Error Correction of Error Correction:

If I were asked to explain cybernetics, the first thing that would come to my mind would be – error correction. The example that is often used to explain cybernetics is that of the steersman. You have a steersman on a boat moving from point A to point B. Ideally, the boat should move from point A to B in a straight line. However, the wind can change the direction of the boat, and the steersman has to adjust accordingly to stay on course. This negative feedback loop requires a target such that the difference from the target is compensated. In technical terms, there is a comparator (something that can measure) that checks on a periodic or continuous basis what the difference is, and provides this information to make adjustments accordingly. Let’s call this framework as first order cybernetics. In this framework, we need a closed loop so that we have feedback. This allows for information to be fed back so that we can compare it against a goal and make adjustments accordingly. This approach was made famous by one of the main pioneers of Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener. He used this for guided missile technology where the missile could change its course as needed similar to the steersman on the boat. First order cybernetics obviously is quite useful. But it is based on the assumption that there is a target that we can all agree upon. This also assumes that the comparator is able to work effectively and efficiently.

With this background, I would now like to look at second order cybernetics. One of the main pioneers of second order cybernetics was Heinz von Foerster. He wanted to go beyond the idea of just error correction. He wanted to look at error correction of error correction. As I noted earlier, the error correction mechanism assumes that the target is clear and available, and also that the comparator and the correcting mechanism are working appropriately. Von Foerster challenged the notion of an objective reality and introduced the notion of the observer being part of what is observed. The general tendency is to keep the observer out of what is being observed with the underlying belief that the observation is readily available for all those who are interested. Von Foerster pushed back on this idea and said that the observer is included in the observation. One of my favorite aphorisms from von Foerster is – only when you realize you are blind, can you see. We all have cognitive blind spots. Realizing this and being aware of it allows us to improve how we look at things. There is a circularity that we have to respect and understand better here. What we see impacts what we understand, and what we understand impacts what we see. It is an ongoing self-correcting cycle. If the first order error correction is a correcting to a specific problem, then second order error correcting is the error correction of the error correction.

There is a great example that von Foerster gives that might explain this idea better. He talked about the Turing’s test. Turing’s test or the Imitation Game as originally called by the great Alan Turing is a test given to an “intelligent machine” to see if its intelligence is comparable or indistinguishable from that of a human. Von Foerster turned this on its head by bringing up the second order implications. He noted:

The way I see it, the potential intelligence of a machine is not being tested. In actual fact, the scholars are testing themselves (when they give the Turing test). Yes, they are testing themselves to determine whether or not they can tell a human being from a machine. And if they don’t manage to do this, they will have failed. The way I see it, the examiners are examining themselves, not the entity that is meekly sitting behind the curtain and providing answers for their questions. As I said, “Tests test tests.”

One of the main implications from this is that the observer is responsible for their own construction of what they are observing. We are all informationally closed entities that construct our version of a stable paradigm that we call a reality (not THE reality). And we are responsible for our construction, and we are ethically bound to allow others to construct their versions. We come to an eigenvalue for this “reality” when we continue to interact with each other. The more we stay away from each other in our own echo chambers, the harder it becomes to reconcile the different realities. The term “informationally closed” means that information does not enter us from the outside. We generate meaning based on how we are being perturbed based on the affordances of the environment we are interacting with. The main criticism to this approach is that it leads to relativism, the notion that every viewpoint matters. I reject this notion and affirmatively state that we should support pluralism. By saying that we do not have access to an objective reality, I am saying that we need epistemic humility. We need to realize that we do not have the Truth; that there is no Truth out there. As the wonderful Systems Thinker, Charles West Churchman said, “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.” We should be beware of those that claim that they have access to the Truth.

When we understand the second order implications, we realize that although the map is not the territory, the map is all we have. Thus, we have to keep working on getting better at making maps. We have to work on error correction of our error corrections. I will finish with some wise words from von Foerster:

The consciousness of consciousness is self-consciousness. The understanding of understanding is self-understanding. And the organization of organization is self-organization. I propose that whenever this self crops up we emphasize this moment of circularity. The result is this: The self does not appear as something static or firm but instead becomes fluid and is constantly being produced. It starts moving. I would plead that we also maintain the dynamics of this word when we speak of self-organization. The way I see it, the self changes every moment, each and every second.

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 Open Concept of Systems:

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

Complexity – Only When You Realize You Are Blind, Can You See:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of complexity from a second order Cybernetics standpoint. The phrase “only when you realize you are blind, can you see”, is a paraphrase of a statement from the great Heinz von Foerster. I have talked about von Foerster in many of my posts, and he is one of my heroes in Cybernetics. There is no one universally accepted definition for complexity. Haridimos Tsoukas and Mary Jo Hatch wrote a very insightful paper called “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice”. In the paper, they try to address how to explain complexity. They refer to the works of John Casti and C. H. Waddington to further their ideas:

Waddington notes that complexity has something to do with the number of components of a system as well as with the number of ways in which they can be related… Casti defines complexity as being ‘directly proportional to the length of the shortest possible description of [a system]’.

Casti’s views on complexity are particularly interesting because complexity is not viewed as being intrinsic to the phenomenon. This is a common idea in Cybernetics, mainly second order cybernetics. There are two ‘classifications’ of cybernetics – first order and second order cybernetics. As von Foerster explained it, first order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, where the basic assumption is that the system is objectively knowable. The second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems, where the basic assumption is that the observer is included in the act of observing, and thus the observer is part of the observed system. This leads to second order thinking such as understanding understanding or observing observing. It is interesting because, as I am typing, Microsoft Word is telling me that “understanding understanding” is syntactically incorrect. This obviously would be a first order viewpoint. The second order cybernetics is a meta discipline and one that generates wisdom.

When we take the observer into consideration, we realize that complexity is in the eyes of the beholder. Complexity is observer-dependent; that is, it depends upon how the system is described and interpreted. If the observer is able to make more varying distinctions in their description, we can say that the phenomenon or the system is being interpreted as complex. In their paper, Tsoukas and Jo Hatch brings up the ideas of language in describing and thus interpreting complexity. They note that:

Chaos and complexity are metaphors that posit new connections, draw our attention to new phenomena, and help us see what we could not see before (Rorty).

This is quite interesting. When we learn the language of complexity, we are able to understand complexity better, and we become better at describing it, in a reflexive manner.

What complexity science has done is to draw our attention to certain features of systems’ behaviors which were hitherto unremarked, such as non-linearity, scale-dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions, emergence (etc.)

From this standpoint, we can say that complexity lies in the interactions we have with the system, and depending on our perspectives (vantage point) and the interaction we can come away with a different interpretation for complexity.

Heinz von Foerster remarked that complexity is not in the world but rather in the language we use to describe the world. Paraphrasing von Foerster, cognition is computation of descriptions of reality. Managing complexity then becomes a cognitive task. How well you can interact or manage interactions depends on how effective your description is and how well it aligns with others’ descriptions. The complexity of a system lies in the description of that system, which entirely rests on the observer/sensemaker. The idea that complexity is in the eyes of beholder is to point out the importance of second order cybernetics/thinking. The world is as it is, it gets meaning only when we assign meaning to it through how we describe/interpret it. To put differently, “the logic of the world is the logic of the descriptions of the world” (Heinz von Foerster)

The idea of complexity not being intrinsic to a system is also echoed by one of the pioneers of cybernetics, Ross Ashby. He noted – “a system’s complexity is purely relative to a given observer; I reject the attempt to measure an absolute, or intrinsic, complexity; but this acceptance of complexity as something in the eye of the beholder is, in my opinion, the only workable way of measuring complexity”.

The ideas of second order cybernetics emphasize the importance of observers. The “system” is a mental construct by an observer to make sense of a phenomenon. The observer based on their needs draw boundaries to separate a “system” from its environment. This allows the observer to understand the system in the context of its environment. At the same time, the observer has to understand that there are other observers in the same social realm who may draw different boundaries and come out with different understandings based on their own needs, biases, perspectives etc.

A phenomenon can have multiple identities or meanings depending on who is describing the desired phenomenon. Let’s use the Covid 19 pandemic as an example. For some people, this has become a problem of economics rather than a healthcare problem, while for some others it has become a problem of freedom or ethics. If we are to attempt tackling the complexity of such an issue, the worst thing we can do is to attempt first order thinking- the idea that the phenomenon can be observed objectively. Issues requiring second order approach get worse by the application of first order methodologies. The danger in this is that we can fall prey to our own narrative being the whole Truth.

As the pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty points out:

The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that.

If we are to understand complexity of a phenomenon, we need to start with realizing that our version of complexity is only one of the many.  Our ability to understand complexity depends on our ability to describe it. We lack the ability to completely describe a phenomenon. The different descriptions that come about from the different participants may be contradictory and can point out apparent paradoxes in our social realm.

In complexity, if we are to tackle it, we need to have coherence of multiple interpretations. As Karl Weick points out, we need to complicate ourselves. By generating and accommodating multiple inequivalent descriptions, practioners will increase the complexity of their understanding and, therefore, will be more likely to match the complexity of the situation they attempt to manage. In complexity, coherence – the idea of connecting ideas together, is important since it helps to create a clearer picture and affords avoiding blind spots. This co-construted description itself is an emergent phenomenon.

In second order Cybernetics, there are two statements that might shed more light on everything we have discussed so far:

Anything said is said BY an observer. (Maturana)

Anything said is said TO an observer. (von Foerster)

A lot can be said between these two statements. The first points out that the importance of the observer, and the second points out that there are other observers, and we coconstruct our social reality.

Our descriptions are abstractions since we are limited by our languages. All our biases, fears, misunderstandings, ignorance etc. lie hidden in the “systems” we construct. We get into trouble when we assume that these abstractions are real things. This is the first order approach, where we are not aware that we do not see due to our cognitive blind spots. When we realize that all we have are abstractions, we get to the second order approach. We include ourselves in our observation and we start looking at how we make these abstractions. We also become aware of other autonomous participants of our social reality engaging in similar constructions of narratives. As we seek their understanding, we become aware of our cognitive blind spots. We realize that everything is on a spectrum, and our thinking of “either/or” is actually a false dichotomy.

At this point, Heinz von Foerster would say that we start to see when we realize that we are blind.

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

In case you missed it, my last post was Causality and Purpose in Systems:

Newton’s Eye/Bodkin Experiment and the Principle of Undifferentiated Coding:

INewton

I work in the field of ophthalmic medical devices. I recently came across one of Sir Isaac Newton’s set of notes at the Newton project. In the notes, one particular experiment stood out to me. Newton pushed against his eye ball using a bodkin (a blunt needle) and recorded the optical sensations produced by the pressure on the eye. The schematic below drawn by Newton himself denotes the experiment. He noted:

Newton

I took a bodkin gh and put it between my eye & the bone as near to the backside of my eye as I could: and pressing my eye with the end of it (soe as to make the curvature a, bcdef in my eye) there appeared several white dark & colored circles r, s, t, &c. Which circles were plainest when I continued to rub my eye with the point of the bodkin, but if I held my eye & the bodkin still, though I continued to press my eye with it yet the circles would grow faint & often disappear until I renewed them by moving my eye or the bodkin.

He went on to note that there were different colors and types of sensations depending on if he was in a dark room or a well-lit room. I enjoyed reading through his notes because of my profession and also because it was an opportunity to peek inside a genius mind such as Newton. The experiment remined me of another great idea in Cybernetics called ‘the principle of undifferentiated coding’. This idea was proposed by another brilliant mind and one of my heroes, Heinz von Foerster. Von Foerster said:

The response of a nerve cell does not encode the physical nature of the agents that caused its response. Encoded is only ‘how much’ at this point in my body, but not what.

The brain does not perceive light, sound, heat, touch, taste or smell. It receives only neuronal impulses from sensory organs. Thus, the brain does not “see light,” “hear sounds,” etc.; it can perceive only “this much stimulation at this point on my body.” The practical consequence is that all perceptions, let alone “thoughts,” are deductions from sensory stimuli. They cannot be otherwise. All observations are therefore partly the function of the observer. This situation renders complete objectivity impossible in principle.

Ernst von Glasersfeld, the proponent of Radical Constructivism stated:

In other words, the phenomenological characteristics of our experiential world – color, texture, sounds, tastes and smells – are the result of our own computations based on co-occurrence patterns of signals that differ only with regard to their point of origin in the living system’s nervous network.

Cognition is an autonomous activity of the observer. The state of agitation of a nerve cell only codifies the intensity, not the nature of its cause. What is understood or constructed is unique to the observer. This goes against the idea that if we provide information to a person, he or she will understand what is being provided. Von Foerster would say that the hearer not the utterer determines what is being said. In Newton’s experiment, the sensations were not caused by the eye seeing lights, but due to the physical interaction on the eye. This idea is further explored by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela with the idea of autopoiesis. As an autopoietic being, we are all organizationally closed and any information generated is an autonomous activity of our cognitive apparatus.

Bernard Scott expands this idea further:

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?”

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.

Another key aspect to add to this is the idea of circularity, where the output is fedback into the cognitive apparatus.  We continue to learn based on what we already know. Thus, we can say that learning is a recursive activity. What we learn now helps further our learning tomorrow. There is no static nature when it comes to knowledge and learning. The great French philosopher Montesquieu said, “If triangles made a god, they would give him three sides.” The properties of the world (seen and unseen) are dependent on the constructor/observer. The construction/observation is ongoing and reflexive. Montesquieu also said, “You have to study a great deal to know a little.” In other words, the more you learn, the more you realize how less you know. Or simply put, “the more you know, the less you know.”

I will finish with a wonderful von Foerster story from Maturana.

Maturana tells of a time when Heinz von Foerster and the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead went to visit Russia. While there, they went to visit a museum. Mead was using a walking stick at that time. At the entrance they learned that she could not carry her walking stick inside. Mead decided that she would not go in since she could not walk long without using the walking stick. Von Foerster convinced her to go with him. He suggested that he would hide the stick in his clothing, and once inside he would give the stick back to her. His thinking was as follows:

ln this country, whether by perfection or by design, people do not commit mistakes, therefore, any guard that sees us Inside with the walking stick will be forced to admit that we were granted a special permit because otherwise we would not be Inside with it.’

 As the story goes, they were able to visit the museum without any problems. Maturana concluded:

Heinz, by not asking beyond the entrance whether they could or not carry a walking stick, behaved as if he considered that through his interactions with the guards he could either interact with the protection system of the museum as a whole, or with its components as Independent entities, and as if he had chosen the latter. He, thus, revealed that he understood that the guards realized through their properties two non-intersecting phenomenal domains, and that they could do this without contradiction because they operated only on neighborhood relations. This allowed Heinz and Margaret Mead to move through the museum carrying what a meta- observer would have called an invisible forbidden walking stick.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The System in the Box:

If the Teacher Hasn’t Learned, the Teacher Hasn’t Taught:

teacher hasnt learned

One of the key phrases of Training Within Industry (TWI) and Lean is – “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” To this I say, “If the teacher hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” Or even – “if the teacher hasn’t learned, the student hasn’t taught.” I say this from two aspects, the first from the aspect of the teacher, and the second from the aspect of the student. To explain my statements, I will use ideas from Cybernetics.

Circularity:

The core of this post started with the thought that Teaching should be a non-zero sum activity. As the old saying goes, teaching is the best way to learn a subject. From the point of Cybernetics, teaching is circular. The idea of circularity is best explained by Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics, and one of my heroes.

What is meant by circularity is that the outcome of the operation of a system initiates the next operation of that system: the system and its operations are a “closed system”. This is to allow that an experimenter considers her- or himself as part of the experiment; or that a family therapist perceives of him or herself as a partner of the family; or that a teacher sees her- or himself as participant in the learning/ teaching process in the classroom, etc., etc.

The teacher learns as part of teaching. The outcome of the teaching goes back as a feedback. This could be a new train of thought that was sparked from the conversation with the student or a new perspective that was brought up by the student, and so on. The next time the teacher teaches he adapts based on their reflection.

Communication:

Teaching is a communicative act between the teacher and the student(s), that is circular in nature. In order for this communication act to be efficient and effective, the participants should first learn about each other. The teacher should learn from the student just like the student should learn from the teacher. This learning is about each other. This allows for communication to progress as a dance, rather than it being a one-person act. The teacher has to reflect just like the student has to reflect.

As Philip Baron notes:

Human communication is subject to several perceptual errors in both listening and seeing, which challenges the success of the communication in the education system. The ability of the teacher and the learners to effectively communicate with each other is a factor for the success of each reaching their goals. The teacher imparts her knowledge in the classroom, but according to von Foerster, “it is the listener, not the speaker, who determines the meaning of an utterance,” for the listener contextualizes this information based on their own past lived experience. Thus, the student’s epistemology and their expression of their understanding is integral in the classroom context and should be actively included into the education system… The ability of the teacher and the students to communicate effectively with each other is a factor in the attempt of each reaching their goals.

Information is not a commodity that can be passed around. The teacher cannot pass the information onto the student and expect that the student completely processed the information. I will go back to a von Foerster gem that might explain this further (also noted by Baron in the paragraph above):

“The hearer, not the speaker, determines the meaning of an utterance.”

Any physical artifact such as a book or a pamphlet contains information, however this does not mean that the reader was able to completely transfer it to their knowledge domain. If we take a step back, the person who wrote the book was trying to codify his knowledge. But this codification operation is not at all efficient. This falls under the realm of “Tacit Knowledge” by Micahel Polanyi. We know more than what we can say.

Organization Closure:

I have written about Organizational Closure before. The idea of autopoiesis and organizational closure is explained very well by their creators Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela:

Autopoietic systems are organizationally (or operationally) closed. That is to say, the behavior of the system is not specified or controlled by its environment but entirely by its own structure, which specifies how the system will behave under all circumstances. It is as a consequence of this closure that living systems cannot have “inputs” or “outputs”-nor can they receive or produce information-in any sense in which these would have independent, objective reality outside the system. Put in another way, since the system determines its own behavior, there can be no “instructive interactions” by means of which something outside the system determines its behavior. A system’s responses are always determined by its structure, although they may be triggered by an environmental event.

The Cybernetician, Bernard Scott adds:

…an organism does not receive “information” as something transmitted to it, rather, as a circularly organized system it interprets perturbations as being informative.

This idea extends what we spoke about earlier – information is not a commodity. However, I want to focus on another aspect this brings in: ‘the student is an autopoietic system’. From this standpoint, the student teaches himself; the teacher is there to perturb the student. Learning is an autonomous activity.

Even as you read what I am writing, I am not passing any information on to you. Any thought or idea that is generated is that of the reader, one that is constructed purely by the reader.

This is where things get interesting, if the student teaches himself, then what we have been saying so far is applicable to himself too. Thus, we are also talking about a second order act. Maturana said – “Anything said is said by an observer.” To this, von Foerster added – “Anything said is said to an observer.” The second order nature comes, when we come to an important point raised by von Foerster, “An observer is his own ultimate object.” This is reflected in Maturana’s statement from 1988, “Everything said is said by an observer to another observer that could be him or herself”.

As von Foerster adds – in second order, we now reflect about these circular processes which generate structure, order, behavior, etc., in those things we observe… We reflect upon our reflections. We are stepping into the domain of concepts that apply to themselves.

Final Words:

I hope that this post helped the reader to reflect upon the notion of teaching and learning. I stated the importance of the concept of second order, the idea of asking questions such as – “what is the purpose of the stated ‘purpose’?”, rather than just asking – “what is the purpose?” Nike’s slogan, “Just do it!”, a first order slogan can perhaps be updated as, “Before I just do it, I need to stipulate what is my purpose of doing it.” This makes it a second order slogan.

I will finish with a great von Foerster gem:

I can still remember the big motto in the Stanford School of Journalism that said, “Tell it like it is.” When to my horror, I saw that motto, I walked in there and said, “Listen, ladies and gentlemen, it is as you tell it, and that’s why you’re responsible for the ‘it.’ Because you tell ‘it,’ it ‘is’ as you tell it. You can’t say how it ‘is’ – no one knows how it ‘is.’ And when it ‘was’, no one can reconstruct how it was.”

In case you missed it, my last post was Wu Wei at the Gemba: