Designing freedom – cybernetics and the fallacy of de-risking in Higher Education

9 min read

Having completed an analysis of the systemic problems with my own institution(s), it is now time to think about what needs to be done. Much of what I have been doing follows a rather orthodox approach of labour-capital antagonism – a so-called ‘class struggle’. While this is an important political motivation, it is not enough. It was a reasonable strategy in nineteenth century industrial capitalism, where the working class as a homogenous group were engaged in a struggle against industrial capital. And to some degree, this approach was successful in delivering social justice.

However, as Marx predicted capital adapts; the system of capitalism adapts and takes on new and more complex forms integrating consumption, finance, credit, risk and derivative capitalism. The ‘system’ – the global system (which I am not going to go into here) – has become complex. The kind of capital and labour formulations of the early twenty-first century can no longer be characterised as a system of two groups: bourgeoisie and proletariat. Arguably, each of us has some stake in capitalism, as much as we might have an aspiration for social democracy or democratic socialism.

This then is my starting point, a complex system of capital, humanity, institutions, technology, environment and culture. Let us subject this to the cybernetic thought of Stafford Beer, primarily drawing on the six radio broadcasts given in 1973 as the thirteenth series of Massey Lectures (Beer, 1973), this was brought to my attention, as was Stafford Beer, by the podcast, General Intellect Unit (General Intellect Unit, n.d.)

Dynamic systems and institutions

Let me begin by illustrating what Beer means by a dynamic system. In his first lecture he uses the example of a wave on the ocean, a wave approaching the beach, with its ‘happy white crest’. The wave is a dynamic system (Beer, 1973). Beer contrasts dynamic systems with entities, a dynamic system is defined by its behaviour and an entity is defined by its characteristics. The wave, Beer explains

…consists of flows of water, which are its parts, and the relations between those flows, which are governed by the natural laws of systems of water that are investigated by the science of hydrodynamics. The appearances of the wave, its shape and the happy white crest, are actually outputs of this system (Beer, 1974, p. 4).

It is the outputs of the system that are the characteristics of that system if it is treated as an entity. In the wave, it is the way that the system is organised that results in its behaviour.

Social systems and institutions (I am thinking here of universities and their subunits, faculties and departments) are also dynamic systems, where their outputs are a result of the behaviour of those dynamics systems in a complex environment. Figure 1 illustrates a simple model of an institution as a dynamic system. The poles with guy ropes represent the formal propositions that people hold in that institution. The ball represents a point that at any moment is the net output state of a system. The cat represents the effects of a complex and uncertain environment (Beer, 1974).

Figure 1 Beer’s model of an institution as a simple system

The assumption is in a risk averse institutional culture (see my previous post), the institutional propositions define the output, they ignore the perturbations introduced by an uncertain environment (the cat in Figure 1). Beer goes on to define relaxation time, which is the time it takes for the representative point (the position of the ball in Figure 1) to reach stability after a perturbation.

In Figure 2, Beer shows how in larger organisations relaxation time is likely to take longer. If everyone in that organisation, Beer says, has complete freedom then instability is likely to amplify and lead to catastrophe.

Figure 2 Complexity of the larger organisation

How organisations de-risk in Beer’s terms

How do institutions cope with complexity, uncertainty or as Beer calls them ‘arbitrary interferences’ (i.e. the cat)? In my previous post I demonstrated the mechanisms of control through de-risking at the University of Cambridge. I am not going to entirely resolve the characterisation I presented there with Beer’s observations here. I am just going to set things up, in order that I can proceed in a future blog.

According to Beer – and remember, of course, he is of-his-time in reflecting on organisations, culture and economy – there are three main ways in which institutions try to defend against instability as a result of complex organisations in complex environments.

  1. The boss controls the freedom of his subordinates – in Figure 3 this is shown by the manager with control ropes connecting to his subordinates.
  2. Another method is to introduce ‘rules’. These are rigid connections that connect the threads operated by individuals in the organisation (it looks like a spider’s web).
  3. The institution does not accept interference and exerts control over those with whom it interacts. In Figure 3 someone has shot the cat.

Figure 3 How institutions attempt to mitigate for complexity and uncertainty

Ashby’s law of requisite variety

This is a relatively simple notion. Although Beer pointed out that if there are many individuals in an organisation, all with complete freedom, then perturbations can lead to greater instability. So an institution does need some kind of organisational system, cybernetics tells us that we should treat it as a dynamic system. The strong temptation for managers is to treat the institution as an entity, defined by its outputs, and then to introduce constraints (as in Figure 3) to preserve the characteristics – to preserve the entity.

The law of requisite variety tells us that for dynamic systems it is only ‘variety’ that can absorb ‘variety’. This means that where there is complexity and arbitrary perturbations, the institution needs to preserve variety – its capacity to respond creatively – in order to respond to the external variety i.e. the complexity of the environment.

The problem is with the methods of mitigating for external ‘variety’ using hierarchical control or rules, is that variety is reduced within the institution as a system. This, counter intuitively, creates potential instability because these approaches are likely to be catastrophic, the institution renders itself incapable of responding to external perturbations. In fact, the University of Cambridge found itself in this kind of situation in the first half of the nineteenth century. The governance approach allowed the right of individual veto (one of the most conservatising systems of governance), which meant the university was incapable of responding to a changing external environment. In the end the state had to intervene with a Royal Commission in 1852, followed by one in 1872 and a third in 1920.

Let me look at variety in a different way. Gregory Bateson equates redundancy with variety to explain our capacity to manage and make sense of sensory inputs. We have an excess of neurons which are able to configure and pattern in numerous ways to fill in the gaps and make sense of our experiences (Harries-Jones, 2010). It is this pattern matching process that is central to a dynamic system’s capacity to respond to a complex and changing environment, where there is uncertainty and missing information. The same system redundancy and variety is required in an organisation in order that the system can adapt, learn and respond. Ashby’s law of requisite variety restates this, that there must be variety in the system to match the variety of the environment to allow adaptation. This is how dynamic systems survive and also why ‘happy white crests’ which are governed by the laws of hydrodynamics represent an instability and the onset of a ‘personal’ catastrophe.

Final comment

In this post, I have explained the ideas of dynamic systems operating in uncertainty and complexity. It leads to the conclusion that is a requirement that an institution must preserve variety in order to adapt to a changing context. This suggests that the Higher Education sector is being lured into strategic error by responding with de-risking and organisational conservatism. The next question is what can be done? We are faced with a capital labour-struggle within a complex system. Therefore, what we must do is use the established forms of direct labour action but also look toward how universities must be re-designed to facilitate variety, freedom and adaptability. This I will address in my next post.



Beer, S. (1973). Designing freedom. CBC Massey Lectures. Retrieved from

Beer, S. (1974). Designing freedom. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

General Intellect Unit. (n.d.). Designing freedom. Retrieved from

Harries-Jones, P. (2010). Bioentropy, aesthetics and meta-dualism: the transdisciplinary ecology of Gregory Bateson. Entropy, 12(12), 2359–2385.


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