Larry Richards’ Paper Proposal

Difference-Making from a Cybernetic Perspective: The Role of Listening and Its Circularities

This paper takes as a premise that listening (and its circularities) becomes an essential practice for making a difference in the world when taking a second-order cybernetic perspective and represents a critical concept in the design of a participative-dialogic society. The speaker-respondent circularity turns listening into a conversation. Participants set ego aside and explore new ways to be present. This perspective on listening and difference-making suggests an alternative approach to the uniquely human attribute called consciousness, from the current one characterized by purposiveness to one focused on presence. I claim that this idea of a desirable society is so foreign to prevailing ways of thinking about the world and how it works (and must work) that it would be condemned as “anarchist” if openly promoted, as it implies an alternative to the reward-oriented hierarchy approach to the design of economic and social systems that dominates corporate and governance structures world-wide. By advancing the idea anyway, I expect to make a difference. In particular, I propose the anarchist’s imperative: listen, think and design kinetically (in contrast to kinematically).

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21 Responses to Larry Richards’ Paper Proposal

  1. Ranulph Glanville says:

    Of course, I agree with you. But I will be interested to see how you develop this argument.

    I have an image of what designers do, the central act of designing. It involves 2 personae in one person. The viewing (listening) persona and the drawing persona. The difference between the two is what, I claim, allows the creativity and the moving forward (often in very strange ways) of designing. Conversation is the abstract device that allows communication while maintaining such differences. But there is no conversation without listening: it is listening which turns an attempt at communication into a conversation and which allows communication in spite of difference. I believe this is pretty close to what you are talking about.

    I find your mention of the purposive very sympathetic, too. I have for some time (since the early 1990s) argued the benefits of being unmanageable, of the un-purposive view (making me an anti-cybernetician). I don’t know that this leads to anarchy, but it would be good if it did. Anarchy that is, in the sense not of chaos, or of socialism, but of accepting difference and, with it, responsibility.

    You bring up many important aspects that I hope we will include in our talks about listening.

  2. Bob Helland says:


    I think I understand. That said, without commenting on how I think I understand your proposal, I just want to let you know BOB IS HERE.

    Being here, I am thinking about several words and phrases you put here:

    “Participative-dialogic society”
    “speaker-respondent circularity”
    “ego aside”
    “be present”
    “focused on presence”
    “desirable society”
    “anarchist (imperative)”
    “reward-oriented hierarchy”
    “design of economic and social systems”
    “corporate and governance structures”
    “kinetically (in contrast to kinematically”

    If I am here, where are you now?


  3. Larry Richards says:

    I am here, Bob. Thanks for listening. I think you understand. Now, what do we do with these words and phrases?

    • Bob Helland says:


      Thank you for your response. Being new to ASC, I am prodding for openings and you have opened a door for me. As for your question: “Now, what do we do with these words and phrases?”

      Let’s see… I will attempt to regroup the words as they formulated meaning and relationships in my mind upon listening.

      Grouping A (Perhaps called “Listening Process”)
      “speaker-respondent circularity” within a “participative-dialogic society” yields “conversation”

      Grouping B (Perhaps called “Social Design Process”)
      “reward-oriented hierarchy” in the “design of economic and social systems” in the form of “corporate and governance structures” is one mode of approaching “desirable society”;

      or alternatively,

      “anarchist’s imperative” in the “design of economic and social systems” in the form of “corporate and governance structures” is one mode of approaching “desirable society”.

      Grouping C (Perhaps called “Listening Qualities”)
      “ego aside” in order “be present” (to be “focused on presence”) is an alternative form of “consciousness” lacking “purposiveness”.
      [Note: I tend to agree with Art’s assertion that presence is a purpose in itself, but I believe there is more in this “Ends-Means” dynamic.]

      Grouping D (This it yet to me “Noise” in that I don’t know how to group it with the other thoughts involved. I would appreciate more communication in this regards to reach a greater understanding.)

      I then systematize the groups to understand that A reinforced by C produces a choice in B in a fashion that is of a category in D. (Hotter or colder?….)

      Furthermore, having had time to think about these words and phrases, I have two notable observations:

      1) As regards the phrase “reward-oriented hierarchy”, this idea has been amplified two-fold in my mind drawing from my experience:

      (E1) as a contemporary economics major I was in a program enforcing the central capitalist principles of Rationality and Utility, whereby individual actors acting in self-interest will manifest the greatest social benefit, or most “desirable society” – to which I may disagree;
      (E2) I was watching a video from last year’s C:ADM conference and I listened to you use this exact phrase, “reward-oriented hierarchy”.

      Thus, I propose this phrase resonates strongly with both you and I, and that in mind, it may represent a node of common understanding from which this conversation may progress.


      (2) I listen to your use of “anarchist” and I process fear, negative feedback, dampening: You say yourself fear of condemnation of your work but also “anarchist” evokes fear of anti-democratic and anti-social behavior (in a world with those prevailing ideologies. [I’ve been thinking a lot about the “Economics of Fear” lately. Fear is in high supply but short demand – Fear is cheap.] Another reflection on “anarchist” is I believe that it is the extreme form of capitalism that manifests as a political system (or apolitical system?). The bottom line is I feel we both are willing to transcend fear, particularly fear of anarchy, to pay the higher cost for our individual desires and I admire that.


      • Larry Richards says:

        I find your clustering and connection-making useful, and I will give it more thought. With respect to kinematics and kinetics, I recently wrote the following–

        Kinematics is a view of dynamics from a frame by frame perspective (as in cinema, or arrivals of a magazine to which you subscribe, or planning a sequence of events). Kinetics is a view of dynamics from a phase space or field perspective (as in fireflies in a bottle, or a galaxy, or weather patterns). Both are ways of describing “motion”. The kinematic view is useful when observing or describing motion over time, using a “standard” clock. The kinetic view is useful when observing or describing a “pattern” of motion that remains relatively stable over time, irrespective of the clock. Kinematics provides information on sequence and trend. Kinetics provides information on constraints on behavior. While both can be used together, they are distinct types of looking.

        Gordon Pask, who worked with computers over most of his life, was highly critical of the kinematic design of computing devices. He thought that these devices only supported simple, goal-oriented, problem-solving, and that their hierarchical structure was not conducive to generating new alternatives, or supporting alternative ways of thinking that could be contributive to a world that desperately needed them. He proposed to me once that we take all computers that were being replaced with newer models, put them in a large space somewhere, connect them together without any purpose in mind, and then see what happens. I asked, “why do this if there is no purpose?” He responded that it was the purpose for which current computers have been designed that prevents them from generating any new alternatives; we need to suspend purpose.

        The anarchist works to break down the current system so that new alternatives can emerge that don’t currently exist in any country of the world. For me, these alternatives would be anti-hierarchical; even if the new structures still appear hierarchical, the people occupying them will be constantly changing. No one would have a stake in sustaining the structure if it is no longer useful. The system would be in flux, not fixed, a government truly OF the people, all the people. I also imagine a system not dominated by “rational planning” as the way to think about collective decisions. Rational planning of necessity generates hierarchy. A dialogic process that encourages many ways of thinking would be more apparent, and the structures used would facilitate that dialogue.

        I suggest that kinetics rather than kinematics might be a more appropriate way of thinking about the design of an anarchical system and its dynamics. I look conversation as a kinetic phenomenon.

        And yes, we must resist fear and its cousin, cynicism. I think that makes me a romantic.

  4. Art Collings says:


    I’m not here yet. 😉

    • Presence — at least for anyone who is absent — may be (and apparently commonly is) construed to require purposive, seeking-type behaviors. [Insert note here regarding the apparently paradox when adopting presence as a purpose : – ) . ] As such, presence seems as subject to commodification and integration in the world economy as any other behavior (i.e. there’s money to made by teaching people to be present). The “presence sector” of the economy (yoga, meditation retreats, etc.) was estimated to exceed 5.8 billion dollars in 2008 — who knows if that figure is correct, but the point is the world economy is highly adaptable in finding new avenues for absorbing capital, and attitudinal tweaks are unlikely to change this. So I definitely do not share your faith in the revolutionary nature of the presence concept.

    • Listening, obviously, has a dark side. As in “The sheriff, listening to their angry cries, turned the suspect over to the lynch mob.” Or “Despite his lifelong wish to be a cartoonist, he listened to his father and enrolled in law school.” Or “After arranging the contribution, the financier gained the Senator’s ear.” . . .

    • Listening (or presence), in this discussion, is considered as a metaphor for giving voice to the forces driving from the bottom up, while purposiveness is (it seems to me) is associated with top-down control. I suspect in many situations the reverse is more accurate.


    – Art

    • Larry Richards says:

      You are there, Art! By presence, I am not talking about physical presence alone. I can be intently listening to a speaker, and that speaker may have no idea that I am “present”. It is my responsibility to ensure that I am present, so that the speaker will account for me and my desires. But, how to do that without being purposive, and hence inserting ego, where what I want is to participate? I use the word purposive in a narrow and specialized way: to be purposive is to identify an end (or ends), and then to select the best means to achieve it (them). Value is imbued in the ends, not in the means. I like to think there is another way to talk about human intent. An alternative is to talk of intent arising out of an awareness of my desires/values as constraints. I specify the constraints on my “field of behavior”, what I don’t want to happen, and then listen and work in the space that is left, the space wherein I can be present and move wherever a conversation might lead me, maybe even alter my desires as a consequence (and hence the constraints on my field of behavior). I avoid using the word purposive to talk about this alternative for practical and historical reasons. I agree that the word presence is now being commercialized–these words, always a moving target. Hmmm.

      • Art Collings says:


        Nor by absent did I mean physically absent!

        From a purely non-technical point of view, I see purposiveness as identifying an end (iteratively, kybernetically), and thence learning to circumambulate to that end.

        But, OK. Adopting the model you suggest, let’s agree that (between ‘here’ and ‘there’, above) I am attempting to articulate my constraints. These, at their core, I think, center around the notion that it is not infrequent in the social sphere for the concepts “to listen” and “to obey” to forcibly meld — in the gulags of some public schools, for example. Then, if I am understanding correctly, my constraint is the desire that the two be kept separate.

        – ac

        • Larry Richards says:

          Art, the distinction is between an end that has yet to be achieved (future-oriented) and desires/values as constraints, here and now. I don’t want to preclude the value of plannng, but let’s it for what it is–dysfunctional and potentially dangerous, and then be careful and vigilant about how we apply it, and when.

          • Art Collings says:

            Larry, I don’t want to carry on further with this here, since the conference is starting up. But I did follow up by reading your 1987 essay “Untangling the Dilemmas of Social Design.” Which gives a wider basis to consider your comments, and anticipates some of the thrust of my own comments here. So, I look forward to listening to you in a few days.

            – Art

  5. Mark Johnson says:

    “Setting ego aside” is the big challenge. From Jesus to Marx, this has been the exhortation. But we have a long history of not being very good at it!

    Can we monitor the level of ‘ego setting asideness’ in society? Is there a way of teaching “ego setting asideness”? Could cybernetic tools help?

    But most importantly (I think) what is the world like where EVERYONE sets ego aside? Wouldn’t it feel rather alien? Would we want to live there, or here where it’s messier and more flawed?

    • Larry Richards says:

      Yes, Mark, it would feel quite alien, and, yes, “setting ego aside” has reached the status of cliche. I’m not sure what the world would be, which is in part my motivation for seeking an alternative approach to human consciousness. I am not against (in fact enjoy) messiness, but there’s got to be something better! (I guess that makes me an optimist.)

  6. Mark Johnson says:

    Hi Larry,
    I had a discussion yesterday with someone who works a lot with schools telling me what horrible places they are: bullying, crazy targets, etc (that’s the teachers, not the kids!). I worked in one for a short time, so this rang true for me. It’s state of affairs produced by those who are often over-burdened with ego.

    There is a practical question as to what we might be able to do about it, and I’m in no doubt that ‘doing something about it’ with regard not just our schools, but our universities and institutions of government is a top priority.

    But what’s the remedy if they won’t ‘listen’? Is a ‘writing on the wall’ moment necessary?

    I’m hopeful too. I’m after tools which open peoples’ eyes and ears: they’re very rich simulations that embrace the knowledge cybernetics has given us. At the moment it feels like a long-shot. But I can’t think of anything else that stands a chance… can you?
    looking forwards to exploring this in Richmond!


    • Larry Richards says:

      I’m with you, Mark. Anything under current circumstances is a long-shot, but I can’t let probablities rule what I do in this case. It’s precisely that it is a long-shot that makes it worth doing.

  7. Faisal Kadri says:

    If I wanted to re-state your argument in my nuts-and-bolts lingo I would say:
    Imagine human personalities are made of egos and images-of-the-world (George-and-Mary!), turn off your egos and compare what you have in your own images-of-the-world. Egos are singular and move like in motivation. Images are plural, some have motivations inside them but they are not yours, their movements are mapped into static space (like Laplace transforms), which makes it easy to compare. All actions have purpose and the purpose of comparison is to reach agreement, a consensus of what is true through listening and conversation.

  8. Larry Richards says:

    Faisal, my only reservation would be about the use of the word purpose to talk about results, just beause the process always seems to move that way. I don’t think, for example, that agreement is necessarily a desire, just a description of what seems to happen, which by the way could be agreement to disagree. The desires could be for continuing interaction with others, new ideas and new alternatives, participation in social/political processes (and hence, difference-making), retarding the decay of variety, or less misery in the world. This does not therefore imply consensus as a goal, although if consensus is reached, the desire can be to move onto something else. I do like your I-we distinction (and the dialectic it generates).

  9. Faisal Kadri says:

    Context may work better than purpose: All actions have context. Let me explain:
    Imagine sitting down alone at night in the desert staring at the stars, thinking to yourself this must be the ultimate listening experience without context. Then your mind starts wandering what’s it all about? The same stars where there for millions of years and will stay pretty much the same for millions more, you may not feel context but this is placing the longevity of the universe next to yours and feeling your insignificance. You’re vulnerable, that’s context in terms of self preservation, you acquired it even before you go into religious thoughts about God and creation. What I’m saying is listening without context may be a nice concept for classroom explanation but it parallels cognition without motivation, as human beings you cannot have one without the other, even observers must have context, and if it is not there then we create it.

  10. Larry Richards says:

    The word “context” doesn’t quite capture what I am looking for. I want an alternate way to talk about “intent” as me and my awareness of my desires/values (as constraints), and with it an alternative approach to consciousness as other than purposive. Context implies that which is given prior to choice. The alternative implies that awareness of desires is choice. In a sense, everything is context, and therefore the word doesn’t distinguish anything. The distinction is bubble, and perhaps I am being too picky about it. Thanks for making me think!

  11. Larry Richards says:

    That should have been: The distinction is useful.

  12. Faisal Kadri says:

    What I mean by context is narrow. Thinking is not limited to humans so I look at animals to see what they may see in context. Of course this is speculative but context to an animal is a choice between very few types of behavior for intentionality, and the types I selected (you may select differently but the choice is narrow) belong to a specific classification of animal aggression. I didn’t mean context in the wider sense.

  13. Larry Richards says:

    I meant: The distinction is subtle.

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