conference. I asked people to take a photograph of something in the room which revealed something about themselves. We sat in a circle and presented our photographs to each other. Then I illustrated the point about multiple description with music. Using a real-time spectrum analyzer, I showed how a single note is a patterned multiplicity of frequencies like this:

I think this patterned multiplicity is what occurs in the communicating around objects. In illuminating the understanding of each individual, they create the conditions for a "resonant polyphony" of alternative descriptions. Quite simply, we get to know each other better. I followed the singing with Augusto Boal's human statue exercise - another example of objects where people are the objects. Multiplicity of description can be investigated in many ways - with many descriptions!

Now I'm planning something bigger with the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia (Vladivostok). We are developing a course in "Global Scientific Dialogue" drawing on the ideas of David Bohm. 300 students in the University will participate in it next year. This is a radical experiment - and weirdly, something that could possibly only happen on the other side of the planet where the pathologies of EU/US education are less marked. In the 60s, we went to California to do new cool things. Now I think it's 10 hours flying the other way... (actually, it's 13 to Vladivostok).

Why Bohm? Well, he knew about multiplicity of description. This is very powerful:

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Information and Syncretism: from Floridi to Piaget

Luciano Floridi has appealed for an "ethics of information" (he has written a book about it: His basic argument is that since we all live in an "information environment", information ethics should be seen as a variety of environmental ethics. So putting out "wrong" information onto social media is like dumping mercury into a river. I wouldn't be surprised if Floridi has been consulted with regard to the UK's stance on Russian hacking (see But whatever the Russians (plus quite a few others) have been doing on social media, I think there's a ontological error in Floridi's argument. Information is not mercury: unlike mercury, information's effects depend on the beliefs of those receiving it.

Among the central presuppositions of belief in society today is a view of logic which upholds the principle of the "excluded middle": either the statement "it is raining" is true, or the statement "it is not raining" is true. Both statements cannot be true. What this means is that a collection of statements which are taken to be true or false can be taken together to leave the impression of an indisputable fact. By virtue of this principle, the more facts which can be brought to bear to support other statements, the more "objective" or "scientific" the conclusions drawn from their combination.  For example, the demand for "evidence" in social science is rather like this: the demand for more statements whose truth or falsehood can be established to more precisely identify the truth or falsehood of a more complex statement.

Some medieval philosophers puzzled over the excluded middle because this aspect of Aristotelian logic did not fit their theology. It occurred to John Duns Scotus that something could conceivably be true and false at the same time. He called his principle "synchronic contingency": Antonie Vos has brilliantly explored this ( - personally I am indebted to Prof. Dino Buzetti for drawing my attention to it. What's so fascinating about this is that in Quantum Mechanics, exactly the same principle has a name: super-position. Scotus saw synchronic contingency as a co-existing dimension to what he saw as Aristotle's "diachronic contingency" - which is where something may be true and one moment and false at the next, but never both at the same time.

In the world of synchronic contingency, information looks very different. I think it also looks much more like our deeper human creative processes and spirit.

In my reading of Ehrenzweig's Hidden Order of Art, I've been struck by the emphasis that he places on another theological word: syncretism. Actually, Ehrenzweig cites Piaget as the originator of the use of the word in a scientific context:

Piaget has given currency to the term "syncretistic" vision as the distinctive quality of children's vision and of child art. Syncretism also involves the concept of undifferentiation. Around the eighth year of life a drastic change sets in in children's art, at least in Western civilization. Whilst the infant experiments boldly with form and colour in representing all sorts of objects, the older child begins to analyse these shapes by matching them against the art of the adult which he finds in magazines, books and pictures. He usually finds his own work deficient. His work becomes duller in colour, more anxious in draughtmanship. Much of the earlier vigour is lost. Art education seems helpless to stop this rot. What has happened is that the child's vision has ceased to be total and syncretistic and has become analytic instead. (p6)

In theology, syncretism refers to the holding of many contradictory ideas at the same time. Ehrenzweig argues that the creative process is precisely a process of holding many contradictory ideas at the same time. When he talks about dedifferentiation (see my previous post) he is describing the process of blurring the boundaries between true and false so that something new may be brought into being.

Our problem with "information" - whether its in big data, learning analytics, or the stock market - is that we don't consider the creative potential of a syncretic approach to it whereby such machine generated information could be a powerful spur to more authentic creativity. Instead, we uphold the excluded middle, and seek "triangulation" between different "truths" and "falsehoods". It is because we are so bound to this that our social media networks have become so vulnerable to "wrong" information - whether it's placed there intentionally or by mistake.

The world of creativity and the wold of "data" feel very different. One enlivens the soul and warms the heart. The other tightens the stomach muscles and ties us in knots - both as individuals and as a global society! Syncretism is the difference between the artistic mode and the analytic: the distrust of syncretism is the root of the pathologies of management and government.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Ehrenzweig on Objects and Creativity: Symmetry and Entropy at the heart of the heart

Objects are important in education. Institutions sometimes seem to believe that objects are the things which they "sell": the learning content, notes, powerpoints and other media... the manufactured products of education, contact with which it is sometimes believed produces learning.

Constructivists might deny the importance of objects, but the concreteness of a cool video or a text book is hard to deny: "this is a great video!" we say. Others lose sight of the fact that it is the making of such an utterance which is the beginning of where the learning which is intrinsic to human coordination happens. Like anything of fascination or beauty, the expression of emotion, feeling, intellect or curiosity is a fundamental human reaction which is communally shared. In the art gallery, we gaze at pictures often together. In the concert hall, we all have emotional experiences which somehow in the silence and ritual of the place, we manage to convey to others, in the cinema we gasp together as somebody escapes imminent death, and so on. Today, media objects get shared online: the common expression of feeling happens diachronically (sequentially) rather than synchronically... but it still happens. "A cool game! What's your score?", and so on.

What happens in these human reactions? I think the answer is simple: we understand something more about each other. Maturana made the point that "what we learn, we learn about each other". Yes, that's it. I will refine this: "What we learn, we learn about the symmetry that exists between us". Why is learning about each other important? Simply because we cannot communicate successfully unless we do know more about each other. The better we know each other, the more effective our social coordination will be. I took two friends visiting from Russia to see the "The Death of Stalin" this week. It was a case in point - as we revealed much about ourselves in our different responses to the film.

Alfred Schutz calls this revealing process "inter-subjectivity", and Talcott Parsons (and later Niklas Luhmann) calls it "double contingency". Despite Parsons's and Schutz's disagreemnents, there is a core principle at work, but an important difference in how they understand it. In double contingency, we communicate because we have some idea of who we are communicating with, how they will respond to our utterances, and so on. Parsons is different from Schutz in that he emphasises the importance of selection of communications (what we mean to say) and the selection of utterance (how we choose to say it). Luhmann developed this further.

I've been re-reading Anton Ehrenzweig's "The Hidden Order of Art" recently (after nearly 20 years). What an amazing book! Ehrenzweig is interested in artistic communication, and he believes that artistic creation does not emerge out of selection.  Ehrenzweig draws his inspiration from the Freudian concept of the primary process - the undifferentiated formless state of consciousness from which conscious experience (distinctions) emerge. He introduces a concept called dedifferentiation where "the ego scatters and represses surface imagery" in creative acts. He also draws on Paul Klee's distinction between two kinds of attention, one on the figure and the other on the ground. Ehrenzweig argues:

What is common to all examples of dedifferentiation is their freedom from having to make a choice. Whilst the conscious gestalt principle enforces the selection of a definite gestalt as a figure, the multi-dimensional attention of which Paul Klee speaks can embrace both figure and ground. Whilst vertical attention has to select a single melody, horizontal attention can comprise all polyphonic voices without choosing between them. Undifferentiated perception can grasp in a single undivided act of comprehension data that to conscious perception would be incompatible. 

I'm interested in this from a more technical perspective - which is certainly not how I would have read it 20 years ago. From a technical perspective, the central issues is the symmetry of relations. Whilst the perception of figure - or rather the identification of the distinction between figure and ground - is an epiphenomenon, there are symmetries in deeper mechanisms which underpin perception which might become better known to us.  Parsons and Luhmann took the epiphenomenon as the phenomenon. But if we think like them, we lose all creativity (and in the process, we risk our humanity). This is however, not to put anyone off from engaging with their ideas: they are powerful - but they flatten the symmetry.

Schutz, on the other hand is much closer. His "pure we-relation" - where human beings communicate face-to-face - is a different kind of coordination which is not based on selection. Ehrenzweig calls the alternative to selection, syncretism - but that, I think, is another word for symmetry. Symmetry emerges in the space between multiple descriptions of things. It emerges in the space between my understanding (and my descriptions of my understanding) and your understanding. It emerges in the ways that a melody, a harmony, a timbre, or a rhythm all draw out the same form.

Sometimes, different descriptions adopt similar patterns. Sometimes the change in their complexities coincides: for example, at the end of a piece of music, final chords eliminate rhythmic complexity, tonal complexity too disappears with the repetition of a tonic chord, alongside the melody which now emphasises a single note. Then, everything is silent. Another way of putting this is that the change in entropy of different descriptions coincides; their relative entropy increases. Now imagine a rich and busy counterpoint: ideas are thrown from one voice to another, different things are happening. There is a rich interplay between the entropies of description.

Ehrenzweig's mode of thinking is fundamentally musical: syncretism happens across the diachronic domain of counterpoint, and the synchronic domain of harmony. Schutz, also a musician, also thought about social relations musically. The syncretic is the same as the coordination of Schutz's "pure we-relation": it is a recognition of symmetrical relations.

The more we engage with objects, the more we reveal ourselves to others, and the more we recognise the symmetry the lies between us.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Illich and the Experts: Whose fake news do you want?

With so much concern about truth and falsehoods in social media, and the role of Universities in defending knowledge or fighting fake news (see, the defence of the "experts" by Universities should be seen for what it is: a defence of existing hierarchy.

Ivan Illich was on to this in the 1970s - particularly in his book "Disabling Professions":

The Age of Professions will be remembered as the time when politics withered, when voters guided by professors entrusted to technocrats the power to legislate needs, the authority to decide who needed what, and a monopoly over the means by which those needs should be met. It will be remembered as the Age of Schooling, when people for one third of their lives were trained to accumulate needs on prescription and for the other two-thirds were clients of prestigious pushers who managed their habits. It will be remembered as the age when recreational travel meant a packaged gawk at strangers, and intimacy meant training by Masters and Johnson; when formed opinion was replay of last night's talk-show, and voting, an endorsement to the salesman for more of the same.
Illich's recipe is to overturn the hierarchy. We need to think about what that means for "experts", and particularly the difference between the "declared experts" by institutions (who are often merely the product of institutional management - "professor" has become a synonym for "manager"), and "intellectual authority", which is something different: the community elder who has read more, thought more, and often is more uncertain and open in their thinking than anyone else.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Education is simple. Why have we made it so complex?

I've been taking stock of the range of things that I've been doing as part of my role as an educational technologist. Much of it involves struggles with software to do things which the institution believes are necessary in modern education. So there are technologies for assessment, technologies for analysis, technologies for content delivery and so on. Each of them can (and does) go wrong, and each of them demands considerable labour in keeping the system going. From an educational perspective, none of them are particularly effective.

Learning itself is an inter-human activity which involves conversation. Without conversation, there is little learning - a fact which I have to keep reminding those who believe somehow that "content" will "deliver" learning. The only real value of content (Powerpoints, videos, etc) is that it illuminates the understanding in another human being, and that might be the precursor to a conversation. However, if we believe content to be some kind of magical "learning producer", it creates all sorts of chaos and complexity in its production: huge amounts of time are invested in creating sexy animations, vast resources put into audio and video post-production, and whilst what results looks pretty, it inevitably represents the understanding of a committee - not the easiest thing to have a conversation with!

Content, then, is a path to complexification. But it is not the only one.

What inevitably makes content complexify is that it is inherently hierarchical. It is the joint product of expertise and quality audit: the first a result of the academic status machine which manufactures "professors" (who are not always representative of intellectual authority), and the other, a function of the university's bureaucracy. These two functions are related.

The university hierarchy is both a mechanism for apportioning blame for things that might go wrong (like all hierarchies), and a mechanism for dividing knowledge. One of the principal barriers to inter-disciplinary working is the negotiation as to who is responsible (i.e. who can be blamed) for which bit. The quality processes of the university, which are another arm of the hierarchy, uphold these structures. With technology, the university has reinforced its mechanism.

Now there is a curious thing about communication in hierarchies. Hierarchies have "lines of command" - even in their loosest form. These are channels for communicating simple messages from top to bottom: "assessments must be marked by....", "the timetable is published...", etc. These are not conversations, although they might be the cause of conversations further down the system. Sometimes education exploits this for learning: the command "your assignment is to..." is the cause of conversation among students. In these conversations students will often learn about each other. They won't necessarily learn about the teacher, whose utterance might only be "your assignment is to..."

By virtue of the hierarchical structures the teacher find herself in, the conversational utterarances are sometimes restricted to particular forms of delivery: lectures, seminars, assessments, etc. The teacher's position is upheld by compliance with the institution's rules, not the learner needs (although the institution pretends that it represents the learners' needs, it does nothing of the sort - it represents its own needs!).

This all gets incredibly complex. How could it be simpler?

The alternative to hierarchy is either heterarchy (many leaders) or anarchy (no leaders). Both I believe are preferable. In order to achieve them, we have to deal with the twin structural problem: on the one hand, expertise and the status mechanism which gives rise to it; and on the other hand, the institutionalised apportionment of blame and the carving up of knowledge to fit institutional structures.

This is not to say that we ignore intellectual authority. If anything, it is to say that intellectual authority is privileged over the baubles of job title. Intellectual authorities are the elders in the community. They are the source of the best questions; the best guides towards a conversation. But they offer an articulation of uncertainty, not answers: "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," as Yeats put it.

Technology today gives us new lines of communication. We haven't yet learnt how to reorganise our social structures to exploit them; we have instead reinforced our social structures with stupid uses of technology. I'm increasingly convinced that hierarchies persist because of impoverishment in communication, and hierarchies exacerbate this impoverishment. Technology gives human beings new ways of coordinating themselves with richer channels of communication. This is what we should be doing. At its heart are the communicative principles of redundancy which characterise the inner workings of the brain: what Warren McCulloch called "the redundancy of potential command". He also coined the term heterarchy.

Education would simple in a heterarchy.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Power, Hierarchy, and the Sexual Harassment Scandal - Bateson's attempt to clarify categories

I'm recovering from organising the Metaphorum Conference on "Healing Organisations" (see After a lot of anxiety in preparation, it was both an intellectually dynamising and deeply heartfelt conference. It was possibly a lot else too - everyone seemed to enjoy it. I'll say more about the speaker contributions from John Seddon (, Liz Mear, Gerald Midgley, David Welbourn, David Shiers and Allenna Leonard at a later point. They were all brilliant. There was something cathartic about the whole thing... 

A lot of discussion at the conference concerned the pathology of hierarchy and what we do about it (heterarchy? telephathy?). In the news, hierarchies are in trouble: the sexual abuse/harassment scandal is toppling men at the the top of hierarchies, whose positions have enabled them to behave appallingly towards those they had power over, and become unchallengeable.

Hierarchies have a "top", and the top has 'power' over the rest. It also exercises crap management. It takes courage to challenge it. Universities particularly have become increasingly hierarchical in recent years. Something is in the air at the moment that is giving women (and some men) courage. What it is, I think, is overwhelming environmental uncertainty which has been stoked-up by austerity and other attempts by hierarchies (and those at the top of them) to preserve themselves. At the conference, John Seddon pointed out that every attempt to cut costs ends up raising them. This is probably why the deficit doesn't come down, why the health service is on its knees and why those same hierarchies are under attack. It's a positive feedback loop, and like all positive feedback loops, eventually it goes "snap!".

The power inherent in the hierarchy is a strange thing: Power is a controversial concept - particularly in cybernetics. Behind it lies certain assumptions about the way the world works which may be incorrect. The first one concerns evolutionary dynamics. This has sent me back to reading Bateson. In his paper "The Pathologies of Epistemology" which is  in Steps to an ecology of mind, he moves his argument from Darwin to thoughts about what he calls the "myth of power". On Darwin he says:

In accordance with the general climate of thinking in mid-nineteenth-century England, Darwin proposed a theory of natural selection and evolution in which the unit of survival was either the family line or the species or subspecies or something of the sort. But today it is quite obvious that this is not the unit of survival in the real biological world. The unit of survival is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself. 
If, now, we correct the Darwinian unit of survival to include the environment and the interaction between organism and environment, a very strange and surprising identity emerges: the unit of evolutionary survival turns out to be identical with the unit of mind.
Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa—individual, family line, subspecies, species, etc.—as units of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units—gene-in-organism, organism-in environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology, in the widest sense, turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (i.e., differences, complexes of differences, etc.) in circuits.
Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and "Let's build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbors." There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself.
That's the epistemological error: choosing the wrong unit. The critical thing is to include the environment. This is exactly what John Seddon said about the health service (although he was slightly reluctant to be so abstract as to say "environment"). He said "The health system doesn't understand its demand". It assumes demand is ever-growing, where analysis shows that it's stable. The system's increasing inability to cope with what appears to be increasing demand is iatrongenic (iatros = doctor) - a healer-induced sickness, an organisational failure. This is critically important.

Of course, at the root of the iatrogenic disease is misused power. So what does Bateson say about this?

They say that power corrupts; but this, I suspect, is non-sense. What is true is that the idea of power corrupts. Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most. Obviously our democratic system tends to give power to those who hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don't want power to avoid getting it. Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it. 
Perhaps there is no such thing as unilateral power. After all, the man "in power" depends on receiving information all the time from outside. He responds to that information just as much as he "causes" things to happen. It is not possible for Goebbels to control the public opinion of Germany be-cause in order to do so he must have spies or legmen or public opinion polls to tell him what the Germans are thinking. He must then trim what he says to this information; and then again find out how they are responding. It is an inter-action, and not a lineal situation. 
But the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it. It is a myth which, if everybody believes in it, becomes to that extent self-validating. But it is still epistemological lunacy and leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster.
I've wondered about this for many years. Is power a myth? It feels pretty real to me... But what Bateson is saying is that power is an epiphenomenon of systemic failure. If you heal the system, power-as-a-myth disappears. In its place, one would hope, we have wisdom.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Is Life Simple or Complex? Some reflections on John Torday's Evolutionary Biology

Recently, I've been studying the work of evolutionary biologist John Torday, after he posted a fascinating contribution to the Foundations of Information Science ( mailing list. I wasn't alone among my friends in seeing this as something different, and potentially important: the conversations between friends when they say to each other "do you see...?" are very important indicators of what needs to be investigated further. This has been followed with a rich email exchange with Torday, prompted by my pointing out the similarities between his position and Stafford Beer's arguments for a copernican shift in the way that institutions organise themselves, which he wrote about in Platform for Change (and which I blogged about here:

Torday insists:
"Life is simple. We complicate it due to our subjectively evolved senses". 
A more comprehensive articulation of this is contained in (importantly, this is open access!). The second sentence above might be changed to "We complicate it due to our discursively evolved sense", but I haven't yet encountered a systems view which states that the discursive environment in which we all operate is epiphenomenal to more fundamental underlying mechanisms. Having said this, I suspected that with all the complexity of Luhmann's theory or Pask's conversation theory, etc (and their manifest failure to really make a better world), we were missing something.

Torday thinks that the fundamental thing that we miss is cellular communication. In saying this, he is saying something also articulated by "bio-semioticians" like Jesper Hoffmeyer. But Torday's theory is not the same as Hoffmeyer. He is a physiologist, and the empirical work he cites in support of his argument seems compelling to me. He cites the evolution of cholesterol from lipids carried to earth by asteroids, argues for a fundamental role of cholesterol in consciousness, and the connection between the skin and the brain. He argues that:
"All of the neurodegenerative diseases have skin homologs. And the Defensin mutation that causes asthma also causes atopic dermatitis in the skin."
These claims are referenced in the empirical literature. Torday's basic mechanism of cellular organisation through cell-cell communication is specifically a response to environmental ambiguity. This may be the same as a cybernetician would say: cybernetically, cells self-organise to mop up variety - at least if we can say that variety is ambiguity (is it? - it might be...). 

Doesn't the same thing happen in economics? Don't institutions reorganise their components to mop up the extra variety (new options) created by technological development and a discourse which reflects this? In other words, its not a direct causal connection between increased options and discourse and transformations of practice in institutions. It's an indirect connection where innovation increases options, and institutions self-organise in response to the increased variety (and uncertainty).

Discourse, then, is an epiphenomenon of cellular evolutionary mechanisms which are much deeper than our exchange of messages. Torday says complexity itself is an epiphenomenon: he's theorising at a much deeper level than Luhmann, but in a related cybernetic/mechanistic way. The current state of academic Babel would support his arguments, wouldn't it?

The work marks a scientific advance on the work of Bateson, Maturana and Robert Rosen who are the main cybernetic figures in biology. It's a reminder (to me) of the importance of the systems sciences staying close to field work in biology, physics, maths and technology.

Monday, 30 October 2017

MozFest Technology Coolness!

I attended Mozfest in London at the weekend, at the suggestion of Beck Pitt from the OU. There wasn't a large contingent of educational technologists there (although I did bump into Maren Deepwell (who did an ALT-themed session with Martin Hawksey) and Josie Fraser). There really should be more educational technologists at this kind of thing - and the odd institutional manager ought to take note.

Not that there was much room - the place was packed, mostly with the young: the average age was about 20, and there was a very large and encouraging contingent of school age kids, getting wired-up on the decentralised web, blockchain, fighting surveillance and injustice, and feeding the world. There was a real buzz about the place.

MozFest took over 9 floors of the Ravensbourne college building opposite the O2. It felt like an occupation. I haven't seen anything quite like this since I saw the University of Amsterdam occupation in 2015 (see
There was a distinctly low-tech approach to coordination and organisation. Walls and stairwells were full of hand-drawn posters for different events and talks:

Future of scientific publishing? There was a clear technological move away from the established practices of publishers and institutions.

Worried about Fake News? What might technology be able to do about it?

Blockchain for bug fixing?

Google docs with IPFS?! Cool!

I asked some of the people doing these things why they didn't just use the technology without doing all the practical badge-making, stamp printing, type-writing (yes, there was a typewriter!) stuff. The response basically pointed out the immediacy of experience, the importance of physical contact, and so on.

Whatever the reason, it was the right decision. The physical activities were a social and fun way of contextualising more complex technical discussions.

The most important technical themes were about web decentralisation. The drive for this is partly technical, partly practical (how to distribute internet access to parts of the world where building vast infrastructure isn't viable), but mostly political (fighting surveillance). It's not just Blockchain, but the Inter-planetary file system (, and a few similar decentralising protocols like DAT (

The hardware to support decentralisation is also developing. The Gotenna device (see is a small radio repeater which carries a signal for 4 miles, and can easily form a mesh network with other Gotenna recievers in the neighbourhood.  I found this incredibly exciting. Basically, we're heading for an off-grid internet.

As with all of these things, the question for an educational technologist is "What does this mean for institutions?"

The answer is, "We don't know", except that what it will spell out is "Change". The decentralised web is a threat to institutions. That's a message educational institutions need to hear right now, because they all are behaving as if technology has been "done", that it's all about MOOCs and the VLE and that all they need to worry about is "policy" with regard to technology.

Frankly, that's bollocks - ask any 14 year-old at MozFest!

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

The Physics of Learning and the Learning of Physics

An alternative title for this might be "the physics of metaphysics and the metaphysics of physics". But I want to talk to educationalists, not philosophers. The division between metaphysics and physics is an unfortunate inheritance from antiquity.

There are some terms from physics which we use continually and assume we all know what they mean. Education is the process by which our questioning of these basic terms is attenuated. In order to get a clearer picture of physics, we need better education. But in order to get better education, we need to grapple with learning, and its closely related concept, "Information".

I'm taking my cue from Peter Rowland's physics - see - in asking some fundamental questions not only about information, but about physics itself. We are kidding ourselves if we think a good theory of learning can be established without thinking how such a theory might relate to what we know about the physical world. Most educational researchers are kidding themselves. We are also kidding ourselves if we think good physical theories can be established without considering the educational context within which they are produced and reproduced.

So here are a few core concepts which start to unravel once we dig into them:

  1. "Dimension" - what is a dimension? We are told in school that height, width and depth are three "dimensions", or that time is a fourth. At the same time, we understand that a value in one dimension is called a "scalar", and that in two dimensions we have "vectors" (and also in more dimensions). 
  2. "Vector" - this gets used in all sorts of contexts from cartography to text analysis. But we have bivectors, trivectors, psuedovectors and then the weird rotational asymmetry of quaternions, octonions, nonions (see Peirce's work on these in the collected papers: his emphasis on triadic forms seems to derive from his interest in quaternions). It's important to be clear about what we mean by "vector". 
  3. "Matter" and "Mass" - do we mean "mass" when we say "matter"? It's worth noting that mass is a scalar value. 
  4. "Energy" - isn't this a combination of mass, space and time? (e.g. 1/2mv^2) So... a scalar, a vector and.... time? 
  5. "Time" - Is time "real" in the same way as we might consider mass to be real?... It is perhaps surprising that mass and energy are connected: Nuclear reactors turn scalars into vectors! Is time imaginary?.... is time i? That would make it a pseudoscalar. 
  6. "Conservation" - some things are conserved and other things aren't. Time isn't conserved. Mass is. Energy is conserved. Space isn't conserved, is it? Something weird happens with conservation...maybe this is agency? Is information conserved?  
  7. "Information" - Shannon information involves counting things. On the face of it, it's a scalar value - but in the counting process, there is work done - both by the thing observed and by the body that observes it. Work, like energy, is (at least) a combination of mass, time and space. This applies to *any* counting: there is an imaginary component, the dimensions of space and scalar mass. It probably involves charge too. 
  8. "Agency" - Terry Deacon has a definition of agency (from which this post began): 
    2. Turning to Terry's definition of "agency", it involves "work", "conservation" and "organisation". The definition hides some complexities relating to the nature of work, and the ways in which mass and charge might be conserved, but time and space isn't. Implicit in the relation between extrinsic and intrinsic tendencies (what are they?) is symmetry. Is agency a principle of conservation which unfolds the symmetry between conserved and non-conserved dimensions? That means we are in a symmetry: "a pattern that connects" - to quote Bateson. 

Personally, I find the value of these questions is that they render less certain the dogmatically asserted principles of modern physics. Maybe we need this uncertainty in order to get closer to "information", and consequently, to get closer to learning.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Things we talk about and things we don't talk about in Educational Technology

There are plenty of things we talk about in educational technology: MOOCs, e-portfolio, open educational resources, open education (open everything...), learning analytics, learning design, and so on. We've created 'specialists' in each of these fields - as if each field was separable from the others - or even that the field of educational technology is itself specifically identifiable (is it?). Why have we created these distinctions? Why have we separated things out like this? Well, that's what the education system we are in does. What is its effect? It creates scarcity, and with scarcity comes a market. In the case of many of the trends of educational technology, the market is in individuals with enhanced status as "experts" in specific areas.

You want an expert in OER? - you have to talk to x. They're the "expert" - they'll tell you all you need to know. You want learning analytics, talk to y. An expert.  Or MOOCs? Well, who do you think really gained out of the MOOC experiment? Of course, the big winners were the experts who talked about them!

Education is very confusing. Who isn't confused? Would an expert in education be any more credible than an expert in parenting? (yes, there are a few of those, and I find their blind faith that they know the right way to do it perplexing).

Deep down, I'm interested in the confusion education creates, and the things that this confusion does - like creating a breed of people who pretend not be confused: vice-chancellors, education ministers... and experts in educational technology. I'm interested in how technology seems to be increasing the confusion of education - partly by challenging established hierarchies... the kind of hierarchies which promote experts in the first place. What we never talk about is our confusion.

The first sign of being blind to the confusion we are all in is the apparent omission of engaging with fundamental questions, or the washing-over of basic assumptions. This isn't new in academia. Alfred North Whitehead pointed out in his book "Science and the Modern World" (1926) that:
"When you are criticising the philosophy of an epoch do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch" (p.61)
Tony Lawson (who is somebody more educationalists should know about) quoted this in a paper he presented to the Cambridge Realist Workshop this week (this group has over more than 20 years been an excellent example of openness). His title was "What's wrong with modern economics and why does it stay wrong?". A similar question can be asked of education: "What's wrong with modern education and why does it stay wrong?"

It stays wrong because it's defended by "experts" whose vested interest is to hide the confusion they feel and instead pontificate.

Am I pontificating in saying that? I deeply worry about that question. The problem with blogging is that it's not a very good medium for listening. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

A Transdisciplinary Synthesis for Educational Technology Theory

I've been very critical of the current state of theory in educational technology. When comparing the theoretical and scientific work on learning and technology today with that of the 1970s, it doesn't look very good.

A lot of today's e-learning academics are happy to promote rhetoric about what we should and shouldn't do (social media, yeah! open access, yeah! learning analyics, yawn!), but are silent when addressing the really difficult questions about learning, consciousness, society, institutions, technology and systems.

Part of the problem is an unwarranted consensus about educational theory being "established": Critical pedagogy, constructivism, open education, etc have all become 'real' things (ironically in the case of constructivism), alongside more pernicious real things like "modules" and "learning outcomes". Their effect is to provide an anchor for education academics. Each hides numerous implicit ontological assumptions which are never critiqued. On more than one occasion, I have attempted to challenge people who ought to know better with questions like "but what do you mean by..." and then I'm met with silence. I think this is indicative of professional insecurity rather than a general ignorance of the fundamental questions. There's plenty of insecurity out there.

I want to change this - but to change it means to escape the educational consensus. We have to do what the originators of our current consensus (Piaget, Vygotsky, von Glasersfeld, Freire) did - engage in a truly interdisciplinary inquiry which engages at the forefront of current scientific, political, philosophical, technological and artistic knowledge.

What is happening in physics today which is relevant to learning? What is happening in biology? What about philosophy? Or maths? Or logic? Or systems? Or the arts?

This isn't just a trawl for new theory. We need a new accommodation between theory and experiment. Our empirical foundation in education is dreadful - "8 out of 10 learners preferred..." We must do better.
In any empirical enterprise we need:

  • A logic for expressing what we think might happen
  • A means of measuring what actually happens
  • A method for restructuring our logic in the light of experience.

Our logic depends fundamentally on mathematics. At the forefront of pure mathematics are inquiries about complex topologies, explored through techniques like category theory. In maths today, the very issue of "categorisation" is a question - perhaps the central question which is exercising minds. So what of our categories of "education" or "learning"? At the heart of these investigations is the pursuit of better ways of understanding recursion (our categories about most things - and certainly education - are recursive).

On measurement, perhaps we should look to the physicists exploring the properties of quantum mechanical systems, where their focus is on the measurement of uncertainty, symmetry and contingency. After all, it is these systems which will form the basis of our next generation of computers. Or we could look to biologists who are examining the ways in which cells organise themselves in their environment. At the forefront of research, the physicists and the biologists may be looking at the same thing, and often with similar tools taken from information theory.

Finally, what of our method for adjusting our knowledge? This goes to the heart of a technological and organisational question. To change what we know is to change our structure. Where does the structure of an individual's knowledge end and the structure of the society in which the individual exists begin? Doing science entails social structural change. Doing uncertain science - which seems to be what we now need to do - entails doing this continuously. Our hierarchical social structures of education and science do not provide sufficient flexibility. Only heterarchical structures will be able to absorb the variety of the environment in which they operate. In its favour, OER is heterarchical.

What we have now in education is not scientific, but scientistic. Stupid applications of technology in education like Learning Analytics adopt the pretence of science to give it kudos. The stupidity is upheld (and exacerbated) by institutional hierarchy. We need to move on all three fronts: the logical, the empirical and the structural. But it is the structural which, currently, is our biggest problem - but one that can't be addressed without the other two.

Monday, 9 October 2017

An Ashby Growth Machine

Imagine studying the dynamics of Ashby's homeostat where each unit produces a string of numbers which accord to the various values of each dial. The machine comes to its solution when the entropies of the dials are each 0 (redundancy 1). At this moment, the machine 'dies' - there's nothing else left to do.  

As the machine approaches its equilibrium, the constraint of each dial on every other can be explored by the relative entropies between the dials. If we wanted the machine to keep on searching (and living!) and not to settle, it's conceivable that we might add more dials into the mechanism as its relative entropy started to approach 0. What would this do? It would maintain a counterpoint in the relative entropies within the ensemble. 

So there's a kind of pattern: machine with n dials gradually approaches equilibrium. An observer measuring the relative entropy of the machine adds new dials when the relative entropy approaches 0. So, say there's n+1 dials, and the process is repeated. But growth also entails the death of parts of the machine. Maybe the same observer looks at the relative entropies between sub-sections of components. Maybe they decide that some subsections can be removed also as a way of increasing the relative entropy of the ensemble. 

But what about the entropy of the observer's actions in adding and taking away dials? Since this action is triggered by the relative entropy of the ensemble, the relative entropy between the relative entropy of the machine and the entropy of the observer should approach 0. What if we add observers? What would the relative entropy between the observers be?

Each observer might be called a "second-order" observer. Each dial in the homeostat is a first-order observer of the other dials. Each second-order observer sees the ensemble of first-order observers as if it was a single dial. A second second-order observer would also see this, and would see the other second-order observer. A third-order observer could add or remove a second-order observer. And so on. 

Does the growth of this Ashby organism display an emergent symmetry?

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Notation, Constraint and Logic

I’ve been doing some experiments with notation in music and video. I’ve got a great music writing app on my tablet called “StaffPad” which does handwriting recognition (so I can handwrite squiggly notes and the software converts them into proper typeset notes) – which is great, if a little bit fiddly. However, it also has a facility for simply drawing on the score. When the score plays back, it scrolls the music, so both drawing and notes appear.

To write a note on a score is to give an instruction. There is a question about whether the instruction is about exactly “what to do” or it is in fact “what not to do”. In other words, does the symbol on the score denote the sound, or does it contribute to the conditions of freedom within which a performer might act freely?

I squiggled some shapes on the score, and then I attempted to “play” it. I should have made my squiggles a bit easier to play! I did this a couple of times. The sound that I produce can be considered as “alternative descriptions” of something. The symbols/squiggles on the score are also descriptions of the same thing. If there is any similarity between these different descriptions it is in the fact that both the graphical description and the sound descriptions have similar entropy: in other words, what counts a surprise in one, counts as a surprise in the other.

Notation is obviously different from a recording. A recording is a faithful description of exactly what is done. Notation is an invitation to create multiple descriptions. The parameters as to what is permissible and what isn’t is contained in the way the notation conveys the flow of entropy over time.

So what about other kinds of marks or notations which we use?

In logic, I can represent the statement “All humans are mortal” as ∀x:human(x) → mortal(x). What’s the difference between these? The variable x is an invitation to generate possibilities – alternative instantiations of the formula. They produce constraints on the imagination bounded by the ways in which the symbols might be manipulated. The meaning is not in the phrase “all humans are mortal”, or even in ∀x:human(x)→mortal(x), the meaning lies in the interplay between the different descriptions which are made in the light of the notation.

We misunderstand formal logic as a denotation of reason. Really it’s an invitation to generate multiple descriptions from which reason is connoted. This mistake is why attempts to prove computer software in formal systems has failed. If we understand the relationship between logic, notation and meaning differently, then we can find new applications for logic. Education is one of these.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Theory, Explanation and Prediction

The word “theory” means different things in different contexts.

Mathematics: Mathematicians use “theory” with reference to things like “number theory”, “set theory”, “group theory”, “category theory”: basically, different kinds of formal system whose properties can be explored and can often be mapped on to other formal systems: for example, category theory (which is much in vogue at the moment) presents ways of accounting for number theory, set theory, etc. Like those systems it accounts for, it is a self-enclosed formal system.

Physics: Physicists use theory to explain and predict physical events like gravitation or quantum entanglement. Physical theories and mathematical theories are closely related: calculus, for example, was developed as a way of describing the motion of planets. There is some argument as to how physical theories are constructed or discovered: classical science sees theory as the constructed result of the observation of event regularities in nature, for which communities of scientists agree causal explanations. Many of the classical arguments for the construction of theory have been challenged by relativity and quantum mechanics where observing becomes part of the scientific/methodological process, and bias and ego of the scientist, or the power dynamics of institutional science feed into theoretical claims.

Social theory: At its origin, social theory followed the classical scientific model: it was assumed that “event regularities" could be established in the social world through statistics. With statistical regularity, the same process of constructing explanations could be established. Today, we call this positivism, and it was in evidence in some of the early industrial improvement processes in Taylorism or Fordism. This has become the root of arguments about method. Contributions from phenomenology (which grew from mathematics through Husserl), psychoanalysis, philosophy and economics has led to conflicting views about the use of statistics in social science (Keynes, Hayek), subjectivity vs. objectivity in observation, value freedom (Weber), intersubjectivity (Husserl, Schutz), Knowledge vs Action (Marx, Lewin), realism vs constructivism (von Glasersfeld, Archer). Education sits (partly) in this theoretical mess.

Psychological Theory: Like early social theory, psychological theory often pursues a classical science model. Experimental conditions are established, experiments are performed, events observed, regularities established through statistical analysis and causal explanations constructed. Like social theory and physics, questions about objectivity, bias, explanation, etc have divided psychologists between those who uphold an empirical model (often working in cognitive science) and those working in social psychology. Education is also caught up in these debates.

Political/Economic theory: Marxist theory presents perhaps the most coherent account of the connection between the material base of existence, social structures and human agency. Its explanatory success is directly connected to the practical effects on the development of social and economic policy from the late 19th century. It remains the best example of the power and importance of theory, and the connection between coherent explanation and social emancipation.

High level theories in Education: Observation of regularities in social life has led to various high-level categories of causal mechanisms in education. Buzzwords emerge whose definitions are often woolly: sociomateriality, semiotics, critical pedagogy, transformative learning, constructivism, etc are high level constructs whose provenance is obscure. Despite lack of clarity (and maybe because of it) these terms get discussed a lot in the literature. Because of intrinsic rewards of the journal system for helping academics establish their impact and job security, popular terms tend to persist since it leads to citations.

So at one level (e.g. maths) theory is well-defined. For most of physics it remains so, but where physics concerns very small, very fast, or very far-away things, theory bifurcates. In education the theoretical picture is very confused. Added to this is the fact that data analysis is now seen as a viable alternative to theory: prediction, which is one of the principal features of theory, can be achieved from simply crunching numbers (i.e. counting). In this process, explanation is deemed less important.
Having said all this, theory – or the building of explanations – is not something which only occurs in turgid textbooks. Everybody does it. We cannot not theorize. To deny the importance of theory is itself a theory. But it is a theory which doesn’t explain or predict very much, so it is not very good. Holding to multiple inconsistent or bad theories renders us confused.

The quest for a coherent theory of educational technology is a response to a range of questions:

  1. Can we explain (and predict?) the reaction of institutions and individuals to technologies? 
  2. Can we explain (and predict??) the development of students whose demonstrable skill increases with educational engagement? 
  3. Can we explain the reticence of some individuals, or the enthusiasm of others, to engage in technology? 
  4. Can we explain why so many learners (and teachers) seem to prefer face-to-face communication over online? 
  5. Can we explain how we feel when we engage in learning online? 
  6. Can we explain why status, accreditation, certification seem so important in education and society? 
  7. Can we explain why our existing explanations/theories do not explain much of what happens in education? 
  8. Can we explain the difference between university higher learning, school and kindergarten? 
  9. Can we explain curiosity? 
  10. Can we explain why YouTube is fab? Or why there’s so much porn on the internet? 
  11. Can we explain why so many are addicted to social media? 
  12. Can we explain why teachers want to teach? 
  13. Can we explain why scientists continue to publish their work in journals? 
  14. Can we explain why institutions exist? (and why dogs don’t have universities?) 

Because all these things are connected, many different and inconsistent descriptions can only produce confusion which can not only be imprisoning, but confound our ability to develop technologies which make society better: the unforeseen consequences of technical development might take us to self-destruction through lack of critical inquiry.

It is worth noting that those political forces which demonstrate antipathy to deep critical inquiry are those now in control in the US, Turkey, Russia, North Korea and the UK. We need to think our way out of a very dangerous situation.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Vice Chancellors' and Footballers' salaries compared: HOT NEWS! VC Transfer Window Closing soon - Who'll get the Lukaku treatment?

The establishment is closing ranks on VC pay. After the crass "bling display" of George Holmes saying students want to be taught by rich professors (, the VC of Oxford, Louise Richardson, has blamed politicians for stirring-up the pay issue: using many of the same arguments as Holmes! He'll be flattered, I'm sure.

Interestingly, these high calibre and highly sought-after people can't seem to engage with the press without shooting themselves in the foot. Richardson has quite needlessly done this by defending homophobic lecturers: - a gaffe which is in the same league as Holmes's miscalculation. What this all really tells us is that these people are just as confused about education as the rest of us. They try to defend their salaries by pretending that they are not confused by education, but then do or say something which reveals the crassness of their own intellectual position. There is no head of any university anywhere who is not hiding their confusion behind an enormous pay packet.

Here's a quote from Richardson's interview:
"My own salary is £350,000. That’s a very high salary compared to our academics who I think are, junior academics especially, very lowly paid. Compared to a footballer, it looks very different; compared to a banker if looks very different. But actually, we operate, as I keep saying, in a global marketplace,"
Three points to make about this (thanks to Oleg for much of this)

  1. Her "lowly paid academics" are lowly paid because she decides they should be.
  2. Footballers in the premier league earn vast sums of money. Footballers in League 2 earn about £40,000. Oxford is a premier league university. George Holmes's Bolton isn't. So why are all VCs paid the same? It looks like a cartel, doesn't it?
  3. And finally, the Marketplace. What's that, exactly? Is she saying there is a market for Vice Chancellors in the same way there is a market for footballers, or (more appropriately) football managers?

Universities, encouraged by the government, have convinced themselves that the environment in which they operate is a "market". What this means - certainly for places like Bolton - is that obeying the "will of the student who pays their fees" is the essential criterion for success. But then Richardson, who would argue that Oxford "competes" for the brightest students, then says to students uncomfortable about homophobic professors,
"I'm sorry, but my job isn't to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I'm interested in making you uncomfortable"
Weird market, eh?! The confusion here is that "the market" cannot possibly be the environment of the University; education's environment is society at large - past, present and future - not the "will of the student".  Universities are in trouble because they don't know what environment they are really working in or have to adapt to. Misunderstanding their environment is leading to cruel managerial interventions (such as those at Manchester and the OU at the moment) and this current pay scandal which is stirring-up greater political threats for them in the real environment. The mixed messages and confusion is compounded by the enormous sums of money these people lay claim to (and not to mention their enormous pensions which will bleed an already bleeding university pension system dry).

Our VCs think they are worth £220,000 or £350,000??? Let's put them in the "VC transfer market" and see what happens! Who is the Lukaku or Alex Ferguson of Vice-Chancellors? Holmes? Not likely! Richardson? Well, Oxford's a great "club" - comes top of the league tables... but.. is that because of her? Did she score all the goals? Did she win the research contracts? But let's say she is really great - money talks, so the post that's currently held by Michael Crow at the University of Arizona, which pays him $1,554,058 (see ought to be attractive to her. I'm sure they'd be willing to make an offer. So why doesn't she go?

And then, just for fun, who is the Alan Ball, described by the Guardian as a "ruthlessly efficient relegation machine" ( Well, Bolton isn't exactly at the top of the table. But Ball was sacked. Holmes is still there!

These people are having a laugh at society's expense. They are not, however, as guilty as the bankers, who Richardson also mentions. We must deal with them both.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

What is notation? (in Maths and Music)

When we are taught notations, whether in music or mathematics, we are always taught what certain symbols denote. In music, students have to work out which note is meant to be played when, and all of these "instructions" are contained in the way the note is written. In maths, we are taught which symbol means what and how they can be combined, and how strings of symbols can be manipulated and related to other symbols. So we learn that 2 + 3 = 5 is a legitimate use of the symbols 2, 3, 5, +, =, but 2 + 3 = 6 is not. When we learn maths, we are conditioned to mistake the symbols from the meaning. The meaning we only learn by playing with the symbols and working out what is legitimate and what isn't. What does "legitimate" mean? It must be some kind of social expectation: mathematicians coordinated their "dances with symbols" with the dances of other mathematicians. Without this coordination, there is really no maths at all.

It's the same with music. In any notated music, we are told which notes to play and in what order, and in what time. There is much that we are not told. The symbols are really an attempt to convey the constraints within which one might express oneself freely in music to be coherent with others expectations. The notation tells us what not to do.

Is the flow of logic a flow of constraint? What not to do at time t1 is not the same as what not to do at time t2. When solving a mathematical problem, or doing some kind of formal logical proof, there is a fluctuation in what not to do. To indicate these is to coordinate a common set of constraints between mathematicians.

Notation indicates constraints. But it produces its own constraints. Whatever is the reality of number lies in the common lifeworld which is experienced between people manipulating representations of number. But if notation is assumed to be real of itself, it will produce unexpected results which lead to confusion.

An example (from Lou Kauffman): if Euler's identity is:

which then means
How can an imaginary number equal a real number?

Musicians don't get caught in this. They coordinate their expectations at a deeper level. The mathematical example is produced because there is a double-layer constraint (much like a double-bind). There is constraint between the coordination of expectations about number at one level, and coordination of expectations about the notation at another.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Medieval Logic, Cybernetics and the art of D.P. Henry

It's a curious thing that I was talking with a friend about curiosity yesterday, a couple of weeks after visiting the British Library and spotting in the display cases a copy of Boethius's "De Institutione Arithmetica" which contained a beautiful picture of the categorisation of number into arithmetic, geometry and harmony. With no apology, I would say that the "harmony" struck a chord with me! There's something about curiosity and "striking a chord" - or rather, looking for a chord to be struck.

I've recently been immersing myself in physics and symmetry, and was about to attend a conference which included contributions from physicists and cyberneticians. What I wasn't expecting was to be presented with very powerful alignments between medieval logic and cybernetics. The presentation by Dino Buzetti sent me off to look for the common patterns between Scotus, Ockham and George Spencer-Brown. What's the key? It's the obsession with what it is to make a distinction.

Dino's references also led me to seek out the work of D.P. Henry. Henry was one of the leading authorities on medieval logic. The epigraph he chose for his book on "Medieval Logic and Metaphysics" from St. Anselm could have been written by many cyberneticians (and particularly by Bateson):

We ought not to be
held back by the way
in which the improprieties
of speech hide the truth,
but should rather aspire
to the precision of the
truth which lies hidden
under the multiplicity
of ways of talking (from De Casu Diaboli)
I'm still digging into the book, but this statement from Anselm seems to me to also be about curiosity: it is a search for the multiplicity of ways of talking.

Henry is less famous today for medieval philosophy than he is for art. He was a champion of machine-generated art, and produced beautiful images like this one:

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Squander, Universities and George Holmes's Yacht

The recent car-crash interview given by George Holmes of the University of Bolton to the FT, repeated by other mainstream press (e.g. here: was deeply unsettling and unwelcome to many in the sector (for example, Oxford's David Palfreyman here: It was hard to work out if Holmes intended to stick two fingers up at the establishment, or he was wanting to parade his Bentley and yacht in front of them as a way of saying, "Well, it may only be in Bolton, but I can cut it with you posh lot!". He seems to flip-flop on this: on the one hand appointing minor royals to ceremonial positions in the University, whilst claiming that the old established universities like Oxford are "dinosaurs waiting to die". The latter comment he made in a TED talk (!) recently at a TED event organised at Bolton at which three senior managers and a few professors (it's very hard to tell the difference between professors and senior management these days) gave the world the benefit of their wisdom. This is worth watching here to gauge the intellectual clarity with which Holmes grasps his mission. It's not, I think, pedantic to note that the Robbins Report on Higher Education was published in 1963. The total self-confidence with which Holmes says it's 1966 and riffs on "route 66" says a lot about him: it's as if he's thinking, "if I say it loudly enough, I can make it true". It would make one question many of his other boasts and indeed his judgement. We see this in the world a lot at the moment.

To the people of Bolton, the obvious point is that Holmes's "success" - his yacht, the Bentley, and his £960,000 house - have been paid for by the university's students (many the children of Bolton) with money they haven't yet earned, and with a debt which will be hanging over them long after his yacht has sunk and the Bentley is at the crushers. He will say (and has), "This is a multi-million pound business". But one might be forgiven for thinking "This is a multi-million pound racket", the product of misguided government policy which turned universities into fiefdoms and put characters like Holmes at the helm without any checks and balances on their behaviour. The fact is, after numerous uncomfortable engagements with the press and previous bad behaviour (see, HE'S STILL THERE. Is it imaginable that the VC of Oxford would survive this kind of thing? I doubt it. Holmes has been able to arrange things to suit him - at the students' and staff's expense. How long will this last?

The FT interview was, by any measure, very poorly judged. It was on a Phillip Green/Mike Ashley/Donald Trump level of "bringing the institution into disrepute" behaviour. I suspect Holmes knows this - but for some reason he can't seem to stop himself. The weird thing here is that he knows he can get away with it. The interview was reckless, irresponsible. It was squanderous - as indeed was the Bentley, the yacht, the £100,000 awayday, the £960,000 house, the sacking of the UCU reps, and so on. It was like some drug and alcohol fuelled bender of the kind that would make de Sade blush. It carries the whiff of the thrill it probably gave him as he posed for the centrefold of the FT (ok, it wasn't the centrefold, but it could have been). Playboy next. Dangerous?! "Yeah, but I'll get away with it."

Amid the austerity agenda, squander doesn't get much of a look in. But it's everywhere. George Bataille wrote an entire economic theory around the concept of squander and waste: he argued that in human history, it was the most regular punctuating mark in civilisation: war and destruction, extravagant building, luxurious art, sexual excess, alcohol and drugs, all the way through to the human sacrifice of ancient civilisation. Bataille put it down to humans having absorbed "excess energy" from the sun, and needing to expend it in various ways. He based his ideas on the anthropological theory of Marcel Mauss who explored gift economies and the "potlatch".

There is a weird symmetry between the squander of Holmes and the squander by students going to his (or other) Universities. Since fees were introduced, university funding has quickly revealed itself to be a "Veblen good" - where the demand for something increases with its price. Veblen I suspect subscribed to a similar theory to Bataille - he regarded University as "atavistic", and had a notorious reputation for seducing the wives of Vice-Chancellors. For the students, University is squander which the government encourages. It's actually a form of Keynesianism: what Colin Crouch calls "Privatised Keynesianism". £50,000 of debt for a piece of paper! Wow! That feels fantastic!

All intellectual life has an aspect of squander. At its best it's like the squander of the artist, or perhaps the squander of the priest who lives in self-imposed poverty. As intellectual accomplishment also carries a social status (What Veblen acerbically says is where "the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces") there is always a 'marketing' opportunity to sell the "fairy dust". The market has taken all of these forms of squander and turned them into an economic dynamic where student squander is matched by the squander of the likes of Holmes, and the unpleasant corporations making a killing on student accommodation and other services, and the banks who are ramping up interest on student fees.

Catherine Bennett touched on this in her excellent Guardian piece about Holmes, asking what would happen if it all doesn't work:
"What will motivate our young people, supposing we accept the Holmes analysis, if they do not see how good jobs translate into high-end vehicle choices? How else will leaders like him advertise their very successful careers? There can be only one possible compensation for this loss: more money" (see
Is this sustainable? Can it carry on growing? Let's see more waste from students, and more outrageous peacock displays by the likes of Holmes! But this is an age of "austerity"! How does any of this make sense?

It's not an age of austerity. It's an age of squander. It's an age where a few like Holmes squander on Bentleys and yachts, whilst students squander on education. In the middle are the teachers and academics - the people with no time, let alone the money, to squander. That's the other side of Holmes's squander: slashing staff, hourly paid contracts, no security. This is the students' future. Bataille might suggest that we've reinvented human sacrifice.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Uncertainty, Universities and Yacht-owning Vice-Chancellors

One of the greatest sources of confusion concerns the impact of technology on social change. When we survey history, we see patterns which appear to suggest that steam power caused the industrial revolution, and the various social and political transformations which accompanied it.  Obviously, online shopping needed the internet; the collapse of the high street could also be seen to be collateral damage from this, as was highlighted in this interesting (and rather depressing) piece about Bolton this week: But this causal connection between technology and social change is what is called "technological determinism" - and it clearly isn't true. Yet because a causal link between technological innovation and social change is constructed, a mindset sets in within institutions like universities and government which sees that the solution to social problems like housing, welfare, employment or health is technological innovation.  But it tends to produce new problems rather than solutions.

We need a new theory which connects technological innovation to social change. I've begun to think that we look at the wrong things if we examine what new tools can do - what psychologists call their "affordances". Rather than doing this, there is a simpler starting point: all new tools provide new ways of doing things. That is, basically, the definition of a tool: it creates a new option for acting.

Today we are continually bombarded with new options for acting: new online communication services (FaceTube), new ways of cutting mobile phone bills (LebaraFone), new ways of getting about (UberLyft), and so on. Our daily conversations often go something like "I use x, it's new - have you tried it? Much better than y".

There are a number of things about options which need to be considered. Any option has to be selected. We use all kinds of techniques for making selections - habit is the most powerful one - but the trouble of deciding on an option is work. David Graeber calls this "imaginative labour". If you give somebody more options, that's more work.

From a more scientific perspective, if the number of options for acting is increased, then the probability that any particular option is selected decreases. If the probability of selecting an option decreases, the chances of somebody else guessing the option you have chosen also decreases. If the other person is not familiar with the scale of options you are selecting from, there is no chance of them guessing. This can make communication more difficult. There is no point in communicating a message to a friend through Twitter if they are not on Twitter.

In order to communicate, it is important that the range of options available to somebody sending a message is the same as the options available to a person receiving a message. If this isn't the case, then there is a chance that something will be selected at one end which cannot be selected at the other. The same thing applies to language: to understand a message, the receiver needs some idea of the inner machinery (psychology) of the person uttering the message so that they can understand how the selection of words was made. These basic principles grow from Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety in cybernetics: that in order to manage the complexity of system a, system b must have an equal or greater amount of complexity. One way of expressing this is through Shannon's information theory which measures the complexity of communications in terms of their "surprisingness", or the degree of uncertainty associated with them.

If adding a new option reduces the probability of selecting an option, and the probability of guessing what option is selected, then uncertainty is increased. Technological innovation does nothing but increases uncertainty.

Because of this, it is incorrect to say that "technology takes people's jobs". Institutions make people redundant, not computers. What causes institutions to do this is the their own reaction to the uncertainties produced by technology and other things in their environment. It is the effect of uncertainty on existential fears of managers, company directors, government ministers and so on which result in the misery of redundancy for staff (and never redundancy for those making the decisions about redundancy!). They tend to respond to it by off-loading their existential crises onto their employees as they seek to defend the structures of their institution in an increasingly uncertain environment.

Present crises of employment, equality, political expression, and institutional corruption are directly the result of institutions struggling to maintain themselves in an increasingly uncertain environment. As institutions seek to defend themselves by reinforcing their structures, sacking staff, and attempting to bend to "market conditions", they feed a growing political crisis which has the effect of ramping-up uncertainty in their environment. It is a positive feedback situation. Political uncertainty leads to new environmental complexities to which the institution has to adapt, sacking staff, reconfiguring courses, etc. Gradually institutions eat themselves.

At the heart of the problem is the way society manages its uncertainty. Traditionally, institutions like churches, universities, hospitals and government have been the means of managing uncertainty, which institutions have done by attenuating the environment and forcing individuals through regulated pathways. This worked because uncertainties could not proliferate because the transformation of means of doing things was a slow process. Computers change that. The transformation of means of doing things is rapid, and the growth of uncertainty is relentless. Institutions in their traditional form are not fit for purpose to manage uncertainty. Indeed, they make the situation worse.

The future of the management of uncertainty in society rests with effective use of technology and self-organisation between individuals. This will not replace universities and hospitals completely. But it will do many of the things which we currently associate with institutions. Meanwhile, the dinosaur institutions will hang on. Vice-chancellors will grab as much as they can to preserve their status and identity whilst things fall apart around them. Some of them will even give unwise interviews to national newspapers about how "well" they are doing. There is no better sign of the crisis we are in than this yacht-owning vice chancellor:

My thoughts this week are with those he's just made redundant.