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Out of Control

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 body.

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.