Observations on Observing, The Case Continues:

Art by Audrey Jose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baecker explains reentry further:

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

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

All Men are Mortals;

Socrates is a man;

Therefore, Socrates is a mortal.

 This can be depicted as a form as shown below:

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

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

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

Dirk Baecker saw a firm as follows:

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

Baecker explains “work” as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of the Distinguished Observer:

In today’s post, I am looking at observation. This will be a general overview and I will follow up with more posts in the future. I am inspired by the ideas of George Spencer-Brown (GSB), Niklas Luhman, Dirk Baecker and Heinz von Foerster. In Cybernetics, observation does not mean just to utilize your eyes and look at something. It has a deeper “sensemaking” type meaning. Observation in Cybernetics does not follow the rigid subject-object relationship. Toth Benedek explains this:

Heinz von Foerster tried to develop a point of view that replaces the linear and rigid structure of the object-subject (observer-observed) distinction. According to von Foerster, the observer is really constructed by the observed and vice versa: ‘observation’ is nothing else but the circular relation between them. Observation as a relation defines the observer and the observed, so the observer refers not only to the observed, but also to himself by the act of observation.

Observation is an operation of distinction. The role of an observer is to generate information. If no information is being generated, then no observation has been made. An observation is an act of cognition. GSB in his seminal work, Laws of Form noted:

A universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in the plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance.

GSB advises us to draw a distinction. He proposed a notation called as “mark” to do this. A basic explanation of a mark is shown below. It separates a space into two sections; one part that is observed and the other that is not observed. We can look at a space, and identify a difference, a distinction that allows us to identify a part of the space as something and the remaining of that space as NOT that something. For example, we can distinguish a part of a house as kitchen and everything else is “not kitchen”. At that point in time, we are looking only at the kitchen, and ignoring or not paying attention to anything else. What is being observed is in relation to what is not being observed. A kitchen is identified as “kitchen” only in the context of the remaining of the house.

Dirk Baecker explains this:

Spencer-Brown’s first propositions about his calculus is the distinction being drawn itself, considered to be “perfect continence”, that is to contain everything. A distinction can only contain everything when one assumes that it indeed contains (a) its two sides, that is the marked state and the unmarked state, (b) the operation of the distinction, that is the separation of the two sides by marking one of them, and (c) the space in which all this occurs and which is brought forth by this occurrence.

From the context of GSB, we can view a distinction as a first order observation. We can only see what is inside the box, and not what is outside the box. What is outside the box is our “blind spot.”

Hans-Georg Moeller explains this very well:

A first-order observation can simply observe something and, on the basis of this, establish that thing’s factuality: I see that this book is black—thus the book is black. Second-order observation observes how the eye of an observer constructs the color of this book as black. Thus, the simple “is” of the expression “the book is black” becomes more complex—it is not black in itself but as seen by the eyes of its observer. The ontological simplicity is lost and the notion of “being” becomes more complex. What is lost is the certainty about the “essential” color of this book.

The first order observer is confident about the observation he makes. He may view his observation as necessary and not contingent. However, a second order observer is able to also see what the first order observer is not. The second order observer is able to understand to an extent how the first order observer is making his distinctions. The second order observer thus comes to the conclusion that the distinction made by the first order observer is in fact contingent and somewhat arbitrary.

The most important point about the first order observation is that the first order observer cannot see that he does not see what he does not see. In other words, the first order observer is unaware that he has a blind spot. A second order observer observing a first order observer is able to see what the first order observer is not able to see, and he is also able to see that the first order observer has a blind spot. This is depicted in the schematic below:

As the schematic depicts, the second order observer is also making a distinction. In other words, what he is doing is also a first order observation! This means that the second order observer also has a blind spot, and he not aware that he has a blind spot! As Benedek further notes:

the first order of observation (our eye’s direct observation) is unable to get a coherent and complete image about the world out there. What we can see is something we learnt to see: the image we “see” is a result of computing processes.

The second order observation can also be carried out as a self-observation, where the observer doing the first order observation is also the observer doing the second order observation. This may appear paradoxical. GSB talked about an idea called “reentry” in Laws of Form. Reentry is the idea of reentering the form again. In other words, we are re-introducing the distinction we used onto the form again. The reentry is depicted in the schematic below:

Dirk Baecker explains:

Spencer-Brown’s calculus of form consists in developing arithmetic with distinctions from a first instruction—”draw a distinction”—to the re-introduction (“re-entry”) of the distinction into the form of distinction, in order to be able to show in this way that the apparently simple, but actually already complex beginning involved in making a distinction can only take place in a space in which the distinction is for its part introduced again. The observer who makes this distinction through it becomes aware of the distinction, to which he is himself indebted.

Self-observation requires a reentry. In order to become aware that we have cognitive blind spots, we have to perform reentry. The re-entry includes what was not part of the original distinction. This allows us to understand (to a point) how we make and utilize distinctions. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we come to see when we realize that we cannot see.

The reentry is a continuous operation that is self-correcting in nature. There is no end point to this per-se and it oscillates between the inside and the outside. This leads to an emergent stability as an eigenform. As noted before, the second order observation is still a form of first order observation even with reentry. There are still cognitive blind spots and we are still subject our biases and limitations of our interpretative framework. We are affected by what we observe and we can only observe what our interpretative framework can afford. As noted at the start of the post, the role of the observer is to generate information. If the observer is not able to make a distinction, then no information can be generated. This has the same effect as us being in a closed system where the entropy keeps on increasing. Borrowing a phrase from Stafford Beer, this means that observers are negentropic pumps. We engage in making dynamic distinctions which allows us to gather the requisite information/knowledge to remain viable in an everchanging environment.

The discussion about first order and second order observations may bring up the question – is it possible to have a third order observation? Heinz von Foerster pointed out that there is no need for a third order observation. He noted that a reflection of a reflection is still a reflection. Hans-Georg Moeller explains this further:

While second-order observation arrives at more complex notions of reality or being, it still only observes—it is a second-order observation, because it observes as a first-order observation another first-order observation. It is, so to speak, the result of two simultaneous first-order observations. A third-order observation cannot transcend this pattern—for it is still the first-order observation of a first-order observation of a first-order observation… No higher-order observation—not even a third-order observation—can observe more “essentially” than a lower-order observation. A third-order observation is still an observation of an observation and thus nothing more than a second-order observation. There is no Platonic climb towards higher and higher realities—no observation brings us closer to the single light of truth.

I will finish with some wise words from Dirk Baecker:

Draw a distinction.

Watch its form.

Work its unrest.

Know your ignorance.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was The Cybernetics of Magic and the Magic of Cybernetics: