The original cyberneticist, Norbert Wiener, struggled to explain
the immense power of feedback control. Wiener had in mind simple toilet-
flusher type feedback. He noticed that delivering a constant weak
trickle of information about what the system had just accomplished ("the
water level is still down") into the system in some way directed the
whole system. Wiener concluded that this power was a function of
time-shifting. He wrote in 1954: "Feedback is a method of controlling a
system by reinserting into it the results of its past performance."
There's no puzzle in a sensor sensing the present. What more does one
need to know about the present other than it is here and now? It
obviously pays for a system to mind the present since it has little
other choice. But why expend resources on what is gone and cannot be
changed? Why raid the past for present control?
A system -- organism, corporate firm, computer program -- spends energy
feeding the past back into the present because this is an economical way
for the system to deal with the future. To see into the future one must
see into the past. A constant pulse of the past along feedback loops
informs and controls the future.
But there is another avenue for a system to time-shift into the future.
Sense organs in a body that pick up sound and light waves miles away act
as meters of the present and more as gauges of the future. Events
geographically distant are, for practical purposes, events that hail
from the future. An image of an approaching predator becomes information
about the future now. A distant roar may soon be an animal up close; a
whiff of salt signals a soon-to-be change in tide. Thus an animal's eye
"feed-forwards" information from a distant time/space into its here/now
Some philosophers say it is no coincidence that life arose on a planet
bathed in two mediums -- air and water -- amazingly transparent in most
spectrums. A cleanly transparent environment permits organs to receive
data-rich signals from "distant" (future) events and process them in
anticipation of a response from the organism. Eyes, ears, and noses are
thus prediction machinery to peer into time.
Completely opaque water or air, according to this notion, might have
squelched the development of anticipation machinery by preventing
information about distant events from reaching the present. Organisms in
an opaque world would be cramped in both space and time; they would lack
the room to develop adaptive responses. Adaptation -- at its core -- requires
a sense of the future. In a changing environment, either opaque or
clear, systems that anticipate the future are more likely to persist.
Michael Conrad writes, "At bottom adaptability is the use of information
to handle environmental uncertainty." Gregory Bateson put it
telegraphically when he said, "Adaptation is change in the service of
nonchange." A system (nonchange by definition) adapts (changes) in order
to persist (nonchange). A flamingo adapts in order to persist.
Thus, systems stuck solely in the present will more often be surprised
by change, and die. Therefore, a transparent environment rewards the
evolution of predictive machinery, because prediction machinery confers
survivability upon complexity. Complex systems survive because they
anticipate, and a transparent medium helps them anticipate. Opaqueness,
on the other hand, would hinder anticipation, adaptation, and evolution
of complex vivisystems altogether.