Communication & Information – Norbert Wiener’s Paradox

“…We cannot afford to ignore Norbert Wiener’s observation of a paradox that results from our increasing technological capability in electronic communication: as the number of messages increases, the amount of information carried decreases. We have more media to communicate fewer significant ideas.”

FROM: Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner. (1969). Teaching As a Subversive Activity. — page 8


This quote was from 1969, and was citing Norbert Wiener, who died in 1964, but I suspect he was discussing this paradox in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. I wonder what Wiener would think about our current state of affairs? He’d have to talk about miscommunication, false information, and so much more as part of the communication circuits, as well.

The implications of the increase in the amount of information (both factual and not), the increase of triviality and nonsense within that information, and the increase in propaganda along with the ease with which communication can now occur are frightening. Yes, it is nice to have easy access to information, but it requires ways of sorting out the trash from the significant. How do we know what is really trash, what is really significant? How much do we have to dig through before we get to the significant? How much time will we have to spend getting to worthy information? On another line of questions, some people may find messages of hate and distrust valuable. So, what are the implications for divisiveness among people from local communities to the global population? How can we work towards bringing people together, promoting understanding and appreciation of difference, and so forth?

There are so many issues and questions that cross all aspects of living … and ultimately our survival as a species. Wiener’s paradox and all of the questions it brings up affects everything from our personal psychological wellness to global politics, from our effect on ecosystems to our effect on societies. It affects education, spirituality, economics, politics, and global affairs. It is a monster like nothing that has ever been experienced.

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What do Schools Teach Children?

Paul Birtwell posted a graphic that listed the following criteria of schooling:
What does school really teach children?

  1. Truth comes from authority.
  2. Intelligence is the ability to remember and repeat.
  3. Accurate memory and repetition are rewarded.
  4. Non-compliance is punished.
  5. Conform intellectually and socially.

Yep… and it’s been this way for a long, long time.

There are a few exceptions, including schools influenced by John Dewey’s ideas, Reggio Emilia schools and those influenced by these schools, and a spattering of others. But, for the most part, public, charter, and private schools in the U.S. and most other countries, these 5 points are the overarching framework.

In a democracy:

  1. Authority should be questioned. Truth is something children should be seeking through their play, exploration, inquiries, and talk.
  2. Intelligence is not what can be regurgitated, but involves the abilities to question, think, analyze, imagine, create, and so forth.
  3. The abilities to construct good arguments, to create novel works in the arts (dramatic, musical, visual, etc.), to analyze, to question, etc. should be valued (I don’t want to say “rewarded” since it wreaks of behaviorism and our tendency to treat children like they are rats).
  4. Non-compliance should be an indication of issues with the nature of the classroom community and should lead to re-evaluating the way the community is maintained. Non-compliance also is an indication of a disconnect between the child and the adults and/or community, which the intelligent child intelligence is seeing. We should value non-compliance as an expression of intelligence and courage.
  5. Conformity should be suspect. The individuality of each child should be valued and celebrated. Diversity and variation are what keeps all types of systems viable and healthy, and are what provides for growth, development, and change.
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When Things Go South — Schismogenesis

Have you ever noticed what happens when our life situations go south or when big global situations turn bad? It seems that much more often than not, we react with aggression, which can range from pushing someone away to outright physical aggression and violence. At least in contemporary Western societies, the only other ways of reacting to bad situations include (a) withdrawing or taking submissive position or (b) trying to seduce the other entity into some sort of relationship.

Buddhists call these reactions the three poisonous emotions or kleshas. The first is aggression, which can range from pushing something away to attacking it. The second is ignorance or avoidance, where one might withdraw or take a submissive position in order to avoid conflict. The third is passion, where one tries to seduce the other and take ownership. None of these emotional reactions or strategies is particularly helpful. They all result in further conflicts and confusion.

From the perspective of Gregory Bateson, there also are three basic strategies or types of relationships. These types of relationships don’t align with the Buddhist 3 poisons, but one can see how the three poisons come into play within these relationships. Gregory called the first of these types of relationship “symmetrical.” Such symmetrical relationships are characterized by the parties being at odds with one another. Such a relationship can manifest as two people or two groups vying for control. Both individuals or groups are similar in nature. The second type of relationship he called “complementary.” In these relationships, the individuals or entities take on the characteristics of opposites. In some cases these relationships consist of a dominant individual and a submissive individual. Both of these types of relationships tend to degenerate into schismogenesis or the pulling apart and disintegration of the relationships. The warfare of the symmetrical and the resentment of the complementary do not help bring relationships together. The only type of relationship that holds the potential to not lead into schismogenesis is reciprocal or a relationship based on negotiation and some sense of mutuality. However, most relationships, whether at the scale of two individuals or even one individual contending with some other thing (e.g., an alcoholic and alcohol) or at the scale of nations, relationships move from symmetrical to complementary to reciprocal. But, the ones that tend to default at reciprocal are those that hold the most potential for survival.

But, let’s go back to how our default patterns of reaction, especially in Western societies, seem to be those that are aggressive or retaliatory. Someone calls us a name and we are ready to punch them. Someone drives to slowly and we start cursing at them. We think some problem is the fault of a particular group (illegal immigrants, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, Christians, or whomever). We react with aggression. At the very least, we may spread the anger or hatred and poison those around us. The reaction to 9/11 was aggression. The reaction to anything we don’t like is one of aggression. Abortion doctors are killed. A murderer is executed. A person who looks different from us is pushed away, attacked, or killed. We do this every single day. The police do it. Everyday citizens do it. Corporations do it.

And, as our world begins to collapse under the weight of a burgeoning population, rising sea levels, scarcity of water, scarcity of food, and scarcity of almost all resources, people will act out through aggression. But, aggression is exactly what is NOT needed. We don’t need to disintegrate into the visions extreme schismogenesis as in Mad Max, Blade Runner, or Total Recall. What we need to do more than anything is to come together. And, the only way to do that is with reciprocity along with heavy doses of empathy, compassion, and a willingness to understand others. Of course, we also need to change our ways of thinking so that we can in fact move toward solutions to a global meltdown, which isn’t a problem of any one nation or group of people, but is a problem for all of humanity.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I’ll end with an excerpt from a poem (“It’s a Mistake to Think You’re Special”) by John Giorno (from Subduing Demons in America, 2008, Berkeley, CA: SoftSkull Press, pp. 341—342) – read this with rhythm and a lot of energy:

on the carcass
of a dead bird,
and your body
is being pulled down
into the world
as a king.

I feel most
at home
among the defiled
I feel most at
home among
the defiled
I feel most at home among
the defiled,
in the center
of a flower
under a deep

It’s a mistake
to think
you’re special.


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Habits of Mind

We have these habits of mind in the West where we think along lines that are linear… simple cause and effect. But, the world (outside of simple physical, nonliving events) does not work that way. We must think about the complexity of multiple systems interacting and where the “blame” is in the relationships, which is not with individuals, with groups, or with other entities.

The same holds true for all levels of relationship. From those with our lovers and families to those among nations. It’s all about the relationships and intricate interconnections within and among different systems (we can think of each individual as a system, in addition to larger systems with fuzzy boundaries, such as nations, social groups, ecosystems, economies, religions, etc.).‬‬

As individuals, we are the result of our relationships. These relationship range from the molecular (e.g., DNA is all about the relationships between the base pairs) to those with family, friends, teachers, and others and to those with our environments. The relationships within the contexts in which we have lived contribute to a great extent who we are and how we manifest. That’s part of our humanity. We are social beings, who learn socially. And, this learning is mostly not the learning we do in schools. We are learning systems… and the systems in which we live are learning systems. According to Nora Bateson (2015), this kind of learning is called “symmathesy” or mutual learning in contexts. Murderers and criminals of all kinds are the product of symmathesy as are the highly regarded political leaders, spiritual leaders, and all the rest of us, including bacteria, protists, plants, fish, birds, and so on. All living systems, social systems, and ecological systems, are examples of symmathesy. This learning is “in” and “about” relationship. But, this learning is not value laden, it is just the way living systems learn. So, the learning can be pathological in relation to social norms. Or, the learning can be grounded and sane within the social contexts.

We can fall into a trap in just thinking that “I am the way I am because of my relationships and the contexts within which I was raised. And, that is just the way it is. So, tough.” But, this is a cop-out. We have the ability as complex systems to transcend our typical ways of thinking and behaving. In fact, that self-transcendent ability is one of the characteristics of autopoietic systems (Capra, 1982). Autopoietic systems are also known as complex systems or systems that are self-generating, self-maintaining, self-regulating, self-transcendent, and so forth (“auto” = self & “poiesis” = to make OR “autopoiesis” = self-making). And, all living systems are autopoietic. So, the “mutual learning in contexts” of such self-maintaining systems is known by the word created by Nora Bateson, “symmathesy” (“sym” = together; “mathesi” = to learn or “symmathesy” = learning together, mutual learning; which also is the basis of the notion of co-evolution).

In fact, our only hope lies in this potential for self-transcendence. We all have to work at not thinking in simple cause and effect ways. We desperately need to begin thinking in ways that see how multiple systems are interacting and how these system are learning together, for better or for worse. So, while the U.S. may start manipulating some political entity somewhere else in the world, that “U.S. system” is learning about and reinforcing the notion of manipulation, at the same time, the entity being manipulated is learning about how to be manipulated and how to resist being manipulated, etc. The alternative to such negative or pathological learning is to begin to transcend this level of functioning. How can we relate in ways that are more direct, more reciprocal, and mutually beneficial? This example is at the scale of nations, but the same holds true for all of our personal relationships. We can understand others as bundles of relationships, but instead of relating in ways that are based on our old assumptions (whatever they may be), we can take a fresh look, with great empathy and mutual understanding of our shared humanity, and proceed to relate in ways that transcend our old habits of mind. In attempting to think in this way, we can transcend our own habitual patterns and ways of thinking and relating. We make the jump and begin to influence others. The more us who can begin trying to do this, the greater the chances of making a big difference.


Bateson, N. (2015). Symmathesy — A word in progress: Proposing a new word that refers to living systems. A manuscript in review for publication.

Capra, F. (1982). The turning point: Science, society, and the rising culture. New York: Bantam.

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Corporatization of Colleges and Universities

“Corporatization of Higher Education” from

The above linked article from last October is a good short piece on a few of the problems involved in the corporatization of universities.

This change in how universities are run is a huge problem. University decision-making used to be based primarily upon “learning,” which included bringing in high level tenure-track/tenured faculty (who shared in the governance of the university); materials, equipment, and teaching facilities; libraries; student academic support; and research. But, now almost all universities make decisions based on money, with learning way down the line of priorities. Advertising, distance learning (which is an abomination and a learning scam), sports and recreational (country club-like) facilities, student (resort-style) housing (where they live in fancier housing than many faculty and staff), and high administrator salaries (and too many administrators… way more than are necessary) have taken over the budget sheets. Faculty members tend to be the “enemy” as seen by administrators. Administrators create a culture of fear and use whatever tactics they can to try to intimidate and control faculty. Gone are the days of faculty governance, faculty autonomy, and academic freedom. Faculty members inflate grades to keep students happy, so that they can get high end-of-semester evaluations. These student evaluations of faculty hold way too much weight in decisions about retention, promotion, and salary increases. And, students suffer the consequences. Their learning has been trivialized and is shallow at best. And, faculty suffer, as well. They are no longer supported in issues with teaching. When students complain about language, ideas discussed, teaching style, grades, etc., administrators tend to support the students views and not the actions of the instructor or professor. Many faculty suffer from stress related health issues. And, this stress is way beyond that of doing the work (teaching, research, and service to the university community) required of the profession. The additional stress from negative treatment, fear, lack of voice, and a loss of one’s academic freedom and ability to make appropriate decisions about course content, teaching, etc. is enough to create havoc with people’s health.

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“Knowledge and Thought Have Parted Company”

“If it should turn out to be true that knowledge… and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”

— Hannah Arendt (1958). The Human Condition (p. 3)

Knowledge and thought are parting company due to the politics that has perverted our educational system under the guise of “raising standards” and “teacher accountability.”

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The brainwashing discussed in the article about the Dalai Lama, below, also applies to other areas, such as our thinking about schooling/education, the nature of our world, how we view others, relationships, life in contemporary societies, and much much more. We need to question all of the assumptions that underlie everything we do. It’s difficult, but essential. I’ve tried to get my students to do this about teaching and schooling, but most students just don’t want to think about it. They just want to move through their lives as zombies (of course, they don’t think they’re zombies). They don’t want to think about the issues that can shake their nicely packaged worlds (or worldviews). They just want to be told what to do, so they can jump through the hoops with minimal effort.

This same situation seems to characterize much of society. We just want to live our lives and not have to shake the foundations of our little fortresses. It must be too frightening to think about lose the ground upon which we think we’re standing. But, if we do shake up and challenge our worldview and the assumptions we make, we may find the result to be exciting and refreshing…. like waking up on the shore of a mountain lake at dawn in early spring or like taking the red pill in the Matrix. We need to take the red pill…

Important article…. Follow the links (added below), too. The second one is a very long video, but the text will give you an idea of what’s going on. The first link is a short video from Democracy Now, and is quite upsetting.

Links from this story:

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Responsibility and Relationships: From You and Me to Society

Over the past eight months or so, my wife and I have been renting a house after moving from a different city. Several weeks ago we found a house to buy. We approached our landlord, who lives out of state, and proposed that if he can let us out of our lease we could help him find a new tenant and fix up the place to move-in ready condition before the new tenant moves in. To us, this seemed like a perfectly normal proposition and apparently so did our landlord.

So, for the past two weeks we have been advertising the house, letting people view the house, and handing out applications and landlord contact information. But, what has been surprising about this whole process is that the people who call and come to see the house cannot figure out why we are doing this. They can’t make sense out of why we would be advertising the house, why we would be showing the house, and why we would be discussing the terms of the lease. When they ask “why?” I want to just say, because we’re responsible adults. But, I just give them a rather lengthy rationale instead.

I don’t think people have any models for how to develop straightforward relationships with people and how to assume responsibility for situations. The relationships they encounter with housing are all adversarial and based on distrust. Gregory Bateson’s complementary (dominant–submissive) and symmetrical (competitive or adversarial) types of relationships seem to characterize the vast majority of relationships encountered in the business of everyday life. As for “responsibility,” schools don’t really address it, even though they talk about teaching it all of the time. Their parents have been caught up in the same messy relationships and have lacked any experience in responsibility. And, most workplaces are based on the same dysfunctional sorts of relationships and lack of trust.

We live in a society where the relationships are out of whack. In such contexts, a number of the social characteristics we all discuss and say that we value are just not supported. These social characteristics include responsibility, ethics, empathy, moral reasoning/judgment, and so forth. We’ve created a social context where these sorts of positive personal and social characteristics are not supported, encouraged, or developed. There are few positive models for others to emulate. The vast majority of relationships are problematic at best. What we see in the media are dysfunctional relationships. The vast majority of our politicians do not model functional (reciprocal, negotiable) relationships or any of the positive social characteristics. I’d like to say that looking at the Republican debates is clear evidence of dysfunctionality, but the same holds true for almost all politicians. It’s just that the Republicans seem have taken the bar to a whole new low point. However, the point is that the predominant model of behavior as represented in film, TV, news, and everyday encounters is one that does not value reciprocal relationships and the values and behaviors that are intertwined in such relationships. Reciprocal relationships (Bateson’s third type) are those that are based on some sense of trust, and where terms and issues are negotiated rather than becoming the source of conflict and resentment. This sort of relationship should be what we strive to achieve with our partners, our friends, our families, and our adversaries. What would Congress look like if reciprocity was the basis for interactions. Instead of blockages and other childish games, we may see adults sitting down together in serious conversation. Disagreements would be a source of negotiation, change, and growth. But, instead we are left with childish, self-centered antics that only serve to prevent growth and destabilize the whole of society.

As The Turtles said, “You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.” But, here we are and not quite in the way The Turtles saw it.

We can step back from this precipice and change our ways of thinking and acting, but that will take an overwhelming desire from a vast majority of people to just say “NO MORE” to this nonsense.

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Epistemology, Epistemological Shock, and Schooling: Part 1

I want to elaborate on a discussion that followed a re-posting of call for university students to stop whining and suck it up when “scary new ideas that challenge your beliefs…” (supposedly by Larry Winget) are presented. In my re-posting, I said:

Mary Catherine Bateson called this experiencing epistemological shock. I have felt that as a teacher (even when I was a grade school teacher) I was obligated to provide opportunities for students to experience epistemological shock. For what other reason was I in the classroom? Reading, writing, and all the rest were important, but the most important reason was to provide opportunities for children or adult students to grow, to learn how to think more deeply, to re-evaluate what they thought they knew. Everything else was secondary. Some of my own and biggest epistemological shocks occurred in junior high and high school. And, I don’t even think the teachers knew what they had done to me, but the impacts were huge. I’ve tried tracking them down to thank them, but by the time I found them, they had already died. They had given me a great gift. I hope they knew.

The more I think about it, the more this idea of epistemological shock seems to be of critical importance to teaching. We formulate epistemologies or explanatory ideas for just about everything about our world: cultures, relationships, communities, natural phenomena, living things, technology, and so forth. We are epistemological beings, but then most living things are probably epistemological beings. Dogs, cats, horses, rats, and birds certainly have epistemologies. They have understandings of their social and physical worlds and their relationships. They have expectations of their relationships. My dog expects to go to the dog park or go for walks at certain times during the day. She knows where the rabbits hang out. And, she knows where each PetSmart store keeps their Guinea pigs. My cats expect to be given attention, especially if we are sitting on the toilet or sitting at specific locations. The rats I’ve had acted much like dogs and had expectations for petting, cuddling, and receiving treats. I haven’t had horses, but from what I’ve heard they have complicated expectations and thought processes. I suspect epistemologizing (to make it a verb) is a common characteristic of living systems. Bacteria, plants, fungi, protists, and the full range of animals most likely have epistemologies that provide frames for understanding or making sense of the world.

That’s what we do… we create epistemologies to help us make sense of the world. But, such epistemologies do not guarantee any sense of accuracy or truth. They just provide a frame of reference that may seem to work. A racist may have an extensive epistemological framework that justifies his or her views of the world. Every input seems to make sense in terms of this framework. If it doesn’t make sense, then it is dismissed as nonsense, as a lie, or as some other blasphemy. At the other extreme, we may create what seems to be a fairly equitable and accurate epistemology. But, whatever epistemologies we create, they certainly are not absolute truths. They are subject to change, no matter how much we’d like to solidify them and believe that they are absolute truths. Every time there is a scientific revolution at whatever scale, there is an epistemological shock running through a particular scientific community. The scientists in that community may have thought they had pretty solid evidence for a specific theoretical framework, then all of a sudden it’s turned upside down. People get defensive, angry, and lash out. But, the old epistemological framework no longer works.

As teachers, at whatever level (K-graduate school), we are faced with the responsibility of confronting a vast array of personal and “official” epistemologies. These epistemologies may have to do with the subject matter we are teaching or they may have to do with students’ assumptions about the nature of the professional community or the nature of our professional work or the nature of one’s relationship to oneself as a learner or inquirer or whatever. If we take our work as educators seriously, we examine where our students are and teach to their particular needs or situations. We may feel obligated to cover certain material (depending upon our field and the particular course), but somewhere along the continuum of [student situation—-to—-subject matter] we are going to address epistemologies of students and epistemologies of the field.

However, the way the institution of education is moving, grade school is more concerned with subject matter coverage than with any concern for epistemology, whether personal or official. The approach is to memorize content to pass a test. The content doesn’t have to make sense, which would be an epistemological concern. At the university level, we’re not that far away from the grade school version. We don’t have the high stakes tests, but the underlying drive for profit is still there. Online learning, large classes, and multiple section classes that follow the exact same template are all aligned with the same approach to minimizing a concern for epistemology, while maximizing superficial coverage of content.

There were times when I was teaching multiple sections of the same course when I felt like I needed to keep all sections at the same point along some arbitrary continuum of content and to cover the exact same material. But, every time I tried, I found it impossible. Each group of students took the material in class in different directions. They had different questions, different ideas, and different interests. Each section became its own distinctive epistemological context. And, this epistemological context is what we need to remember when teaching. Each individual makes sense of the material in her or his own way by drawing on individual experiences, previous epistemologies, and all kinds of idiosyncratic contexts of meaning. Put a bunch of people together in a room and you have a social context of epistemologizing that can’t be replicated.

To view teaching as an epistemological endeavor, you need to see classrooms as social contexts where students are trying to make sense of whatever it is they are studying. As an epistemologizing mentor, you as the teacher need to encourage exploration, inquiry, questioning, critiquing, challenging, and examining things from multiple perspectives. You need to encourage your students to be scientists, poets, artists, writers… and not just get stuck in one perspective. We should be encouraging epistemological flexibility.

Epistemological shock occurs when a solidified structure is shaken by a new insight that undermines the solidified epistemology. If we can help students create flexible epistemologies based on the idea of changeability, maybe the shocks will not occur, but will be part of the expected changeability.

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Media, Learning, Schooling, and What We Should Do

Children are deeply in touch with what is happening in the world… much more than we might expect. Around 1990, I did a study that asked grade 5 children to describe life on Earth and the major issues we faced. Most of the children had a fairly extensive understanding of the issues we were facing at the time. And, some understood the complexities at much deeper levels, including how money was behind almost all of the issues. I suspect that with the Internet and the prevalence of technology in most children’s lives, their exposure to and knowledge of issues is even more extensive than in the 1990’s. But, the big difference between 1990 and now is that the news media seems to have been co-opted by the entertainment industry and by the corporate entities that control most of what happens in this country either through organizations, such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), or through lobbying and other relationships to governing individuals or groups. General Electric is part owner of NBC news. GE is involved in the nuclear power industry with its primary funding sources coming from military contracts. Microsoft (the “MS” is MSNBC) is also part owner. Microsoft also has a specific right-wing political agenda to which it has been making large donations. So, just how “liberal” is MSNBC with such ownership controlling what they air?

But, from Fox at one end to MSNBC at another end (which isn’t really at an end), with all kinds of misinformation on Facebook and other Internet sites, this is the news to which children are exposed. It’s a cartoon version of news on speed with no substance, no depth, no criticality, no values, no ethical framework. It’s awful for adults, and it’s even worse for children.

Then, children go to school, where they receive instruction that is fundamentally the same thing without the extreme violence and hatred (but, that violence and hatred is just toned down and hidden). They are subjected to a predetermined curriculum with no substance, no depth, no criticality, no values, no ethical framework. Children are growing up with no guidance on how to deal with all of the craziness that surrounds them and which seems to be getting increasingly crazy all of the time.

We desperately need teachers and schools that provide a sane environment and an environment that provides them with opportunities to grow and develop as decent, caring human beings who are capable of thinking critically about the issues that arise. We can do this. A few schools do this, but this is not part of the agenda of public schooling (or private or charter schools, for that matter). We need to provide an alternative to the speed and superficiality, to the hate and distrust of everyday life. We need to revive a love of learning. We need to revive a love of human diversity.

And, we need to boycott media triviality, speed, superficiality, indulgence, lack of intelligence, and lack of integrity.

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