the paradox of objects

One of the most profound and ironically the most trivial philosophical experiences happened to me in about 1994. At Wolfson College, it was at a particularly difficult time for me in my own mental health. But a period that was particularly enriching personally, creatively and intellectually.

I was sat on the steps outside Wolfson College porters’ lodge. It was a fine day in the late spring or early summer. I was trying not to believe anything at the time, because everything I seemed to believe about myself and the world just made me depressed. It was an existential experiment and I think because of my neurodiversity (the extent to which I can become overstimulated in social settings which can overload my system unless I manage it) it left me a state of mania and with increased mental activity, which I intellectualised.

I was looking at the tree to the right of the main door, as you look out toward Barton Road and toward Granchester. Paradox had been on my mind and that encouraged me to try not to believe in anything (which is impossible to do, – don’t ignore historicity – said my criminologist friend Kevin Haines, he was right of course).

Paradox means the death of binary logic, the death of the true and false binary.

What occurred to me while looking at the tree. And it continues to haunt me. That all that is the tree is only that because of what is not the tree. The tree can only be because of that that is not the tree. It follows that for anything to exist, it only exists as a result of its negation. Fundamentally all objects emerge from paradox through distinction or difference. They both are and aren’t at the same time.

How can this fundamental paradox result in objects in the world that have such material properties, if at the heart of the matter there can be nothing there. Well nothing but distinction.

Distinction or difference is the foundation of consciousness, reasoning and in information. Thurston wrote in the 1920s about comparative judgement and that the basis of this judgement was though being able to distinguish one thing from another. This is the underlying feature of consciousness being able to perceive one thing as different to another. From simple distinction we are able to perceive patterns spatially and temporarily, we identify oscillations and repetitions in the cycle of systems of distinction and order. Effectively a fractal emerging from a simple system of recursion.

When I perceive a tree, when I observe a tree, I make the distinction between what is that tree and what isn’t that tree. How is the paradox of this object resolved? What gives it any permanence? It exists but also it doesn’t.

The mathematics of George Spencer Brown, his Laws of Form, uses a primary algebra that can show how order can emerge from paradox. That the thing equating to the not thing, can be dealt with iteratively, through recursion, through reentry into itself. At its simplest we get the emergence of an ordinal system extending indefinitely: first; second; third, fourth … More sophisticated reentry leads to other patterns with specific rhythms and aesthetics, like the Fibonacci sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…) an expression of the golden ratio and evident in many organsisms in the world.

There is no permanence only a changing order. The existence of objects reflects the endurance of order and recursion. It is not that objects exist, it is that order exists; order that emerges from paradox.

Cybernetic realism

Before I became interested in cybernetics, my research had been – through accident rather than intention – broadly moving toward Critical Realism. This is and was primarily through reflexivity. Reflexivity, as a word, has its first usage in late medieval/ Early Modern English history. Early usage is material and refers to physical phenomena. That something bends back on itself, interacts with itself and references itself. The word then is used to indicate a self-referential encounter by a being with itself. Reflexivity as an ongoing negotiation of the world.

Cybernetics offers its own take on reflexivity. The idea of autopoiesis is analogous to reflexivity. It was originally posited by Maturana and Varela to explain how biological systems respond to and interact with complex environments. An organism (or biology system) momentarily interacts with its complex environment. This interaction provides feedback to the organism which responds by adapting its internal systems and processes to respond to that feedback. It is a recursively contingent behaviour, where the organism is able to remake itself in response to a changing environment. Luhmann extended this to psychic and social systems.

Margaret Archer’s realist social theory extends and elaborates on reflexivity, providing an account of how the individual negotiates and then changes structures and cultures (potentially) through reflexivity. The cybernetic account considers how a system which includes organisms and structures, also works reflexively through autopoiesis. The adjustments to the system’s internal processes are remade though recursive and contingent behaviours.

I think one of the major differences, is that reflexivity in realist social theory suggests something akin to linear causalities. Autopoiesis is cyclical, an iterative action, of re-entry into itself.

I have presented the idea of Cybernetic  Realism to incorporate the autopoietic and the reflexive.

Cybernetics, economics, thermodynamics and information

I had a really thought-provoking visit to Liverpool last Friday to talk with Mark Johnson and visit the Stafford Beer archive at the Liverpool John Moores University. That left me thinking about organisational cybernetics and the Viable System Model but also prompted much discussion about the use of machine learning with Adaptive Comparative Judgement – more of that later.

A lot to think about, and a lot to read.

But early this morning I started to think about Steve Keen, the post-Keynesian economist. It had been at the back of my mind that – and this is probably because he frequently references Hyman Minsky’s economic instability theory – Steve Keen’s approach is based on dynamic systems.

It was before 5 AM that I began searching YouTube for some of Steve Keen’s lectures. And there it was a reminder that his approach is underpinned by dynamic systems and though he doesn’t reference it, cybernetics. My recent introduction to economics has been through Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Which is a very useful way of understanding the economy through a combination of sectoral balances and the circulation of government-created money. It is a very valuable framework for understanding money, finance and tax, but where I think it has limitations is in its lack of sociology and political praxis. And importantly it is not underpinned by the philosophy of dynamic systems, though it does model the behaviour of economic systems very effectively but in specific conditions. Steve Keen’s dynamic systems approach is a more sophisticated model but does not deny the validity of MMT.

As I was thinking about economic modelling from a dynamic systems approach while I was listening to Steve Keen’s lectures, there came a point in 2016 where he began to introduce energy into his modelling. That output is not just a function of labour and capital, but a function of labour, capital and energy. This at once does two things it introduces the first law of thermodynamics into his economic analysis but also incorporates environmental issues i.e. the use of resources.

The first law of thermodynamics states that in a closed-system (and Keen points out that there are a number of closed-system models in economics), energy can neither be created or destroyed. In cycles of production, therefore, we must constantly input energy. This is overlooked by economists according to Keen.

In more recent work, Steve Keen has introduced the second and third law of thermodynamics. He points out that these truly are physical laws unlike laws that are proffered in the social sciences. The second law states that in a system entropy is always increasing. Entropy is a measure of disorder; it is the number of possible states that each element in that system can be in. Thermodynamically, this can be interpreted as the transfer of ‘useful’ energy or work like mechanical energy into heat. It’s a slippery idea, I know. But it can be thought of as a shift from order to chaos. Information theory characterises information as ‘negentropy’ – the information is creating order. Information is an ordering process.

The following is a speculation then – a hypothesis:

  • in any production process – whether that be physical, or the provision of services – then energy is wasted (by releasing it as heat). And while entropy might be reduced (as the ordering process of production) within the waste, entropy is increasing.

Bringing these together then we have the possibility of bringing together economics, value theory, environment (climate change) and information (technology and platform capitalism).

Is consciousness – by that I mean self-awareness or even life – counter entropy? Is life the means by which order (information) is created? Is life the cybernetic response to an expanding universe?



Cybernetic decision making in the classroom

I spent the last eight years observing teachers in mathematics classrooms, trying to work out the relationship between their thought and action, and before that I spent eight years in the classroom myself. Where, I gave some thought to what I was doing the classroom.

It is trite to say that the classroom is a complex place, but it is no less true to say it. Learning is perplexing. Mathematics education in a state school is mystifying. It is no surprise then that theorists in education have all but given up theorising it all, but prefer to take a partial view – to look at aspects, elements or cases within the totality.

A popular explanation in mathematics education research is that teachers’ actions and behaviours are underpinned by their knowledge and beliefs. It follows then, that to change teachers’ behaviours in the classroom, one might deploy professional development that is designed to develop the teachers’ knowledge and that changes beliefs. There are many things wrong with this approach, not least is that in many cases it doesn’t lead to lasting changes. Fundamentally, it is the treatment of the teacher as deficient with little value is given to teacher autonomy and agency. There are theoretical problems too. Theory is based on knowledge and beliefs have many associations with constructivist perspectives on the psychology of learning. Knowledge and beliefs, in relation to teachers’ thoughts and actions, suggest that the teacher constructs, mentally, a guide fraction and then they follow it. What this disregards, is the effect of in-the-moment responses and decisions by the teacher. A teacher’s thinking is much more dynamic than the constructivist view might suggest.

While critical now, it was against this theoretical backdrop that I begin my research into mathematics teacher professional learning in 2010 as part of my PhD research.

Mathematics teachers’ beliefs were the preferred explanation of my funders and supervisors of teachers’ thinking and their classroom practices. It was also their preferred explanation of how teachers learn new practices and approaches. I had an extended period where I was critically engaged with research and theory around teachers’ beliefs.

While the popular account of mathematics teachers’ actions was based on their knowledge and beliefs, there were competing views coming from a ‘social’ perspective on learning. In this teacher learning involves a process of becoming socialised into a ‘community of practice’. It is an indoctrination into practices and ‘ways of doing things’ – adopting the principles, language and ideas of the mathematics teaching profession, especially as it is in the locality. ‘Change’ or teacher learning must involve some change in the community to permit the individual teacher to change.

As I began to collect data, I felt that the ‘constructivist’ (that based on knowledge and beliefs) and the sociocultural both were valid but partial explanations of what was happening. The research literature appeared to show that the constructivist and sociocultural views of teacher learning were mostly in an ideological conflictual impasse.

My classroom observations revealed another aspect of professional action, which where non-cognitive factors such as motivation and confidence. These appeared to have a considerable impact on the way in which teachers taught, whether they would implement ambitious teaching approaches as opposed to whether they would stick more resolutely to the orthodox teacher explanation, followed by student practice. Ambitious teaching (Stylianides & Stylianides, 2014) is where greater mathematical authority and authorship (Povey & Burton, 1999) is given to the students. It is more demanding on teachers since the lesson becomes less predictable, the teacher devolves control. And while this can offer a positive learning experience for students, they can actually experience what it is like to be a mathematician, it can also substantially increase the level of anxiety in the classroom. This also makes the teacher anxious. This increased anxiety can encourage the teacher to return to well-established routines, routines like traditional chalk-‘n’-talk followed by student practice.

Earlier this year I presented a paper at the Congress of the European Society for Research in Utrecht. In this paper, I revisit the research into teacher thinking, or particularly, teacher decision making and the nature of the choices they make in the classroom (Watson, 2019). Based on my research (I have actually spent about four years looking at one teacher do one lesson and his reflections on his thinking during the lesson), I believed that the character of the lesson was heavily influenced by the momentary decisions that teachers make. They constantly have a choice to follow well-established routines or to open the learning up and give more mathematical author/ship/ity to the students.

The research into classroom decision-making revealed that a primary aim of the teacher was to maintain the ‘flow’ of the lesson (Clark & Peterson, 1986), that is to maintain it as a socially smooth-running experience. If you imagine a middle-class dinner party with a degree of formality, there are a number of social routines and passages of discourse that fill the time without creating an awkward situation in which someone might feel ‘uncomfortable’. In such a situation the level of discomfort might lead to an unpredictable or ‘controversial’ response. The ‘smooth running’ of the dinner is destroyed (I don’t say that this is a good or bad thing, least to say that such things are the inspiration for Mike Leigh e.g. Abigail’s Party).


While the teacher in a mathematics classroom might have less interest in middle class aspirations as the basis for wanting to maintain flow and smooth runningness in their class, there is a similar motive for affective containment – for staying in comfort zones.

And I am not the only one to deploy the analogy of dinner. Stigler and Hiebert, in their video study of practice in the USA, Germany and Japan, observed a culturally-specific ‘script’ in the mathematics lessons they observed. They suggested that the routines in mathematics classrooms were culturally embedded and that they were smooth running because teachers and students all knew the parameters of the script that they were expected to follow.

Family dinner is a cultural activity. Cultural activities are represented in cultural scripts, generalized knowledge about an event that resides in the heads of participants. These scripts guide behavior and also tell participants what to expect. Within a culture, these scripts are widely shared, and therefore they are hard to see. Family dinner is such a familiar activity that it sounds strange to point out all its customary features. We rarely think about how it might be different from what it is. On the other hand, we certainly would notice if a feature were violated; we’d be surprised, for example, to be offered a menu at a family dinner, or to be presented with a check at the end of the meal (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999, Kindle locations 1098-1103).

In my recent work on teacher decision making, I have created an integrated model of teacher decision making which incorporates cognitive psychology and social psychology: it reflects the cognitive, affective, social and cultural aspects of human action. I sketch this out in a little more detail in the conference paper I mentioned earlier (Watson, 2019), but to summarise the key ideas around teacher decision making in the classroom: decisions begin with the senses. The teacher observes a class’s and individuals’ behaviours. The teacher continues to implement their lesson plan (a mental model or script of the lesson) until there is something that draws their attention, it might be a student having difficulty with the activities or tasks or some other behaviour that is raising the level of anxiety in the classroom. The effect of this is that the teacher’s attention turns to the phenomena and the teacher’s level of anxiety might increase. All this is taking place unconsciously using the autonomic nervous system (the limbic system). It might be that the teacher responds unconsciously, there might be a routine or ‘script’ in the teacher’s memory that they might deploy because it is a fairly routine situation to deal with. An experienced teacher does not need to do lot of conscious deliberation over the situations they meet, they have experienced many similar patterns of behaviour and are able to use this embedded knowledge to respond without thinking. This is a useful thing in demanding situations, since conscious reasoning is demanding on the body’s resources. Yet, there are situations in which the teacher might meet a difficult situation in which they have to think more deeply about a possible course of action. And while meditation on an issue is often of value, in fast-moving and demanding environments like the maths classroom, it is an indulgence that has limited opportunity to be enjoyed. The teacher is very much relying on culturally embedded scripts and pre-thought routines to guide their actions in the lesson.

The cybernetics of teacher decision making

I want to examine teacher decision making using cybernetics. Because, I think it will tell us more about the classroom environment rather than just focussing on individuals. I am going to treat the mathematics classroom (or any classroom) as a dynamic system. This deemphasises the individuals in the classroom and incorporates all objects and matter. We therefore have a complex dynamic system, within which there are other complex dynamic systems i.e. the teacher and the individual students. You will note that I am not treating them as ‘black boxes’ but as dynamic systems that co-exist.

A surviving dynamic system

The classroom as a part of an institution, as part of an education system, must endure as system. It has to be contained and ‘productive’ whatever that might mean in this context. If it ends up out of control at least it is time limited (and I have had some classes that have gone out of control and observed classes that have been close to degenerating into an out-of-control state). The state of being out-of-control ends with the end of the lesson. The condition that the individuals leave the class might have an effect on other classes, but the instability of the system has ended with the buzzer or bell. Stafford Beer points out that institutions and organisations have to be surviving dynamic systems, they have to adapt to their contexts and internal and external perturbations in order to remain stable.

A central law in the stability of dynamic systems is Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. This tells us that the only way in which variety can be absorbed by a dynamic system is through matching it with the system’s variety. This is to say that whatever the number of possible states of the environment or the context, the only way a dynamic system can maintain stability is by having a matching number of possible states. It is not always possible to design systems so that they have enough variety to counter their environment or context’s variety. A mathematics classroom is a complex context and to control or attenuate the variety, the system is regulated by introducing rules and practices. The teacher provides the regulatory function by applying and enforcing rules and controlling behaviour. The ‘variety’ in respect to the individual and collective students is attenuated to match the variety available, not only in the class but also in the school. Schools have limited resources and limited flexibility, so there is a great need for students to conform in order that they do not exceed the variety available in the school and create instability.

If students are not from school-oriented backgrounds then the level of variety increases a further few notches and the school with its finite resources and organisational inflexibility must introduce further regulation. However, in many cases though, this scope for regulation is not possible and the law of requisite variety is not met and you get a ‘troubled’ school.

While regulation has the effect of maintaining the stability of the classroom it has an effect on the learning that is taking place in the lesson. Part of the regulation process leads to a ‘traditional’ approach to learning, the teacher explanation followed by student practice. All this is inhibiting variety to keep the classroom ‘stable’.

There is dissonance here, a tension or a conflict; regulation of variety to match the limited variety of the school and the education system and other hand this regulation has an impact on the learning process. Let us think here of individuals as dynamic systems engaged in learning a complex subject like mathematics. The curriculum is determinate, it is a body of knowledge and practices, but represents a regulated version of what mathematics is as a dynamic system. The mathematics curriculum is determinate while mathematics is an indeterminate dynamic system.

In cybernetic terms the learning of a dynamic system is developing adaptability: to develop the capacity to survive amongst complexity and unknowability. Yet, the attenuation that takes place in the classroom, in the school and in the education system does not provide an environment in which students can develop and use ‘variety’. As a society we tend to ignore the indeterminacy and accept the assumption that learning must be determinate and that the society we live in is determinate. Effectively, our education system is attenuative of variety, which is the process of social reproduction that Marxists refer to.

The mathematics classroom as ontological theatre

But I am drawing myself into a cybernetic analysis of the education system – something that I don’t quite want to do quite yet. I just remark that the education system is significant in the work of the teacher as a dynamic system. But where I need to get back to presently is the ontological theatre of the mathematics classroom.

Ontological theatre is a term used by Andrew Pickering in the opening of his book, The Cybernetic Brain – a book that tells the story of the British Cyberneticians.

Cybernetics presents a view of the world as ‘theatre’. These are performances, rather than Enlightenment representations. The philosophical basis of cybernetics is ontological, it is performance that creates a reality, that gives the world form. This is weird if one thinks of it in terms of entities. External objects ‘exist’, they are not formed through performance, they are already there. But don’t think of entities, don’t think of the world as the object of our thought, think how it is brought into being by being a product of the formation and interaction of dynamic systems. This is not agents bringing the world into being, but about dynamic systems interacting with agency as an ‘output’ of the processes. That is not to say we don’t have control i.e. free will. Our free will is the capacity to assert our adaptability and not, as it is often considered to be us asserting ourselves on the future. No! We can’t do that.

An ontological theater […] a vision of the world in which fluid and dynamic entities evolve together in a decentred fashion, exploring each other’s properties in a performative back-and-forth dance of agency (Pickering, 2010, p. 106).

This is from the chapter on Ross Ashby, we see the suggestion that ‘entities’ are dynamic systems in equilibrium in a complex and unknowable environment.

In order to consider the ontological theatre of the classroom, we have to dig deeper and think about what we mean by thinking (and learning) in cybernetic terms. You will see some links not just now but in what I have already written that there are some shared concerns that are raised by the new materialists and even the object-oriented ontologists.


Clark, C. M., & Peterson, P. L. (1986). Teachers’ thought processes. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed., pp. 255–296). New York: Macmillan.

Pickering, A. (2010). The cybernetic brain: sketches of another future. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Povey, H., & Burton, L. (1999). Learners as authors in the mathematics classroom. In L. Burton (Ed.), Learning mathematics: from hierarchies to networks (pp. 232–245). London: Falmer.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

Stylianides, G. J., & Stylianides, A. J. (2014). The role of instructional engineering in reducing the uncertainties of ambitious teaching. Cognition and Instruction, 32(4), 374–415.

Watson, S. (2019). Revisiting teacher decision making in the mathematics classroom: a multidisciplinary approach. Presented at the Eleventh Congress of the European Society for Research in Mathematics Education (CERME11), Utrecht University.


Designing freedom – principles for a cybernetic university

I feel it necessary to begin with a reminder of what I’m talking about when I refer to cybernetics. Since ‘cybernetic’ can evoke a range of ideas which might include cyborgs (human-machine hybrids), systems and control, general technology and the Internet, robots or perhaps just a replacement of human interaction by machines. But when I’m talking about cybernetics what I mean is a view of the world as interactions of complex dynamic systems. Some of those dynamic systems are man-made and artificial, much of our environment is ‘natural’ and populated by evolved (and evolving) living things.

What I’m getting towards in this post is to consider what a university might be like if it were designed using cybernetic principles. But before doing that I need to put forward some of the underlying principles and ideas of cybernetics to help you to think in a cybernetic way and key to this is the dynamic system.

Dynamic Systems

A very general account of what a dynamic system involves considering the universal system, i.e. the universe, as a dynamic system of matter and energy. The universe consists of subsystems which are not only dynamic systems of matter and energy in their own right, through the universal dynamic system they are in a constant state of interaction with the universe and other systems. The subsystem can be characterised as an entity, as having form, but in cybernetic thinking these are the outputs of the subsystem and not its processes.

Stafford Beer highlighted this distinction: that dynamic systems can be seen as an entity, that is its ‘form’ in terms of its outputs, or it can be seen as a ‘dynamic system’ of behaviours and processes (Beer, 1974). The dynamic system view emphasises more strongly the relationships and interactions between systems since they are part of a universal dynamic system of matter and energy. The classical view of entities seeks to understand the relationship between the form of those entities, this is the case with Newtonian physics. Quantum theory presents us with a dynamic and stochastic system.

So far, I have described what we could call the ‘natural’ world or at least insofar as to say the parts of the world that are not alive. Living things are special kinds of dynamic systems. They have evolved to become self-conscious and self-aware – I don’t profess to say that all living things are self-conscious and self-aware, I just want to present a definition of living things as a process. The process leads to agency and that is an ability to perceive self-control and a claim to have some degree of conscious control over the natural world and environment.

Consciousness also leads to production, to manufacture and fabrication; we are able to make tools and imbue in the form of those tools a design. Tools are artefacts with purpose. As well as the significant material tools such as the wheel or the pulley system, humanity has created the immaterial and intangible tools and systems to organise and systematise language, thought and society. We have created an artificial world based on our collective experience of living in that world, but one that has become increasingly abstract and alien to dynamic systems, but which remains, paradoxically, – because it is part of the natural world – a dynamic system.

I have classified the world into three types of dynamic systems: the natural world, the living world and the artificial world.

Dynamic systems must adapt to the changing environment in which they exist, otherwise they do not survive, they do not remain viable. Stafford Beer illustrates a non-surviving dynamic system as a wave approaching a beach. It demonstrates the principles of fluid dynamics, it might be said that the wave obeys the principles of hydrodynamics, but ultimately it becomes unstable and ‘breaks’.

Organisations and institutions must remain viable, while also being dynamic systems. Here, I am going to consider Stafford Beer’s idea of the viable system model (VSM) to consider how a university might remain viable within a changing environment.

Viable systems model (VSM) and human society

A VSM is a dynamic system that is capable of adaptation to a changing, complex or unpredictable environment. Living things are demonstrably consistent with VSMs, that is they can adapt to and respond to a complex social and physical environment. Dynamic systems are viable because they can deal with and respond to complexity. It is no surprise that Beer developed the VSM with reference to living things.

Human beings use a culturally compiled and genetically embedded capacity to identify patterns in complexity to help them respond to their environments – to allow them to steer their way. Humanity, for something of the order of 10,000 generations, has been psychologically, anatomically and physiologically adapting in response to its environment. It has passed on information genetically and socially to allow the next generation to adapt more effectively (Harries-Jones, 2010). As civilisation has emerged, this adaptation has also had to respond to a world created by the imagination of humanity, the dynamics systems of government and institutions: the hierarchies, structures and systems of society and its organisations, institutions and firms.

The capacity for pattern matching to guide individual action relies on the 100 billion neurons in the human body. What we sense is an incomplete picture of the world, it is the excess or redundancy of neural networks that allow the construction of an excess of different patterns which may complete the partial picture of reality and match that to what is in memory and embedded in our DNA. Pioneering cybernetician, Warren McCulloch, developed an account along the following lines:

Redundancy ensures that any element in the neural network is repeated, and repeated, and repeated. Instead of being a supernumerary feature of the neural network, the very primacy of its redundancy ensures an extremely high chance that whatever information the nervous system receives is coincident with something in the world… (Harries-Jones, 2010, p. 2368).

The individual human being is equipped to be a VSM with their capacity to respond to a complex and changing environment. Collectively, human beings with even a primitive form of communication, have a greater collective power as a VSM. The implementation of a system of power and hierarchy results in structures that potentially limit the viability of subjugated individuals or groups, because they are then subject to abstract rules. We can see here how a Hobbesian social contract emerges, where the individual concedes a degree of liberty in order to accept the security of the state. This also assumes that the ‘untamed’ human is a savage and it is a necessity that order prevails. Hobbes sees the exchange of liberty as natural and necessary. From a cybernetics perspective we can see civilisation and belonging to a state compromises the VSM. While people living in civilised society can do so healthily and productively, there are groups and individuals that will become unstable. Contrast this with Rousseau who believed in the creative completeness of the free individual, that humankind is not savage au naturel.

According to Marx, it was the division of labour, the artificial formatting of society in response to the dynamics of capitalism that leads to alienation.

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature (Marx, Comments on James Mill, 1844).

The compromise of individual viability as a result of our attempts to organise society in abstract ways represents a cybernetic account of alienation. Instead of using our intuitions to navigate our place in the world we are subject to an artificial hierarchy in which we are engaged in a rational puzzle, where the rules of the game are defined by those with privilege and power. When we get to the subunits of society, departments and institution, we see the same system of hierarchy and control.

VSM in organisational design

Beer was a successful post war operational researcher in the UK’s newly nationalised industries. It was in the steel industry under an economy actively managed by the state, broadly under the principles put forward by Keynes, that Beer began to develop a cybernetic model of organisational design.

An important observation for Beer was that it was not the steel rolling mill’s output that was the defining feature of the mill, it was its processes and the way in which it could respond to external changes. His interest in developing ‘variety’ to respond to the context led him to some early experiments in biocomputing. He attempted to use iron filings to act as an interface with pond life to provide a living neural network. This failed but was pioneering work in the field.

The VSM was a later iteration for Beer, his model for the organisation of a firm was based on the human body. It had five hierarchical systems, but not hierarchical in the same sense as many organisations are currently formatted, where there is a system of rules and controls. The hierarchy in Beer’s cybernetic design was based on information flows rather than rules or constraints.

Figure 1 Metaphorum’s simple VSM

System 1

System 1 represents the operational aspects of the organisation. In the above example, this is a commercial enterprise involving the buying and selling of commodities (there may be some transformation as part of that process).

For the two decades or more, we have increasingly seen the student and the researcher as funder, as a customer. Whatever the framing the university’s primary function is to provide education, scholarship and research for the benefit of society. Metrics have become increasingly important in a marketized higher education system. This metrification and datafication of complex systems like health and education can create really perverse incentives in the operation of university departments. While there are industries whose operations are reasonably quantified, the information about the process in a university must primarily be qualitative to reflect the complexity. There is a need to manage spending of course but to what extent does this need to be related directly to the process of research and teaching, apart from to say how much each programme is allocated?

System 2

System 2 represents the information channels and bodies that allow the primary activities in System 1 to communicate between each other and which allow System 3 to monitor and co-ordinate the activities within System 1.

A small faculty or department can have informal channels of communication and systems of communication. The social life of the department is hugely important in allowing these channels. Communication must have face-to-face embodied engagements to allow individuals the opportunity to communicate at an emotional level as well as in communicating rational detail. System 1 and 2 are operational and should be autonomous. It is the perspective of proximity that individuals and groups in localised operations that make them best placed to make decisions about their operations. The point at which information must go to system 3 is when there are events and experiences that are outside the usual range of operation. This is the cue for systems 3, 4 and 5 to compare this experience with what is happening across the organisation and in the wider context.

As with system 1 there is an increasing datafication of these communications, a range of indicators and performance figures must be compared with other departments and benchmarks. The performance in system 1 operations becomes limited to the targets and benchmarks, rather than attending to the more open-ended operations of teaching and research. In England we have the REF (research excellence framework) and more recently the TEF (teaching excellence framework). These ‘performance-related’ measures present a narrow definition of research and teaching and in respect to the REF, research funding is allocated on the basis of performance in it. It is of little wonder that the faculty or department discuss targets, performance indicators, unit costs and quantifiable outputs at length but pay little attention to the actual processes or in understanding the organisation. Strategy in the contemporary institution is about hitting targets rather than developing an adaptable institution. Metaphorum make some further observations about system 2.

System 2 deals with the inevitable problems which emerge as a number of autonomous, self-organising operational parts interact.  There will be conflicts of interest which must be resolved. System 2 is there to harmonise the interactions, to keep the peace, to deal with the problems (

It is possible to imagine a university department or faculty made up of a number of teaching and research system 1 sub-units and system 2 providing the links and organisation between them. The emphasis in Stafford Beer’s work is that system 1 operations must have maximum autonomy. These are self-organising and self-managing units but linked together through system 2 communications.

System 3

System 3 is the first layer of management and is concerned with synergy. It surveys the interacting operational units from a more detached position, it is looking to find ways in which operational units might collaborate more effectively. It is not looking to manage performance but to seek opportunities in which operational units can collaborate or work together more effectively.

System 4

Has an outward looking perspective, it is looking to provide information about changes to the environment, i.e. threats and opportunities. System 4 provides the means to cope with a changing environment.

System 5

Is the highest level of management in an institutional subunit. Its role is to develop the values and vision of the system through the development of policy. It creates identity, ethos, ground rules under which everyone operates. In my own faculty, this would likely be the Faculty Board.

The recursive university

The VSM is a recursive model where viable systems contain viable systems which use the same principles. So in the University of Cambridge, we might see a faculty or department as a system 1 to 5 VSM. At school level, as a collection of departments and faculties, a higher-level VSM with a system 1 to 5 model, where system 1 operational units are the faculties and departments. A further layer is required at university level. A university involves at least three tiers of VSM.

The politics of VSM

Before contrasting this proposed cybernetic design for education with the current model, I want to deviate into the political perspectives. Because the way in which I have presented the VSM is as hierarchical, that is in spite of me stressing the autonomy of operations, it is fundamentally about rules and subordination. Or at least that’s how it might look. Swann sets out to rehabilitate cybernetics to consider (as I am attempting to do here) the potential for radical and alternative forms of organisation (Swann, 2018). Swann looks to an anarchist cybernetic, but first distances anarchism from characterisations of chaos and disorder, but as a doctrine that seeks emancipation. Moreover, anarchism became established as an emancipatory movement but contrasting with statist socialism that was a significant interpretation of Marx. There is in anarchism a strand that emphasises the self-determination of the individual and small groups, which rather resonates with the cybernetic empowerment of the adaptive individual. The question is, how do we build systems of government and institutional organisation to maximise the liberties of the individual? For Hayek, this was largely an impossibility and that market exchange should be the organising principle. Since this exchange deals at a stroke with uncertainty and unknowability. We have been through a forty-year period where this ideology has been dominant and we now, hopefully, see it at an end; as the scale of inequality, fraud, corruption and damage to society and communities becomes increasingly evident. The cybernetic view is that individuals can and do know, just not in the abstract sense of a pure knowledge, but in the process of action and decision-making within contexts, much as in the tradition of the pragmatists, C S Peirce, William James and John Dewey.

In Chantal Mouffe’s recent book Toward a Left Populism, she repeats an earlier motivation she held with her collaborator Ernesto Laclau:

…to question the belief held by some people on the left, that to move towards a more just society, it was necessary to relinquish liberal-democratic institutions and to build a completely new politeia, a new political community from scratch. We asserted that, in democratic societies, in our view could be carried out through a critical engagement with the existing institutions (Mouffe, 2018, p. 39).

What Mouffe is putting forward is to use both the raw political force of direct action and left populism but to build within this a radical redesign of existing institutions, to give them a strong democratic foundation and that promotes human flourishing. It is likely that the design work has been initiated and developed by Stafford Beer. And it is a good point to be reminded that Beer’s hierarchy is a structure of communication and not a structure of power and control.

Beer tells the story of his first meeting with Salvador Allende, elected President of Chile in 1970 and the world’s first elected democratic socialist. Beer presented his VSM model to Allende, who had trained as pathologist. Beer explained how Allende understood completely the analogy of human physiology in organisational design. When Beer pointed to the system 5 element, he said he expected Allende to say “El Presidente” but instead he said, “El pueblo” – the village. Allende perhaps envisaged the inclusive democratic and community orientation of the VSM. It is likely that instead of seeing the VSM as a top-down autocratic and bureaucratic, it was a model driven by people for the people. At least this is how Beer recalled it. Beer went on to develop Cybersyn to manage the economy in Chile, this was halted when Allende was murdered in a coup in 1973 which was supported and most likely orchestrated by the CIA.

But on Mouffe’s principle of populism, direct action and radically reforming institutions, what is there in this as a political project? There are two dimensions to this the first to push back against the existing capitalist hegemony, since this is the system that provides the conditions in which our institutions become increasingly hierarchical and underpinned by power and control. Populism has the force to highlight this as an injustice and to expand a social movement, direct action can be used to force negotiations by using a mass force to redress the imbalances of power that would want to retain the status quo. But beyond this we do need to construct possible futures and the key one is how we organise our institutions and workplaces.

About two years ago I was thinking about what the key features should be in political action in our institutions to force change. I came up with three themes: democracy, scholarship, activism and solidarity (Watson, 2017). Thinking about cybernetics has allowed me to develop these themes further:

  • Democracy – is the participation of individuals in society and their contribution to shared decisions. The VSM provides a blueprint for an organisation of not just institutions and firms, but also of society.
  • Scholarship – this is the intellectual engagement; a cybernetic view of the world lights up all sorts of possibilities in terms of scholarship. While this might continue to be basic research, the practical, the real-time and the applied become live and real.
  • Activism – one can be an even more motivated activist when there are possibilities and those possibilities are realisable.
  • Solidarity – just as with activism, there is a sense that these four aspects of political action are all connected and none of these processes can work without a deep sense of solidarity and collectivism.

Concluding remarks

It has been a long and speculative journey for a blog post. In its writing, I have clarified some of my thinking and left some areas unexplored, notably I have not yet endeavoured to contrast the current operations of the University of Cambridge, for example, with the cybernetic views. That became too big a project for this post. This might be because, I couldn’t get away from thinking about the institution in wider society, there felt something unreasonable in trying to redesign an already privileged institution. However, there is an opportunity to think about what Cambridge does in leading society and part of what it must do is think about how its institutions might use VSM to model this for society and be a part of radical changes in society and the world. But at the moment it is ground down by the risk averse culture that is being used as a disciplining force, which in my view is making it less stable and limiting its genuine contribution to making the world a better place.


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

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

Mouffe, C. (2018). For a left populism. London ; New York: Verso.

Swann, T. (2018). Towards an anarchist cybernetics: Stafford Beer, self-organisation and radical social movements. Ephemera: Theory, Politics and Organization, 18(3), 427–456.

Watson, S. (2017). A manifesto for control: democracy, scholarship, activism and solidarity. In L. Rycroft-Smith & J.-L. Dutaut (Eds.), Flip the system UK: a teachers’ manifesto (pp. 68–75). London: Routledge.


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

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.