Open Thinkering

Menu

Tag: ethics

TB872: Vickers and appreciative systems

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category


Screencap of Sir Geoffrey Vickers in a video recorded for The Open University from 1978

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but it’s quite hard not to. We form opinions about whether something is “of interest” to us or not by how it is packaged. Big Tech knows this, hence we end up with shiny apps featuring vacuous influencers reacting to inconsequential things, rather than the majority of humanity focusing on anything important.

I’ve used a screencap of a video recorded in 1978 featuring Sir Geoffrey Vickers to accompany this post as a way to illustrate this point. Vickers not only talks like my Great Aunt used to do when she put on her ‘telephone voice’ but is the opposite of someone who has grown up being comfortable in front of a camera. He physically dodges and weaves about, and speaks in circumlocutions. What he has to say, however, is important.

Vickers talks about how he “grew to manhood before the First World War in an England that took stability for granted and regarded order — national and international — both as a self-regulating process of betterment called progress and also as a field for human design directed to the same end” (Vickers, quoted in Blackmore, 2010, p.17). The war changed all of this for him.

Appreciative systems

In the video, and in a chapter of the text for this part of the module (Blackmore, 2010) which contains quotations from parts of his work, Vickers outlines his concept of ‘appreciative systems’:

We are changed not only by being talked to but also by hearing ourselves talk to others, which is one way of talking to ourselves. More exactly, we are changed by making explicit what we suppose to have been awaiting expression a moment before […]. we know very little about how we carry on this extraordinary activity. We have not even a name for this state of affairs in our heads which is the fruit of past communication and which is both the target and the interpreter of present communication […]. Nearly all our communication is directed to changing its state in others or in ourselves. It is strange that neither scientific nor common speech should have a word for it. I have taken to calling it an appreciative system, because the word appreciation, as we use it when we speak of appreciating a situation, seems to me to carry with it those linked connotations of interest, discrimination and valuation which we bring to the exercise of judgment and which tacitly determine what we shall notice, how we shall discriminate situations from the general confusion of ongoing events and how we shall regard them. I conceive it as consisting largely of categories for classifying and criteria for valuing experience […] I call it a system because these categories and criteria are mutually related; a change in one is likely to affect others. The actual state of this system at any one time I will call its current setting. And I shall use these terms both for individuals and for those common settings which distinguish and give coherence to groups, societies and cultures.

Vickers (1987), quoted in Blackmore (2010, p.19)

I’m not sure how much of the German philosophers Vickers read, but there’s a hint of Hegel in the way that he makes a distinction between ‘readiness-to-do’ and ‘readiness-to-value’. The former, he says, comes from scientific models which explain how we act by explaining how the nervous systems await appropriate signals. The latter, meanwhile, is a “much more difficult distinction between seeing and valuing” which Vickers explains in the following way:

In man, [the] capacity for representing to himself his manifold contexts and using these representations as a basis for communication and for forethought is his most striking characteristic… This kind of learning has received curiously little attention from psychologists, compared with the obsessive attention given to readiness-to-do.

(ibid., pp.19-20)

In other words, Vickers draws attention to the complexity of learning beyond mere ‘action readiness’. It’s not about just perceiving (seeing) our environment, but interpreting and assigning value to what we perceive (valuing). This is what he means by ‘appreciation’: a way to make judgements about the significance and worth of various aspects of our environment by developing preferences, making ethical decisions, and forming emotional responses.

Observers and agents

In the video which is included in the module materials (The Open University, 2021) and which I screencapped above, Vickers makes the point that an observer does not understand more, but perhaps less than the agent who is involved in the thing being observed. He does not explicitly talk about a football match, but this is what I have in mind with this quotation from the transcript:

Science, for a long time, has assumed not only that the observer saw more of the game than the player but that he saw everything that was worth seeing. The idea that the agent might see and, still less, might be something which the observer couldn’t see and be has been another of these embarrassing notions that got left out.

And yet, if we are really going to take seriously the insight that we are ourselves part of most, in theory, all the things that we quote ‘observe’ unquote and in practice of all the most important ones, the ones that fall into the psychosocial field, then you have to accept the fact that we need the experience of an agent just as much as we need the observations of an observer. And it is only by marrying the two that we make any sense of what we observe.

Some social scientists have got into grotesque contortions, and it seems to me by trying to be completely objective about their own kind and thus trying to exclude the direct knowledge that they, in fact, have, ignoring the fact that half their vocabulary only has a meaning because their own personal experience has put it in.

The Open University (2021)

Standards of value

I’m not sure how useful this diagram is from Checkland and Casar (1986, cited in Blackmore, 2010, p.21) but I’ll include it for the sake of completeness. It’s perhaps best understood by thinking about what each generation needs to have as a worldview to understand events. I mentioned my Great Aunt earlier, who understood the world in a very different way to my parents, who in turn make sense of the world in a vastly different way to me, and my own children.

Diagram of Vickers' appreciative systems model from Checkland and Casar (1986)

The ‘standards’ referenced in the above diagram are “what we expect or desire or think right or acceptable” which affect “our attitudes towards these relations and helps to determine what they
actually are” (Vickers, 1972, quoted in Blackmore, 2010, pp.21-22). In other words, standards of judgement, which give meaning to our experience and by which we judge whether it is “important” or “acceptable” and so on.

Feed-forward

Vickers talks about the concept of “feed-forward” before, I assume, it was popular or trendy. He says that this plays “a far larger direct part than feedback” in terms of deliberate human action (Vickers, 1972, quoted in Blackmore, 2010, p.22). By “feed-forward” Vickers means rehearsing possible futures in our minds, playing out different alternatives based on different types of intervention by ourselves and others.

This world of represented contexts is, I suggest, the world in which we effectively live. It is our supreme mental achievement. Most of our communication is directed to developing it, revising it, trying to reduce its inconsistencies, to test its accuracy and to extend its scope. I will call it our appreciated world.

[…]

The appreciated world, as it grows, organizes our further experience and mediates our communication, as well as guides our actions. It is an hypothetical world, in the sense that it is largely built up on hypotheses, more or less developed, about how and why things happen as they do. It is also hypothetical in the sense that it is never completely validated, much of it is highly uncertain and some of it may be and may remain radically, undiscoverably and irremediably wrong – if only because it is sometimes ahead of and sometimes behind the constantly changing ‘realities’ that it selects and interprets. When events are inconsistent with it, they seldom throw light on what is wrong with it; feedback is often no more informative than the return of an undelivered letter. Though personal, it is a social construct; it would barely exist but for human communication. It is the major social, no less than the major personal, creation.

(ibid, pp.23-24)

What counts as ‘ethical’?

I listened back to Dan Carlin, the host of Hardcore History, when he was a guest on another podcast. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins” and wonders aloud what we mean by ‘harm’ these days. Extending the metaphor, he says it’s as if everyone has longer and longer noses these days, meaning that people get offended more easily.

Vickers, writing in the 1970s, talks about the “present storm of ethical protests” which he believes is “largely due… to the huge expansion of issues which are rightly deemed to be ethical”. Between us and the impersonal world of things like the “wilderness” and the “market” stands “an institutional world on which we subsist”. This has an ethical dimension about which we can “meaningfully argue” (Vickers, 1973, quoted in Blackmore, 2010, p.27).

References

  • Blackmore, C. (ed.) (2010). Social learning systems and communities of practice. London: Springer. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-84996-133-2.
  • The Open University. (2021). ‘3.3.2 Vickers: appreciation and appreciative systems’, TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=2171593&section=3.3.2 (Accessed 23 February 2024).

Convenience, UX, and ethics

Old TV displaying the phrase "the convenience you demanded is now mandatory" with each word in the design of a big tech company (e.g. Amazon/Netflix)

At about this time of year (Frimaire, for those paying attention) I get a little more introspective. I tend to reconsider my relationship with technology more generally, and apps/platforms in particular.

This is because decisions I make about my relationship with tech are a proxy for my wider views about the world, including philosophy, politics, and society.

The meme at the top of this post went by my Mastodon timeline recently (thanks to Ali for re-finding it!) and perfectly encapsulated the relationship many of us have with tech. In a nutshell, convenience and good user experience (UX) trumps ethics and thoughtful decision-making every time.

It’s all very well wringing our hands and promising to use Amazon less, but we’re living in a world where regulators need to step in and ensure more competition.

In the meantime, there are small decisions we can all make which won’t inconvenience us too much. For me, that means having goals in mind about consumption, ethical principles, and the tools I use to communicate.


This post is Day 65 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

10 ways to Build Back Better

I’ve seen plenty of talk about ‘Building Back Better’ over the last few weeks.

Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric has come from people whose ideological and political beliefs conflict with mine, which makes me concerned that ‘Building Back Better’ is going to be used as a friendly front-end for an attack on anyone lacking privilege.

As a small way to counter that impending narrative, then, here are some suggestions on how we can make post-pandemic better than pre-pandemic for most of us.

  1. Distribute wealth by mercilessly taxing people who profit from the labour of others (and/or surveillance capitalism)
  2. Distribute power by providing worker ownership of businesses and public ownership of public goods
  3. Reform our democratic systems by introducing proportional representation to safeguard against authoritarian tendencies
  4. Take steps to integrate marginalised groups within society, and generously fund programmes to ensure this happens
  5. Reimagine education to focus on more on collaboration than competition
  6. Heavily tax organisations that make profits by exploiting scarce natural resources
  7. Ban facial recognition in all but a very narrow range of cases, and regulate it well
  8. Invest in mental health services, especially for young people and those hit hardest by the pandemic
  9. Engage in land (ownership) reform to ensure that the few do not constrain the many
  10. Ban pension funds from investing in ethically-dubious companies (e.g. conflict minerals, arms manufacturers)

It’s a mixed bag, and comes off the top of my head this morning. Nevertheless, the above is probably quite uncontroversial for the kind of people who read this blog.

What would your list look like?


This post is Day 56 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com 

css.php