Friday, May 30, 2014


error, the first challenge, is society’s deadliest cancer: people destroying people. The second challenge is the gnawing doubt of whether we can improve society at all, whether we can steer it, whether we are at the helm, if there even is a helm. This chapter deals with things running out of hand, getting out of control. This challenge is about political and governmental inability. It is about what happens when we do what we can to steer the boat, but the boat does not respond or responds wildly and unpredictably. This sphinx makes us feel helpless and impotent.
It is easy to feel that we can do nothing to change the world. In ancient times people believed that the gods were in control, and as everyone knows, gods are weird, fickle, easily angered, difficult to placate and impossible to understand. Or people viewed priests, soldiers or the prince as being in command. Princes, like gods, often behave capriciously, and priests and soldiers always bicker among themselves and with princes. Later, princes and tyrants become kings and then bicker with barons and courtiers. Read Antony Jay for an analysis of the present-day successors of these officials. In cities, oligarchies of the rich and powerful called the shots, and members of these oligarchies always bickered at home and abroad.
Today we talk about social forces, the establishment, class struggle, racial tensions or the low intellectual and moral standards of politicians, to explain why the world is not moving more quickly in the right direction. What can a human do? What can a community do? What can a government do? What can humanity do?
We are responsible for the world we make. This position is clear and simple. If we reject that, we are stuck with fatalism, with an attitude of not bothering, not caring, and we believe that the buck, if there is any, stops elsewhere.
Even when we accept the view that those who are at the helm are actually us, it soon becomes painfully clear that this ship that we call society often does not respond to our most forceful prompting. Even if the world is controllable, obviously it is only partially so. Ostensibly there are limits to what we can do, as one version of the Serenity Prayer makes clear: ‘Oh God, give me power to improve what I can, to accept what I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
Here we will talk about that difference, realizing that at times we may choose to do or not do something that later leaves us no choice. Some developments are like traps in that we may choose to enter, but we cannot leave of our own free will. Often, we are like the sorcerer’s apprentice who knew the spell to make a broom fetch water but did not know the spell to stop it, and nearly flooded everything.
The previous chapter dealt with people being treated in beastly, inhumane ways. This chapter deals with people who are dragged along by processes that they have started but can no longer control. The sorcerer’s apprentice effect crops up wherever we start something that becomes more difficult to stop than to continue. Having more of something becomes easier than having less of the same thing; moving forward becomes easier than moving backward. Often such forward movement is worsened by a self-feeding, accelerating loop.

How Developments Run out of Hand
Since Norbert Wiener, Hal Ashby, Stafford Beer and others, the old art of steering has become the new science of cybernetics. Cybernetics applied to people is called management. Today, since we understand the conditions and dynamics of management, we can pinpoint the conditions of unmanageability. Management or control relies on feedback: results achieved are compared against results expected or desired, and the difference triggers a corrective action. Thus, the pathology of control becomes:
1.    If we do not know what we want, there is no course we can take;
2.    If we cannot take corrective action, whether by lack of capability,
guts or feedback, we will drift along in the dark;
3.    If we overreact, the resulting oscillations will destabilize the sytem;
4.    If we do not register feedback, or even reject feedback, the system
becomes rigid;
5.    If effects do not weaken their causes but instead strengthen them
(feed-forward instead of feedback), things spiral out of hand or
lock themselves in.
The first pathology, that of not knowing what we want, shows itself in persistent differences of opinion. The methodology that is usually employed to deal with this state of affairs is called politics, a mix of advertising and bargaining that usually results in compromises that fall short of what was expected, or even prove to be irrelevant. This shortfall in results leads to still more politics. When the political approach is compared to grand strategies that move toward lofty goals, politics is essentially a muddling through, but surprisingly this process rarely gets stuck. Politics resemble a Brazilian traffic jam: somehow the cars keep crawling.

The second pathology, that of inability to take corrective action, is seldom present in society as a whole, but becomes evident when communications break down, as well as when demoralization and anarchy appear.
The third pathology, that of overreaction, prevails in times of mass hysteria, and in times of anxiety in general. Much overreaction also appears in the dialectics of intellectual fashion. If a particular approach has been overadvertized and has underperformed, critics who propose an inverse approach may suddenly drift into prominence.
The fourth and fifth pathologies are probably the most persistent and pernicious. Barbara Tuchman explores the fourth pathology, that of rigidity, in her March of Folly. She analyzes beautifully the course and effects of this tragic condition, but does not analyze its origins. Societies indulge in stark folly either when they do not register feedback, or they reject that feedback. But how and why does this folly occur?
The fifth pathology may show itself in either a feed-forward cycle that snowballs or spirals out, accelerating or escalating like a chain reaction, toward explosion and collapse; or a feed-forward cycle that works like a dark hole, spiraling inward toward implosion and deadlock. Very often, spirals and deadlocks are two sides of the same coin. Armament spirals accompany disarmament deadlocks; deadlocks between decision-makers accompany spiraling costs.
The challenge of unmanageability is ultimately the challenge of protecting and repairing social, economic and political feedback systems. This challenge also involves the wisdom of timing. The acute sense of things getting out of hand or having gone out of hand is called ‘crisis’. Therefore, this challenge also includes dealing with crises: preventing a crisis if prevention is still possible, or finding a way out of a crisis that already exists.
Many people believe that we may prevent crises by forecasting the future. This belief assumes that political ‘business as usual’ will continue. Some criticized Meadows’ report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, for not foreseeing the effects of its own publication. Maybe these same people also point out that certain traffic signs that warn of the danger of flying off the road at a dangerous curve actually prevent this danger from happening, and therefore are incorrect. Scenarios and futurology are not intended to predict the future, but to show probable future effects of present circumstances. World modeling offers a new type of feedback; it enhances control and represses crises. The real question is not which future will arrive, but how any future is created and what factors determine which future will arrive.
Anxiety over lack of control is not new. Prophets of doom satisfy deep human urges and therefore do a steady business. They play Victim, Prosecutor and Savior simultaneously. The Cassandra complex is a firm step toward the Messiah complex.
Too much talk of The End of the World has discredited prophecies of doom. Yet there may be smaller doomsdays ahead, days that are bad enough to warrant a look through the windshield and a hand on the steering wheel, even if we cannot take our foot from the accelerator. If we are on a collision course or a self-destruction course, we need to be warned of this.
What type of crises do we want to avoid? First are the ancient fearful four: war, revolution, famine and pestilence. Secondly, we wish to avoid their forerunners: financial crises, economic crises, social crises, political crises. How to do that?
From: The Ten Global Challenges: How People Make the World. An Essay on Politics, Civilization and Humanity. Ordering the book 

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