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Out of Control

What color is a chameleon placed on the mirror?

Stewart Brand posed that riddle to Gregory Bateson in the early 1970s. Bateson, together with Norbert Wiener, was a founding father of the modern cybernetic movement. Bateson had a most orthodox Oxford education and a most unorthodox career. He filmed Balinese dance in Indonesia; he studied dolphins; he developed a useful theory of schizophrenia. While in his sixties, he taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where his eccentric brilliant views on mental health and evolutionary systems caught the attention of holistically minded hippies.

Stewart Brand, a student of Bateson's, was himself a legendary promoter of cybernetic holism. Brand published his chameleon koan in his Whole Earth Catalog, in 1974. Writes Brand of his riddle: "I asked the question of Gregory Bateson at a point in our interview when we were lost in contemplation of the function, if any, of consciousness -- self-consciousness. Both of us being biologists, we swerved to follow the elusive chameleon. Gregory asserted that the creature would settle at a middle value in its color range. I insisted that the poor beast trying to disappear in a universe of itself would endlessly cycle through a number of its disguises."

The mirror is a clever metaphor for informational circuits. Two ordinary mirrors facing each other will create a fun-house hall that ricochets an image back and forth until it vanishes into an infinite regress. Any message loosed between the two opposing mirrors bounces to exhaustion without changing its form. But what if one side is a responsive mirror, just as the chameleon is, in part reflecting, in part generating? The very act of accommodating itself to its own reflection would disturb it anew. Could it ever settle into a pattern persistent enough to call it something?

Bateson felt the system -- perhaps like self-consciousness -- would quickly settle out at an equilibrium determined by the pull of the creature's many extremes in color. The conflicting colors (and conflicting viewpoints in a society of mind) would compromise upon a "middle value," as if it were a democracy voting. On the other hand, Brand opined that equilibrium of any sort was next to impossible, and that the adaptive system would oscillate without direction or end. He imagined the colors fluctuating chaotically in a random, psychedelic paisley.

The chameleon responding to its own shifting image is an apt analog of the human world of fashion. Taken as a whole, what are fads but the response of a hive mind to its own reflection?

In a 21st-century society wired into instantaneous networks, marketing is the mirror; the collective consumer is the chameleon. What color is the consumer when you put him on the marketplace? Does he dip to the state of the lowest common denominator -- a middle average consumer? Or does he oscillate in mad swings of forever trying to catch up with his own moving reflection?

Bateson was tickled by the depth of the chameleon riddle and passed it on to his other students. One of them, Gerald Hall, proposed a third hypothesis for the final color of the mirror visitor: "The chameleon will stay whatever color he was at the moment he entered the mirror domain."

This is the most logical answer in my view. The coupling between mirror and chameleon is probably so tight and immediate that almost no adaptation is possible. In fact, it may be that once the chameleon bellies up to the mirror, it can't budge from its color unless a change is induced from outside or from an erroneous drift in the chameleon's coloration process. Otherwise, the mirror/chameleon system freezes solidly onto whatever initial value it begins with.

For the mirrored world of marketing, this third answer means the consumer freezes. He either locks onto whatever brand he began with, or he stops purchasing altogether.

There are other possible answers, too. While conducting interviews for this book, I sometimes posed the chameleon riddle to my interviewees. The scientists understood it for the archetypal case of adaptive feedback it was. Their answers ranged over the map. Some examples:

MATHEMATICIAN JOHN HOLLAND: It goes kaleidoscopic! There's a lag time, so it'll flicker all over the place. The chameleon won't ever be a uniform color.

COMPUTER SCIENTIST MARVIN MINSKY: It might have a number of eigenvalues or colors, so it will zero in on a number of colors. If you put it in when it's green it might stay green, and if it was red it might stay red, but if you put it in when it was brown it might tend to go to green.

NATURALIST PETER WARSHALL: A chameleon changes color out of a fright response so it all depends on its emotional state. It might be frightened by its image at first, but then later "warm up" to it, and so change colors.

Putting a chameleon on a mirror seemed a simple enough experiment that I thought that even a writer could perform it. So I did. I built a small, mirrored box, and I bought a color-changing lizard and placed it inside. Although Brand's riddle had been around for 20 years, this was the first time, as far as I know, anyone had actually tried it.

On the mirror the lizard stabilized at one color of green -- the green of young leaves on trees in the spring -- and returned to that one color each time I tried the experiment. But it would spend periods being brown before returning to green. Its resting color in the box was not the same dark brown it seemed to like when out of the mirrored box.

Although I performed this experiment, I place very little confidence in my own results for the following important reasons: the lizard I used was not a true chameleon, but an anole, a species with a far more limited range of color adaptation than a true chameleon. (A true chameleon may cost several hundred dollars and requires a terrarium of a quality I did not want to possess.) More importantly, according to the little literature I read, anoles change colors for other reasons in addition to trying to match their background. As Warshall said, they also alter in response to fright. And frightened it was. The anole did not want to go into the mirrored box. The color green it presented in the box is the same color it uses when it is frightened. It may be that the chameleon in the mirror is merely in a constant state of fright at its own amplified strangeness now filling its universe. I certainly would go nutty in a mirrored box. Finally, there is this observer problem: I can only see the lizard when my face is peeking into the mirrored box, an act which inserts a blue eye and red nose into the anole's universe, a disturbance I could not circumvent.

It may be that an exact answer to the riddle requires future experiments with an authentic chameleon and many more controls than I had. But I doubt it. True chameleons are full-bodied animals just as anoles are, with more than one reason for changing colors. The chameleon on a mirror riddle is best kept in idealized form as a thought experiment.

Even in the abstract, the "real" answer depends on such specific factors as the reaction time of the chameleon's color cells, their sensitivity to a change in hue, and whether other factors influence the signals -- all the usual critical values in feedback circuits. If one could alter these functions in a real chameleon, one could then generate each of the chameleon-on-the-mirror scenarios mentioned above. This, in fact, is what engineers do when they devise electronic control circuits to guide spaceships or steer robot arms. By tweaking delay times, sensitivity to signals, dampening values, etc., they can tailor a system to seek either a wide-ranging equilibrium (say, keeping the temperature between 68 and 70 degrees), or constant change, or some homeostatic point in between.

We see this happening in networked markets. A sweater manufacturer will try to rig a cultural mirror that encourages wild fluctuations in the hopes of selling many styles of sweaters, while a dishwasher manufacture will try to focus the reflections onto the common denominators of only a few dishwasher images, since making varieties of sweaters is much cheaper than making varieties of dishwashers. The type of market is determined by quantity and speed of feedback signals.

The important point about the chameleon on the mirror riddle is that the lizard and glass become one system. "Lizardness" and "mirrorness" are encompassed into a larger essence -- a "lizard-glass" -- which acts differently than either a chameleon or a mirror.

Medieval life was remarkably unnarcissistic. Common folk had only vague notions of their own image in the broad sense. Their individual and social identities were informed by participating in rituals and traditions rather than by reflection. On the other hand, the modern world is being paved with mirrors. We have ubiquitous TV cameras, and ceaseless daily polling ("63 Percent of Us Are Divorced") to mirror back to us every nuance of our collective action. A steady paper trail of bills, grades, pay stubs, and catalogs helps us create our individual identity. Pervasive digitalization of the approaching future promises clearer, faster, and more omnipresent mirrors. Every consumer becomes both a reflection and reflector, a cause and an effect.

The Greek philosophers were obsessed with the chain of causality, how the cause of an effect should be traced back in a relay of hops until one reached the Prime Cause. That backward path is the foundation of Western, linear logic. The lizard-glass demonstrates an entirely different logic -- the circular causality of the Net. In the realm of recursive reflections, an event is not triggered by a chain of being, but by a field of causes reflecting, bending, mirroring each other in a fun-house nonsense. Rather than cause and control being dispensed in a straight line from its origin, it spreads horizontally, like creeping tide, influencing in roundabout, diffuse ways. Small blips can make big splashes, and big blips no splashes. It is as if the filters of distance and time were subverted by the complex connecting of everything to everything.

Computer scientist Danny Hillis has noted that computation, particularly networked computation, exhibits a nonlinear causality field. He wrote:

In the physical universe the effect that one event has on another tends to decrease with the distance in time or in space between them. This allows us to study the motions of the Jovian moons without taking into account the motion of Mercury. It is fundamental to the twin concepts of object and action. Locality of action shows itself in the finite speed of light, in the inverse square law of fields, and in macroscopic statistical effects, such as rates of reaction and the speed of sound.

In computation, or at least in our old models of computation, an arbitrarily small event can and often does cause an arbitrarily large effect. A tiny program can clear all of memory. A single instruction can stop the machine. In computation there is no analog of distance. One memory location is as easily influenced as another.

The lines of control in natural ecologies also dissolve into a causality horizon. Control is not only distributed in space, but it is also blurred in time as well. When the chameleon steps onto the mirror, the cause of his color dissolves into a field of effects spinning back on themselves. The reasons for things do not proceed like an arrow, but rather spread to the side like a wind.