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Out of Control

Postmodern humans swim in a third transparent medium now materializing. Every fact that can be digitized, is. Every measurement of collective human activity that can be ported over a network, is. Every trace of an individual's life that can be transmuted into a number and sent over a wire, is. This wired planet becomes a torrent of bits circulating in a clear shell of glass fibers, databases, and input devices.

Once moving, data creates transparency. Once wired, a society can see itself. The reason the rocket scientists at the Prediction Company can fare better than the chartists of old is that they work in a more transparent medium. The billion computerized bits sloughed off by networked financial institutions clot into a transparent air through which the Company can detect unfolding patterns. The cloud of data flowing through their workstations forms a clear digital globe for them to peer into. In certain patches of the new air they can see ahead.

At the same time, industrial factories mass-produce video cameras, tape recorders, hard disks, text scanners, spreadsheets, modems, and satellite dishes. Each of these is an eye, an ear, or a neuron. Connected together they form a billion-lobed sense organ floating in the clear medium of whizzing digits. This tissue serves to feed-forward information from distant limbs into the body electric. The U.S. Command Center wargamers can use the digitized land-terrain of Kuwait, just-in-time satellite images, and the relayed reports of hand-held transmitters anchored by global positioning information (accurate to within 50 feet anywhere on Earth) to anticipate -- to see in the collective mind's eye -- the course of an approaching battle.

Telling the future, when it comes right down to it, is not solely a human yearning. It is the fundamental nature of any organism, and perhaps any complex system. Telling the future is what organisms are for.

My working definition of a complex system is a "thing which talks to itself." One might ask, then: What is the story that complex systems tell themselves? The answer is that they tell themselves stories of the future. Stories of what might come next -- whether next is reckoned in nanoseconds or years.