Transduction — a powerful and important concept that few have heard of

Benjamin P. Taylor
3 min readOct 6, 2021

Have you heard of transduction?

A critical systems concept from cellular biology, adopted by Stafford Beer, who described a transducer at the boundary of an organisation, coding and decoding messages between the language outside and the language inside.

Complex? The way I explain it is that information never crosses a system boundary unscathed — in fact, information never crosses a system boundary at all.

When Brits talk about ‘tabling’ an issue at a meeting, they mean to bring something urgent to the table which wasn’t on the agenda. The US meaning is the opposite; to take something off the agenda.

When uniformed services wear their uniforms , it has a meaning like commonality, discipline, pride. When they wear it to a community meeting, it might have something of the opposite effect: alienation, difference, aloofness.

When I called the council to chat to someone about the situation of my elderly relative, the request didn’t register. The internal language, process, professional culture, the legislation, and the very way of recording — the things that determine the limits of possibilities, of ‘what exists’, are ‘do assessments’.

I can say ‘I don’t want an assessment’ until I’m blue in the face; I might as well be explaining to a waiter in Italy that I really do want a cappuccino following my evening meal (the traditional response is ‘certainly, sir! We open at nine tomorrow morning’).

It’s like not seeing the moonwalking gorilla; customer data only computes to the extent that it means the organisational schema of understanding; there’s a sense in which you can only see what you’re looking for.

Two chubby missionaries made contact with a fearsome cannibal tribe. They were consistently prevented from following them back into the deeper forest. They persisted and, faced with intransigence, the tribe gave up. The missionaries came into the deep dark forest and were killed and melted down to make candles. Their value was transduced into calorific, light-giving potential.

The 1959 paper What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain demonstrated a radical thing: the frog’s eye doesn’t simply ‘capture light’ and send it to the brain for processing; instead it makes sense of things in a froggy way. Transduction; the frog sees what it’s in the nature of a frog to see.

In Analogy as the Core of Cognition, Douglas Hofstader sets out this challenge differently: “Trans-sportation”: imagine how different ‘choreographers’ might ‘trans-sport’ a classic, enthralling game of basketball into the medium of ‘soccer’.

The contact centre representative not being able to help with an unusual query, or the web bot not offering an option for the thing you actually want to do are connected with the ways we fail to communicate, the different sensemaking worlds we live in and the way organisations are insensible to what’s actually going on in the world around us.

Can you think of an example?