VPEC-T and Gregory Bateson

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Richard Veryard

Oct 14, 2009, 10:49:10 PM10/14/09
Looking for something else (as one does), I came across a biography of
the great systems thinking pioneer Gregory Bateson, which contained
some material that looked particularly interesting for VPEC-T.


In Bateson’s usage, systems are always formed by at least two sites,
and they interact through exchanges of information or messages. In
such an exchange there is a sender, perhaps a generator of random
events such as raindrops or the cries of a baby. It is the recipient
of the message that creates context, as would an open car window or a
worried mother. In such a stochastic process the interconnectedness of
the system is manifested in the recipient as a readiness: "The energy
for the response or effect was available in the respondent before the
event occurred which triggered it" (1979: 113). In Bateson’s example
of the horse-man system, he calls this relationship "partial
mobility;" the man can only take the horse to the water but cannot
make it drink, and the horse cannot drink unless taken to the water.


Recalling that the message travels around and inevitably reaches its
starting position, or that a change in A causes a change in B, when
the effect comes back to A it finds A in a different state than when
it left it. That is, A has changed, it is not the same ‘A’ anymore.
Also, as the message loops around the system, it recursively conveys
information about the whole system. Interaction contains three
components, stimulus, (reinforcing) response (to stimulus), and
(resulting reinforcing) reinforcement (to response), and so on, which
acts in a spiraling pattern of interaction. As the terminology
indicates, interaction through the passing of time adds complexity to
the message and also validates the system (or relationship). The
mutually reinforcing forces within a system or organism increase
stability and hence rigidity at the cost of adaptability. The more
integrated a culture is with its environment, the more vulnerable
either becomes to a change in the other. Change is possible when
contradictions are allowed to exist, but it must cohere to the
internal demands of the organism and the external demands of the


I think Bateson provides us with a way of thinking how the exchange of
messages (events) builds into content (based on comparing the
difference between events). Where this involves interoperating systems
with different values, this can dynamically affect the trust
relationships between the systems - sometimes helping to build and
reinforce trust, sometimes the exact opposite. Among other things,
Bateson showed how certain patterns of communication within the family
can produce profoundly dysfunctional outcomes.

So in analysing the messages that pass between groups and
organizations (for example between the police and the prosecution
service in a Criminal Justice system), we need not only to understand
these messages in the context of a given level of trust or mistrust
between the different groups, but also to understand how the manner in
which these messages are communicated can alter this level of trust or
mistrust. This has clear implications for the design of communication
channels, and therefore for information systems design as a whole
(since most information systems can be regarded as communication
channels of some kind or other).
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