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Out of Control

Out of nothing, nature makes something.

First there is hard rock planet; then there is life, lots of it. First barren hills; then brooks with fish and cattails and red-winged blackbirds. First an acorn; then an oak tree forest.

I'd like to be able to do that. First a hunk of metal; then a robot. First some wires; then a mind. First some old genes; then a dinosaur.

How do you make something from nothing? Although nature knows this trick, we haven't learned much just by watching her. We have learned more by our failures in creating complexity and by combining these lessons with small successes in imitating and understanding natural systems. So from the frontiers of computer science, and the edges of biological research, and the odd corners of interdisciplinary experimentation, I have compiled The Nine Laws of God governing the incubation of somethings from nothing:

  • Distribute being

  • Control from the bottom up

  • Cultivate increasing returns

  • Grow by chunking

  • Maximize the fringes

  • Honor your errors

  • Pursue no optima; have multiple goals

  • Seek persistent disequilibrium

  • Change changes itself.

These nine laws are the organizing principles that can be found operating in systems as diverse as biological evolution and SimCity. Of course I am not suggesting that they are the only laws needed to make something from nothing; but out of the many observations accumulating in the science of complexity, these principles are the broadest, crispest, and most representative generalities. I believe that one can go pretty far as a god while sticking to these nine rules.

Distribute being. The spirit of a beehive, the behavior of an economy, the thinking of a supercomputer, and the life in me are distributed over a multitude of smaller units (which themselves may be distributed). When the sum of the parts can add up to more than the parts, then that extra being (that something from nothing) is distributed among the parts. Whenever we find something from nothing, we find it arising from a field of many interacting smaller pieces. All the mysteries we find most interesting -- life, intelligence, evolution -- are found in the soil of large distributed systems.

Control from the bottom up. When everything is connected to everything in a distributed network, everything happens at once. When everything happens at once, wide and fast moving problems simply route around any central authority. Therefore overall governance must arise from the most humble interdependent acts done locally in parallel, and not from a central command. A mob can steer itself, and in the territory of rapid, massive, and heterogeneous change, only a mob can steer. To get something from nothing, control must rest at the bottom within simplicity.

Cultivate increasing returns. Each time you use an idea, a language, or a skill you strengthen it, reinforce it, and make it more likely to be used again. That's known as positive feedback or snowballing. Success breeds success. In the Gospels, this principle of social dynamics is known as "To those who have, more will be given." Anything which alters its environment to increase production of itself is playing the game of increasing returns. And all large, sustaining systems play the game. The law operates in economics, biology, computer science, and human psychology. Life on Earth alters Earth to beget more life. Confidence builds confidence. Order generates more order. Them that has, gets.

Grow by chunking. The only way to make a complex system that works is to begin with a simple system that works. Attempts to instantly install highly complex organization -- such as intelligence or a market economy -- without growing it, inevitably lead to failure. To assemble a prairie takes time -- even if you have all the pieces. Time is needed to let each part test itself against all the others. Complexity is created, then, by assembling it incrementally from simple modules that can operate independently.

Maximize the fringes. In heterogeneity is creation of the world. A uniform entity must adapt to the world by occasional earth-shattering revolutions, one of which is sure to kill it. A diverse heterogeneous entity, on the other hand, can adapt to the world in a thousand daily minirevolutions, staying in a state of permanent, but never fatal, churning. Diversity favors remote borders, the outskirts, hidden corners, moments of chaos, and isolated clusters. In economic, ecological, evolutionary, and institutional models, a healthy fringe speeds adaptation, increases resilience, and is almost always the source of innovations.

Honor your errors. A trick will only work for a while, until everyone else is doing it. To advance from the ordinary requires a new game, or a new territory. But the process of going outside the conventional method, game, or territory is indistinguishable from error. Even the most brilliant act of human genius, in the final analysis, is an act of trial and error. "To be an Error and to be Cast out is a part of God's Design," wrote the visionary poet William Blake. Error, whether random or deliberate, must become an integral part of any process of creation. Evolution can be thought of as systematic error management.

Pursue no optima; have multiple goals. Simple machines can be efficient, but complex adaptive machinery cannot be. A complicated structure has many masters and none of them can be served exclusively. Rather than strive for optimization of any function, a large system can only survive by "satisficing" (making "good enough") a multitude of functions. For instance, an adaptive system must trade off between exploiting a known path of success (optimizing a current strategy), or diverting resources to exploring new paths (thereby wasting energy trying less efficient methods). So vast are the mingled drives in any complex entity that it is impossible to unravel the actual causes of its survival. Survival is a many-pointed goal. Most living organisms are so many-pointed they are blunt variations that happen to work, rather than precise renditions of proteins, genes, and organs. In creating something from nothing, forget elegance; if it works, it's beautiful.

Seek persistent disequilibrium. Neither constancy nor relentless change will support a creation. A good creation, like good jazz, must balance the stable formula with frequent out-of-kilter notes. Equilibrium is death. Yet unless a system stabilizes to an equilibrium point, it is no better than an explosion and just as soon dead. A Nothing, then, is both equilibrium and disequilibrium. A Something is persistent disequilibrium -- a continuous state of surfing forever on the edge between never stopping but never falling. Homing in on that liquid threshold is the still mysterious holy grail of creation and the quest of all amateur gods.

Change changes itself. Change can be structured. This is what large complex systems do: they coordinate change. When extremely large systems are built up out of complicated systems, then each system begins to influence and ultimately change the organizations of other systems. That is, if the rules of the game are composed from the bottom up, then it is likely that interacting forces at the bottom level will alter the rules of the game as it progresses. Over time, the rules for change get changed themselves. Evolution -- as used in everyday speech -- is about how an entity is changed over time. Deeper evolution -- as it might be formally defined -- is about how the rules for changing entities over time change over time. To get the most out of nothing, you need to have self-changing rules.