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    Cybernetics And Conversation

    [This piece was written at the request of Frank Galuszka, President, American Society for Cybernetics, in May 1996, and published in monograph format as Communication and Anti-communication.

    The piece attempts to capture, in every-day language, the breadth of Conversation Theory as purveyed by Gordon Pask. Although it was not explicit in the publication, a sub-title could be, "Conversation Theory in Two Pages."]


    A: 'Without conversation, there is nothing (no thing).'

    B: 'Doesn't that imply, "In the beginning, was the conversation" ?'

    As observing beings, we learn what we learn by interacting with our environment: the spaces, objects, processes and others-who-are-also-observing all around us. Construing these interactions as "conversations", whether with our friends or our pet fish, is highly useful in both metaphorical and formal ways.

    Metaphorically speaking, we "converse" with everything in our environment. We "offer our views" as we act, re-act and think. The environment "speaks to us" in the sense that we interpret it. We respond to what we hear and see and feel, in an exchange that has the structure of a dialogue in language.

    More formally, the term "conversation" was used by Gordon Pask and others in the body of work called Conversation Theory, which formalizes concepts such as agreement, understanding, and consciousness. Each of these concepts (as well as the concept "concept") exists in relation to conversation.

    For us to understand each other, there are minimum requirements. We may both utter the word "cup" or "happiness" or "cybernetics", but, what is required for each of us to know we agree on the meaning? A conversation, surely. You explicate how a cup is used, and what it is for. I hear your views, re-compute your perspectives, and come as close as I can get to your meaning of "cup." But is your meaning (or, to say it more carefully, my view of your meaning) consistent with my own, pre-existing view? Are there conflicts? And that is only the half of it. After I exteriorize _my_ view of why a cup is what it is and how it is used, does your view of my view of a cup resonate (and not conflict) with your original view? In summary, if we resonate together in our views of "cup", then (as named by Conversation Theory) we have "agreement over an understanding" - in both metaphorical and formal terms.

    This perspective is consonant with Maturana's concept of language as "consensual coordination of consensual coordination of actions." It is in language, and via conversation, that we live together. In that living, and through agreement, we share perspectives and merge into fractal communities of relations, friends, clubs, schools of thought and entire cultures. Insofar as we share our similarities and (for a moment) ignore our differences, we merge with other participants in conversation and lose our individuality in exchange for "becoming one with others", at least in the cognitive domain.

    This shared awareness, or consciousness, is an outcome of conversation. It is a state that persists beyond the individual. According to Pask, consciousness is conserved in the same strict scientific sense that matter and energy are conserved in the transformations of physics. And, much as Heisenberg uncertainty informs us about the physical realm, Conversation Theory speaks of how certain we can be of what we know about each other.

    And what of the taciturn world of trees and sky, stones and water (particles and electrons)? How do we know anything about these things? How are they distinguished and their properties observed? Though "on our own" we evoke a conversation between these elements, just to be able to see them: figure and ground, boundary and body, identity and exchange. Perhaps the elements of our perceptual field do not, by one meaning of the term, converse; but as observers we trace a dialogue from one side to the other, looping around and across the boundaries we create. Carrying utterances about "harder on this side, swifter on that side" in an interaction that we give breath to, we compare and contrast the two (or more) sides. We invoke a point-of-view for each side, inventing participants in conversation. By this process we construct our understanding of all the elements, based in their relationship to each other.

    By this explanation it appears that we learn what we learn through the interactions we construct. Conversation is the basis of all that we know. Hence cybernetics, which is itself a formal inquiry into what we can know and how we know it, is always concerned with conversations.

    One further thought about what arises through conversation, in this looping-around across perspectives that constructs what we know. If instead of observing a relationship of objects in our environment, we take a position of observing ourselves in conversation with others, a similar phenomenon occurs: the participants in the conversation are defined by the looping-around. Our features, feelings, opinions, boundaries, differences are computed by the interaction. Thus we find ourselves being constructed (defined, identified, distinguished) _by_ that conversation. From this point-of-view, our selves emerge as a consequence of conversation. Expressed more fully, conversation and identity arise together.

    A: 'So without conversation, there is no self-and-other.'

    B: 'But can you also say that the conversation creates the observer and the observer creates the conversation?'

    These sentences are, themselves, observer statements. Cybernetics, the science of describing, offers to place such circular and self-reflexive utterances in their scientific context: the inevitable consequence of the actions of observing systems.



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