Ranulph Glanville is Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Cybernetics at University College London, also Research Senior Tutor and Professor in Innovation Design Engineering at Royal College of Art in London. In addition, he is Professor of Architecture at the University of Newcastle in Australia and Senior Professor of Research Design at KU Leuven—LUCA in Belgium. He is Principal of CybernEthics Research and president of the American Society for Cybernetics, and has published in excess of 350 academic publications. He has a diploma in Architecture from the Architectural Association in London, a PhD in Cybernetics and a second PhD in Human Learning from Brunel University, which also awarded him a DSc in Cybernetics and Design in recognition of his work. He is an architect, composer and artist as well as a cybernetician.

Photo: Reio Avaste

Looking at the multiplicity of fields and activities Glanville is involved with, one might wonder what kind of a person lies hidden behind the titles? When asked what his hobbies are, Glanville responds that these are the things he’s not doing just at the very moment when that question is asked. He has discovered that his life is much better when he doesn’t chase ambition, when he doesn’t try to over-organise what might occur, when he doesn’t grasp for things that he doesn’t want. He has given up trying to be “successful” — he finds that he’s much better having influence rather than power. He tries not to control events but believes in situations and actions that increase the value of the lives of the others and his own.

He says he’s good at building new opportunities and new insights — in general, he’s interested in increasing individual freedom. While teaching, he doesn’t suggest things to do or paths to take expecting that people would actually follow his advice — he’d be quite shocked, in fact, to find that they did what he proposed. Instead, he aims to loosen people up and show them there are possibilities so that they’re able to find what they can do or discover who they are — in other words, Glanville looks to help them release their own potential. He lets his students lead. This follows the model of his own kindergarten, based on the practice of Friedrich Fröbel who believed that children, like flowers, know the best how to grow up themselves. On a different note, curiously enough, teaching “the act of designing” is in his opinion very close to psychotherapy. Altogether he describes himself as an “old-fashioned liberal educator”— not an architect or cybernetician — who believes that it is important to create the conditions in which individual freedom can be best expressed and developed.

How to enable and empower creativity?

I must first point out that I’m not interested in studies of creativity — the majority of stuff that is produced ends up being either too naive, unsympathetic or just an advert for personal opinion. In order to analyse creativity, in order to develop an understanding of it, people often do something that destroys it. It’s like biologists, who studied life in a Petri dish by killing things. The way in which they studied the activity of living was to kill something! According to Humberto Maturana, life is the process of maintaining itself — which he called autopoiesis. He changed things so that you didn’t have to destroy the thing you wanted to examine in order to talk about it. What I think happens all too often is that we destroy creativity in order to talk about it — for instance, creativity to me is about wholes and not about breaking things apart, into particles and procedures and so on. When we do that – break the whole into parts and mechanical procedures – we are destroying the very thing we want to examine by using the wrong sort of model. That’s why I’m generally not interested in discussions of creativity — what is it, how is it etc.

However, another approach would be to measure the number of experiences we have, which we can approximate to the number of brain states or something else like that. If we take your experiences, add them to mine and let them interact, the result is not twice as many experiences but, actually, a square of the number of the experiences. Let’s say we all have, within our lifetime, roughly the same number of experiences (this is not about the exact numbers but about the sense of scale) then the combinations between all the experiences of both of us is the square of the experiences either of us has. If it’s three people, it’s the cube. If it’s four people, then it’s to the power of four. And when it’s six or seven billion people then it’s to the power of six or seven billion. This is a staggeringly large number. If you wanted to write out 2 to the power of six or seven billion in full, you could start right here today and you would die before you’ve finished writing that number. These unbelievably big numbers are beyond practical computation. We could say that the richness of everything that is not “me” vastly exceeds the vastness of what is “me”. That is to suggest there is always, in the world around each of us, a whole lot of material we may mine. One way of being creative is not to isolate oneself, but to look outwards into this enormous network of everything that isn’t me, treating it as a resource. In the world around you there is an infinitude of ideas, of understandings that might have never occurred to you. I suggest that one way of sourcing and amplifying creativity is to look outside yourself. Very simple.

The longer the lifespan the more potential experiences to be shared. Research into longevity, for instance the mechanisms of telomerase, aims to considerably increase the lifespan of humans. What will happen when the average life span extends to 120 years and beyond and when the amount of experiences of a 100-year-old would be significantly different from a 30-year-old?

Of course we learn things as we live but, on the other hand, we tend to slow down with age. Our mental model becomes more complex as we grow older and that makes it more difficult to change it. I find mindless and unconsidered efforts to extend life irresponsible and disgraceful. We don’t have enough work for people, not enough resources, we live way beyond our means — and now we want to make this worse by living longer, quite possibly in such a condition that will require a lot of support and expenditure (not just of money). Anyhow, we should be wary of these kinds of predictions. We might go on living a bit longer. But for many of us it might be really boring. I watched my stepfather die a few years back and I think he died of boredom. We run out of energy and interest, we become inert, an exhausting drain on everyone, starting with ourselves.

Yet we can find 25- or 35-year-olds who are also quite blazé?

Not, perhaps, blazé, but, rather, (I think) depressed. I guess that comes from believing that there aren’t any opportunities. Maybe not in Estonia but in much of Western Europe and in the US we have bred a generation that doesn’t understand that things don’t just happen for it in some magical and detached way. We take our children everywhere, we buy everything for them and then they leave home and discover that life isn’t like that, that money and support are finite and quite constrained, that all those things we want (and which our parents provided) no longer just appear. They’re unequipped to find resources. They don’t know how to look after themselves, how to get hold of finances — they don’t see that they have to do this. Thus, they see themselves as cheated, and the world as lacking opportunities, as not fitting their expectations. They are also, I fear, unaware of the necessary, individual responsibility that is part of the lives of each of us.

We used to believe that the “Spaceship Earth” was an infinite resource. Even though nature has an extraordinary ability to right itself, I have come to believe the planet cannot take what we’re demanding from it nowadays. It cannot provide for the increasing wish to own things nor can it repair the mess that we make.

What would be the way out?

Younger people, the hope remains. When I teach, I’m setting up situations that create opportunities for other people — you have to help the people you teach to find in themselves their relation to the subject and thus to power themselves up. By doing this I hope to enable them to more effectively release their creativity, passion, new ideas and insights. Using the metaphor of the child’s game, a lot of our education nowadays is about making people fit into holes shaped by and for society rather than making society something which can accept many different-shaped people. Yet individual freedom cannot be expressed at the expense of everyone else’s freedom. This freedom is not absolute — it is neither what the Soviets nor what the Americans meant by “freedom”.

Estonia witnesses quite a lot of emigration despite the fact that the country is nowadays free to redefine what freedom is.

When you have to rebuild a country and it doesn’t quite work and people drift off, then they might appear to be some sort of traitor, right? I suggest to get rid of the notion of nationality altogether, and with that the idea of the traitor. It seems to me that nationality, loyalty and duty are amongst the most damaging things we’ve ever invented. If nobody was loyal we’d not have institutional wars. Duty is loyalty with stronger obligation. Perhaps we should just be loyal to other people: yet it could also be that even that loyalty is unnecessary.

What is necessary then?

If you slow things down then you see nuances that you wouldn’t normally see. That is revealing — slowness has a particular quality of its own. It is difficult to slow things down and to simultaneously keep alert. Being caught in between, being a bit lost, is good for a human being. Things have their own time, and we should learn to enjoy this, rather than imposing our own, usually rushed time. A little slowness, living in the now, and a reduction of the significance of the nation state might really help us.

What is cybernetics for you?

A way of thinking. In 1967, as an architecture student, I had to design a supermarket. I hated supermarkets. My way out of this was to design an anti-supermarket—something that might be called “internet shopping” today. Someone told me that I should see a “cybernetician” and went to visit this man named Gordon Pask. He was remarkable, even if difficult at times. I spoke with him in a confused way for what I remember as three hours, after which Gordon summarised what I had said with total clarity and crisp precision in three minutes. I thought to myself: “I want some of this!” I wanted such clarity, purity and distillation of thinking that Gordon had demonstrated. I knew he was extraordinarily clever but I also realised that some of it had to do with the subject that he was involved in — in other words, cybernetics. I realised that there was something in cybernetics that released the ability to think in such clear way.

So I went to study it. A lot of my cybernetics is philosophical in nature, a lot of it goes against conventional cybernetics, which is in general focused on purposeful systems — systems with goals. I’m just as interested in systems that don’t have goals. So I am better at keeping my eyes open for opportunities than in taking them. I’m not like Rachel Whiteread who (I’m informed) planned her career day by day. When the Japanese plan out their lives with great precision then they do it strategically, for life not to get too complicated. In contrast, Whiteread’s aim was to become a superstar. I’m exactly the opposite of her. Instead of trying to take control of my life, I’m responsive rather than proactive, and I find I’m much better at this. If I leave myself open to see possibilities and if I leave space for people to offer “gifts” to me, then I often get some extraordinary opportunities which I could never have hoped for. That’s the opposite of the cybernetic goal-oriented system. In cybernetics, I’m interested in the transcendental questions or frameworks within which cybernetics happens, which we tend to assume in order to be able to act. I’m interested in what those assumptions are: what they imply. In that sense I’m someone who looks at the foundations and questions them — someone interested in the relationship between “freedom” and the “machine”. The most remarkable characteristic of human beings is that we create patterns. Without the ability to create patterns we wouldn’t be able to think. That’s what I do: generally at a rather abstract level.

How about the patterns that we create collectively as a society?

I’m interested in a society that minimises the impact of society and maximises the space for the individual. The idealistic aims of communism, democracy and anarchy are not really that different. The means by which you get there are different and the sorts of distortions that each encourages are very different. Communism gives bullying and an elite which says what the society wants — you have to trust people to have socialism — it’s not enough to trust yourself to make choices for the benefit of people. The socialists are in essence paternalists. Democracy is a very poor mechanism for deciding the will of people since it’s about majority, it’s clumsy, it cannot be tuned — but at least it recognises that the world is made up of individuals. The problem with anarchy is that it’s generally considered unsustainable. But there are self-organised groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous etc.) that somehow sustain themselves even though they are anarchic. And I find that immensely interesting.

This interview was published in an abbreviated version in Estonian in cultural weekly Sirp on July 4, 2014.