Development through Alternation

3.7 Opening and closing: alternation for discontinuous learning

Anthony Judge

The self-renewal of the autopoietic system is achieved, in the words of Zeleny and Pierre, "through a series of oscillations between rupture and closure. Its very existence as an autopoietic system is based on this rhythmical opening and closing....We might preferably talk of pulsating systems, since neither permanently closed nor permanently open systems are autopoietic; they are not 'alive'." (20, p. 153)

The theory of opening and closing in relation to social systems has been explored by Orrin Klapp (41), to whom Zeleny and Pierre refer. Klapp argues that opening to variety, whether for learning, progress, evolution, or control, has been over-emphasized to the point of bias. Because of this modern society has wandered into a crisis of social noise and failure of resonance, thus impairing communication and making it harder to find meaning. He interprets a variety of psycho-social phenomena according to the theory that individuals and societies normally open and close to information and communication. Opening is scanning for desired information and the new, whereas closing is a natural response to too much unuseable information, broadly conceived as social noise. Opening and closing are therefore part of a shifting optimization strategy of living systems to get the most of the best information and the least of the worst noise:

"From such things, we see that what we call aliveness - resilience, adaptability - is not continual intake, nor any constant policy, but sensitive alternation of openness and closure. The mind listens alertly, then turns off to signals. The natural pattern is alternation, and the more alive a system is, the more alertly it opens and closes. In such a view, closing is not, as some suppose, merely a setback to growth and progress, but evidence that the mechanisms of life are working, that the society has resiliency...A perpetually open society would suffer the fate of a perpetually open clam." (41, p. 15)

Openness or closedness is not a fixed policy or strucutral characteristic but a changuing life strategy of organism and groups. Communication fluctuates in cycles requiring sensitive alternation (41, p. 16).

The 'conventional' bias in favour of openness, the more information the better, has been reinforced in recent years by liberal theorists pleading for open-mindedness (Rokeach, 42) or an open society (Popper 43). More recently this view underlies the Club of Rome report on "No Limits to Learning" (44). The view is challenged by the extensive evidence on information overload on the one hand, and by what Klapp calls "spasms of closing among ethnic, religious, and other groups", from which academic and other specialization should not be dissociated.

"When a lot of people feel too much entropy as a crisis to collective identity, they close to protect the net, exclude noise, intensify signals affirming common values, and perhaps define more clearly an enemy." (41, p. 16)

Klapp argues that if all societies are naturally subject to cycles of openness and closure, some revisions in current assumptions about progress and the "free market of information" may be necessary. He asks whether it is possible to get too much of a good thing, when system theorists recognize that unlimited increase of anything good is not better, and no living system takes an unlimited input of anything. Is information exempt from this, or is it also subject to overloads and entropic effects comparable with overproduction in economic markets and polluting side effects of growth? If closing is as necessary to human systems as opening then they should be placed on a par, rather than being presented as "bad" and "good" respectively.

In amending the open society model, Klapp cautions against a purely mechanical interpretation of the advocated oscillation between relative openness and closedness. There are inherent risks in either strategy: "Scanning for news, discovery, or growth runs the risk of excessive noise and other costs of bad opening; closing for redundancy, memory, reinforcement, or cohesion risks narrowness, ignorance, and stifling banality." (41, p. 20)

He therefore distinguishes moves in an information game corresponding to bad opening, good opening, bad closing, and good closing (41, p. 1 9). Furthermore, what are conventionally called "open" societies close in different ways from "closed" societies, and at different points on a range, one end of which might be an authoritarian system allergic to small increases of information, and the other an ideal liberal society with a progress ideology emphasizing the modern and devaluing the old - hence vulnerable to crisis from information overload and loss of redundancy. (41, p. 12)

These considerations suggest that the "container" for answers should embody characteristics which ensure that it "opens" and "closes" in some way. (This is not an unusual requirement for containers which are to be of practical value.)