Direct and Indirect Constraints:

In today’s post, I am following on the theme of Lila Gatlin’s work on constraints and tying it up with cybernetics. Please refer to my previous posts here and here for additional background. As I discussed in the last post, Lila Gatlin used the analogy of language to explain the emergence of complexity in evolution. She postulated that lower complex organisms such as invertebrates focused on D1 constraints to ensure that the genetic material is passed on accurately over generations, while vertebrates maintained a constant level of D1 constraints and utilized D2 constraints to introduce novelty leading to complexification of the species. Gatlin noted that this is similar to Shannon’s second theorem which points out that if a message is encoded properly, then it can be sent over a noisy medium in a reliable manner. As Jeremy Campbell notes:

In Shannon’s theory, the essence of successful communication is that the message must be properly encoded before it is sent, so that it arrives at its destination just as it left the transmitter, intact and free from errors caused by the randomizing effects of noise. This means that a certain amount of redundancy must be built into the message at the source… In Gatlin’s new kind of natural selection, “second-theorem selection,” fitness is defined in terms very different and abstract than in classical theory of evolution. Fitness here is not a matter of strong bodies and prolific reproduction, but of genetic information coded according to Shannon’s principles.

The codes that made possible the so-called higher organisms, Gatlin suggests, were redundant enough to ensure transmission along the channel from DNA to protein without error, yet at the same time they possessed an entropy, in Shannon’s sense of “amount of potential information,” high enough to generate a large variety of possible messages.

Gatlin viewed that complexity arose from the ability to introduce more variety while at the same time maintaining accuracy in an optimal mix, similar to human language where there is always constant emergence of new and new ideas while the main grammar, syntax etc. are maintained. As Campbell continues:

In the course of evolution, certain living organisms acquired DNA messages which were coded in this optimum way, giving them a highly successful balance between variety and accuracy, a property also displayed by human languages. These winning creatures were the vertebrates, immensely innovative and versatile forms of life, whose arrival led to a speeding-up of evolution.

As Campbell puts it, vertebrates were agents of novelty. They were able to revolutionize their anatomy and body chemistry. They were able to evolve more rapidly and adapt to their surroundings. The first known vertebrate is a bottom-dwelling fish that lived over 350 million years ago. They had a heavy external skeleton that anchored them to the floor of the water-body. They evolved such that some of the spiny parts of the skeleton grew into fins. They also evolved such that they developed skull with openings for sense organs such as eyes, nose, ears etc. Later on, some of them developed limbs from the bony supports of fins, leading to the rise of amphibians.

What kind of error-correcting redundancy did he DNA of these evolutionary prize winners, the vertebrates, possess? It had to give them the freedom to be creative, to become something markedly different, for their emergence was made possible not merely by changes in the shape of a common skeleton, but rather by developing whole new parts and organs of the body. Yet this redundancy also had to provide them with the constraints needed to keep their genetic messages undistorted.

Gatlin defined the first type of redundancy, one that allows deviation from equiprobability as ‘D1 constraint’. This is also referred to as ‘governing constraint’. The second type of redundancy, one that allows deviation from independence was termed by Gatlin as ‘D2 constraint’, and this is also referred to as ‘enabling constraint’. Gatlin’s speculation was that vertebrates were able to use both D1 and D2 constraints to increase their complexification, ultimately leading to a high cognitive being such as our species, homo sapiens.

One of the pioneers in Cybernetics, Ross Ashby, also looked at a similar question. He was looking at the biological learning mechanisms of “advanced” organisms. Ashby identified that for lower complex organisms, the main source of regulation is their gene pattern. For Ashby, regulation is linked to their viability or survival. He noted that the lower complex organisms can rely just on their gene pattern to continue to survive in their environment. Ashby noted that they are adapted because their conditions have been constant over many generations. In other words, a low complex organism such as a hunting wasp can hunt and survive simply based on their genetic information. They do not need to learn to adapt, they can adapt with what they have. Ashby referred to this as direct regulation. With direct regulation, there is a limit to the adaptation. If the regularities of the environment change, the hunting wasp will not be able to survive. It relies on the regularities of the environment for its survival. Ashby contrasted this with indirect regulation. With indirect regulation, one is able to amplify adaptation. Indirect regulation is the learning mechanism that allows the organism to adapt. A great example for this is a kitten. As Ashby notes:

This (indirect regulation) is the learning mechanism. Its peculiarity is that the gene-pattern delegates part of its control over the organism to the environment. Thus, it does not specify in detail how a kitten shall catch a mouse, but provides a learning mechanism and a tendency to play, so that it is the mouse which teaches the kitten the finer points of how to catch mice.

The learning mechanism in its gene pattern does not directly teach the kitten to hunt for the mice. However, chasing the mice and interacting with it, trains the kitten how to catch the mice. As Ashby notes, the gene pattern is supplemented by the information supplied by the environment. Part of the regulation is delegated to the environment.

In the same way the gene-pattern, when it determines the growth of a learning animal, expends part of its resources in forming a brain that is adapted not only by details in the gene-pattern but also by details in the environment. The environment acts as the dictionary, while the hunting wasp, as it attacks its prey, is guided in detail by its genetic inheritance, the kitten is taught how to catch mice by the mice themselves. Thus, in the learning organism the information that comes to it by the gene-pattern is much supplemented by information supplied by the environment; so, the total adaptation possible, after learning, can exceed the quantity transmitted directly through the gene-pattern.

Ashby further notes:

As a channel of communication, it has a definite, finite capacity, Q say. If this capacity is used directly, then, by the law of requisite variety, the amount of regulation that the organism can use as defense against the environment cannot exceed Q.  To this limit, the non-learning organisms must conform. If, however, the regulation is done indirectly, then the quantity Q, used appropriately, may enable the organism to achieve, against its environment, an amount of regulation much greater than Q. Thus, the learning organisms are no longer restricted by the limit.

In the same way the gene-pattern, when it determines the growth of a learning animal, expends part of its resources in forming a brain that is adapted not only by details in the gene-pattern but also by details in the environment. The environment acts as the dictionary, while the hunting wasp, as it attacks its prey, is guided in detail by its genetic inheritance, the kitten is taught how to catch mice by the mice themselves. Thus, in the learning organism the information that comes to it by the gene-pattern is much supplemented by information supplied by the environment; so the total adaptation possible, after learning, can exceed the quantity transmitted directly through the gene-pattern.

As I look at Ashby’s ideas, I cannot help but see similarities between the D1/D2 constraints and Direct/Indirect regulation respectively. Indirect regulation, similar to enabling constraints, helps the organism adapt to its environment by connecting things together. Indirect regulation has a second order nature to it such as learning how to learn. It works on being open to possibilities when interacting with the environment. It brings novelty into the situation. Similar to governing constraints, direct regulation focuses only on the accuracy of the ‘message’. Nothing additional or any form of amplification is not possible. Direct regulation is hardwired, whereas indirect regulation is enabling. Direct regulation is context-free, whereas indirect regulation is context-sensitive. What the hunting wasp does is entirely reliant on its gene pattern, no matter the situation, whereas, what a kitten does is entirely dependent on the context of the situation.

Final Words:

Cybernetics can be looked at as the study of possibilities, especially why out of all the possibilities only certain outcomes occur. There are strong undercurrents to information theory in Cybernetics. For example, in information theory entropy is a measure of how many messages might have been sent, but were not. In other words, if there are a lot of possible messages available, and only one message is selected, then it eliminates a lot of uncertainty. Therefore, this represents a high information scenario. Indirect regulation allows us to look at the different possibilities and adapt as needed. Additionally, indirect regulation allows retaining the successes and failures and the lessons learned from them.

I will finish with a great lesson from Ashby to explain the idea of the indirect regulation:

If a child wanted to discover the meanings of English words, and his father had only ten minutes available for instruction, the father would have two possible modes of action. One is to use the ten minutes in telling the child the meanings of as many words as can be described in that time. Clearly there is a limit to the number of words that can be so explained. This is the direct method. The indirect method is for the father to spend the ten minutes showing the child how to use a dictionary. At the end of the ten minutes the child is, in one sense, no better off; for not a single word has been added to his vocabulary. Nevertheless, the second method has a fundamental advantage; for in the future the number of words that the child can understand is no longer bounded by the limit imposed by the ten minutes. The reason is that if the information about meanings has to come through the father directly, it is limited to ten-minutes’ worth; in the indirect method the information comes partly through the father and partly through another channel (the dictionary) that the father’s ten-minute act has made available.

Please maintain social distance, wear masks and take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was D1 and D2 Constraints:

D1 and D2 Constraints:

In today’s post, I am following up from my last post and looking further at the idea of constraints as proposed by Dr. Lila Gatlin. Gatlin was an American biophysicist, who used the idea of information theory to propose an information-processing aspect of life. In information theory, the ‘constraints’ are the ‘redundancies’ utilized for the transmission of the message. Gatlin’s use of this idea from an evolutionary standpoint is quite remarkable. I will explain the idea of redundancies in language using an example I have used before here. This is the famous idea that if a monkey had infinite time on its hands and a typewriter, it will at some point, type out the entire works of Shakespeare, just by randomly clicking on the typewriter keys. It is obviously highly unlikely that a monkey can actually do this. In fact, this was investigated further by William R. Bennett, Jr., a Yale professor of Engineering. As Jeremy Campbell, in his wonderful book, Grammatical Man, notes:

Bennett… using computers, has calculated that if a trillion monkeys were to type ten keys a second at random, it would take more thana trillion times as long as the universe has been in existence merely to produce the sentence “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”

This is mainly because the keyboard of a typewriter does not truly reflect the alphabet as they are used in English. The typewriter keyboard has only one key for each letter. This means that every letter has the same chance of being struck. From an information theory standpoint, this represents a maximum entropy scenario. Any letter can come next since they all have the same probability of being struck. In English, however, the distribution of letters is not the same. Some letters such as “E” are more likely to occur than say “Q”. This is a form of “redundancy” in language. Here redundancy refers to regularities, something that occurs on a regular basis. Gatlin referred to this redundancy as “D1”, which she described as divergence from equiprobability. Bennett used this redundancy next in his experiment. This will be like saying that some letters now had lot more keys on the typewriter so that they are more likely to be clicked. Campbell continues:

Bennett has shown that by applying certain quite simple rules of probability, so that the typewriter keys were not struck completely at random, imaginary monkeys could, in a matter of minutes, turn out passages which contain striking resemblances to lines from Shakespeare’s plays. He supplied his computers with the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, a space and an apostrophe. Then, using Act Three of Hamlet as his statistical model, Bennett wrote a program arranging for certain letters to appear more frequently than others, on the average, just as they do in the play, where the four most common letters are e, o, t, and a, and the four least common letters are j, n, q, and z. Given these instructions, the computer monkeys still wrote gibberish, but no it had a slight hint of structure.

The next type of redundancy in English is the divergence from independence. In English, we know that certain letters are more likely to come together. For example, “ing” or “qu” or “ion”. If we see an “i” and “o”, then there is high chance that the next letter is going to be an “n”. If we see a “q”, we can be fairly sure that the next letter is going to be a “u”. The occurrence of one letter makes the occurrence of another letter highly likely. In other words, this type of redundancy makes the letter interdependent rather than independent. Gatlin referred to this as “D2”. Bennett utilized this redundancy for his experiment:

Next, Bennett programmed in some statistical rules about which letters are likely to appear at the beginning and end of words, and which pairs of letters, such as th, he, qu, and ex, are used most often. This improved the monkey’s copy somewhat, although it still fell short of the Bard’s standards. At this second stage of programming, a large number of indelicate words and expletives appeared, leading Bennett to suspect that one-syllable obscenities are among the most probable sequences of letters used in normal language. Swearing has a low information content! When Bennett then programmed the computer to take into account triplets of letters, in which the probability of one letter is affected by the two letters which come before it, half the words were correct English ones and the proportion of obscenities increased. At a fourth level of programming, where groups of four letters were considered, only 10 percent of the words produced were gibberish and one sentence, the fruit of an all-night computer run, bore a certain ghostly resemblance to Hamlet’s soliloquy:

TO DEA NOW NAT TO BE WILL AND THEM BE DOES

DOESORNS CALAWROUTOULD

We can see that as Bennett’s experiment started using more and more redundancies found in English, a certain structure seems to emerge. With the use of redundancies, even though it might appear that the monkeys were free to choose any key, the program made it such that certain events were more likely to happen than others. This is the basic premise of constraints. Constraints make certain things more likely to happen than others. This is different than a cause-and-effect phenomenon like a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball. Gatlin’s brilliance was to use this analogy with evolution. She pondered why some species were able to evolve to be more complex than others. She concluded that this has to do with the two types of redundancies, D1 and D2. She considered the transmission of genetic material to be similar to how a message is transmitted from the source to the receiver. She determined that some species were able to evolve differently because they were able to use the two redundancies in an optimal fashion.

If we come back to the analogy with the language, and if we were to only use D1 redundancy, then we would have a very high success rate of repeating certain letters again and again. Eventually, the strings we would generate would become monotonous, without any variety. It would be something like EEEAAEEEAAAEEEO. Novelty is introduced when we utilize the second type of redundancy, D2. Using D2 introduces a more likelihood of emergence since there are more connections present. As Campbell explains the two redundancies further:

Both kinds lower the entropy, but not in the same way, and the distinction is a critical one. The first kind of redundancy, which she calls D1, is the statistical rule that some letters likely to appear more often than the others, on the average, in a passage of text. D1 which is context-free, measures the extent to which a sequence of symbols generated by a message source departs from the completely random state where each symbol is just as likely to appear as any other symbol. The second kind of redundancy, D2, which is context-sensitive, measures the extent to which the individual symbols have departed from a state of perfect independence from one another, departed from a state in which context does not exist. These two types of redundancy apply as much to a sequence of chemical bases strung out along a molecule of DNA as to the letters and words of a language.

Campbell suggests that D2 is a richer version of redundancy because it permits greater variety, while at the same time controlling errors. Campbell also notes that Bennett had to utilize the D1 constraint as a constant, whereas he had to keep on increasing the D2 constraints to the limit of his equipment until he saw something roughly similar to sensible English. Using this analogy to evolution, Gatlin notes:

Let us assume that the first DNA molecules assembled in the primordial soup were random sequences, that is, D2 was zero, and possibly also D1. One of the primary requisites of a living system is that it reproduces itself accurately. If this reproduction is highly inaccurate, the system has not survived. Therefore, any device for increasing the fidelity of information processing would be extremely valuable in the emergence of living forms, particularly higher forms… Lower organisms first attempted to increase the fidelity of the genetic message by increasing redundancy primarily by increasing D1, the divergence from equiprobability of the symbols. This is a very unsuccessful and naive technique because as D1 increases, the potential message variety, the number of different words that can be formed per unit message length, declines. Gatlin determined that this was the reason why invertebrates remained “lower organisms”.

A much more sophisticated technique for increasing the accuracy of the genetic message without paying such a high price for it was first achieved by vertebrates. First, they fixed D1. This is a fundamental prerequisite to the formulation of any language, particularly more complex languages… The vertebrates were the first living organisms to achieve the stabilization of D1, thus laying the foundation for the formulation of a genetic language. Then they increased D2 at relatively constant D1. Hence, they increased the reliability of the genetic message-without loss of potential message variety. They achieved a reduction in error probability without paying too great a price for it… It is possible’ within limits to increase the fidelity of the genetic message without loss of potential message variety provided that the entropy variables change in just the right way, namely, by increasing D2 at relatively constant D1. This is what the vertebrates have done. This is why we are “higher” organisms.

Final Words:

I have always wondered about the exponential advancement of technology and how we as a species were able to achieve it. Gatlin’s ideas made me wonder if they are applicable to our species’ tremendous technological advancement. We started off with stone tools and now we are on the brink of visiting Mars. It is quite likely that we first came across a sharp stone and cut ourselves on it and then thought of using it for cutting things. From there, we realized that we could sharpen certain stones to get the same result. Gatlin puts forth that during the initial stages, it is extremely important that errors are kept to a minimum. We had to first get better at the stone tools before we could proceed to higher and more complex tools. The complexification happened when we were able to make connections – by increasing D2 redundancy. As Gatlin states – D2 endows the structure, The more tools and ideas we could connect, the faster and better we could invent new technologies. The exponentiality only came by when we were able to connect more things to each other.

I was introduced to Gatlin’s ideas through Campbell and Alicia Juarrero. As far as I could tell, Gatlin did not use the terms “context-free” or “context-sensitive”. They seem to have been used by Campbell. Juarrero refers to “context-free constraints” as “governing constraints” and “context-sensitive constraints” as “enabling constraints”. I will be writing about these in a future post. I will finish with a neat observation about the ever-present redundancies in English language from Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory.:

The redundancy of ordinary English, not considering statistical structure over greater distances than about eight letters, is roughly 50%. This means that when we write English half of what we write is determined by the structure of the language and half is chosen freely.

In other words, if you follow basic rules of English language, you could make sense at least 50% of what you have written, as long as you use short words!

Please maintain social distance, wear masks and take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was More Notes on Constraints in Cybernetics:

More Notes on Constraints in Cybernetics:

In today’s post, I am looking further at constraints. Please see here for my previous post on this. Ross Ashby is one of the main pioneers of Cybernetics, and his book “Introduction to Cybernetics” still remains an essential read for a cybernetician. Alicia Juarrero is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Prince George’s Community College (MD), and is well known for her book, “Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System”.

I will start off with the basic idea of a system and then proceed to complexity from a Cybernetics standpoint. A system is essentially a collection of variables that an observer has chosen to make sense of something. Thus, a system is a mental construct and not something that is an objective reality. A system from this standpoint is entirely contingent upon the observer. Ashby’s view on complexity was regarding variety. Variety is the number of possible states of a system. A good example of this is a light switch. It has two states – ON or OFF. Thus, we can state that a light switch has a variety of 2. Complexity is expressed in terms of variety. The higher variety a system has, the more possibilities it possesses. A light switch and a person combined has indefinite variety. The person is able to communicate via messages simply by turning the light switch ON and OFF in a certain logical sequence such as Morse code.

Now let’s look at constraints. A constraint can be said to exist when the variety of a system is said to have diminished or decreased. Ashby gives the example of a boys only school. The variety for sex in humans is 2. If a school has a policy that only boys are allowed in that school, the variety has now decreased to 1 from 2. We can say that a constraint exists at the school.

Ashby indicated that we should be looking at all possibilities when we are trying to manage a situation. Our main job is to influence the outcomes so that certain outcomes are more likely than others. We do this through constraints. Ashby noted:

The fundamental questions in regulation and control can be answered only when we are able to consider the broader set of what it (system) might do, when ‘might’ is given some exact specification.

We can describe what we have been talking about so far with a simple schematic. We can try to imagine the possible outcomes of the system when we interact with it and utilize constraints so that certain outcomes, P2 and P4 are more likely to occur. There may be other outcomes that we do not know of or can imagine. Ashby advises that cybernetics is not about trying to understand what a system is, but what a system does. We have to imagine a set of all possible outcomes, so that we can guide or influence the system by managing variety. The external variety is always more than the internal variety. Therefore, to manage a situation, we have to at least match the variety of the system. We do this by attenuating the unwanted variety and by amplifying our internal variety so that we can match the variety thrown at us by the system. This is also represented as Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety – only variety can absorb variety. Ashby stated:

Cybernetics looks at the totality, in all its possible richness, and then asks why the actualities should be restricted to some portion of the total possibilities.

Ashby talked about several versions of constraints. He talked about slight and severe constraints. He gave an example of a squad of soldiers. If the soldiers are asked to line up without any instructions, they have maximum freedom or minimum constraints to do so. If the order was given that no man may stand next to a man whose birthday falls on the same day, the constraint would be slight, for of all the possible arrangements few would be excluded. If, however, the order was given that no man was to stand at the left of a man who was taller than himself, the constraint would be severe; for it would, in fact, allow only one order of standing (unless two men were of exactly the same height). The intensity of the constraint is thus shown by the reduction it causes in the number of possible arrangements.

Another way that Ashby talked about constraints was by identifying constraint in vectors. Here, multiple factors are combined in a vector such that the resultant constraint is considered. The example that Ashby gave was that of an automobile. He gave the example of the vector shown below:

(Age of car, Horse-power, Color)

He noted that each component has a variety that may or may not be dependent on the other components. If the components are dependent on each other the final constraint will be less than the sum of individual component constraints. If the components are all independent, then the resultant constraints would be the sum of individual constraints. This is an interesting point to further look at. Imagine that we are looking at a team here of say Person A, B and C. Each person here is able to come up with indefinite possibilities, the resultant variety of the team would be also indefinite. If we allow for the indefinite possibilities to emerge, as in innovation or invention of new ideas or products, the constraints could play a role. When we introduce thinking agents to the mix, the number of possibilities goes up.

Complexity is about managing variety – about allowing room for possibilities to tackle complexity. Ashby famously noted that a world without constraints is totally chaotic. His point is that if a constraint exists, it can be used to tackle complexity. Allowing parts to depend upon each other introduces constraints that could cut down on unwanted variety and at the same time allow for innovative possibilities to emerge. The controller’s goal is to manage variety and allow for certain possible outcomes to be more likely than others. For this, the first step to imagine the total set of possible outcomes to best of their abilities. This means that the controller also has to have a good imagination and creative mind. This points to the role of the observer when it comes to seeing and identifying the possibilities. Ashby referred to the set of possibilities as “product space.” Ashby noted that its chief peculiarity is that it contains more than actually exists in the real physical world, for it is the latter that gives us the actual, constrained subset.

The real world gives the subset of what is; the product space represents the uncertainty of the observer. The product space may therefore change if the observer changes; and two observers may legitimately use different product spaces within which to record the same subset of actual events in some actual thing. The “constraint” is thus a relation between observer and thing; the properties of any particular constraint will depend on both the real thing and on the observer. It follows that a substantial part of the theory of organization will be concerned with properties that are not intrinsic to the thing but are relational between the observer and thing.

A keen reader might be wondering how the ideas of constraints stack up against Alicia Juarrero’s versions of constraints. More on this in a future post.  I will finish with a wonderful tribute to Ross Ashby from John Casti:

The striking fact is that Ashby’s idea of the variety of a system is amazingly close to many of the ideas that masquerade today under the rubric “complexity.”

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Towards or Away – Which Way to Go?

Towards or Away – Which Way to Go?

In today’s post I am pondering the question – as a regulator, should you be going towards or away from a target? Are the two things the same? I will use Erik Hollnagel’s ideas here. Hollnagel is a Professor Emeritus at Linköping University who has a lot of work in Safety Management. Hollnagel challenges the main theme of safety management as getting to zero accidents. He notes:

The goal of safety management is obviously to improve safety. But for this to be attainable it must be expressed in operational terms, i.e., there must be a set of criteria that can be used to determine when the goal has been reached… the purpose of an SMS is to bring about a significant reduction – or even the absence – of risk, which means that the goal is to avoid or get away from something. An increase in safety will therefore correspond to a decrease in the measured output, i.e., there will be fewer events to count. From a control point of view that presents a problem, since the absence of measurements means that the process becomes uncontrollable.

He identifies this as a problem from a cybernetics standpoint. Cybernetics is the art of steersmanship. The controller identifies a target and the regulator works on getting to the target. There is a feedback loop so that when the difference between the actual condition and the target is higher than a preset value, the regulator tries to bring the difference down. Take the example of a steersman of a boat – the steersman propels the boat to the required destination by steering the boat. If there is a strong wind, the steersman adjusts accordingly so that the boat is always moving towards the destination. The steersman is continuously measuring the difference from the expected path and adjusting accordingly.

Hollnagel continues with this idea:

Quantifying safety by measuring what goes wrong will inevitably lead to a paradoxical situation. The paradox is that the safer something (an activity or a system) is, the less there will be measure. In the end, when the system is perfectly safe – assuming that this is either meaningful or possible – there will be nothing to measure. In control theory, this situation is known as the ‘fundamental regulator paradox’. In plain terms, the fundamental regulator paradox means that if something happens rarely or never, then it is impossible to know how well it works. We may, for instance, in a literal or metaphorical sense, be on the right track but also precariously close to the limits. Yet there is no indication of how close, it is impossible to improve performance.

The idea of the fundamental regulator paradox was put forward by Gerald Weinberg. He described it as:

The task of a regulator is to eliminate variation, but this variation is the ultimate source of information about the quality of its work. Therefore, the better job a regulator does, the less information it gets about how to improve.

Weinberg noted that as the regulator gets better at what it is doing, the more difficult it is for them to improve. If we go back to the case of the steersman, perfect regulation is when the steersman is able to make adjustment at a superhuman speed so that the boat travels in a straight line from start to end. Weinberg is pointing out this is not possible. When 100% percent regulation is achieved, we are also cutting off any contact with the external world. This is also the source of information that the regulator needs to do its job.

Coming back to the original question of “away from” or “towards”, Hollnagel states:

From a control perspective it would make more sense to use a definition of safety such that the output increases when safety improves. In other words, the goal should not be to avoid or get away from something, but rather to achieve or get closer to something.

While pragmatically it seems very reasonable that the number of accidents should be reduced as far as possible, the regulator paradox shows that such a goal is counterproductive in the sense that it makes it increasingly difficult to manage safety… The essence of regulation is that a regulator makes an intervention in order to steer or direct the process in a certain direction. But if there is no response to the intervention, if there is no feedback from the process, then we have no way of knowing whether the intervention had the intended effect.

Hollnagel advises that we should see safety in terms of resilience and not as absence of something (accidents, missed days etc.) but rather as the presence of something.

Based on the discussion we can see that “moving towards” is a better approach for a regulator than “moving away” from something. From a management standpoint, we should deter from enforcing policies that are too strict in the hopes of perfect regulation. They would lack the variety needed to tackle the external variety thrown at us. We should allow room for some noise in the processes. As the variety of the situation increases, we should stop setting targets and instead, provide a direction to move towards. Putting a hard target is again an attempt at perfect regulation that can stress the various elements within the organization.

I will finish with some wise words from Weinberg:

The fundamental regulator paradox carries an ominous message for any system that gets too comfortable with its surroundings. It suggests, for instance, that a society that wants to survive for a long time had better consider giving up some of the maximum comfort it can achieve to return for some chance of failure or discomfort.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Cybernetics of the Two Wittgensteins:

References:

  1. The Trappers’ Return, 1851. George Caleb Bingham
  2. Safety management – looking back or looking forward – Erik Hollnagel, 2008
  3. On the design of stable systems – Gerald Weinberg, 1979

The Cybernetics of Complexity:

In today’s post, I am looking the second order view of complexity. While I was thinking of a good title for this post, I went from “A constructivist walks into a Complexity bar” to “The Chernobyl model of Complexity”. Finally, I settled with “The Cybernetics of Complexity.” What I am looking at is not new by any means. I am inspired by the ideas of Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Heinz von Foerster, Haridimos Tsoukas, Mary Jo Hatch and Ralph Stacey.

I start from the basic premise that complexity is a description rather than a property of a phenomenon. This would indicate that the complexity is dependent on the one doing the describing, i.e., the observer. Complexity is a description, which means it needs someone describing it. This is the observer. The same thing can be perceived as complex and complicated by two different people. Tsoukas and Hatch explain this further:

in order for cognitive beings to be able to act effectively in the world we must organize our thinking… one way of viewing organizations as complex systems is to explore complex ways of thinking about organizations-as complex systems; which we call second order complexity. We further note that entering the domain of second-order complexity – the domain of the thinker thinking about complexity – raises issues of interpretation (and, we argue, narration) that have heretofore been ignored by complexity theorists.

What is complexity? It is our contention that the puzzle of defining the complexity of a system leads directly to concern with description and interpretation and therefore to the issue of second-order complexity.

Tsoukas and Hatch references Jim Casti to explain this further:

complexity is, in effect, in the eye of the beholder: ‘system complexity is a contingent property arising out of the interaction I between a system S and an observer/decision-maker O’. To put it more formally, the complexity of a system, as seen by an observer, is directly proportional to the number of inequivalent descriptions of the system that the observer can generate. The more inequivalent descriptions an observer can produce, the more complex the system will be taken to be.

Casti’s definition of complexity is an interesting one for it admits that the complexity of a system is not an intrinsic property of that system; it is observer-dependent, that is, it depends upon how the system is described and interpreted. Consequently, if an observer’s language is complex enough (namely, the more inequivalent descriptions it can contain) the system at hand will be described in a complex way and thus will be interpreted as a complex system. What complexity science has done is to draw our attention to certain features of systems’ behaviors which were hitherto unremarked, such as nonlinearity, scale-dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions, emergence. It is not that those features could not have been described before, but that they now have been brought into focus and given meaning. To put it another way, physics has discovered complexity by complicating its own language of description.

Here, the language of description comes from the observer. One of the best examples that I have to provide some clarity is a scene from HBO’s wonderful show Chernobyl, adapted from the Chernobyl tragedy. In the scene, Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief Engineer was alerted of things going wrong by the other engineers taking part in a test. Dyatlov stubbornly refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. He asked the engineer, “What does the dosimeter say?” The response was. “3.6 Roentgen, but that’s as high as the meter..” Dyatlov, in the show cut him off midsentence and famously state, “3.6. Not great, not terrible.

Dyatlov firmly believed that the reactor could not explode. Even though he was informed that the meter can go only as high as 3.6 roentgen, he found the situation to be manageable. Later it is revealed using a different gage with higher range, the actual rate was 15,000 roentgen per hour. This scene is truly remarkable because there were different people looking at a phenomenon and coming to different conclusions with terrible consequences.

In philosophy, we talk about ontology and epistemology. Ontology is about what exists and epistemology is about how you come to know things. We are all born with a set of “gages” (to loosely put). But each one of our gages have different ranges. The set of gages is unique to our species. For example, we can only see a small part of the light spectrum. We can only hear only a small part of the sound spectrum. We are informationally closed. This means that we generate meaning within a closed interpretative framework/mechanism. Information cannot come in directly. Rather, we are perturbed by the environment and we generate meaning from it. It might make it easier if we can come up with a way to quantify complexity.

A loose way to do this is to view complexity in terms of the number of possible interactions the phenomenon can have. This in turn is related to the number of states of the phenomenon. In cybernetics, complexity is viewed in terms of variety. Variety is the number of states of a phenomenon. I have discussed this concept at length before. To explain it loosely with an example, the variety of a simple light switch is two, the two states being ON and OFF. A variable light switch on the other hand has a whole lot more variety. The other insight regarding variety is that it is dependent on the observer since the observer is the one describing the number of “possible” states. Now this is where the possible rub comes in for some people. I see complexity as dependent upon the observer. Do I reject that there is nothing out there that is not in my head? That is a question about ontology. I am not very keen on just looking at ontology. I am looking at this from an epistemological viewpoint. Going back to the Chernobyl show, if my gage is inadequate, then that determines my reality which determines my action. If I have a better gage, then I can better understand what is going on. If I have others around me with more gages, then I can do a comparison and come to a general consensus on what is going on so that our general viability is maintained.

We have learned through evolution as a species to cut down on the high variety thrown at us so that we can remain viable. As noted earlier, we have evolved to see only a narrow band of the light spectrum, same with the sound and other natural phenomena. This has led to us having a set of “gages” unique to our species so that we can continue being viable. When these gages become inadequate, then our viability is in question. The purpose of gages is to make sense of what is happening so that we can act or not act. We don’t register everything that is coming in because we don’t need to. Our genetic makeup has become tuned to just what we need.

When I say complexity is in the eyes of the beholder, I mean that our range of gages are different dependent upon the observer. What we sense directly impacts how we act. Some of us can manage situations better because they are able to make sense better. Whether a situation is complex or complicated changes based on who is doing the observing. The term observer here means the person interacting with the situation. You can call him an actor or an agent, if needed.

Tsoukas and Hatch expand on this:

If practitioners are to increase their effectiveness in managing paradoxical social systems, they should, as Weick recommends, ‘complicate’ themselves. But complicate themselves in what way? By generating and accommodating multiple inequivalent descriptions, practitioners will increase the complexity of their understanding and, therefore, will be more likely, in logico-scientific terms, to match the complexity of the situation they attempt to manage, or, in narrative terms, to enact it.

In Cybernetics, this aligns with Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety. This law states that only variety can absorb variety. To simply put, we have to cut down excess external variety coming in and find ways to amplify our internal variety so that the internal variety matches the external variety. A good way to cut down the external variety is to focus on only what matters/values to us. A good way to amplify our internal variety is to keep on learning and to be open to other perspectives. Of course, there are a lot of other ways to do this. A specific procedure cannot be made because everything is dependent upon the context. The phenomenon itself is changing with time, and so are we as the observers.

We have to welcome how the other practitioners describe the phenomenon. We have to engage with them so that we can come to a stable narrative of the phenomenon. This is not possible if we see ourselves as external to the phenomenon and if we believe that we all experience a single objective phenomenon. As Tsoukas and Hatch note – Expanding the focus from the system itself (first-order complexity) to also include those who describe the system as complex (second-order complexity) exposes the interpretive-cum-narrative dimensions of complexity. A complex system is said to have many specific characteristics including non-linearity, feedback loops, etc. But these are all descriptions of an observer describing the phenomenon. As Tsoukas and Hatch note:

Although you may call non-linearity, scale dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions and emergence properties of the system, they are actually your descriptive terms – they are part of a vocabulary, a way of talking about a system. Why use such a vocabulary? Is it because it corresponds to how the system really is? Not quite. Because the system cannot speak for itself, you do not know what the system really is. Rather, you use such a vocabulary because of its suspected utility – it may enable you to do certain things with it. A new vocabulary, notes Rorty, ‘is a tool for doing something which could not have been envisaged prior to the development of a particular set of descriptions, those which it itself helps to provide’.

What we have to then do is to understand that seeing complexity as a description of a phenomenon helps us in understanding how we understand the phenomenon. This is a second-order act, a cognitive act. We need to be aware of our blind spots (realization that we have inadequate gages). We need to improve our vocabulary so that we can better describe what we experience. Some models of complexity recommend bringing in experts for complicated phenomenon. Complicated phenomenon are cases where the complexity is slightly higher, but a cause-and-effect relationship still exists. The reason for bringing in the experts is because they are able to describe the phenomenon differently than a layperson. This again shows that complexity is dependent on the observer. It also indicates that we can improve our sensemaking capabilities by improving our vocabulary by keeping on learning. I will try to loosely explain my ideas based on a one-dimensional depiction of complexity. I am not saying that this is a correct model. I am providing this only for clarity’s sake. The chart below shows the complexity in terms of variety. The green line starts at 0 and ends at 100 to show complexity on a spectrum. Depending upon the capability of the observer to distinguish possible varieties, two observers perceive and understand complexity as shown below. The observer 2 in this case is able to manage complexity better than observer 1. Please note that to manage complexity means to cut down on the excess external variety and amplify internal variety. The other point to keep in mind is that the observer is informationally closed, so the observer is able to generate meaning of only those characteristics that perturbs the observer. In other words, the observer can distinguish only those characteristics that the observer’s interpretative mechanism can afford.  

When we look at a phenomenon and try to make sense of it, we try to do it in terms of a whole narrative, one that makes sense to us. This adds a uniqueness to how each one of the practitioners approach the phenomenon. The same complex phenomenon can have different contexts for different people. For example, the same Covid pandemic can be a problem of health crisis for one person, while for another it could be about freedom and government regulation. A stable social reality is achieved through continuous interaction. The environment changes, so we have to continuously interact with each other and the environment and continue to reframe reality. This social stability is an ongoing activity.

Final Words:

I had indicated that this post is about a second order view of complexity. In order to improve our understanding of complexity, we have to understand how we understand – how we come to know about things that we can describe. I do not propose that there is an objective reality out there that we all experience equally. All we can say is that we each experience a reality and through ongoing interaction we come to a stable version of reality. One of the criticisms to this approach is that this leads to solipsism. The main version of Solipsism is that others may not really exist and that only one’s mind is sure to exist. This is a no-win argument that I find no appeal in. I am happy that other smarter people exist because my life is better because of them. Another criticism to this approach is that it supports relativism. Relativism is the idea that all perspectives are equally valid. This also is a terrible idea in my view. I support the idea of pluralism. I have written about this before here.  Pluralism does not agree that all belief systems are equally valid. In a cybernetic explanatory manner, a pluralist believes that what is more important is to be less wrong. At the same time, a pluralist is open to understanding other people’s belief systems.

What I am hoping to achieve from this constructivist view is epistemic humility. This is the stance that what we know is incomplete, and that it may also be inadequate. We have to keep on learning, and be open to other viewpoints.

I will finish with a wonderful quote from Heinz von Foerster:

properties that apparently are associated with things are indeed properties that belong to the observer. So, that means the properties which are thought to reside in things turn out to be properties of the observer. I’ll give you immediately an example. A good example, for instance, is obscenity. You know that there is a tremendous effort even going up to the Supreme Court which is almost a comedy worthy to be written by Aristophanes. Who wants to establish what is obscene? Now it’s perfectly clear that “obscene” is, of course, a property which resides in the observer, because if you take a picture and show it to Mr. X, and Mr. X says, “This picture is obscene,” you know something about Mr. X, but nothing about the picture.

This post is also available as a podcast – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/The-Cybernetics-of-Complexity-e15v5v9

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Observations on Observing, The Case Continues:

Observations on Observing, The Case Continues:

Art by Audrey Jose

In today’s post, I am continuing from the last post, mainly using the ideas of Dirk Baecker. We noted that every observation is an operation of distinction, where an observer crosses a line, entering a marked state. This is shown in the schematic below. Here “a” refers to the marked state that the observer is interested in. The solid corner of a square is the distinction that was used by the observer, and “n” refers to the unmarked state. The entire schematic with the two sides and the three values (“a”, “n” and the distinction) are notated as a “form”. The first order observer is observing only the marked state “a”, and is not aware of or paying attention to the distinction(s) utilized. They are also not aware of the unmarked state “n”. When a second order observer enters the picture, they are able to see the entire form including the distinction employed by the first order observer.  

However, it is important to note that the observation made by the second order observer is also a first order observation. This means that they also have a distinction and an unmarked state, another “n” that they are not aware of. Baecker explains this:

We have to bring in second-order observers in order to introduce consciousness or self-observation. Yet to be able to operate at all, these second-order observers must also be first-order observers… Second-order observers intervene as first-order observers, thereby presenting their own distinction to further second-order observation.

We also discussed the idea of “reentry” in our last post. Reentry is a means to provide closure so that the first order and second order observations taken together leads to a stable meaning.

So, to recap, the first order observer is interested in “a”.

The second order observer observes the first order observer, and understands that the first order observer made a distinction. They see where the first order observer is coming from, and the context of their observation. Let’s call the context as “b”. This will be the unmarked state for the first observer.

The second order observer engages with the first order observer in an ongoing back and forth discussion. The second order observer is able to combine both their “dealing with the world” approaches and come together to a nuanced understanding. This understanding is an effect of distinguishing “a” from “b”, and also combining “a” and “b” – an action of implication and negation taken together. This is an operation of sensemaking in the medium of meaning. This is depicted as the reentry in the schematic below.

Baecker explains reentry further:

Any operation that is able to look at both sides of the distinction – that is, at its form – is defined by Spencer Brown as an operation of reentry. It consists of reentering the distinction into the distinction, thereby splitting the same distinction into one being crossed and the same one being marked by another distinction that is deferred. The general idea of the reentry is to note and use the fact that distinctions occur in two versions: the distinction actually used, and the distinction looked at or reflected on.

Let’s look further at the form by using a famous syllogism from philosophy to further enhance our understanding:

All Men are Mortals;

Socrates is a man;

Therefore, Socrates is a mortal.

 This can be depicted as a form as shown below:

By distinguishing Socrates from Men, and Men from Mortals, and by putting it all together, we get to “Socrates is Mortal”. In this case, we did not have to do a lot of work to come to the final conclusion. However, as the complexity increases, we will need to perform reentry on an ongoing basis to bring forth a stable meaning. Reentry introduces temporality to the sensemaking operation. No matter how many distinctions we employ, we can only get to a second order observation. All observations are in all actuality first order observations. And what is being distinguished is also dependent entirely on the observer.

I will also look at another example. A manager is required to maintain the operations of a plant while at the same time they need to make modifications to the operations to ensure that the plant can stay viable in an everchanging environment. In other words, the operations are maintained as consistent as possible until it needs to be changed. This can be depicted as shown below:

Another way to look at this is to view a plant as needing centralized structure as well as decentralized structure or top-down and bottom-up structure. This can be depicted as shown below. Here the two states are not shown as nested, but adjacent to each other.

Dirk Baecker saw a firm as follows:

Baecker notes that the product is the first distinction that we have to make. Our first distinction is the distinction of the product. Whatever else the firm may be doing, it has to recursively draw the distinction of which product it is to produce. This may be a material or immaterial, a tangible or intangible, an easy or difficult to define product, but it has to be a product that tells employees, managers and clients alike just what the firm is about. He continues- The technology is part of the form of the first distinction. Indeed, it is the outside or the first context of the first distinction, as observed by a second-order observer who may be the first-order observer observing him/herself. This means that a firm distinguishes only those products for which it has, or hopes to acquire, the necessary technology. Technology here means all kinds of ways of making sure that we can do what we want to do. This includes material access to resources, knowledge of procedures, technologies, availability of people to do the job and ways to convince society that you are doing what you are doing in the proper way.

Baecker explains “work” as follows:

We add the assumption of communication between first-order observers who at the same time act as second-order observers. The firm observes itself. By working, it relates products to technology and technology back to products.

Additional information can be found on Dirk Baecker’s The Form of the Firm.

In all that we have seen so far, we have not yet talked about the unmarked state. The unmarked state “n” is always present in the form and is not accessible to the observer. The observation can have as many distinctions as needed, dependent on the observer. The “n” represents everything that can be further added to the distinctions to improve our “meaning” as needed. The more distinctions there are, the more complex the observations. The observers deal with the complexity of the phenomena to be understood by applying as many or as few distinctions as needed.

We are able to better help with someone else’s problems because we can engage in second order observations. As second order observers, we can see the distinctions they made which are not accessible to them in the first order observation. The second order observer is able to understand the distinctions that the first order observer was able to make. The distinctions lay in the blind spots for the first order observer. The second order observation can be completed by the first order observer themselves as an operation of self-reflection. As cognitive beings, we must reproduce existing patterns by continually engaging with the external world, our local environment. We have to keep evaluating and adjusting these patterns on an ongoing self-correcting basis.

The basic structure of what we have discussed so far can be depicted as the following form:

We need to be mindful that there is always “n” that is not part of our observation. We may gain a better understanding of our distinctions if we engage in second order observation, but we will still not be able to access the unmarked state. We will not be able to access the unmarked state unless we create a new distinction in the unmarked state cutting “n” to a marked state and an unmarked state, yielding a new “n”. Second-order observation, noting one’s own distinctions, can lay the groundwork for epistemic humility.

This brings into question – how many distinctions are really needed? We will answer this with going to the first distinction we made. The first cross that we started with leading to the first distinction is the most important thing that we care about. Every other distinction is based on this first one. To answer – how many distinctions are really needed? – we need as many distinctions as needed until we are fully satisfied with our understanding. This includes understanding our blind spots and the distinctions we have made.

I will finish with a Peter Drucker story from Baecker. Peter Drucker was working with a hospital to improve their Emergency Room. Baecker noted that it took the hospital staff two days to come up with the first distinction, their “a”. Their “a” was to bring immediate relief to the afflicted. The afflicted needing relief may not always be the patient. In Drucker’s words:

Many years ago, I sat down with the administrators of a major hospital to think through the mission statement of the emergency room. It took us a long time to come up with the very simple, and (most people thought) too obvious statement that the emergency room was there to give assurance to the afflicted.

To do that well, you have to know what really goes on. And, much to the surprise of the physicians and nurses, it turned out that in a good emergency room, the function is to tell eight out of ten people there is nothing wrong that a good night’s sleep won’t take care of. You’ve been shaken up. Or the baby has the flu. All right, it’s got convulsions, but there is nothing seriously wrong with the child. The doctors and nurses give assurance.

We worked it out, but it sounded awfully obvious. Yet translating that mission statement into action meant that everybody who comes in is now seen by a qualified person in less than a minute. That is the mission; that is the goal. The rest is implementation.

Some people are immediately rushed to intensive care, others get a lot of tests, and yet others are told: “Go back home, go to sleep, take an aspirin, and don’t worry. If these things persist, see a physician tomorrow.” But the first objective is to see everybody, almost immediately — because that is the only way to give assurance.

This post is also available as a podcast – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/Observations-on-Observing–The-Case-Continues-e15kpc1

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Case of the Distinguished Observer:

Complexity is in the Middle:

In today’s post, I am inspired by the idea of a rhizome by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. They spoke about it in their fascinating book, A Thousand Plateaus. A rhizome is defined in Oxford dictionary as a continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals. Common examples of rhizomes include crab grass and ginger. Guattari and Delueze or G&D as often notated, used the idea of a rhizome as a metaphor. They put the idea of a rhizome against what they called as “arborescent” or tree-thinking. A tree has a very definite structure; one that is hierarchic with the branches, main stalk and the root system. G&D viewed tree-thinking as being focused on a central idea and building a world view upon that. They noted:

The tree is already the image of the world, or the root the image of the world-tree.

Tree-thinking believes in having a true image of the world. As G&D noted, the tree-thinkers’ law is the law of reflection. They believe that they can simply copy the rules and apply them to any situation. Any situation has a clear structure that is hierarchical and centralized. This can be understood by all if they just follow the logic presented. With this thinking, things can be separated out to distinct categories that do not overlap. Most times this leads to a dichotomy – either this or that, with no middle ground. As G&D noted – binary logic is the spiritual reality of the root-tree. Additionally, the arborescent thinking is also linear thinking, where things follow a linear pattern and rarely lead to paradoxes or confusion.

In a contrast to this, G&D presented rhizome. A rhizome does not have a central structure. It does not have a beginning or an end. Wherever you are, you can start from there. A rhizomic plant can grow from any point in the horizontal structure. If you cut a rhizome in half, each half can grow separately.

A pack of organisms can act as a rhizome. Structures such as a burrow or a city can be a rhizome. There is a collective identification that can be started at any point in the structure. You can start from any point in a city and walk around the city to absorb its culture. It is not specific to one point that we can pinpoint as the start or the end. Just like in a map, we can start anywhere and move around in a map. There is not start or an end. A torn map still remains a map. A rhizome includes the best and the worst.

G&D also calls a collection of elements that are connected together in an intricate relationship as a rhizome. One of the examples they give is that of a certain type of wasp and an orchid. The orchid flower resembles the female wasp, and this leads to a relationship where the wasp becomes part of the reproductive cycle of the orchid. There is a lot more going on in this relationship. This is explained in a very poetic language by G&D:

The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome. It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion (mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc.). But this is true only on the level of the strata-a parallelism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all but a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further. There is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjugated by anything signifying.

A rhizome has a circular relationship amongst the elements of its assemblage. A book’s relationship with the world is one such example. A book is never a copy of the world. Its meaning changes with the world. The book changes how we view the world, and this in turn changes how we view the book. G&D noted:

contrary to a deeply rooted belief, the book is not an image of the world. It forms a rhizome with the world, there is an aparallel evolution of the book and the world; the book assures the deterritorialization of the world, but the world effects a reterritorialization of the book, which in turn deterritorializes itself in the world (if it is capable, if it can).

G&D noted that a rhizome is characterized by connections and heterogeneity – any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. Heterogeneity simply means the different or non-identical components in the rhizome. Coming back to the example of the pack of organisms, I am reminded of the idea of complexity. Often, complexity is denoted by the numerous connections within a collective that lead to unforeseen and nonlinear results. Things somewhat make sense when we look backwards. A very good example of a complex phenomenon is child rearing. No matter how many kids you raise, every experience is unique. There is nothing that you can do that will ensure a fixed outcome. There are however several heuristics that might help you along the way. Giving a loving and caring home is a great heuristic for example.

Understanding the idea of a rhizome helps me also understand complexity better. To me, complexity is about possibilities. It is about the numerous connections that are made. Every point is able to connect to any other point. There is no fixed outcome expected. There are mostly nonlinear relationships in a rhizome. The start and the end are boring parts; the excitement is always in the middle. Complexity is in the middle. G&D noted each chapter as a plateau in their book. From this standpoint, a rhizome is also a plateau – just the middle. G&D were French, and they used the term “milieu” to denote the middle. They used the term also because it stood for context. Complexity is all about context. There is no one way for a rhizome. A rhizome is what a rhizome does. You cannot copy what worked in one situation and expect the same outcome from a different situation. A rhizome changes with time. Complexity changes with time. This implies that along with asking what is complexity, we should also ask WHEN is complexity?

Stafford Beer, the eminent Management Cybernetician, viewed variety as the unit for complexity. In Cybernetics, variety is the number of possible states of a collective. For example, a light switch has two states, ON and OFF. The more connections an assemblage has, the more variety it possesses. The more variety something has, the more complex it becomes. A human being has more variety than a switch. A switch is somewhat predictable, while a human being is not. A collection of human beings is even more complex. A human is a rhizome. A collection of human beings is a rhizome. A collection of human beings in their environment is also a rhizome. As I noted before, I see complexity in terms of possibilities. A light switch does not have a lot of possibilities. A light switch, some wires, circuit boards, electronic components and a very curious child have a lot of possibilities. Wherever there are connections, there is a rhizomatic possibility. Wherever elements come together as an assemblage and interact, there is a rhizomatic possibility. The possibility comes from a decentralized space. Every word and every thought are part of a rhizome. This post is also a rhizome with you, the reader.

A rhizome has to remain only a metaphor for complexity or else it fails what G&D intended. It cannot be an exact image of complexity. It cannot be the only way to explain complexity.

G&D were inspired by the great cybernetician and anthropologist Gregory Bateson. They got the idea of a plateau from Bateson. I will finish with a great quote from Bateson:

What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose, and all four of them to me? And me to you?

This post is also available as a podcast here – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/Complexity-is-in-the-Middle-e134o61

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was View from the Left Eye – Modes of Observing:

View from the Left Eye – Modes of Observing:

I was introduced to the drawing above through Douglas Harding who wrote the Zen book, “The Headless Way.” The drawing was drawn by Ernst Mach, the 19th Century Austrian physicist. He called the drawing, “the view from the left eye.” What is beautiful about the drawing is that it is sort of a self-portrait. This is the view we all see when we look around (without using a mirror or other reflective surfaces). If we could draw what we see of ourselves, this would be the most accurate picture. This brings me to the point about the different modes of observing.

Right now, you are most likely reading this on a screen of some sort or perhaps you are listening to this as a podcast. You were not paying attention to the phone or computer screen – until I pointed it out to you. You were not paying attention to how your shoes or socks or clothes feel on your body – until I pointed them out to you. This is mostly how we are in the world. We are just being in the world most of the time. Everything that we interact with is invisible to us. They just flow along the affordances we can afford. The keyboard clacks away when we hit on the keys, the door knobs turn when we turn them, etc. We do not see them until we have to see them. The 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger called this ready-to-handedness. Everything is connected to everything else. We interact with the objects in order to achieve something. We open the door to go inside a building to do something else. We get in the car to get to a place. We use a hammer to hammer a nail in order to build something. Heidegger called these things equipment, and he called the interconnectedness, the totality of the equipment. The items are in the background to us. We do not pay attention to them. This is how we generally see the world by simply being in the world.

Now let’s say that the general flow of things breaks down for some reason. We picked up the hammer, and it is heavier than we thought and we pay attention to the hammer. We look at the hammer as a subject looking at an object. We start seeing that it has a red handle and a steel head. The hammer is not ready-to-hand anymore. The hammer has become an object and in the foreground. Heidegger called this as present-at-hand. When we really look at something, we realize that we, the subjects, are looking at something, the object. We no longer have the affordances to interact with it in a nonchalant manner. We have to pay attention in order to engage with the object, if needed.

With this background, I turn to observing again. In my view(no pun intended), there are three modes of observing:

  1. No self – similar to ready-to-hand, you just “are” in the world, enacting in the world. You just see things without any thought to self. There is no distinction of self in what you observe. Perhaps, we can refer to this as the zero person or zero order view.
  2. Seeing self – you make a distinction with this. You draw a line between you the subject, and the world out there. The world is out there and you are separate from the world. This is similar to present-at-hand. The world is out there. This is also the first order in First Order Cybernetics.
  3. Seeing self through self/others – Here you are able to see yourself through self or others. You are able to observe yourself observing. This is the second order in Second Order Cybernetics. In this case, the world is in here, within you, as a constructed stable reality.

In the first mode, you are being in the world. Heidegger would call this as “dasein.” In the second mode, you see the world as being outside. And in the third mode, you see the world as being inside. There are no hierarchies here. Each mode is simply just a mode of observing. In the second and third modes, you become aware of others who are like you in the world. In the third mode, you will also start to see how the others view the world since you are looking through others’ eyes. You realize that just as you construct a world, they too construct a world. Just like you have a perspective, they too have a perspective. The different modes of observing lead to a stable reality for us based on our interpretative framework. We cognize a reality by constructing it based on the stable correlations we infer from our being in the world. Sharing this with others lead to a stable societal realm through our communication with others. A community is formed when we share and something common emerges. It is no accident that the word “community” stems from the root word “common.”

When we observe a system, we also automatically stipulate a purpose for it. Systems are not real-world entities, but a means for the observer to make sense of something. We may call a collection of automobiles on the road as the transportation system just so that we can explain the congestion in the traffic. The same transportation system might be entirely different for the construction worker working on the pavement.

We have to go through the different modes of observation to help further our understanding. Seeing through the eyes of others is a practice for empathy. And this is something that we have to continuously practice to get better at. Empathy requires continuous practice.

I will finish with Ernst Mach’s explanation for his drawing:

Thus, I lie upon my sofa. If I close my right eye, the picture represented in the accompanying cut is presented to my left eye. In a frame formed by the ridge of my eyebrow, by my nose, and by my moustache, appears a part of my body, so far as visible, with its environment. My body differs from other human bodies beyond the fact that every intense motor idea is immediately expressed by a movement of it, and that, if it is touched, more striking changes are determined than if other bodies are touched by the circumstance, that it is only seen piecemeal, and, especially, is seen without a head

It was about 1870 that the idea of this drawing was suggested to me by an amusing chance. A certain Mr L., now long dead, whose many eccentricities were redeemed by his truly amiable character, compelled me to read one of C. F. Krause’s writings, in which the following occurs:

“Problem : To carry out the self-inspection of the Ego.

Solution : It is carried out immediately.”

In order to illustrate in a humorous manner this philosophical “much ado about nothing,” and at the same time to shew how the self-inspection of the Ego could be really “carried out,” I embarked on the above drawing. Mr L.’s society was most instructive and stimulating to me, owing to the naivety with which he gave utterance to philosophical notions that are apt to be carefully passed over in silence or involved in obscurity.

This post is also available as a podcast episode – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/View-from-the-Left-Eye–Modes-of-Observing-e1297um

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Stories We Live By:

The Being-Question in Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am looking at the Being-question from Martin Heidegger. Heidegger is a philosopher I put off studying mainly because he was a Nazi sympathizer. His ideas are said to be of utmost importance for the twentieth century and he influenced many of the post-modern philosophers such as Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty etc. Heidegger’s main philosophical work is “Being and Time”.

At that time, the prevalent view about how we view the world was based on the distinction between the subject and the object. The subject, let’s say an observer, is able to stand outside and observe the world. The world is independent of the observer. The observer is able to study the world and using their rational mind to come to meaningful conclusions. This view was made famous by the French philosopher, René Descartes. Descartes emphasized the difference between the subject and the object. The observer themselves are not part of the observation. What is observed (the object) is part of an objective reality that is readily accessible to everyone. From this standpoint, we come to see systems as physical entities of the world that is waiting there to be objectively observed and understood by everyone.

Heidegger wanted to turn this view upside down. He viewed the idea of trying to prove an objective reality as a scandalous activity. He did not deny the subject and the object. However, he viewed the subject as being a part of the world; an embedded being in the world. Heidegger thought that the question of “what exists?” is a useless activity. He realized that the question – “what does it mean to be existing?” was more meaningful.

Michael Gelven, who authored one of the most accessible books on Heidegger notes:

Descartes not only asks whether such a thing as material substance exists, he actually tells us what it means for such a thing to exist: if it takes up space it is a material thing that exists. Heidegger, however, argues there is an even more fundamental question that can be asked: What does it mean to exist at all?  The question is not whether something does exist or how to characterize the existence of particular kinds of things, like material things or mental things, but simply to ask about the very meaning of Being.

To ask what it means to exist or simply to be is to engage in the most fundamental kind of questioning possible. Heidegger calls this die Frage nach den Sinn von Sein, “to question what it means to be,” or simply, “the Being-question.”

Here the word “Being” is capitalized to reflect how it was written by Heidegger and it does not stand for a Supreme Being. The Being is basically us in the world interacting with the world.

Gelven gives a great example to further the idea of the “Being-question”:

Suppose I ask “What is a jail? ” You answer, “The jail is that red-brick building down the street with bars on the windows and locks on the cells. ” In this case, the question is about an entity, and the answer provides one with characteristics that describe or identify the entity. Suppose I ask, “What does it mean to be in jail? ” In response, you say, “To be in jail is to be guilty of a crime and to be punished for it by suffering the loss of liberty. To be in jail thus is to be punished, to feel reprimanded, to suffer, possibly to be afraid, to be lonely, to feel outcast, etc. ” The second question is answered by reference to what it means to exist in various ways, such as being guilty or being unfree. The question What is a jail? is answered by the description of other entities, bars in the windows, locks, unsavory patrons; but the question of the meaning of anything is answered by reference to other meanings. In this we simply recognize there must be a parallel between the kind of question asked and the kind of answers given.

But suppose I press this distinction and ask Which question is prior? A moment’s reflection will assure us that what it means to be in jail is the reason or the ground for the jail being built the way it is. In other words, what it means to be in jail is prior to what kind of thing a jail is, for the meaning determines the entity. If I understand what it means to be in jail, I will know what is required to make a jail. So, in the formal sense of what explains what, meaning precedes entity. The inquiry into what it means to be in jail is not only different from the question about what kind of thing is a jail, it is also prior to it, for the meaning ultimately explains the entity.

The problem with believing that there is an objective reality ready for everyone to access is that we take others for granted and also view them as part of the “objective” reality. We don’t realize that most of what we see and believe are contingent on our past experiences, biases, worldviews etc. These are not necessities. It would be a categorical error to assume that the conditions of contingencies are actually conditions of necessities. An easy way to explain the difference between contingency and necessity is to think of a red triangle. The color “red” is contingent on the direction I gave you. I could have said blue instead of red or any other color for that matter. However, it is necessary that you have three sides to the triangle. You cannot have two sides or four sides for the triangle since then it ceases to be a triangle.

When we assume that systems are physical entities of the world, we fall into the categorical error. We bring in our biases and worldviews and impose them on others. Similar to the jail example above, if we simply ask “what is a hospital and how can we improve the hospital?”, we get answers that go nowhere. If instead, we try to ask the question – “what is it like to be a patient in the hospital?”, and try to see this from another person’s viewpoint, we might be able to make some headway. The world as we see it, is our construction of our being in the world. We are in a social realm, and we cope with the world by being part of it, rather than being apart from it.

Gelven also gives another example:

I ask: What is the mind? This question is the traditional metaphysical one; it asks for classification and identification. I also ask: Do I have a mind that is anything more than the physical brain? Here the question is one of whether something exists. Let us now re-ask this all-important question in terms of Heidegger’s revolution. What kind of question could we ask? What does it mean to think? Notice what happens when we rephrase the question in this way. By asking What does it mean to think? I avoid completely the metaphysical questions of whether something exists or what kind of thing it is. Yet, at the same time, the question probes just as deeply into what I want to know.

How we are in the world depends on our affordances to be in this world. As the great Cybernetician/Enactivist Francesco Varela pointed out – Our cognition is directed toward the world in a certain way: it is directed toward the world as we experience it. For example, we perceive the world to be three/ dimensional, macroscopic, colored, etc.: we do not perceive it as composed of subatomic particles. To this, I will also add Cybernetician Bruce Clarke’s quote- We still have a hard time taking for real that all knowledge of the environment depends upon the specific realities of the systems that observe it. The systemic reality of the environment is to be both the precondition and the product of an observing system.

The next time when someone asks you to improve the system, remember to use the Being-question. I will finish with a quote from Heidegger:

In order to be who we are, we human beings remain committed to and within the being of language, and can never step out of it and look at it from somewhere else. Thus, we always see the nature of language only to the extent to which language itself has us in view, has appropriated us to itself. That we cannot know the nature of language—know it according to the traditional concept of knowledge defined in terms of cognition as representation—is not a defect, however, but rather an advantage by which we are favored with a special realm, that realm where we, who are needed and used to speak language, dwell as mortals.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Round and Round We Go:

Round and Round We Go:

In today’s post, I am looking at a simple idea – Loops, and will follow it up with Heinz von Foerster’s ideas on second order Cybernetics. A famous example of a loop is “PDCA”. The PDCA loop is generally represented as a loop – Plan-Do-Check-Act-Plan-Do…, and the loop is represented as an iterative process where it goes on and on. To me, this is a misnomer and misrepresentation. These should be viewed as recursions. First, I will briefly explain the difference between iteration and recursion. I am using the definitions of Klaus Krippendorff:

Iteration – A process for computing something by repeating a cycle of operations.

Recursion – The attribute of a program or rule which can be applied on its results indefinitely often.

In other words, iteration is simply repetition. In a program, I can say to print the word “Iteration” 5 times. There is no feedback here, other than to keep count of the times the word was printed on screen. On the other hand, in recursion, the value of the first cycle is fed back into the second cycle, the output of which is fed into the third cycle and so on. Here circular feedback is going on. A great example of a recursive function is the Fibonnaci sequence. The Fibonacci sequence is expressed as follows:

Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2, for n > 1

Fn = 1, for n = 0 or 1

Here, we can see that the previous value is fed into the equation to create a new value, and this is an example of recursion.

From the complexity science standpoint, recursions lead to interesting phenomenon. This is not an iterative non-feedback loop any longer, where you come back to the same point again and again. With recursion, you get to circular causality with each loop, and you enter a new state altogether. Each loop is directly impacted by the previous loop. Anything that leads back to its original starting point doesn’t lead to emergence and can actually lead to a paradox. A great example is the liar paradox. In a version of this, a card has a statement written on both sides of a card. They are as follows:

  1. The statement on the other side of this card is FALSE.
  2. The statement on the other side of this card is TRUE.  

This obviously leads to a paradox when you follow it along a loop. You do not get to a new state with each iteration. Douglas Hofstadter wonderfully explained this as a mirror mirroring itself. However, with recursion, a wonderful emergence can happen, as we see in complexity science. Circular causality and recursion are ideas that have strong footing in Second Order Cybernetics. A great example of this is to look at the question – how do we make sense of the world around us? Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics, has a lot to say about this. As Bernard Scott notes:

For Heinz von Foerster, the goal of second-order cybernetics is to explain the observer to himself, that is, it is the cybernetics of the cybernetician. The Greek root of cybernetics, kubernetes, means governor or steersman. The questions asked are; who or what steers the steersman, how is the steersman steered and, ethically, how does it behoove the steersman to steer himself? Von Foerster begins his epistemology, in traditional manner, by asking, “How do we know?” The answers he provides-and the further questions he raises-have consequences for the other great question of epistemology, “What may be known?” He reveals the creative, open-ended nature of the observer’s knowledge of himself and his world.

Scott uses von Foerster’s idea of undifferentiated coding to explore this further. I have written about this before here.

Undifferentiated coding is explained as below:

The response of a nerve cell encodes only the magnitude of its perturbation and not the physical nature of the perturbing agent.

Scott continues:

Put more specifically, there is no difference between the type of signal transmitted from eye to brain or from ear to brain. This raises the question of how it is we come to experience a world that is differentiated, that has “qualia”, sights, sounds, smells. The answer is that our experience is the product of a process of computation: encodings or “representations” are interpreted as being meaningful or conveying information in the context of the actions that give rise to them. What differentiates sight from hearing is the proprioceptive information that locates the source of the signal and places it in a particular action context.

Von Foerster explained the circular relationship between sense data and experiences as below:

The motorium (M) provides the interpretation for the sensorium (S) and the sensorium provides the interpretation for the motorium.

How we make sense depends on how we experience, and how we experience depends upon how we make sense. As Scott notes, we can explain the above relationship as follows:

S = F(M). Sensorium, S, is a function of motorium, M.

M = G(S). Motorium, M, is a function of sensorium, S.

Von Foerster pointed out that this is an open recursive loop, since we can replace M with G(S).

S=F(G(S))

With more replacements for the “S”, this equation becomes an open recursive loop as follows:

S=F(G(F(G(F(G(…………G(S)))))……

Scott continues:

Fortunately, the circularity is not vicious, as in the statement “I am a liar”. Rather, it is virtuous or, as von Foerster calls it, it is a creative circle, which allows us to “transcend into another domain”. The indefinite series is a description of processes taking place in sequence, in “time”, with steps t, t+1, t+2 and so on. (I put “time” in quotes as a forward marker for discussion to come). In such indefinite recursive expressions, solutions are those values of the expression which, when entered into the expression as a base, produce themselves. These are known as Eigen values (self-values). Here we have the emergence of stabilities, invariances. The “objects” that we experience are “tokens” for the behaviors that give rise to those experiences. There is an “ultimate” base to these recursions: once upon a “time”, the observer came into being. As von Foerster neatly puts it, “an observer is his own ultimate object”.

The computations that give rise to the experience of a stable world of “objects” are adaptations to constraints on possible behaviors. Whatever else, the organism, qua system, must continue to compute itself, as a product. “Objects” are anything else it may compute (and recompute) as a unitary aspect of experience: things, events, all kinds of abstraction. The possible set of “objects” it may come to know are limited only by the organism’s current anatomy and the culture into which she is born.

I have written about this further here – Consistency over Completeness.

Heinz von Foerster said – The environment contains no information; it is as it is. We are informationally closed entities, which means that information cannot come from outside to inside. We make meanings out of the perturbations and we construct a reality that our interpretative framework can afford.

I will finish with a great observation from the Cybernetist philosopher Yuk Hui:

Recursivity is a general term for looping. This is not mere repetition, but rather more like a spiral, where every loop is different as the process moves generally towards an end, whether a closed one or an open one.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Observing with Your Hands:

References:

  1. M. C. Escher Spiral
  2. Second Order Cybernetics as Cognitive Methodology. Bernard Scott
  3. A Dictionary of Cybernetics. Klaus Krippendorff