CEPA eprint 1738 (HVF-139)
Self-Organization and Software Development
Foerster H. von & Floyd C. (1992) Self-Organization and Software Development. In: Floyd C., Züllighoven H., Budde R. & Keil-Slawik R. (eds.) Software Development and Reality Construction. Springer, New York: 75–85. Available at http://cepa.info/1738
Heinz von Foerster and Christiane Floyd
C. Heinz, since I first sought you out in my quest for epistemological foundations of software development, I have enjoyed finding myself in continuing communication with you. In the course of our conversations off and on, my original topic has gradually evolved and taken shape between us. But we have also touched on more fundamental issues such as the nature of human understanding and our dialogical involvement with others. I have learned with great profit to appreciate your ideas and apply them to my fields of interest.
You have also taken a strong hand in shaping the conference on which this book is based. We opened the scientific programme of this conference with a dialogue, which is the basis of this paper. Later we have decided to arrange the paper in the form of a dialogue.
I think, we need to make explicit that the resulting text is not itself a dia-logue. It is an arrangement of sediments from our actual dialogues designed by us so as to please our readers. The actual dialogue processes take place between the lines. Do you agree to that?
H. No, rather above the lines. Floating. The spirit of your conference. And whatever lines you include in your final product, the book, you will not be able to hide from readers our affinity, the engine that is driving our dialogue.
C. I am very happy to acknowledge this marvellous affinity between us.
My main concern is to explore with you the relevance of your approach to constructivist thinking for understanding software development. The key notion here is self-organization. Heinz, I would like you to say a few things about self-organization.
H. Christiane, you have self-organized me already before the opening of this conference so carefully that I felt I had become your constructed reality. And I can understand you well, for this conference was for you, as I sense it, not only an affair of the mind but also of the heart. When you invited me to participate, I must confess I had no idea what role you thought I might play. But when I saw your programme, the people I would encounter, the place where we would meet, the topics we would discuss, I felt that, for me too, this would become an affair of the mind and of the heart.
Therefore, before I get to the historicals and the scientificals concerning the notion of self-organization, let me take care of my sentimentals.
It is 40 years now since Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics was published, and it is only a few months less since I met this extraordinary and modest man
in the flesh, together with John von Neumann, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, and so many others of the creme de la creme of American science. It was at the now legendary Macy Conferences on “Circular-Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.” I had arrived in New York perhaps two weeks before this conference, and my English vocabulary comprised not more than 25 words. Since I even had difficulties just to pronounce the title of the conference, I found a moment to suggest to the group a shorter title, namely to call it “Cybernetics,” with the sub-title “Circular-Causal and Feedback Mechanisms …” etc. Everybody accepted with applause this proposal which paid tribute to Norbert Wiener; and he, deeply moved, left the room to hide his tears.
I am telling this to you as if it were yesterday, but none of these people are alive today; I am the only one here to tell the tale. When I reflect upon this, I feel as if I were a living fossil who was there, and who can tell you now how it was and what we thought would become of it.
C. I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to you and gratefully acknowledge your contributions to our conference. In fact, the phrase living fossil, coined by you to refer to yourself, was later taken up by many participants with love and admiration. But go on with your story about self-organization.
H. For me the notion of self-organization is deeply embedded in that of cybernetics and vice versa, but I recognize that many others do not feel that way.
In my case, I can easily trace my sense of the complementarity between cybernetics and self-organization to my fascination with the logic of cir-cularity, along the lines of circular causality, recursive functions, closure, self-reference, paradox or, in its modern cloth, non-linear dynamics, chaos theory and others. I see these conceptual buds popping out at various times from the main body of cybernetic thought.
As I said before, my enthusiasm for circularity was not equally shared by all of my early fellow cyberneticians. When the organizers of the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics asked me to write a preface for the transactions of these conferences,[Note 1] I jumped at the chance to celebrate the peculiarities of circular causality.
Circular causality – in contrast to orthodox, linear causality – can only be perceived to operate within a two-dimensional manifold. But, surprisingly, instead of having gained a degree of freedom from this dimensional expansion, we have lost one, for now the value of the end must be the same as that of the beginning. This condition has the amazing consequence that, very much like in Schrödinger’s wave equation whose solutions assign to the electrons in an atom certain discrete orbits around the nucleus, it carves out from an infinity of potential solutions a finite set of actual solutions. The convergence towards these dynamically stable solutions reduces the spectrum of possibilities and uncertainties: order emerges.
I remember the unhappiness of my editorial friends who found my flight of fancy too esoteric, and who persuaded me to write with them a more down to earth (I thought, a somewhat pedestrian) piece.
You can now imagine how much I enjoyed meeting Gordon Pask.
Your conference marks, almost to the day, the 30th anniversary of my first meeting with Gordon Pask. It was at the Deuxieme Congres International de Cybernetique in Namur. After my presentation, people came up to me raving about an extraordinary leprechaun who opened up new vistas on cybernetics, teaching and learning. Searching through Namur, I finally found him in a coffee house surrounded by a swarm of the curious and inquisitive, listening attentively. I wormed my way through the crowd, and after a few minutes
I knew why they were listening; and after a few sentences of our dialogue,
I knew I would ask him to join us at the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University in Illinois. Thus began my friendship with Gordon Pask, a friendship that will last to the end of our lives.
The following year Gordon was with us in Illinois, and because of his kaleidoscopic contributions to the concept of self-organization, he was nicknamed “Mr. Self-Organization.” This period, and others that followed, were most productive for all of us. Gordon wrote several seminal papers[Note 2] and then, of course, there are his wonderful drawings for my order from noise principle.[Note 3]
C. This was 30 years ago, you say? What has happened in the meantime?
H. A lot! For instance, the preparation of this conference. You perceived that it was to become a self-organizing system, a process that would establish new links, may they be personal, social or conceptual; that would generate dialogues during the conference, generating in turn meetings, seminars, groups, and I don’t know what else, and you don’t either! Nobody would have dared to think that way 30 years ago.
C. To me and to my co-organizers it still seemed quite daring to think that way today. And we had little guidance when putting this thinking into practice. As far as I can see, there is a gap between the ideas on self-organization presented by you and others in the literature, and the level of concreteness required for basing our actions on these ideas in complex social endeavours, such as conducting software development projects or organizing this conference. When preparing it, we had to find ways to bridge that gap, relying essentially on our intuitive understanding, on our loyalty to one another and our willingness to take risks.
But then you accused me – or should I say made fun of me – for having “self-organized you” before the opening of the conference.
H. I meant to make fun of you, not to accuse you of having self-organized me. In fact, I wanted to make fun of both of us for self-organizing one another by using the ambiguity of this very notion that sets the notion in motion. It is the act of “priming the pump,” of the “initial ignition,” of the “initials” as Francisco Varela would say,[Note 4] the “first distinction” as George Spencer Brown would say[Note 5] , or “nucleation” as Gordon would say.
This is one of Gordon’s important points: one must have (if one is a constructivist) or there must be (if one is a naive realist) nuclei for self-organization to take place at all. Clouds are self-organizing systems, but for the individual water droplets to form, they need particles, dust, ions, or whatever, as nuclei for condensation: the seeds. All the participants are the seeds for your conference and, as an old self-organizing systems conferencier, I know that they are very fine seeds indeed.
C. Yes, we are quite confident of that, too. However, the way you speak about self-organization just now, illustrates only too well my difficulties in trying to gainfully apply this notion to social processes.
You draw an analogy between a cloud and the interactive processes amongst the collection of people gathered at a conference (it might as well be the collection of people involved in software development) pointing out similarities in terms of the capacity for self-organization.
To me, the dissimilarities between these two assemblies are so profound, that I find it difficult to draw fruitful conclusions from the analogy. Viewed as a system, a cloud – belonging to the non-living world – is quite different from a collection of people interacting in a given context.
Also, my relation to these two systems is radically different: I am a mere observer of the cloud, but I am a participant in the social processes at this conference. In fact, with my co-organizers, I have created the conditions in which these processes can unfold. While I can make a description of the cloud, I take a share in how the processes at this conference actually come about. Nucleation must mean initiating processes between people here.
And in saying that I have self-organized you, you even go a radical step further: you apply this notion in a dialogical sense between you and me.
H. There were in these 30 years many developments in the way we look at the notion of self-organization and in the way this notion itself acted – and still acts – as a catalyst upon fundamental transformations of our theory of knowledge. You have illustrated some of these developments by drawing your distinctions just now.
In the early days of euphoria, when we thought we had “discovered” this fascinating notion of self-organization, we directed all our attention to the assessment of organization, and didn’t pay any attention to the assessor, or to the semantic booby traps that are wired into the concepts of self and of organization as well.
For instance, I have become only recently aware of the pun latent in “self- organization”. For I may talk about that critter over there who – as it looks to me – is now self-organizing, but it could also mean that it is I who am organizing myself. Let’s talk about the critter for a moment, and of his magical feat to organize himself, and we shall see that we are, in fact, talking about our own magical powers to organize ourselves.
When we use the verb “to organize” in connection with self or something else, we imply that the organization of that something changes, usually from lower to higher states of organization. We also imply that organization is measurable.
The two components that come to mind, when one thinks about more or less organization, are complexity and order. In the Jurassic period of the information age the dinosaurs at that time jumped at the possibility of defining a metric for order based on its close conceptual relationship with its measurable cousin redundancy.
Since redundancy goes from 0, for perfect chaos, to 1, for perfect order, let redundancy and order stand for one another interchangeably. That is, if by knowing one thing about an organization you still know nothing about the rest of it, there is chaos, redundancy is 0; but if by knowing one thing about an organization you know it all, this is the perfect state of order, it’s paradise: redundancy is 1.
C. But Heinz, I find this confusing. You are now using terms from physics and information theory, as you do in your original paper on self-organization.[Note 6] I can follow your argument on its own terms, but it’s not obvious to me how it applies to the critter. And, when thinking of the social world, this is a horrific prospect. In your state of perfect order there is no freedom of choice: this is hell! How can you call it paradise?
H. Don’t forget that I’m talking about the insights of the dinosaurs of the information age and, please, ignore the labels “chaos” and “paradise” for the time being. Look at the numbers 0 to 1, disorder to order, and allow me to use the language of physics a little longer.
As you know, redundancy goes up when entropy goes down, but the Second Law does not allow this to happen in a thermodynamically closed system. Hence, self-organizing systems must be open to lei the flow of energy activate potential organizational changes. And what you need to pay attention to is that, when the system’s maximum entropy goes up, redundancy, i.e., order, goes up as well. Since maximum entropy is connected through the logarithmic function to the number of distinguishable states of the system, this implies that the number of distinguishable states of the system increases.
Going back to the critter, this means: By distinguishing other, additional states, that is, by calling upon my cognitive skills, by drawing more distinctions, I, the inventive observer, am constructing a new reality, now inhabited by a system, or better, by a critter who is more organized, yet even richer in his possibilities than he was before.
This doesn’t sound like paradise. But it seems to me to be more interesting.
C. It seems to me, you are saying that your understanding of the critter is richer: it allows for a greater richness of the critter’s possibilities You don’t appear to be saying anything about the critter himself, independent of your understanding of him.
Meanwhile, I am determined not to lose sight of my concern for understanding and conducting social processes such as software development or the organization of this conference, in terms of self-organization. We need to return to this later.
But first tell me: Why don’t you say anything about what the critter is?
H. This would be arguing along the lines of ontology. I bring up ontology here, because you will get the argument from ontology again and again. It is the argument from “as things are,” or “as it is,” as if one could ever find out what is. The flavour of this argument has not changed since the 17th century, when the primary “it” was, of course, God, and the task of the ontologists was to prove that He is. In the past 200 years that task has changed: the “it” is now the world, and ontology tells you how the world is.
C. What’s wrong with that?
H. That you can’t do it.
C. Why not?
H. Because I can only speak about my experiences, they are the primary cause. C. And the world?
H. And the world is the consequence.
C. How do you see then the connection between what you call the primary cause and its consequences?
H. That is the epistemological question.
C. You bring up a new term here, epistemology. Can you explain it?
H. It is Greek: epi means “up,” “above,” and histamein means “to stand” ; hence epihistamein means “upper-standing.” The English, apparently, prefer to see things from below, so they speak of “under-standing”; thus, epistemology is the science, study, theory of understanding. But since a theory is to provide an understanding of that what it is the theory of, epistemology is understanding understanding.
C. I’m not understanding your “understanding understanding”; can you say it differently?
H. When you asked me for the connection between experience and world, I would probably have said that any circular process, any recursive process, when operating on an entity, produces that entity, where these “entities” themselves can be operations, processes, etc.
C. This is very abstract. You now refer to mathematical notions of recursive functions as a general basis for understanding mental processes. In order to concretize your notions, we need to identify the relevant specific processes, and the entities produced by them in any given field of interest, and demonstrate their recursive nature. – Can you help me by giving an example?
H. Language may be a good case. Ask “What is Language?” and the answer must have been contained in the question, for otherwise the question could not have been asked. Moreover, language speaks about itself: there is a word for language, namely, “language,” a word for word, namely, “word,” etc.
And then there is of course the hermeneutic circle: the meaning of a word is established through its context – Zusammenhang, as Frege called it.[Note 7] But context, in turn, is built through words.
C. Don’t you get the argument that this never-ending circularity is a de facto circulus vitiosus, that it is, in essence, an attention diverter for hiding the flaw in your upside-down epistemology, where experience is the cause and the world the consequence, instead of being the other way around?
H. Of course, I’m getting these arguments all the time, and in all shades. And understandably so. Because it is not more than 20 years ago that the ancient philosophical rejection of the indefinite regress, an operation that was believed to lead to nowhere, was replaced by an understanding of recursive functions that lead indeed to somewhere. They lead to those stabilities that evolve, emerge, arise, come to the fore, become manifest, for instance, in the phenomenon language, “as a coordinating agent for actions among conversing human beings” as Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores would say[Note 8] or become even objects as I would say.[Note 9] Objects in the sense that they stand as tokens for stable behaviours, “Eigen-behaviours” as these stable dynamic equilibria were then called. Today, however, one speaks of “fixed points,” “attractors” , even “strange attractors,” when referring to these recursively stable states.
C. This implies that when applying your ideas to my fields of interest, I would have to tailor these notions to fit for instance the processes at this conference or the processes of design involved in software development. I need to look for the relevant recursive operations in action here and for the specific stabilities that they give rise to.
The interactions between the participants of this conference may be taken as recursive operations giving rise to stabilities in terms of richer distinctions and common insights leading to further interactions.
In the case of design, I have argued that the making and revising design decisions are recursive operations and the resulting web of design decisions the emerging stabilities.[Note 10]
In doing so, I may find a way of understanding these processes better as an observer. Even more, I am interested in facilitating these processes as a participant.
But, let us first continue to discuss your arguments on epistemology.
H. You spoke about my upside-down epistemology, where experience is the cause and the world the consequence, implying that there must be a rightside-up epistemology, where the world is the cause and my experiences are the consequences.
You were right: this is, in fact, the popular, or should I say, orthodox position. This is the position of an observer who thinks he is separated from the world, looking as through a peephole at an unfolding universe, and who believes that he reports unequivocally to us all about this unfolding universe. It is the delusion of objectivity and truth.
C. You are using very strong words.
H. Not strong enough. By separating oneself from the world, one separates oneself from others as well. Hence, one thinks that one can, without consequences for oneself, tell others: “Thou shalt …” or “Thou shalt not …”. Or take objectivity: “The properties of the observer shall not enter into his descriptions.” How can this be? Without his faculties to observe and describe, there would be no descriptions in the first place.
C. And how about truth?
H. Christiane, it’s a millipede we are talking about, so brace yourself. Truth? It’s impossible! First, because it is impossible to describe anything unambiguously, for it is the listener and not the speaker who determines the meaning of an utterance; and second, because we can never check the truth of a report, for nobody knows what is, or was, we only know what is experienced.
No, Christiane, we cannot use this epistemology.
C. So you would say that this is the wrong epistemology. But how can we do without the notions of objectivity and truth? Does this not imply that everything is arbitrary? Do you have an alternative to offer? Is your epistemology the right one?
H. Wow! Four questions at once! Let me postpone for the moment my view on right and wrong epistemologies and turn to your question of how we can do without objectivity and truth.
Since objectivity and truth are only recent inventions, we must have done pretty well without them before. Aletheia in Greek means “that which is not obscured” (a not, lanihanein to hide). From the context in which aletheia appears, one thinks it can be translated with “truth” , though “evidence” may be semantically closer, for here being true is not the opposite of being false, but of being hidden. There is a fascinating analogy in German where the word for “perceiving” is “wahr-nehmen” , that is “taking-a-hold-of.”[Note 11]
C. And when I perceive what is not, is that an illusion, a hallucination?
H. By way of an answer, let me refer to our great perceptologists Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana[Note 12] and others, who insist that there is no distinction between perception and hallucination. When, in delirium tremens,
I see white rats running up and down the walls, white rats are running up and down the walls. Too bad for the others who don’t see them.
C. Did you say earlier that you would give me your view on my question about right and wrong epistemologies, or did I have a hallucination?
H. I don’t know. We have to ask the others.
Be that as it may be, my view on this question is that it belongs to those questions that are in principle undecidable. The fascinating thing is that the question: “Is the world the primary cause and my experiences the consequence, or are my experiences the primary cause and the world the consequence?” is in principle undecidable. It is like asking the question: “How did the universe begin?” Nobody was there, and there is no way to find out. Nevertheless, we have many answers: a creation a few thousand years ago; a big bang a few billion years ago; the wedding of chaos with darkness, whence everything came forth; etc.
C. You said that these are in principle undecidable questions, and yet you give me plenty of answers. What is going on here?
H. What is going on here is that it is precisely those questions, that are in principle undecidable, that we can decide.
H. Because those that are decidable, for instance, “Is 208796 divisible by 2?” we cannot decide, they have already been decided by the choice of the framework in which they are asked. However, with in principle undecidable questions we have the freedom to decide, and with this freedom we now have the responsibility for our decision.
C. Does that mean, that we have the freedom to decide whether or not we consider the world or our experiences as primary; that we have the responsibility for this decision; and that your stand on epistemology is a result from your choice, which I may or may not follow?
C. In our daily lives, questions of the fundamental kind you have just mentioned rarely become explicit as the basis of our actions. Your distinction between decidable and in principle undecidable questions would have to be drawn on a much smaller scale. Are there in principle undecidable questions coming up in ordinary situations?
Looking at software development again, we need to concern ourselves with questions that may crop up in design. While functional software requirements tend to be decided in advance by the choice of the framework in which they are asked, issues of software quality are determined by decisions for which we take the responsibility in design.
Thus, our way of constructing a reality as inventive observers, the metaphors we use, the distinctions we make and the flexibility we allow for, give rise to quite different possibilities for people to interact with software.
Is this a variation of what you once called an ethical imperative: “Act always so as to increase the number of choices”?[Note 13]
H. Of course, very much so. The spirit of this “imperative” is to encourage an “opening” , a “seeing” , an extension of one’s antennas, a refusal to take things for granted, a questioning of “necessity.” Ever since Jacques Monod came up with his famous book Chance and Necessity,[Note 14] it has become popular to think of chance and necessity as the two complementary poles in a conceptual whole. But the complement to necessity is not chance, it is choice!
You touched on this point just now, when you talked about creating different possibilities for people to interact with software, about constructing our reality as inventive observers, about the way we use metaphors and so on. Christiane, all this is so different from the earlier obsession with telling you how it is, the ontological thinking. It is quite clear to me that you and the participants of your conference are not so much interested in what is, but in what can be created. This explains your pre-occupation with self- organization, with reality construction, with inventing and the like, all generative processes, conceptually linked to the notion of choice.
Listen to one of your philosophical brothers, the existentialist Jose Ortega y Gasset: “Man does not have a nature, but a history…. Man is no thing, but a drama…. His life is something that has to be chosen, made up as he goes along, and a man consists in that choice and invention. Each man is the novelist of himself, and though he may choose between being an original writer and a plagiarist, he cannot escape choosing…. He is condemned to be free…..”[Note 15]
Constructivism and related ways of thinking deal with ontogenetics, the science of becoming. They touch domains that are untouched, and untouchable by ontology, the science of being.
C. I remember that when I first gave you my paper on paradigm change in software development,[Note 16] where I point out the complementarity between processes and products, you immediately brought up ontogenetics, since looking at design as a process emphasizes how software is made up by us as we go along, and how we assume responsibility when providing possibilities for computer-supported action for ourselves and for others. This responsibility is connected to our awareness that there are human choices to be made in design.
On a very deep level, you said you make a choice in considering your experiences as primary cause and the world as consequence. What persuades you to do so?
H. This choice connects me inseparably with my world and with others. Whenever I act, not only I change, but the universe as well. Notions of reflexivity, of self-reference that turn on themselves, that preserve the tie between observer and observed, speaker and speech, and partners in dialogue, form the core of this position, and the only commandments that make sense are: “I shall” or “I shall not….”
C. How do you then account for dialogue?
H. When I read Martin Buber’s Das Problem des Menschen I was most moved by the last paragraph of his book.[Note 17] When I translated it from the German into English I tried to preserve the force and the spirit of the original. May I read it to you?
C. Yes, please do.
H. “Contemplate the human with the human, and you will see the dynamic duality, the human essence, together: here is the giving and the receiving, here the aggressive and the defensive power, here the quality of searching and responding, and always both in one, mutually complementing in alternating action, demonstrating together what is is to be human. Now you can turn to the single one, and you recognize him as human for his potential of relating; then you can turn to the whole and recognize it as human for the richness of relating. We may come closer to answering the question: what is human?, when we come to understand him as the being in whose dialogic, in whose mutually present two-getherness, the encounter of the one with the other is realized at all times.”
C. I can now understand what you meant when you said that I “self-organized” you, and I join you happily in acknowledging the dialogical human reality you refer to. It seems our task, then, to find ways for making this dialogical reality come to life in all our endeavours, including professional activities such as developing software.
Clearly, “self-organizing one-another,” to put it in your terms, does not refer to manipulation and control. Rather, it means to create and maintain conditions allowing the richness of human relations to unfold in dialogical networks, with a view to increasing the possibilities of choice for all.
But I must confess that your expression “self-organizing someone” sounds unnatural to me. We seem to leave the conceptual domain of reality construction, unless it be joint reality construction with you, in the sense of sharing reality in the web of all dialogical relations we find ourselves in.
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Foerster H. von (1960) On self-organizing systems and their environments. In: (Yovits and Cameron, 1960): 31–50. http://cepa.info/1593
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Monod J. (1972) Chance and Necessity. Random House, New York.
Ortega y Gasset J. (1961) History as a System. New York. (Translated by Weyl, Clark and Atkinson)
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Pask G. (1962a) Interaction between a group of subjects and an adaptive automaton to produce a self-organizing system for decision making. In: Yovits M. C., Jacoby G. T. & Goldstein G. D. (eds.) Self-Organizing Systems. Spartan Books, Washington DC: 283–312.
Pask G. (1962b) A proposed evolutionary model. In: Foerster H. von & Zopf G. W. (eds.) Principles of Self-Organization. Pergamon, New York: 229–254.
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Varela F. J. (1975) A calculus for self-reference. International Journal of General Systems 2: 5–24. http://cepa.info/1840
Winograd T. & Flores F. (1986) Understanding Computers and Cognition – A New Foundation for Design. Ablex, Norwood NJ.
[v. Foerster et al., 1949]
[Pask, 1960, Pask, 1962a, Pask, 1962b, Pask and v. Foerster, 1961]
[v. Foerster, 1960]
[v. Foerster, 1960]
[Winograd and Flores, 1986]
[v. Foerster, 1981b]
Floyd, Chap. 3.2
The root for this word in old German is the now obsolete “wahr” as in “Gewahrsam.”
[v. Foerster, 1981a]
[Ortega y Gasset, 1961]
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