Alles kann besser werden,
hol'n wir uns den Himmel auf Erden.
Alles soll besser werden,
hol'n wir uns den Himmel auf Erden.
Alles wird besser werden,
wir holen uns den Himmel auf Erden.
Xavier Naidoo

the difference that makes a difference

September 16th, 2011 by hofkirchner

an interdisciplinary workshop on information and technology, open university, milton keynes, 7-9 september 2011, organised by Society and Information Research Group (SIRG) in the Communication & Systems Department (Faculty of Maths, Computing and Technology), in particular by Magnus Ramage and David Chapman who recently produced the edited book Perspectives on Information with Routledge.

Magnus Ramage and David Chapman (from left; photo: DTMD 2011)

a touching movie was presented in the first evening, directed by Nora Bateson: “An Ecology of Mind – A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson”.

snapshot of the trailer (photo:

me giving a talk on the relation between Bateson’s famous idea of what the unit of information is and a possible Unified Theory of Information (photo: DTMD 2011)

agents of transformation

September 15th, 2011 by hofkirchner

on 9 september 2011, in budapest the Giordano Bruno GlobalShift University was inaugurated. its ambition is to become the first worldwide online university. even more important, it will aim at reaching out to those parts of the world population that suffer from exclusion to higher education. however, the most important idea is the following: students recruited are to become agents of transformation. (see this newsletter.)

what the world needs now is agents of transformation – agents that are knowledgable and determined to bring about the global shift toward a sustainable civilisation on earth.

hope can be drawn from the fact that there are people that are willing to fund that project.


August 22nd, 2011 by hofkirchner

recently, the New York Times had Neal Gabler reason that we all “have become information narcissists”. we are enamoured of drowning in data but lost our capability to think big.

he writes, “It is certainly no accident that the post-idea world has sprung up alongside the social networking world. Even though there are sites and blogs dedicated to ideas, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, etc., the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. It is largely useless except insofar as it makes the possessor of the information feel, well, informed. Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right.

BUT the analogy isn’t perfect. For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.

To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to Yogi Berra, that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.”

40 years EMCSR in Vienna

August 20th, 2011 by hofkirchner

EMCSR is the acronym for European Meetings on Cybernetics and Systems Research. Robert Trappl held the biannual conferences 20 times since 1972! he handed over to me the chair of the conference series and thus the post of the key organiser. i feel very honoured to be elected by him and, at the same time, obliged to serve the community. this is in full congruence with the raison d’être of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science. i want to focus on discussions of underlying assumptions of different system approaches with the aim of clarifying similarities and peculiarities. and i want to focus on the impact on society in order to stress the necessity to contribute to mastering the global challenges! see the new website.

i just launched a call for symposia (tracks) to be self-organised by the community.

and i’m happy that Ervin László and Edgar Morin have already confirmed to hold keynotes.

education policy at the crossroads

January 1st, 2011 by hofkirchner

i’m a defender of the traditional social-democratic principle of unrestricted access to university education. i myself studied when social democrats opened the universities to less well-educated social classes, the working class, farmers, and, last not least, women. in the aftermath of the establishment of the neoliberal regimes worldwide, there is also a rollback in education policies. in austria the social origin again determines whether or not you study (the proportion of children of university graduates among students is about 2,5 times higher than the proportion of university graduates among the population). the overall proportion of university graduates is significantly below (about 20 %) the oecd average (about 36 %). this holds for the proportion of new university entrants among high school grads too (about 37 % vs. about 54 %).

in that situation policymakers consider the introduction of obligatory qualifying exams. the high school grad shall not qualify for the entrance into university any more. the problem we face, however, is rather the allocation of funds than too many prospective students. university education as well as education in general do not obtain priority. thus in many studies the teacher/student ratio has been decreasing. world class quality cannot be achieved. instead of upgrading university education is dismantled, step by step.

the faculty of informatics at the vienna university of technology – which, admittedly, suffers from a very bad teacher/student ratio – seems to lead that way. for the next semester two hurdles are prepared for those who want to start an informatics study. first, beginners will have to write a motivation letter and, second, if that letter is accepted, they have to undergo a 30 min talk with 2 professors, that is, they have to justify their motivation. if and only if they have passed the second hurdle they can expect to get a positive grade in the subsequent course (given the mark for the test which might be a multiple choice test is positive), that is, the motivation letter and the talk are defined as essential parts of the exam of the course in question.

to be clear, what is envisaged is not (only) a match between the students’ expectations and the profile of the study we teachers can present to them. the hidden agenda is to decrease the number of beginners. that’s why letter and talk take the form of exams.

what about the possible results of that measure besides reducing student numbers in informatics?

– i fear that the measure will result in a decrease of the number of university graduates among the austrian population;
– i fear that the result will be another shift at the cost of students coming from less well-educated social classes, because due to our school system (which does not prioritise integrated schools) the task of writing and defending a motivation letter will be more difficult for them than for others;
– i fear that the measure will, in the long run, endanger the position of the teachers themselves, since the argument for more funds will not hold anymore.

this is not to say that i am against qualifying exams at all. if you make an application for a salaried phd position, such an exam is a must. but in the case described above, it’s not a job interview. it’s just the right to start at university with any bachelor study.

the transnational arena will determine the future

January 1st, 2011 by hofkirchner

recently an austrian tv journalist hit the point. when showing pictures of manifestations against the greek government’s plans he said we are inclinded to take for granted there is a clash between the police and the people. the real clash, however, he said is between politicians, on the one hand, and the so-called financial markets, on the other.

yes, since long a new transnational subject has emerged that is detrimental to the development of what vernadsky called the noosphere (see my recent post), and the subjects representing the noosphere are yet on the point of transnationalising themselves. as long as the latter will stay in their infancy, they will not be able to defy the former.

diary entry, 15 november 1941: “Wir sind in dem weltweiten Zusammenprall ein totalitärer Staat, der denjenigen Prinzipien diametral entgegengesetzt ist, für die die Unsrigen die Revolution durchführten und die die Ursache für den Überfall auf uns waren” *

December 31st, 2010 by hofkirchner

on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the death of vladimir i. vernadsky, mineralogist, geochemist and historian of science, peter krüger, who was engaged with my vernadsky-edition from 1997, wrote a touching reminiscence of a great spirit. krüger quotes from vernadsky’s diaries, which gives us insight into vernadsky’s life under stalin. (together with édouard le roy and pierre teilhard de chardin, vernadsky coined the notion of the “noosphere”.) i recommend this article to everybody interested in global thinkers. it’s published (in german) in geohistorica 6, 31-41, berlin 2010 (issn 1865-0155). the title is: Wladimir Iwanowitsch Wernadskij – eine würdigung zur 65. wiederkehr seines todestages.

* my translation of the quote: “in that worldwide clash, we are a totalitarian state that is in diametrical opposition to those principles for which our people made the revolution and which were the cause for the assault upon us.” (on 21 january 1941 vernadsky wrote – my translation: “police-communism, actually, eats away the state structure… but in spite of that, something great is going on…” on 30 july 1941 – my translation: “the noosphere we are living in is, in my judgment, the basic regulator of our world.” though he was aware of the decay of the soviet union, vernadsky was convinced that hitlerism was doomed to failure because it was contrary to the development of the noosphere, the cooperation of those who are sensible. – and today? the development of the noosphere is more urgent than ever. but the political class does not seem to set the right priorities. just think of education policy in the age of neoliberalism.)

bertalanffy center is making progress

December 29th, 2010 by hofkirchner

on 10 december the bertalanffy center for the study of systems science (bcsss) held its second general meeting.

as president, i could report to the general assembly that ervin lászló and edgar morin have been appointed members of our scientific council, which makes me really proud.

ervin lászló, born in 1932 in budapest (photo: internet).

edgar morin, born in 1921 in paris (photo: internet).

volume 2 of our bcsss book series “exploring unity through diversity” was published just in time – an essay on spinoza and evolutionary systems theory by rainer e. zimmermann.

gisèle bertalanffy, the widow of felix, the son of ludwig von bertalanffy, donated to the bcsss all diaries kept by ludwig’s wife, maria, written in german. thus another important material about ludwig von bertalanffy’s life is saved for posteriority and open to research. the ludwig von bertalanffy archive is located at the department of theoretical biology at the university of vienna which emerged from the institute ludwig von bertalanffy had been working with during world war II. michel saint-germain, professor emeritus at the faculty of education, university of ottawa, was the bearer who handed the donation over to us.

michel saint-germain showing one diary (photo: manfred drack).

the donation. in the background the portrait of gisèle bertalanffy (photo: manfred drack).

michel held one of two lectures that proved “uncommon sense in thinking society”. while michel criticised the current philosophy of organisations (see here), franz hörmann, associate professor at the department of finance, accounting and statistics, vienna university of economics and business, labeled the systems causing the financial crises “fraudulent systems” (see here).

altogether, i’m sure a new period started for the bcsss.

oxford 8-9 december: of robots, men and minds

December 27th, 2010 by hofkirchner

robots, men and minds – that was the title of one of ludwig von bertalanffy’s books in the sixties. toru nishigaki from the university of tokyo talked about the same topic when holding the keynote at the information ethics conference organised by the japanese uehiro foundation on ethics and education and the carnegie council of ethics in international affairs at the oxford uehiro centre for practical ethics on 8 and 9 december.

is a society of cohabitation with robots possible? toru agreed with the findings in western literature that traditional japanese animism opposes the western idea of the hierarchy of existence. according to the animistic world view everything has its own spirit and this holds for artifacts too. they are based on an equal footing, while in western hierarchical thinking they are ranked even below animals.

though toru does not like to support such an anthropocentric position, he addresses the concern that japanese thinking “does not necessarily offer a safeguard against a cyborg and/or mechanization of human thinking.” japanese people even seem to be accustomed to living in mechanical clock-wise rhythm. for the future toru foresees a possible development of human minds coming closer and closer to robots while robots never will exhibit a mind comparable with human mind.

that’s exactly that scenario that ludwig von bertalanffy never stopped warning against. and that scenario is not due to animistic thinking but to capitalism-driven, techno-oriented development of society.

in my view, animism can be taken cum grano salis. there is something in common to living beings and artifacts. but that does not mean that there is no difference as to their existence. artifacts, technology, computer technology are not made by themselves, autonomously; they are created by us humans and they belong to nature mediated via our productive forces that are, in the last resort, productive forces of nature itself. though robots belong to nature in that respect, this does not mean they do not make any difference. on the contrary, they have the potential for being instrumental (in the sense of ivan illich’s convivial tools) or detrimental as well (and nowadays they can be as detrimental as to put the future of humanity at stake).

thus hierarchical thinking, on the other hand, can also be taken cum grano salis like in hierarchical systems thinking. it does not need to lead to what is called anthropocentrism. since technology as human product enjoys a kind of relative autonomy, it has to be taken care of in a permanent process of technology assessment and technology design.

it is only then that we can state that harmony should not be sought in a mechanical sense. what is to be sought is “unity through diversity” – a dialectical relationship.

in the center toru nishigaki. on the right rafael capurro. on the left tadashi takenouchi (photo: fumio shimpo).

again toru nishigaki on the left, bill dutton on the right. in the background me giving my lecture on ethics of sustainability in the perspective of complexity. (photo: fumio shimpo).

on the right johannes britz (photo: hisateru onozuka).

a view of st. cross college where the conference took place (photo: fumio shimpo).

in my talk i introduced the meta-ethical standpoint of “emergent ethics”. that is deemed the dialectical solution of the is-ought problem. morals and values are not an idealistic given nor are they a materialistic ingredient of our world. they rather develop historically, based upon, but not determined by, these very historical circumstances – they emerge.

the slide in question from my talk.

homo economicus outdated

December 13th, 2010 by hofkirchner

i attended the 5th interdisciplinary university conference “menschenbild im 21. jahrhundert” (“the idea of man in the 21st century”) held on 3rd december at the university of vienna. homo ecologicus is needed. homo economicus is outdated. it’s a reductionistic, deterministic view that does not hold anymore. that message was clear throughout all contributions.

in particular, i was impressed by helga kromp-kolb, professor at the institute of meteorology at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. that climate change has started, is a fact. that it is due to anthropogenic causes, is substantiated by climate models. that is, though model simulations are the constructs of human brains and prone to failure, it is hard to argue that they don’t capture any feature of our common reality as radical constructivists might be inclined to do. the only question is: have we already crossed the tipping point beyond which we leave to our next generation a planet that escapes human intervention? we have to do with self-organising systems. they are complex and nonlinear and small changes in the causes might have incredible effects. so it’s not a tame problem, as harald wilfing from the faculty of life sciences of the University of Vienna pointed out correctly. it’s rather a so-called wicked problem, if not a super-wicked one: we do not exactly know how the final state is where we would like to head for; we do not exactly know how to get there, since there are barriers to appear; and we don’t even exactly know the state-of-the-art from which we are to start from.

also the analyses given by several speakers were quite clear. technology (which brings about the effects in nature that are harmful for our life) is driven by socio-economic developments like profit-making and principles that go hand in hand with it like orientations toward quantitative growth, gdp, interest and compound interest, shareholders instead of stakeholders etc.

the photo shows the vicerector of the University of Vienna, johann jurenitsch, when opening the conference. the picture in the background which was promoted to the logo of the conferences is from friedensreich hundertwasser. a text of his from 1972 is quoted: “the straight line is unholy.” (photo: thea meinharter)