All watched over by machines of loving grace

moss-cloche-closeup

I recently saw a documentary at the Palais de Tokyo as part of their exhibition entitled “All watched over by machines of loving grace.” The documentary, by BBC journalist Adam Curtis, was a fascinating insight into systems theory, cybernetics and ecology.

So of course, I took to the trusty scholarly search engines to find out more.

A (vicious) circle

Early scholars of the movement described nature as an electrical circuit, with amplifiers and dampeners of the natural order. In terms of ecology, systems theory described nature as a self-governing machine that responded to changes in the environment and adjusted to maintain a natural balance. In essence, an ordered cycle of life.

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A systems theory cycle

This is called a feedback loop, i.e there is a cause and an effect. Following on from this, there can be another factor that then influences the original input.

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Feedback loop

Cybernetics

No, I’m not talking about robots!

Cybernetics is at the heart of systems theory, describing nature as a system that can be controlled and managed. Cybernetics considers nature in the bigger picture, looking at the response of the environment to changes.

Cybernetics introduced the concept of ‘negative feedback’, where in order to maintain equilibrium, where the output result that feeds back into the network is out of equilibrium, and is reduced to maintain the steady state.

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Negative feedback loop

Earth as a spaceship

Cybernetics spawned the early environmental movement in the 1970s. This was based on the modelling of the ecological feedback loops. Scholars and activists realised that if a steady-state of ecological systems could not be maintained, irreversible damage or a catastrophe would occur.

This produced the idea of the earth as a spaceship. A self-contained object that required all systems to exist and work in harmony in order to maintain a sustainable environment within the ‘spaceship’. If not, water, air, or food would be compromised. In fact, cybernetics also contributed to the development of the Doomsday Clock. This is a metaphorical countdown to the end of the world based on the (dis)equilibrium of the population and our environment.

It’s not just science fiction

Systems theory feedback loops are used in everything from psychology (understanding people’s responses to the environment around them), to machine learning and computers and, to the development of the internet.

Final Thought

The most fascinating focus of the documentary was the realisation that man’s reliance on machines in order to ‘improve’ our quality of life as well as increase productivity in industry, has destroyed the idea of an ecological cybernetic system. The early theorists failed to anticipate that the negative feedback loop would not adjust to a rapidly changing human population, one that was at disequilibrium with its environment. This can be seen in the rapid extinction of animal and plant species, as well as the wealth of some countries versus the absolute poverty of their neighbours.

It really was such an interesting documentary, and I urge you all to watch it (link included in first section).

Sources

Bernard C. Patten and Eugene P. Odum. The American Naturalist, Vol. 118, No. 6 (Dec., 1981), pp. 886-895

http://www.its.dept.uncg.edu/hdf/facultystaff/Tudge/Bronfenbrenner%201995.pdf

http://maft.dept.uncg.edu/hdf/facultystaff/Tudge/Bronfenbrenner%201977.pdf

https://staff.washington.edu/jhannah/geog270aut07/readings/population/Ehrlich%20-%20Population%20Bomb%20Ch1.pdf

 

 

The Communication Series

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It might be surprising to know that communication, that is, how we communicate, what we say (even when we aren’t saying it) and how the communication is used, is quite a complicated field of study. In the next few posts that I am calling “The Communication Series”, I discuss the theories and analyses of communication.

Communication theories attempt to describe and give purpose to the way that the communication processes occur and have advanced, as well as attempting to suggest ways to improve communication by highlighting limitations.

These theories are generally applied to organisations where there are clear structural and power differences and communication can either enhance or impair an organisations success.

What you talkin’ about?

At the heart of communication is discourse, which encompasses the information and knowledge being relayed. Having said that, communication is not just a means in which information is moved between individuals, but it is a way of reinforcing and establishing ideas, ethics, structure, ethos as well as output and productivity.

Who you talkin’ to?

If we take a business as an example, effective communication is critical for its interaction with employees/team members as well as with the environment outside of the organisation. The communication is therefore essential to its success.

Continuing with the ‘business’ scenario, the communication can be between peers on the same hierarchal level, managers to employees, or boards of directors to managers. Outside of the business, it can be by customer feedback, profit, the ability of the organisation to expand, marketing/public image, or how the organisation compares with others within the same industry/field.

What did you just say?

What is important to remember is that communication is not just the act of saying words, but can also be from responding to stimuli or by the interpretation of facial expressions and behaviour. And let us not forget that it can also be electronically delivered, such as on a blog, for example….

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

If how and what we say can change, as well as the interpretation of the message, it demonstrates that communication is an ongoing, changing process. For effective communication to occur, incorporating the varying nature of communication is crucial. If we go back to the business scenario, how an organisation understands these changes and implements them to create new environments can define the organisation, i.e. the means and processes by which individuals within the organisation communicate in order to work together.

The many theory phenomena

Not every organisation is structured similarly, meaning the ways in which they communicate are vastly different. For example, how does communication work in organisations that are hierarchical versus organisations that are collaborative? How do the organisations tackle social and cultural changes, and how do they use communication to incorporate these changes? Hence, just as there are different styles of communication and organisational structures, there are also different theories that can be applied to how communication works within these organisations.

The three main theories are functional, centred and emerging.

“The Communication Series Theories”

The functional theory can be described as performance based, focusing on how messages move through an organisation. It focuses on how rules and regulations resulting in output and yield, shape the communication. This theory focuses on structure, and does not apply well to changing methods of communication and culture.

The centred (or meaning-centred) approach asks how symbolism, stories and emotions are used to construct social structures and personal relationships. This approach encourages incorporating change and the ever-changing nature of communication.

Emerging communication theory focuses on newer and more critical theories that are being applied to communication. In the following posts I will discuss two to of these newer theories – critical and post-modernism.

Sources

All sources used throught “The Communication Series” will be placed in the final post. However if you are genuinely interested in a source, send me a message!