Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Ecology of Ideas - Reflections 1

The American Society of Cybernetics (ASC) and the Bateson Idea Group (BIG - see this link also) co-hosted a conference from 9-13th July at Asilomar - near Monterey - that well and truly lived up to its name.  Those present, the setting and the emergent conversations certainly created a rich and rewarding ecology of ideas. In coolish but energising temperatures due to the sea fret (fog) the site proved ideal, though a little more sun would have revealed more of the magnificent views (see photo taken from my room).
For me the conference started on a high note when I was invited, as part of a small group with interests in the environment and ecology, to have afternoon tea with Californian Governor Jerry Brown.  It was a wide-ranging and free-flowing conversation with someone who clearly understood systems and cybernetic ideas and thinking.  Later, after the showing of Nora Bateson's film about her father, Gregory Bateson (the reason for Jerry being present), Jerry gave an impromptu public talk in which he articulated a view of governance based on the key cybernetic notion of responding to feedback and articulating a course - a purpose.  It was for me very affirming given what we are trying to do in the Systemic Governance Research Program at Monash and The Open University. I left a copy of  my book 'Systems Practice' with Jerry. Who knows what might emerge from the conversation?  I do know that he asked Nora Bateson to forward to him what she considered the best papers/presentations of the conference.

The conference was organised around three themes: paradigm, recursion and praxis.  This worked well, through there is always room for improvement in aligning espoused theory with what becomes theory-in-use.  Klaus Krippendorff's 80th birthday was celebrated at the conference. He delivered an insightful and stimulating keynote paper - I hope he turns it into a publication.  He made available copies of his chapter 'Pathology, Power and Emancipation' from 'On Communicating Otherness, Meaning and Information', Fernando Bermejo (Ed.) New York: Routledge, 2009.  I commend it to anyone wishing to respond to critiques that suggest systems and cybernetics approaches do not deal adequately with power.

Graham Barnes, a Batesonian family therapist also provided a stimulating keynote in which he started by asking: Is the world loving?  He moved on to suggest this was the wrong question, posing instead the question: Do I love the system that I call I, you, we, it?  Then in a shift towards responsibility he reframed the question as: Is Graham's world loving?  Or, Is the world we are making loving?

I took from Terry Deacon's keynote reminders about the operation of constraints (also addressed by Mauro Ceruti in his book 'Constraints and Possibilities. The Evolution of Knowledge and the Knowledge of Evolution').  Amongst many points Terry said:
  • in the absence of constraints relations break down (the GFC is to me a good case in point)
  • work is need to create constraints and constraints are needed to do work (quoting Stuart Kaufman);
  • he claims that the 'whole is less than the some of the parts' is a better framing than the traditional aphorism
  • he also claims that self-organisation alone is not enough - there is also a need to generate order.
Gregory Bateson wrote that information was the news of the difference that makes a difference. This idea was reprised by many speakers but, in my view, these speakers often created a praxis trap of their own making by doing so. In the main the trap arises when information is discussed, non-reflexively as some thing - a reification that happens when we use nouns.  Following Maturana, who does not use the term information at all, Bateson's key idea could be rephrased as:  Exerience arises as the difference that makes a difference to me.  In this way the concept of 'information' which has a contested semantic history, is not needed.  In the process it returns to the speaker and/or the listener the possibility of hearing and appreciating the systemic, relational dynamics that are at the core of this phenomenon.

Marilyn Wedge, another Batesonian family therapist gave a moving talk about her own praxis in the context of increased medical labeling of children as having particular disorders and the prescribed drug culture that  follows.  Her experience is discussed in her new book: Wedge, M. (2011) Suffer the Children. The case against labeling and medicating and an effective alternative. WW Norton & Co.

My own paper was well received and stimulated several good conversations.  The title and abstract are posted below (as an aside Jerry Brown's first question to me was 'what is stationarity'?  He had read the abstracts of those joining him for tea in advance!)

Paradigm shift towards systemic and adaptive governance: praxis relevant to a structurally-coupled social-biophysical system?
Ray Ison
Communication & Systems Department, The Open University, UK; Systemic Governance Research Program, Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University, Clayton, Australia

The prevailing paradigm in the governance of the relationship between humans and the biophysical world is characterised by joint commitments to scientism and dualistic thinking. Currently governance, if understood as enacting cybernetic processes that maintain the quality of relationships between humans and the biosphere, can be seen to be failing on many fronts. Over the last 50 years, for example, the governance of water catchments, or basins, has been guided by commitments to “stationarity” encompassing commitments to linear causality, prediction and extrapolation especially within disciplines such as hydrology and water engineering.    Momentum is now growing to address the limitations of this paradigm in the face of a worsening global water crisis that threatens security of supply and food production as well as loss of many vital ecosystems services.  This ‘problematique’ raises two significant questions for praxis: (i) what form of praxis might best contribute to paradigm shift in these circumstances? (a corollary of which is: Is the concept of paradigm relevant to such circumstances?); (ii) what constraints and possibilities does a conception of rivers as the structural coupling of two systems – the human and biophysical – offer to praxis innovations that offer an effective break with dualistic thinking and acting? These questions frame a proposal for a systemic inquiry into forms of governance more suited to the contemporary circumstances of humans, and the growing recognition of the negative impacts of the Anthropocene, which those attending the session will be invited to join. While the focus is on water systems the inquiry purpose is to invent ways of acting in theory-informed ways (i.e., praxis) that gives rise to systemic and adaptive governance at levels ranging from the international to the program or project.  The presentation will develop and build upon some of the revealing and concealing features of Maturana’s account of structural coupling.  

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