Ashby’s Trowel:

In today’s post, I am looking at a concept that I am referring to as Ashby’s trowel. The premise of this idea is very simple – context matters! I will start off the discussion using the very well-known heuristic of Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor, named after the 14th century English Franciscan friar, William of Occam. This is commonly described as – entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. In other words, explanations should only have the necessary number of assumptions. Very often this is incorrectly presented as a call to seek simplicity. As a cybernetician, I can tell you that simplicity is overrated.

The idea of a philosophical razor is that it can be used to remove the unwanted things by slicing the unwanted assumptions away from the model. Occam’s razor is the most famous of the many philosophical razors. In medicine, Occam’s razor is often contrasted with Hickam’s dictum. Hickam’s dictum is named after the twentieth century American physician, John Hickam. It is described as – patients can have as many diseases as they damn (or darn) well please. So, if an elderly patient complains of several ailments, Hickam would advise that we trust the patient and try to treat several likable diseases instead of assuming that the different ailments are resulting from one single disease. This heuristic is meaningful when the patient is elderly, is on multiple medications, and if the ailments started at different times. In other words, simplicity is overrated when dealing with a complex situation as our human bodies, especially when tackled with age and side effects of many different medications.

A trowel is a tool used by a mason to add and to remove mortar as needed so that a clean level surface is achieved. With Ashby’s trowel, I am putting forth the reminder that the solution that you are seeking should have enough complexity to match the complexity of the problem that you are seeking to solve. Ashby presented this as his law of Requisite Variety – only variety can absorb variety. Here variety refers to the number of possible states of a “system” conjured up (constructed) by an observer. If we take the example of a light switch, it generally has two states – ON and OFF. Thus, its variety is 2. The external variety is always more than the internal variety. In the case of a light switch, the user’s variety of needing something ON and OFF when they want, can be easily met by the light switch. But now consider if the user wants to dim the lighting with the switch. The variety of ON and OFF cannot meet this new demand that is added by the user. The Engineer now has to come up with a dimmer switch that has indefinite variety between its LOW and HIGH setting.

When we have a problem, we are often reminded to go for simple solutions. This may be a good heuristic to hold on to, however this should not be the law. One of the problems with seeking simple solutions is that we stop searching for more solutions once we get to a “simple” solution. This is referred to as the “satisfaction of search.”

From the cybernetics standpoint, simplicity and complexity also depend upon who is doing the observing. What is simple to you may be complicated for me, and vice versa. The more meaningful heuristic to have is Ashby’s trowel – context matters, so we have to match the complexity.

I welcome the reader to look into this more –

I will finish with a wise quote that is very much aligned to Ashby’s trowel, from one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume – If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause, or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Purpose of Purposeful Entities in Purposive Systems:

The Purpose of Purposeful Entities in Purposive Systems:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of “purposeful” versus “purposive” in Systems Thinking. The two words are based on “purpose”. “Purposeful” means that the entity is autonomous and has freedom of choice. The entity is free to make their own rules, as the term “auto-nomous” means. “Purposive” on the other hand implies that the entity’s purpose is chosen by somebody else, and they do not have the freedom to make choices. I am very interested in the differences between purposeful and purposive, and very fascinated by the implication of purposeful entities in a “system”. If the purposeful entities are able to be autonomous, then the traditional viewpoints of systems thinking must be reevaluated. By “traditional systems thinking”, I am referring to the hard systems approach. This is the notion that there are real systems out there in the world that can be objectively modeled or designed where a specific purpose for the system can be achieved. Moreover, if the system is not functioning as expected, it can easily be changed or fixed. This would be the notion that the entities in the “system” are purposive, where they all work together for a common purpose, one that is prescribed by the designer or the leader of the “system”. A typical example is an organization where the leader has prescribed what everybody shall be doing. In this case, purposive entities are viewed as merely tools or a means to an end or cogs in the machine.

My take on purposefulness is based on the ideas of the great Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that we are rational beings, and we should treat each other with respect. He stated this as a categorical imperative and had different versions of the categorical imperative, of which I am looking at the second one:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

He called this a categorical imperative because this imperative was applicable in all circumstances. Kant is not saying that we should not use others as a means. For example, if I am going to the store, I am using the storekeeper as a means (to get the things I want). Kant is okay with this. His point is that I should not treat the storekeeper simply as a means. This would be the case, if I go into the store, and take whatever I want and then leave without paying or trick the storekeeper to give me whatever I want for free. Kant emphasized that each one of us are autonomous beings. The storekeeper and I can choose to do certain things, and come into an agreement (as a social contract) on how we will treat each other as means. I will get the things I want, in return for money that I will give to the storekeeper. We have both entered into this voluntarily, and we both still have the freedom to make choices. I can leave the store without buying anything, and the storekeeper can choose to stop being a storekeeper.

From the Kantian viewpoint, treating others as “purposive” is immoral. Kant goes one step further and says that we are duty-bound to not treat others simply as a means. For example, if I have the intent to trick the storekeeper, but I am not doing it because I am afraid that I would get caught, Kant would say that I am being immoral even if I abide by the social contracts. For Kant, it is the intent of my behavior that matters the most. Kant believed that the reason to do good is for the sake of the goodwill. He believed this to be an objective truth. He viewed goodwill as that which will shine like a jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself. As a constructivist, I differ from Kant at this point. I do not assume that there is an objective truth outside of us. I will discuss this further later on.

Kant viewed freedom to choose as the opposite of necessity. If I drop an apple, it has to fall to the ground. The apple has no choice but to do that. This is a necessity. On other hand, if I drop a bird, it may or may not fall to the ground. It is able to make choices. There is no necessity here. Similarly, in organizations, people are purposeful rather than purposive. Even though, people may come and work at an organization, it does not mean that they are cogs in the machine, where they will do exactly as told. Trying to coerce them or force them is immoral. There is a tendency for a leader to expect the employees to behave exactly as told. This will be viewing them as mere robots, used only for their hands. This is a hard systems approach. From the soft systems approach, the employees are seen as purposeful, where they are autonomous and have the freedom to choose. They are not seen merely as a means to an end. This goes both ways – it would be immoral for the employee to come to work just for a paycheck. Unfortunately, sometimes when the leader treats the employees as a means to an end, the employees in return will treat the employer as a means to an end too.

From the soft systems standpoint, we should try to view the “system” through the others’ eyes. This would mean that we will try to understand what all purposes are being prescribed to the “system”. In addition, we should also look at ways to expand the capabilities of people to make choices for themselves. From this standpoint, we will not be able to value the whole as being more important than the part. The reason is because the “system” is a construction of an observer. Therefore, the prescribed whole is also a construction of the observer. Moreover, assuming what is the whole, what is the purpose, and what is “good” for the whole are also dependent on the observer. It would be immoral to view that the whole is indeed greater than the parts. The value of the part is as important as the value of the whole. This view goes against the hard systems thinking. We need to start looking at “systems” differently. All “systems” are human “systems” because they are constructed by us humans, as an as-if representation of reality. This is to make sense of what is going on around us. This systems thinking is observer based and ethics based.

From a constructivist viewpoint, I do not believe that objective truths are valid. Instead, as entities in a social realm, we come to certain stable states where some viewpoints are assigned a value in the social realm. This is ongoing and requires interactions in the social realm. There is a reflexive nature to this. If we look at all cultures, we would see similarities in how they were structured, and what value systems were common to all. These are the stable states that result from ongoing interactions. If we say that the value of an individual is as important as the value of the entire community they are a part of, then this introduces reflexivity in the equation. The individual is part of the community, and the value of the community is being viewed as the same as the individual who is also part of the community. This is a second order approach. I have written about this a lot. A seemingly “objective” value system can arise in the social realm due to the ongoing subjective interactions of the individuals.

From this viewpoint, we should realize that there are no objective “systems” out there waiting to be fixed or changed or manipulated. As Kant would say, we should do the right things for the right reasons. And in this case, it would be to try to first understand one another, and to respect the humanity in us. We should try to increase the capacity for others to act autonomously and increase their freedom to make choices. The stability of value systems should not come from high above, but from the ongoing interactions with each other. In other words, the purposes of purposeful entities should not be given via commandments, but viewed as being emergent from the ongoing interactions with each other in the social realm, and this also requires continuous self-reflection and openness for error-correction.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was HvF’s Ethical Imperative:

HvF’s Ethical Imperative:

“The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you” – Carl Jung

In today’s post, I am looking at Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative. He explained this as follows – ‘I shall act always so as to increase the total number of choices’. This might seem as a strange choice of words. I will try to explain my understanding of this based on constructivism and existentialism. HvF believed that we construct our stable experiential reality based on our historical interactions with our environment in an autonomous manner. Our ongoing interactions lend stability to our experiences that we can identify as “tokens” for objects. This gives us the ability to recall an object in the external world.

From a social realm standpoint, this goes further in that we identify the “self” and the “others” based on this. We differentiate ourselves from the others, and yet see ourselves as being a part with the others in the social realm. We learn how to act in this realm based on our dynamic interactions, and in turn we also teach others how to interact with us. From this standpoint, we realize that there is no objective reality out there. There is no objectivity in this realm. As HvF noted, Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.

We are meaning making entities. Our nervous systems are actively engaged in making meanings based on the perturbations in our environment. In addition to this, we have evolved to predict what is going to happen based on the current state of our nervous sytem. For example, right now, as you are reading this, you are already trying to predict where this is going. The problem with being a meaning-seeking entity is that we start to believe that there is a meaning to all this, that there is a meaning out there to begin with. We have to realize that there is no meaning to things, other than the ones that we create. In the same vein, there is no purpose to things or ourselves that we do not assign. It is our responsibility to assign our own purpose as autonomous entities. We are responsible to ensure that we support the autonomy of others in our social realm to do the same.

All this can be further explained by the ideas of existentialism. The main tenet of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. This means that we create a meaning for ourselves. There is no meaning that is assigned to us from an a priori standpoint. There is no human essence out there, and we are not copies of an ideal human. We exist first and only then do we create meaning for ourselves. One of the interesting aspects of existentialism is that we are condemned to be free. This means that we are responsible for our own actions as well as inactions; that we are always free to choose our actions. We cannot point to an external supernatural entity for our morals. We cannot pass our responsibility to act or not act to another individual. We are always free to choose how we act.

To be free is part of who we are. This also means that any action from us to take this away from other human beings is inhuman. Freedom should beget more freedom. Existentialism talks about facticity and transcendence. Facticity represents the constraints that we are embedded in. These are the “givens”. For example, I am a male, and I currently live in the year 2022. These are facts that I cannot change. Transcendence is when we do not allow facticity to define our future selves. This would mean that we are not bound to our current selves, and we should not use this as an excuse to not do what we want to do. For example, I could write a bestseller book, but I am not going to do that right now because I am busy with work. Very loosely put, transcendence is about the future, while facticity is about the past and the present.

With all of this background, let’s revisit HvF’s ethical imperative. HvF is not saying that we should increase options for the sake of increasing options. His choice of word is “choices”. This implies that the entity is able to make decisions. He is also saying that I should act to increase the number of available choices. The current set of choices are tied to our facticity. They could be assigned to us by someone else who is not interested in our autonomy or freedom. Following the current set of choices would only reinforce our facticity. However, increasing the number of choices implies transcendence, our future choices. Increasing the number of choices is about giving the responsibility for ourselves and others the ability to make choices, and to also allow conditions for transcendence. Freedom should beget more freedom. HvF’s ethical imperative looks into the future to make more connections and possibilities. We cannot assign purposes and force our choices on other people. This is an important reminder for our current state of affairs based on the possibility that Roe. V. Wade could be overturned in the United States. In the light of existentialism, HvF’s ethical imperative means that we should be the ones making meaning/purpose for our lives, and at the same time, we should strive to allow others to do the same. Our freedom is defined by the freedom of others because we are always embedded in a social realm. Our self is identified and defined in terms of others.

HvF’s ethical imperative means that we cannot pass our responsibility and say that we had no other choice or that our hands are tied due to our facticity. It is our responsibility to cultivate transcendence for ourselves as well as others. HvF put this beautifully as “A is better off, when B is better off.” “What other choice do I have?” can be the cop-out question or the most important question one could ask. One is decidable and the other is undecidable. HvF explained a decidable question as one for which the answer is already known. For example, “what is 4 + 4?” An undecidable question is one for which we have to decide an answer. For example, “what is the meaning of my life?” HvF’s ethical imperative advises us to treat undecidable questions as undecidable questions, rather than pretending that they are decidable questions. HvF said that – Only those questions that are in principle undecidable, we can decide.

Another aspect to HvF’s ethical imperative was that we can get into problems where we get entrapped in our own constructions of false dichotomies and other semantic traps. We might be assuming that there are only two answers or that one is true and the other one is false. These are our own makings of semantic traps that we fall into it. He advises us in this case to “Always think. Isn’t there something new?”

I will finish with HvF’s own words explaining his ethical imperative. HvF was responding to the comment that the children growing up in a sectarian community will obviously absorb its reality.

This is possible, no doubt. On the other hand, I remain convinced that these people, these individuals, can always opt out of such a network and escape from the sectarian system. They have this freedom, I would claim, but they are all too often completely unable to actually see it. They are blind to their own blindness and do not see that they do not see; they are incapable of realizing that there are still possibilities for action. They have created their blind spot and are frozen in their everyday mechanisms and think there is no way out. The uncanny thing, actually, is that sects and dictators always manage to make actually existing freedom invisible for some time. All of a sudden, citizens become zombies or Nazis committing themselves to condemning freedom and responsibility by saying: “I was ordered to kill these people, I had no choice! I merely executed orders!” Even in such a situation, it is obviously possible to refuse. It would be a great decision, possibly leading to one’s own death but still an act of incredible quality: “No, I will not do it. I will not kill anyone!” In brief, it is my view that freedom always exists. At each and every moment, I can decide who I am. Moreover, in order to render, and keep, this visible I have been pleading for a form of education and communality that does not restrict or impede the visibility of freedom and the multitude of opportunities but actively supports them. My ethical imperative is, therefore: “Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”

It is certainly not my contention that the invention of realities is completely arbitrary and willful and would allow me to see the sky blue at first, then green, and after opening my eyes again, not at all. Of course, every human being is tied into a social network, no individual is an isolated wonder phenomenon but dependent on others and must – to say it metaphorically – dance with others and construct reality through communality. The embedding into a social network necessarily leads to a reduction of arbitrariness through communality; however, it does not at all change the essentially given freedom. We make appointments, identify with others and invent common worlds – which one may give up again. The kinds of dance one chooses along this way may be infinitely variable.

True to his imperative, HvF later reworded the statement:

I once said, “Act always as to increase the number of choices.” That is my ethical imperative, although once again one might have the impression that I am trying to order people around, and this is just not right. I didn’t choose my words very carefully when I said that. It would have been better if I had written, “Heinz, act always as to increase the number of choices”.

Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Maturana’s Aesthetic Seduction:

Maturana’s Aesthetic Seduction:

In today’s post, I am looking at the great cybernetician Humberto Maturana’s idea of “aesthetic seduction”. Maturana was an important biologist who was one of the creators of autopoiesis. I have written about it previously. He challenged the prevalent notion at that time that our nervous system takes in information from the environment. He proposed that our nervous system is closed. This means that there is no input of information coming in from the environment. Instead, the nervous system is reading itself. When the nervous system is perturbed by the environment, it goes through a structural change based on its current state, and this transformation is what is read by the nervous system. The perception or experience of the red color is a result of our closed nervous framework, rather than the result of the rose’s petals. The information is generated within itself. We are not information processing machines, and there is no input-output business going on. As Raf Vanderstraeten notes:

the central premise of Autopoiesis and Cognition is that systems are informationally closed. Thus, no information crosses the boundary separating the system from its environment. We do not see a world “out there” that exists apart from us. Rather, we see only what our systemic organization allows us to see. The world merely irritates; it triggers changes determined by the system’s own organization. The world cannot instruct an observing system; the world rather is constructed by the observing system. Only a closed system is able to know (the world).

As one can imagine, such an idea may seem rather strange or being “out there”. Maturana spoke of aesthetic seduction with regards to convincing others of his ideas. His stand was that he should not try to convince anyone. He wanted his ideas to speak for themselves and he wanted the beauty of his ideas to invite the readers. This is the beauty of aesthetic seduction (no pun intended). He noted:

The idea of aesthetic seduction is based on the insight that people enjoy beauty. We call something beautiful when the circumstances we find ourselves in make us feel good. Judging something as ugly and unpleasant, on the other hand, indicates displeasure because we are aware of the difference to our views of what is agreeable and pleasant. The aesthetic is harmony and pleasure, the enjoyment of what is given to us. An attractive view transforms us. A beautiful picture makes us look at it again and again, enjoy its color scheme, photograph it, perhaps even buy it. The relationship with a picture may transform the life of people because the picture has become a source of aesthetic experience.

He pointed out that there is no manipulation involved here. He really wanted the readers to enjoy the presented ideas.

I certainly never intend to seduce or persuade people in a manipulative way. Beauty would vanish if I tried to seduce in this way. Any attempt to persuade applies pressure and destroys the possibility of listening. Pressure creates resentment. Wanting to manipulate people stimulates resistance. Manipulation means exploiting our relation with other people in such a way as to give them the impression that whatever happens is beneficial and advantageous for them. But the resulting actions of the manipulated person are, in fact, useful for the manipulator. Manipulation, therefore, really means cheating people.

Maturana advises us to be respectful and engage in open conversations. Our nervous systems may be closed, but that does not mean that our minds should be too.

The only thing left to me in the way of aesthetic seduction is just to be what I am, wholly and entirely, and to admit no discrepancy whatsoever between what I am saying and what I am doing. Of course, this does not at all exclude some jumping about and playacting during a lecture. But not in order to persuade or to seduce but in order to generate the experiences that produce and make manifest what I am talking about. The persons becoming acquainted with me in this way can then decide for themselves whether they want to accept what they see before them. Only when there is no discrepancy between what is said and what is done, when there is no pretense and no pressure, aesthetic seduction may unfold. In such a situation, the people listening and debating will feel accepted to such an extent as to be able to present themselves in an uninhibited and pleasurable manner. They are not attacked, they are not forced to do things, and they can show themselves as they are, because someone else is presenting himself naked and unprotected. Such behavior is always seductive in a respectful way because all questions and fears suddenly become legitimate and completely new possibilities of encountering one another emerge.

Maturana’s words are so beautiful that I am not going to add further to it. I will leave with his words on not wanting to convince others of his ideas:

I never attempt to convince anyone. Some people become annoyed when they are confronted with my considerations. That is perfectly okay. I would never try to correct their views and then force my own ideas upon them.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was A Constructivist’s View of POSIWID:

A Constructivist’s View of POSIWID:

POSIWID or “Purpose Of a System Is What It Does” is a famous dictum in Cybernetics. This is attributed to the Management Cybernetician Stafford Beer. Beer noted:

A good observer will impute the purpose of the system from its actions and thus from the resultant state.

Hence the key aphorism:

The purpose of a system is what it does.

There is, after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it consistently fails to do.

I have written about this before here – https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/2019/02/18/purpose-of-a-system-in-light-of-vsm/ and here – https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/2020/06/14/hegel-dialectics-and-posiwid/

In cybernetics, the emphasis is on what a “system” does, and not especially what a “system” is, or what the designer or management of the “system” claims what the “system” is doing. Thus, we can see that POSIWID has a special place in every cybernetician’s mind. A “system” is a collection of variables that an observer purposefully selects to make sense of the world around them. The boundaries, parts etc. of the “system” vary according to who is doing the observing, and the purpose also is assigned by the observer. Beer explains this clearly:

The point that I find that I am most anxious to add is that this System has a PURPOSE. The trouble is: WHO SAYS SO?

So where does the idea that Systems in general have a purpose come from? IT COMES FROM YOU!

 It is you the observer of the System who recognizes its purpose. Come to think of it, then, is it not just YOU — the observer — who recognizes that there is a System in the first place?

Another key point to mention is that an observer may impute several purposes for the “system”. Beer continues:

Consider the System called a tiger…

The purpose of a tiger is:

  • to be itself
  • to be its own part of the Jungle System
  • to be a link in animal evolution
  • to eat whatever it eats, for Ecology’s sake
  • to provide tiger-skins
  • to perpetuate the genes of which it is the host

For the moment, I am prepared to say that the purpose of a tiger is to demonstrate that the recognition of a System and of its purpose is a highly subjective affair.

Understanding the purpose of a “system” helps us in understanding how we construct the “systems” themselves:

All of this turns out to mean that we simply cannot attribute purposes, or even boundaries, to systems as if these were objective facts of nature. The facts about the system are in the eye of the beholder. This sounds like an unproductive conclusion, but we can make something of it. It means that both the nature and the purpose of a System are recognized by an observer within his perception of WHAT THE SYSTEM DOES.

From Beer’s writing, it is clear that the POSIWID is dependent upon the observer. This is also the basis of constructivism. In constructivism, the observer is the king or queen. The “system” is a selection of variables chosen by the observer to improve their understanding of a phenomenon. The boundaries drawn by the observer are entirely arbitrary and contingent on the mood of the observer. A “system” is thus a mental construct of the observer. For example, an educational “system” may have physical artifacts in the world such as buildings, books, chalk boards etc. However, depending upon the observer, what the “system” entails will change. For a student, it is “system” for education, or it is a “system” to get away from their hometown. For a teacher, it is a “system” to provide meaning to their lives or it is a “system” to spend time while doing another job on the side. There can be as many “systems” involving the same collection of parts as the number of the observers. Beer continues:

The definition of the purpose of a System as being what it does lays the onus not on ‘nature’ but on the particular observer concerned. It immediately accounts for UNRESOLVABLE disagreements about systems too. For two people may well disagree about anything at all, and never become reconciled. They say that they will be convinced, and give way, if the FACTS show that they were mistaken. But the facts about the nature and purpose of a System are not objective realities. Once you have declared, as an observer, what the facts are, the nature and purpose of the System observed are ENTAILED.

As a constructivist, this is an important concept to grasp. If there are two observers and each is constructing the “system”, they each will come up with their own “systems” and varying POSIWIDs. Our first step in Systems Thinking then is to understand how the other participants view the “system” as, their assigned purposes, and how they see the POSIWIDs as. Even if they assign a purpose for the “system”, the outcome that they perceive may not match what they expect. I have come to take away some important points from our discussion so far:

  1. There are always multiple participants in the social realm. It is very important to understand what the “system” means for each stakeholder. This includes the parts, the whole, the assigned purposes and the POSIWIDs. There is no POSIWID(s) without an observer.
  2. It is important to understand that there is always a gap between what we believe the purpose(s) of a “system” should be, and what it actually is doing. It is tempting to assign an objective reality to the “IT” here. We should resist this temptation and understand that the “IT” or the “system” is an “as-if” model or abstraction that we employ to make sense.
  3. To carry on from the previous point, in order to understand the gap, we need good comparators in place to allow us to measure what the gap between the expected and actual is. POSIWIDs are entirely dependent upon the variety of the observer to distinguish what is happening. A good example to point this out further will be to take the cliché fictional example of Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Lestrade. Holmes, the master observer, is able to distinguish much more attributes than Inspector Lestrade, which would correlate to more POSIWIDs.
  4. On a similar note, what we perceive as the “system” is doing could be faulty. This means that we need an ongoing error correction step to improve our ability to manage the “system”. We need to interact with the “system” as much as possible, and also welcome input from other participants and their perspectives. We cannot manage a “system” unless we are a part of the “system”. We should embrace and own our epistemic humility.
  5. The POSIWID(s) should be reinterpreted as often as possible, with input from others. They help us understand the dynamics of the various parts and how they interact with each other.
  6. We should focus on only a few POSIWIDs at a time. Since we lack the variety to manage all the external variety thrown at us, we should attenuate and filter out the unwanted POSIWIDs.
  7. We cannot predict what the POSIWID(s) will be beforehand. Due to complexity of connections between the parts, and the nonlinear relations between them, POSIWIDs are more likely to be unpredictable. This is another reason we should resist the temptation to treat “systems” as objective realities in the world.

One of the main struggles I had when I started my journey into constructivism is how we can manage a “system” if it is entirely “subjective”? I have put the term subjective in quotes because there is no subject/object distinction in constructivism. I will write more on this later. For the moment, I will carry on with the use of the term “subjective”. Beer explained this well:

‘How is it that systems are subjective, while some of them can be singled out and declared to be viable?’

‘Once you have defined them, you can tell whether they are viable or not.’

‘And those criteria are suddenly supposed to be objective?’

‘Well, it’s all about necessity and sufficiency within a stated frame of reference.’

if systems are subjective phenomena, then we are going to have trouble in determining a measure. The whole idea of measures is to be objective… Yet the problem we face is not unique. In fact, the measures that we are accustomed to call objective work only because we accept a set of conventions about how they are to be employed. For example, if we quote the height of Mount Everest, we do not mean that this is the distance you would travel from the base camp to climb it; nor do we mean that if we look at Mount Everest while holding a ruler at arm’s length, we can read off its height. We might have agreed on either of these conventions: they would both work, given certain other stateable conditions. It seems that objective measures, like objective systems, exist only as conventional crystallizations of one out of a virtually infinite number of subjective possibilities.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Systems in Quotes vs. Systems Without Quotes:

Source: The Heart of Enterprise (Stafford Beer, 1979)

Systems in Quotes vs. Systems Without Quotes:

Humberto Maturana is one of my favorite authors who has helped me further my learning of cybernetics. Sadly, he passed away recently. In today’s post, I am inspired by Maturana’s ideas. One of Maturana’s famous ideas is “autopoiesis.” I have written about this here. A closely related idea from Maturana is the difference between objectivity without parentheses and objectivity in parentheses. He explains this as follows:

There are two distinct attitudes, two paths of thinking and explaining. The first path I call objectivity without parentheses It takes for granted the observer-independent existence of objects that – it is claimed – can be known; it believes in the possibility of an external validation of statements. Such a validation would lend authority and unconditional legitimacy to what is claimed and would, therefore, aim at subjection. It entails the negation of all those who are not prepared to agree with the “objective” facts. One does not want to listen to them or try to understand them. The fundamental emotion reigning here is powered by the authority of universally valid knowledge. One lives in the domain of mutually exclusive transcendental ontologies: each ontology supposedly grasps objective reality; what exists seems independent from one’s personality and one’s actions.

The other attitude I call objectivity in parentheses; its emotional basis is the enjoyment of the company of other human beings. The question of the observer is accepted fully, and every attempt is made to answer it. The distinction between objects and the experience of existence is, according to this path, not denied but the reference to objects is not the basis of explanations, it is the coherence of experiences with other experiences that constitutes the foundation of all explanation. In this view, the observer becomes the origin of all realities; all realities are created through the observer’s operations of distinction. We have entered the domain of constitutive ontologies: all Being is constituted through the Doing of observers. If we follow this path of explanation, we become aware that we can in no way claim to be in possession of the truth but that there are numerous possible realities. Each of them is fully legitimate and valid although, of course, not equally desirable. If we follow this path of explanation, we cannot demand the subjection of our fellow human beings but will listen to them, seek cooperation and communication, and will try to find out under what circumstances we would consider to be valid what they are saying. Consequently, some claim will be true if it satisfies the criteria of validation of the relevant domain of reality.

Maturana is a proponent of objectivity in parentheses. Maturana teaches us that it is impossible to establish an observer-independent point of reference. Everything said is said by an observer. He agrees that there seem to be objects independent of us. The use of parentheses is to acknowledge this – to signal a certain state of awareness. In other words, we do not discover reality, but we invent a reality. We construct an experiential version of reality that is accessible to our interpretative framework. This is a version that is built through a circular causal loop between us and our environment in which we are embedded in. We are embodied minds embedded in our world, and not bodies with minds separated from the world. The latter view represents objectivity without parentheses.

Our version of reality becomes stable from our history of interactions with our environment. The environment contains everything outside our closed interpretative framework. This includes other beings also. The history of interactions provides us an opportunity to generate correlations that we can assign meanings to. For example, as a child, we learn that crying generally leads to situations where we can find comfort in the form of food, attention etc. However, as we grow older, most of us have to relearn that crying does not lead to comfort. We have to try other means to get what we need – learning to speak a common language. There is an error correction that goes on in the social realm where we can find commonalities in the realities that we construct. However, this can also lead to clans and tribes, where as a group we isolate from other clans and tribes with opposing ideas. An important point to be made at this juncture is that the success of the constructed reality is based simply on viability of the construction. If the constructed reality continues to stay viable over time, then it has merit. There is no external point of reference utilized here. There is no external authority who decrees what is right and wrong, or what is moral or immoral. The only way we would be willing to change the construction is if we realize that it is no longer viable based on either an internal reference point or when something happens in our environment that challenges our survival altogether. The first case is where we have to change our internal structure. This could be based on a perturbation from outside such as conversing with a person with an opposing view or reading a book that presents a powerful argument that challenges our paradigm. The second case is where our organization itself gets changed, and we cease to exist.

Systems in Quotes:

The more I have learned about cybernetics, especially second order cybernetics and the works of thinkers such as Heinz von Foerster and Humberto Maturana, the more I start to question the use of “systems”. The word “system” is used in many ways to represent many things. Sometimes it could be the biological system (our body); sometimes it could be the education system; sometimes it could be the network system; on and on. To use a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, “This word has been so stretched and has taken on so broad a meaning that it no longer means anything at all.” Sartre was talking about existentialism. But I think it is quite suitable here. My statement might come across as quite irrational to some of the readers. Please bear with me as I try to explain my view. There is after all nothing rational about the complexity of what we try to represent with the word “system”. The “system” could mean different things to different people. It all depends on who is doing the description. Let’s take the example of an organization. It is quite common for management consultants to say we need to learn to change the “system” or fix the “system”. Or we should not blame the “system”. The emphasis here is that the “system” is something that we can change or it is something real that we can fix. As I have pointed out often here on the blog, my view is that “systems” are mental constructs used to make sense of the world around us. It is a construction of the observer, and they decide what all parts go within the boundary, and where the boundary of the “system” is drawn. There is nothing objective about a “system”. “Systems” are part of the experiential reality of the observer. Since we are informationally closed, we cannot share this experiential reality.

When I talk about “systems”, in the spirit of Maturana, I am differentiating between Systems in quotes, and systems without quotes. If we replace the word “objectivity” with “system”, and “parentheses” with “quotes” in Maturana’s explanation, perhaps my position would become clearer. My concern with not using quotes is that we are removing the observer from the observation; the describer from the description. To put it in other words – a cat doesn’t know that it is a cat. The distinguishing characteristics come from the distinguisher than the distinguished. In the case of an organization, if we are going to blame the “system”, where will we start? The assumption is that we all know what we mean by the “system” here. The first step in systems thinking is to try to view the world from the other person’s viewpoint. This is part of understanding the boundaries and how the other person views the world. In other words, we are looking for actively perturbing our closed interpretative framework. We are looking to actively engage to change our minds. How often do we do this? Is this what the consultants look to do when they talk about fixing the “system”? Maturana follows up on his objectivity in parentheses idea that I find is quite apt here:

They might – possibly – follow the path of objectivity in parentheses and, therefore, be capable of reflection: They would respect differences, would not claim to be the sole possessors of truth, and would enjoy the company of others. In the process of living together, they would produce different cultures. Consequently, the number of possible realities may seem potentially infinite but their diversity is constrained by communal living, by cultures and histories created together, by shared interests and predilections. Every human being is certainly different but not entirely different.

When we hear of the word “system” being thrown around, our first reaction should be – can you please elaborate on what do you mean by “system”?

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Being-In-the-Ohno-Circle:

Representations of Reality in Constructivism:

In today’s post, I am looking at the fascinating world of second order cybernetics. If first order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, then second order cybernetics (SOC) is the study of observing systems. If first order cybernetics is a hard view of modeling systems, then second order cybernetics is a soft view of modeling the modeling. From my viewpoint, one of the basic notions of second order cybernetics is that we are informationally closed. This means that information does not enter us from the outside. Instead, we generate meaning based on the perturbations we encounter from the outside world. One of the pioneers of SOC was Heinz von Foerster. I will be relying on his wisdom a lot for this post.

SOC teaches us that observer must be included as part of the observation. Objective observations are not possible because the observer is part of the observation. We do not have access to the external world. What we observe depends upon our interpretative framework. What we are really experiencing is not the external world in all its wonderful variety or richness. Instead, what we experience is the constraints we encounter in the world; the constraints that our interpretative framework can afford to experience. If we think about it, we can only sense a sliver of the light spectrum, we experience only a sliver of the audible spectrum, we experience only a sliver of the “tactile spectrum”, and so on. We depict a three-dimensional world because that is what we are accustomed to. As von Foerster noted, the environment contains no information, it is exactly as it is. The information regarding the environment comes from us within. No information comes from outside into us. This is after all, the meaning of the phrase “informationally closed.”

Von Foerster said the following about objectivity:

“Objectivity in the traditional sense,” as Heinz von Foerster has remarked, “is the delusion that it is not a delusion.  It is the cognitive version of the physiological blindspot:  we do not see what we do not see.  Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him.  Invoking objectivity is abrogating responsibility, hence its popularity.”

First Order Cybernetics →The map is not the territory.

Second Order Cybernetics → The map is the territory:

Alfred Korzybski’s famous dictum “The map is not the territory” is very apt here. We can say that this represents the first order cybernetics. What this dictum means is that we should not mistake the word for the real object; we should not mistake the map for the territory. To do so will be a first-order mistake. From a second-order standpoint, however, we will have to challenge this. If we do not have access to the real world, the territory, saying the map is not the territory is not useful. Von Foerster explained this brilliantly in a lecture:

Heinz began his lecture with the following words: “I have the feeling that the title of this conference was stimulated by a famous statement of Alfred Korzybski, which is: ‘The map is not the territory’. The underlying idea of this statement has always been used to find out if someone was schizophrenic or not. Schizophrenics apparently mix up the map with the territory by taking the symbol for the object. For example, they might eat the menu, because it says ‘soup’, ‘meat’ and ‘dessert’ on it. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am glad that you are all seated, for now comes the Heinz von Foerster theorem: ‘The map is the territory’ because we don’t have anything else but maps. We only have depictions or presentations – I wouldn’t even say re-presentations – that we can braid together within language with the other. But if one were to say this statement epistemologically correctly one would have to say:

The map of the map is not the map of the territory.’ We only have maps; we don’t know anything about a territory. We only know the map of the territory and we know the map of the map and we know that the two are not the same. But the map is always the territory because we don’t have anything else.”

It is important note here that von Foerster will not even use the word “representation”. What we have are stable constructions that stand-in for the constraints that we routinely experience in our encounters. Von Foerster would say that what we experience as ‘objects’ in the world out there are actually ‘tokens’. These are the stable behaviors we expect as a result of repeat interactions. For example, when we lift an object, we anticipate how our experience of the object will be like. The experiential reality of that object becomes ‘real’ to us based on our past interactions with the object. We re-cognize the stable behavior of the ‘object” based on our interaction. In order to understand or know the object, we have to interact with it. Our interactions result in a stable behavior that we can come to recognize on an ongoing basis. Von Foerster stated this as – there is a behavior between the perceiver and the object perceived and a stability or repetition “that arises between them”. 

We are simply made aware of the constraints that are meaningful to us. I am using the word “constraints”, inspired by another great mind, Ernst von Glasersfeld. When we walk around a path, we are actually guided by the constraints, we look out for the things we should stay away from, such as the tree on the side or the big stone on the path. Our experience is essentially defined by the constraints. Even if we are moving towards a goal, we are still guided by the constraints. The constraints define our path.

It is a common notion that we create a representation of the external world in our mind. SOC would clarify this and say that we do not create representations, instead we construct or invent an experiential reality based on our closed interpretative framework. Paraphrasing Humberto Maturana, the activity of the nervous system is determined by the nervous system itself, and not by the external world. Our nervous system is a result of evolution, and not a design by an intelligent designer. The traits that were successful got passed onto us from our ancestors, while the ones that were not successful did not. One could say that these were so successful that we have come to accept that “objective” nature of our experiential reality. When these are not viable, we are not able to cope with our environment.

My main takeaway from SOC is in how I interact with others. SOC teaches us that the properties of the observed are inputted by the observer. Therefore, in order to understand what is being observed, we should observe the observer, understand the distinctions they make, and how they describe their observations, rather than what is being observed. This is an important insight that is missed from the discussions of representations or mental models. This is the starting point for Systems Thinking. As West Churchman said, the systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. Our worlds collide and we come to realize a stable social realm through repeat interactions. We correct/adjust and modify as applicable to make each other’s worlds more viable from these interactions. As the cheesy cliché goes, we ‘complete’ each other’s worlds.

This is further explained by Bruce Clarke and Heinz von Foerster:

How is it that we can agree on the world outside of us?

We are inventing it(the world) for ourselves all the time… In traditional approach, one would say that the world is full of objects and they present themselves to us and we simply are aware of their existence because our nervous systems represent them to us or give the objects to us; then there is no problem. But if you are going to be rigorous about a constructivist epistemology, then you should not talk about objects because we do not know them… the objects present “tokens for eigenbehaviors,” which we can establish.

We are both in this world, both in each other’s world. You are in mine, and I am in your world; therefore, we establish our eigenbehavior for each other. And we may not agree, but we are caught in the same loop.

I will finish with an excellent quote from von Glasersfeld:

Whenever something is characterized by the particular interrelation of several elements, it is difficult to describe.  Language is necessarily linear.  Interrelated complexes are not.  Each one of the scientists who have initiated, shaped, and nourished this new way of thinking would describe cybernetics differently, and each has defined it for himself.  Yet they are all profoundly aware of the fact that their efforts, their methods, and their goals have led them beyond the bounds of the traditional disciplines in which they started, and that, nevertheless, there is far more overlap in their thinking than individual divergence.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics of Kindness:

Cybernetics of Kindness:

In today’s post, I am looking at the Socrates of Cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative:

“Always act so as to increase the number of choices.”

I see this as the recursive humanist commandment. This is very much applicable to ethics, and how we should treat each other. Von forester said the following about ethics:

Whenever we speak about something that has to do with ethics, the other is involved. If I live alone in the jungle or in the desert, the problem of ethics does not exist. It only comes to exist through our being together. Only our togetherness, our being together, gives rise to the question, How do I behave toward the other so that we can really always be one?

Von Foerster’s views align with that of constructivism, the idea that we construct our knowledge about our reality. We construct our knowledge to “re-cognize” a reality through the intercorrelation of the activities of the various sense organs. It is through these computed correlations that we recognize a reality. No findings exist independently of observers. Observing systems can only correlate their sense experiences with themselves and each other.

Paul Pangaro reminded me that von Foerster did not mean “options” or “possibilities”. Von Foerster specifically chose the word “choices”. By choices, he meant those selections among options that you might “actually take” depending on who “you are” right now. Here choices narrow down to the few that apply most to what you are now in this moment and in this context, down to a decision that makes you who you are. As von Foerster said, “Don’t make the decision, let the decision make you.” You and your choice you take are indistinguishable.

Since we are the ones doing the construction, we are also ultimately responsible for what we construct. No one should take this away from us. Ernst von Glasersfeld, father of radical constructivism explained this well:

The moment you begin to think that you are the author of your knowledge, you have to consider that you are responsible for it. You are responsible for what you are thinking, because it’s you who’s doing the thinking and you are responsible for what you have put together because it’s you who’s putting it all together. It’s a disagreeable idea and it has serious consequences, because it makes you truly responsible for everything you do. You can no longer say “well, that’s how the world is”, or “sono così”; you know, that’s not good enough.

Cybernetics is about communication and control in the animal and machine, as Norbert Wiener viewed it. When we view control in terms of von Foerster’s ethical imperative, interesting thoughts come about. Control is about reducing the number of choices so that only certain pre-selected activities are available for the one being controlled. For example, a steersman has to control their ship such that it maintains a specific course, and here the ship’s “available options” to move are drastically reduced. When we use this view of control and apply it to human beings, we should do so in light of von Foerster’s ethical imperative.

Von Foerster also said – A is better off when B is better off. This also provides further clarity on the recursiveness. If I am to make sure that I act so as to increase the number of choices for B, then B also in turn does the same. How I act impacts how others (re)act, which in turn impacts how I act back… on and on. This might remind the reader of the golden rule – Treat others as you would like others to treat you. However, this is missing the point about constructivism and the ongoing interaction that leads to the construction of a social reality. I see this as part of a social contract. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted, Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains. The social contract comes about from the ongoing interactions and the contexts we are in with our fellow human beings as part of being in a society or social groups. This also means that this is dynamic and contingent in nature. What was “good” before may not be “good” today. This requires an ongoing framing and reframing though interactions.

John Boyd, father of OODA loop, shed more light on this:

Studies of human behavior reveal that the actions we undertake as individuals are closely related to survival, more importantly, survival on our own terms. Naturally, such a notion implies that we should be able to act relatively free or independent of any debilitating external influences — otherwise that very survival might be in jeopardy. In viewing the instinct for survival in this manner we imply that a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action. The degree to which we cooperate, or compete, with others is driven by the need to satisfy this basic goal. If we believe that it is not possible to satisfy it alone, without help from others, history shows us that we will agree to constraints upon our independent action — in order to collectively pool skills and talents in the form of nations, corporations, labor unions, mafias, etc — so that obstacles standing in the way of the basic goal can either be removed or overcome. On the other hand, if the group cannot or does not attempt to overcome obstacles deemed important to many (or possibly any) of its individual members, the group must risk losing these alienated members. Under these circumstances, the alienated members may dissolve their relationship and remain independent, form a group of their own, or join another collective body in order to improve their capacity for independent action.

In a similar fashion, Dirk Baecker also noted the following:

Control means to establish causality ensured by communication. Control consists in reducing degrees of freedom in the self-selection of events. This is why the notion of “conditionality” is certainly one of the most important notions in the field of systems theory. Conditionality exists as soon as we introduce a distinction which separates subsets of possibilities and an observer who is forced to choose, yet who can only choose depending on the “product space” he is able to see. If we assume observers on both sides of the control relationship, we end up with subsets of possibilities selecting each other and thereby experiencing, and solving, the problem of “double contingency” so much cherished by sociologists. In other words, communication is needed to entice observers into a self-selection and into the reduction of degrees of freedom that goes with it. This means there must be a certain gain in the reduction of degrees of freedom, which for instance may be a greater certainty in the expectation of specific things happening or not happening.

Ultimately, this is all about what we value for ourselves and for the society we are part of. Our personal freedom makes sense only in light of other’s personal freedoms. That is the context – in relation to another human being, one who may be less fortunate than us. Making the world easier for those less fortunate than us makes the world better for everyone of us. I will finish with a great quote from one of my favorite science fiction character, Doctor Who:

“Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.”

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 The Constraint of Custom:

The Constraint of Custom:

I have written a lot about the problem of induction before. This was explained very well by the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume. Hume looked at the basis of beliefs that we hold such as:

  1. The sun will rise tomorrow; or
  2. If I drop this ball, it will fall to the ground

Hume noted that there is no uniformity in nature. In other words, it is not rational to believe that what has happened in the past will happen again in the future. Just because, we have seen the sun rise every single day of our lives, it does not guarantee that it will rise again tomorrow. We are using our experience of the sun rising to believe that it will rise again tomorrow. Even though, this might be irrational, Hume does not deny that we may see the belief of the sun rising as a sensible proposition. He notes:

None but a fool or madman will ever pretend to dispute the authority of experience, or to reject that great guide of human life.

It’s just that we cannot use logic to back this proposition up. We cannot conclude that the future is going to resemble the past, no matter how many examples of the past we have. We cannot simply use experience of the past because the only experience we have is of the past, and not of the future. Hume noted that to propose that the next future event will resemble the past because our most recent “future event” (the last experience event) resembled the past is circular:

All our experimental conclusions proceed upon the supposition that the future will be conformable to the past. To endeavor, therefore, the proof of this last supposition by probable arguments, or arguments regarding existence, must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question.

Hume concluded that we fall prey to the problem of induction because we are creatures of habits:

For wherever the repetition of any act or operation produces a propensity to renew the same act or operation, without being impelled by any reasoning or process of the understanding, we always say, that this propensity is the effect of Custom. By employing this word, we pretend not to have given the ultimate reason of such a propensity. We only point out a principle of human nature, which is universally acknowledged, and which is well known by its effects.

In other words, it is our human nature to identify and seek patterns, use them to make predictions of the future. This is just how we are wired. We do this unconsciously. Our brains are prediction engines. We cannot help but do this. I will go further with this idea by utilizing a brilliant example from the wonderful American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce in 1868 wrote about an experiment to reveal the blind spot in the retina:

Does the reader know of the blind spot on the retina? Take a number of this journal, turn over the cover so as to expose the white paper, lay it sideways upon the table before which you must sit, and put two cents upon it, one near the left-hand edge, and the other to the right. Put your left hand over your left eye, and with the right eye look steadily at the left-hand cent. Then, with your right hand, move the right-hand cent (which is now plainly seen) towards the left hand. When it comes to a place near the middle of the page it will disappear—you cannot see it without turning your eye. Bring it nearer to the other cent, or carry it further away, and it will reappear; but at that particular spot it cannot be seen. Thus, it appears that there is a blind spot nearly in the middle of the retina; and this is confirmed by anatomy. It follows that the space we immediately see (when one eye is closed) is not, as we had imagined, a continuous oval, but is a ring, the filling up of which must be the work of the intellect. What more striking example could be desired of the impossibility of distinguishing intellectual results from intuitional data, by mere contemplation?

I highly encourage the reader to check this out, if they have not heard of this experiment. In fact, I welcome the reader to draw a line and then place the coin on the line. Doing so, the reader will see that the coin vanishes, however the line still remains visible in the periphery. This means that even though, our eye “sees” a ring, the brain actually fills it out and makes us see a “whole” picture. To add to this wonderful capability of our interpretative framework, the image that falls on our retina is actually upside-down. Yet, our brain makes it the “right-side” up. This would mean that newborn babies may actually see the world upside down and with voids, but at some point, the interpretative framework changes to correct it so that we see the world “correctly”.

How does our brain know to do this? The answer to this is that it was evolutionarily beneficial for our ancestors to do this, just like our custom to look for patterns. This is what Lila Gatlin would refer to as a D1 constraint. This is a context-free constraint that was evolutionarily passed down from generation to generation. This is a constraint that acts in any situation. In other words, to quote Alicia Juarrero, it is context free.

To go past this constraint, we have to use second order thinking. In other words, we have to think about thinking; we have to learn about learning; we have to look at understanding understanding. I welcome the reader to look at the posts I have written on this matter. I will finish with two quotes to further meditate on this:

Only when you realize you are blind, can you see. (Paraphrasing Heinz von Foerster)

The quieter you become, the more you can hear. – Ram Dass

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 The Cybernetics of “Here & Now” and “There & Then”

The Cybernetics of “Here & Now” and “There & Then”:

In today’s post, I am looking at difference. Difference is a big concept in Cybernetics. As Ross Ashby noted:

The most fundamental concept in cybernetics is that of “difference”, either that two things are recognizably different or that one thing has changed with time.

In Cybernetics, the goal is to eliminate the difference. If we take an example of a steersman on a boat, they are continuously trying to correct their course so that they can reach their destination correctly. The course has set the path, and any difference due to environmental conditions or other things will need to be corrected. This is a negative feedback cycle, where the current value is compared against a set value, and any difference will trigger an action from the steersman. If the steersman has enough variety, in terms of experience or technology, they can easily correct the difference.

We can see from the example that there has to be a set value so that the current value can be compared against it. This comparison has to be either continuous (if possible) or as frequent as possible to allow the steersman to be control the external variety. If the steersman is not able to steer the boat to be in a “zone of safety”, they will lose control of the boat. If the feedback is received in long intervals, the steersman will not be effective in steering the boat. This basic idea can be applied to all sorts of situations. Basically, we identify a goal value, and then have processes in place to ensure that the “system” of interest is kept with in an allowable range of the goal value. From this standpoint, we can identify a problem as the difference of the goal value and the current value. When this difference is beyond an allowable value, we have to initiate an action that will bring the system back into the tolerable range.

This discussion points to the importance of maintaining the system between the viable range for selected essential variables. These could be the number of sales or rate of employee retention for an organization. This is about the ongoing survival by keeping the organization viable. We can see that this is a homeostatic type loop about the “here and now” for the organization, where selected essential variables are kept within a tolerance range. As noted before, this loop has to be either continuous if possible, or as frequent as possible.

What we have discussed does not address how an organization can grow. Our discussion has been about how to keep the organization surviving. Now we will look at the cybernetics of growth, which is also an important aspect for viability of an organization. For the growth part, similar to the first loop, we need a second loop where the goal value is an ideal state. This ideal state is “there and then” for the organization. This is a long-term goal for the organization, and unlike the homeostatic loop, this second loop does not have to be continuous or frequent. This second loop utilizes more infrequent comparisons. The emphasis is still keeping the essential variables in check by frequently keeping an eye on what is going on here and now, while at the same time looking out into the near future (“there and then”) infrequently. I encourage the reader to look into Stafford Beer’s VSM model that looks at the “here and now” and “there and then” ideas to ensure viability of an organization. I have written an introduction to VSM here.

For some of the readers, this might remind you of the Roman God, Janus. Janus has two heads, looking in opposite directions. He is viewed as the God of change or transitions sometimes depicted as having one head looking into the past/current, while the other head looking into the future.

This may be paradoxical for some readers. In order to be adaptive, maintaining the status quo is very important. A smaller frequent feedback loop for status quo, and a larger infrequent loop for adjusting the course into the future is needed for viability. The idea of the two self-correcting loops goes back to Ross Ashby. I have written about it here.

A keen reader might see traces of Chris Argyris and Donald Schon’s “double loop” learning here. That is the case because Argyris and Schon were inspired by Ashby. They note the following in Organizational Learning II:

We borrow the distinction between single- and double-loop learning from W. Ross Ashby’s ‘Design for a Brain’. Ashby formulates his distinction in terms of (a) the adaptive behavior of a stable system, “the region of stability being the region of the phase space in which all the essential variables lie within their normal limits,” and (b) a change in the value of an effective parameter, which changes the field within which the system seeks to maintain its stability. One of Ashby’s examples is the behavior of a heating or cooling system governed by a thermostat. In an analogy to single-loop learning, the system changes the values of certain variables (for example, the opening or closing of an air valve) in order to keep temperature within the limits of a setting. Double-loop learning is analogous to the process by which a change in the setting induces the system to maintain temperature within the range specified by a new setting.

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 The Cybernetics of Bayesian Epistemology: