Stella-based models such as Limits to Growth possess a remarkable
surfeit of feedback circuits. As Norbert Wiener showed in 1952, feedback
circuits, in all their combinatorial variety, are the fountainhead of
control and self-governance. But in the forty years since that initial
flush of excitement about feedback, we now know that feedback loops
alone are insufficient to breed the behaviors of the vivisystems we find
most interesting. There are two additional types of complexity (there
may be others) the researchers in this book have found necessary in
order to birth the full spectrum of vivisystem character: distributed
being and open-ended evolution.
The key insight uncovered by the study of complex systems in recent
years is this: the only way for a system to evolve into something new is
to have a flexible structure. A tiny tadpole can change into a frog, but
a 747 Jumbo Jet can't add six inches to its length without crippling
itself. This is why distributed being is so important to learning and
evolving systems. A decentralized, redundant organization can flex
without distorting its function, and thus it can adapt. It can manage
change. We call that growth.
Direct feedback models such as Limits to Growth can achieve
stabilization -- one attribute of living systems -- but they can't learn,
grow, or diversify -- three essential complexities for a model of changing
culture or life. Without these abilities, a world model will fall far
behind the moving reality. A learning-less model can be used to
anticipate the near-future where evolutionary change is minimal; but to
predict an evolutionary system -- if it can ever be predicted in
pockets -- will require the requisite complexity of a simulated, artificial
But we cannot import evolution and learning without exporting control.
When Dana Meadows speaks of a collective human intelligence which steps
back to perceive global problems and then "reaches in and restructures
the system" of human endeavor, she is pointing to the greatest fault of
the Limit to Growth model: its linear, mechanical, and unworkable notion
There is no control outside a self-making system. Vivisystems, such as
economies, ecologies, and human culture, can hardly be controlled from
any position. They can be prodded, perturbed, cajoled, herded, and at
best, coordinated from within. On Earth, there is no outside platform
from which to send an intelligent hand into the vivisystem, and no point
inside where a control dial waits to be turned. The direction of large
swarmlike systems such as human society is controlled by a messy
multitude of interconnecting, self-contradictory agents who have only
the dimmest awareness of where the whole is at any one moment.
Furthermore, many active members of this swarmy system are not
individual human intelligences; they are corporate entities, groups,
institutions, technological systems, and even the nonbiological systems
of the Earth itself.
The song goes: No one is in charge. We can't predict the future.
Now hear the flip side of the album: We are all steering. And we can
learn to anticipate what is immediately ahead. To learn is to live.