Conferencing about cybernetics

The question I shared and took away with me was "how can we find out what we and others need to learn, to reach enough shared understanding to support fruitful and positive collaborative action?"

The occasion was the 2013 conference of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC), unusually held away from America, in Bolton, in virtue of the fact that the University of Bolton [had, at the time of writing] our Institute for Educational Cybernetics, which maintains contact with many cyberneticists (or "cyberneticians") across the world.

The conference theme was "Acting – Learning – Understanding" — my question was formulated to include those three concepts. For me, good action is the goal, and I have developed a personal orientation towards collective or collaborative action, through life's experiences of the limitations and pitfalls of acting alone. Cybernetics (or any other worthy discipline, for that matter) should be helping with that.

The temptation, perhaps with all academic disciplines, is to talk a lot and act only a little, if at all. Fine, a conference exists to talk, and a good conference exists to facilitate conversations, not people speaking prearranged words at other people. The ASC 2013 conference managed to be a good conference for me mainly from the way it was arranged – as the two inner days (lunchtime to lunchtime) were extended discussions in groups of between six and eight members, selected by drawing numbers out of a hat.

In the first group, my understanding evolved around the relationship between different kinds of conversation. Acting together needs coordination, through some kind of conversation about what is to be done; but this in turn needs a basis of shared understanding of what is being proposed to be done. There is a tension here between the two respective kinds of conversation. Business people – people of action, one might say ‐ may be tempted to err on the side of communication about acting based on unspoken assumptions: the actions may as a consequence crash and burn, if the assumptions turn out not to be held in common. Academics and philosophers (including cyberneticists) may be tempted to spend all their conversational time proposing ever more supposedly solid foundations of shared understanding. (Now, what was it we were actually going to do? Oops, we forgot that!) For the two sides to function well as a whole system, there must be quite a close coupling. The cyberneticists must focus around the practical issues of the people of action; the people of action must listen and learn from the cyberneticists. This first group I participated in was very rewarding from the point of view of deepening my understanding of the issues that arise in developing enough understanding to support acting.

There were also people of action at the conference. In my group in the second day we shared our personal stories, and it turned out that several people had some kind of engineering background – in contrast to my first day's group's bias towards physics. One of this second group was the CEO of a business of 3000 employees, who maintained a small unit to apply cybernetic thinking in the running of the business. Initially, I was disappointed by the apparent lack of focus in our discussion. We seemed to get lost just talking around the awfully unfathomable topic of social media, not really advancing our understanding. But we did do something that turned out to be highly significant. We got together a group on WhatsApp, which strikes me as filling the gap between Twitter's main mode and their direct messaging.

It was in the afternoon plenary session on the last day that this came into its own. Peter was "having a hard time" with the exercise that was taking place – it didn't seem to be engaging – but he thought he might be the only one. He acted, by putting a message onto the WhatsApp chat. I responded sympathetically; so did Ludmila. We managed not to walk out or go to sleep by having a side conversation on WhatsApp. Another group of people expressed their disengagement by getting up and moving around at the other end of the room. I acted as a channel for expressing this dissent in the session itself, which was then immediately closed for a tea break!

What makes the difference between group discussions where people just give their opinions, and discussions where people feel that new insights are being constructed? I think it's connected with how much people feel able to ask questions. The right use of any media is important here. In the second of the groups I was in, we noted how some social media forums have rejected flame wars, but gone to the other extreme of the "cult of nice". People can't easily act in the role critical friends within this "cult of nice", and critical friends can ask probing or challenging questions.

Now I'll try to put this together and begin to answer my question.

Effective collaborative or collective action needs, I think, not only a shared understanding of the aims and goals, and a shared rationale for the proposed actions, but also a shared understanding of the processes and inherent roles involved both in coordinating action, and acting itself. Our contemporary capitalist society seems to be exploiting an inherent weakness in human nature, to be self-centred and individualistic, and to fill our lives with noise and detached activity, to the extent that we are little able or willing to develop that necessary shared understanding. Sharing personal stories helps towards understanding the richness and complexity of each other's inner lives, which is the start of a remedy. That can underpin the kind of mutual understanding and trust that is needed for more effective communication. That is part of what we need to learn about each other.

Because our culture keeps us in the dark, we need to put extra effort into learning the processes and roles involved in effective (or to use Beer's term, "viable") systems that are partly constituted by ourselves. And, I maintain, these systems cannot any longer be essentially hierarchical – as the world has becomes more complex, hierarchical control becomes less and less effective. If the study of cybernetics can be one force helping us find out what we have to learn about roles in effective non-hierarchical systems, and how to act accordingly, then bring it on! Let us even start to formulate curricula, and work out how to do apprenticeships, in and for a collaborative economy and society where there is more parity between us.

Complex psychology;