Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Good news 'green' innovations here in Melbourne

Here is a good news story for a change which is basically employing systems thinking.

'Australians use 18 million printer consumables each year with the bulk of these inkjet cartridges and toners ending up as hazardous landfill. But an innovative Melbourne-based organization is turning this waste into viable products, transforming an environmental program into a serious business proposition.

In fact, so serious that the organization is planning to go public and list on the Australian stock exchange.

The Close the Loop (CTL) program which began as an environmental initiative in 1998 recycling toners and cartridges is set to go global with expansion based on an Australian designed and developed Green Machine. '

Monday, May 19, 2008

Molecules of Emotion - my letter to Candace Pert in 2001

I have just come across this letter I started writing to Candace Pert in 2000, just after reading her book. It was finished and sent in 2001. Whilst I never received a reply the issues I raise seem as relevant today.

Dear Dr Pert,

I have just finished reading your book 'Molecules of Emotion'. I felt so engaged by the issues that you raise that I have decided to respond to my own emotional inclinations and write to you. We have not quite met - you sat next to me as we interviewed Stafford Beer at the ISSS Conference in Toronto recently and I was fortunate to be in the audience at your presentation the evening before.

Your book triggered many reflections for me and as I write I am still trying to make sense of some of them.

This was as far as it went at the time. It is now the 12th May 2001 and despite the various demands on my time the desire to pick up where I left off remains. So here goes! I had hoped that we might meet up at the Vancouver Conference of the American Society of Cybernetics (May) but as I write I am not sure if you are still involved. Also, before saying more, perhaps I should say just a little about me - for context.

I did a first degree in Agricultural Science (University of Sydney) then, a little later, a PhD in plant eco-physiology. My research concerns have gradually moved from a focus on physiology, agronomy and ecology to grasslands as human activity systems then to grasslands as socially constructed systems. This transition accounts for why I now hold a Chair in Systems.

One of the main themes I would like to pick up is the way in which you resort to the term 'information' as an explanatory concept. The point I would like to develop is that I think 'information' as an explanatory concept may constrain appreciation of the phenomena you have so elegantly revealed.

For example p.71 you say: 'I prefer a broad term coined originally by the late Francis Schmitt of MIT - informational substances - because it points to their common function, that of messenger molecules distributing information throughout the organism'. Whilst I recognise the seductiveness of the information transfer metaphor (after all it is pervasive in our society, in the University, the classroom and elsewhere) I would argue that it conceals more than it reveals. To appreciate this there is a need to unpack the metaphor and to look at its historical development. Prior to the 1950s almost no-one in physiology, anatomy or neurophysiology would have used 'information' as an explanatory principle. It was only after the communication model of Shannon and Weaver was developed and the term 'information' began to displace 'signal' that the metaphor took hold. (For a further development of these ideas please see attached chapters from a recent book).

So basically information transfer has displaced signal transfer and what is more what was basically a mathematical model of communication has become adopted as an explanatory device for human communication (and we all know that human communication and machine communication are vastly different)! At the core of the contemporary 'information transfer' metaphor is the messenger - receiver dualism which is just like the mind - body dualism you so convincingly destroy. Drawing on the work of Humberto Maturana (who was also at Toronto and will be in Vancouver) we have found it helpful to avoid this dualism. Let me quote from Russell & Ison (2000):

' The nervous system is a closed network of interacting neurons. The physiology of the nervous system, because it is a structure-determined system (systems in which all their changes are determined by their structure and in which all those changes are a result of their own dynamics or triggered by their interactions with their environment) cannot be usefully compared to a computer or 'information transfer' system. Biologically, there are no inputs to, or outputs from, the nervous system, nor does the nervous system 'process information.' There is no encoding or decoding in the nervous system nor does it 'receive' or 'process' messages or 'information' from the environment.

The implication that flows from the nervous system being a closed and structure-determined system is that there can be no instructive interactions between such systems and between any one system and its environment. What another human can do, and all that an other can do, is trigger a response without any control over what that response might be. In no way can such a triggering determine the nature of the response. It is biologically impossible to instruct or determine an outcome with 'information.'

Since it is communication (internal and external) that creates what we call reality, developing a 'shared meaning' (a notion created by the observer) is going to involve the participation in the task of all those who will be affected by any outcome. If we accept that living systems are structure-determined systems then communication is a structural coupling of two (or more) individuals in conversation. So to converse is to dance: to turn together in a way that acknowledges the presence of two parties (one of course could and does converse with oneself) and acknowledges the willingness to act together in some mutually acceptable way. The meaning that we are inferring is similar to that found in the original Latin words: con... meaning 'with', and versare... meaning 'to turn'. The actual dance, the experience of the conversation, is a unique creation and we have no certainty whatsoever as to what the outcome might be. It is neither a transfer or a sharing of information. Useful knowledge, knowledge that will lead to satisfying action, is created by the joint action of both parties and encompasses both scientific and aesthetic judgements.'

From this perspective one might choose (p.130) to talk about networks of relationships (or perhaps conversations) rather than 'far-flung network of information' (also p. 138 - theory of information exchange). [As an aside your resort to Richard Dawkin's work ducks, to my mind, some serious issues - is a duck really a vehicle for the propagation of duck genes' or is it a means to conserve the organisation 'duck' in a changing environment?].

The phenomenon you describe on pp. 142 -143 is similar to the one Humberto uses when describing his work on vision which led him to conclude that in the moment we cannot distinguish between perception and illusion. It is only on reflection that we can become sure (or surer!). From his perspective the nervous system because of its history patterns the world (our world) rather than the reverse. It is the possibility of exploring the historicity of your peptides (history of structural coupling) and their relationship forming and breaking that this explanatory path opens that has excited me. It begins to provide an elegant biological basis for 'embodiment'.

The metaphor of communication as conversation seems to me so much more powerful to explain your claims (p179) that: 'Neuropetides and their receptors thus join the brain, glands and immune system in a network of communication between brain and body, probably representing the biochemical substrate of emotion.'

However (p.184) when you describe the 'network of communication, linked by information carriers known as neuropeptides' I am led to think what might be gained by expressing this in a different way? For example Fritjof Capra (The Web of Life 1996) chooses to describe networks in the following terms: 'As we perceive reality as a network of relationships, our descriptions, too form an interconnected network of concepts and models in which there are no foundations. For most scientists such a view of knowledge as a network with no firm foundations is extremely unsettling..' Thus from my perspective based on my understanding of what you write I might say (p.185): 'So what we have been talking about all along is a network of relationships. All neuropeptides have a history (ontogeny) and at any moment in time they are a product of their history of structural coupling. As they move around the body in response to a complex array of signals they form new relationships, the quality of which is determined by their history but with the capacity to realise new, emergent properties each time they enter into new relationships. One way of describing this is as an on-going network of conversations. What arises in conversation is '

Of course I am not a neuroscientist and this may be way off the mark. And maybe others have raised this with you already. However, I would at least be interested in your reactions should time and enthusiasm allow. My courage to write was prompted by the knowledge that you were interested in exploring new metaphors - e.g. p. 255. Perhaps you have already arrived at the metaphor of conversation as you refer to it on p 256. And I am largely in agreement with the arguments posited on pages 257-8 though I would not choose to describe it as 'information theory'. Nor can I subscribe to the view that information exists independently of the observer - the word information by the way comes from the Latin in formare, or formed within. The example of the cup (p.257) to me negates the idea that all knowing arises in relationship. So knowing the cup arises in my relationship with the cup - if I am apart from the cup all I have access to is my memory of the cup - a product of my history of structural coupling.

Enough of my rambling. My thanks for a thought stimulating read. If there are more recent overviews of your work in print and you have copies available I would appreciate receiving them.

Yours sincerely

Ray Ison

All page numbers refer to The Touchstone Edition (1999).