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Out of Control

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 evolutionary model.

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 of control.

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.