The compounded logic of stacked loops which doubles back on itself
is the source of the strange counterintuitive behaviors of complex
circuits. Made with care, circuits perform dependably and reasonably,
and then suddenly, by their own drumbeat, they veer off without notice.
Electrical engineers get paid well to outfox the lateral causality
inherent in all circuits. But pumped up to the density required for a
robot, circuit strangeness becomes indelible. Reduced back to its
simplest -- a feedback cycle -- circular causality is a fertile paradox.
Where does self come from? The perplexing answer suggested by
cybernetics is: it emerges from itself. It cannot appear any other way.
Brian Goodwin, an evolutionary biologist, told reporter Roger Lewin,
"The organism is the cause and effect of itself, its own intrinsic order
and organization. Natural selection isn't the cause of organisms. Genes
don't cause organisms. There are no causes of organisms. Organisms are
self-causing agencies." Self, therefore, is an auto-conspired form. It
emerges to transcend itself, just as a long snake swallowing its own
tail becomes Uroborus, the mythical loop.
The Uroborus, according to C. G. Jung, is one of those resonant
projections of the human soul that cluster around timeless forms. The
ring of snake consuming its own tail first appeared as art adorning
Egyptian statuary. Jung developed the idea that the nearly chaotic
variety of dream images visited on humans tend to gravitate around
certain stable nodes which form key and universal images, much as
interlinked complex systems tend settle down upon "attractors," to use
modern terminology. A constellation of these attracting, strange nodes
form the visual vocabulary of art, literature, and some types of
therapy. One of the most enduring attractors, and an early pattern to be
named, was the Thing Eating Its Own Tail, often graphically simplified
to a snakelike dragon swallowing its own tail in a perfect circle.
The loop of Uroborus is so obviously an emblem for feedback that I have
trouble ascertaining who first used it in a cybernetic context. In the
true manner of archetypes it was probably realized as a feedback symbol
independently more than once. I wouldn't doubt that the faint image of
snake eating its tail spontaneously hatches whenever, and wherever, the
GOTO START loop dawns on a programmer.
Snake is linear, but when it feeds back into itself it becomes the
archetype of nonlinear being. In the classical Jungian framework, the
tail-biting Uroborus is the symbolic depiction of the self. The
completeness of the circle is the self-containment of self, a
containment that is at the same time made of one thing and made of
competing parts. The flush toilet then, as the plainest manifestation of
a feedback loop, is a mythical beast -- the beast of self.
The Jungians say that the self is taken to be "the original psychic
state prior to the birth of ego consciousness," that is, "the original
mandala-state of totality out of which the individual ego is born." To
say that a furnace with a thermostat has a self is not to say it has an
ego. The self is a mere ground state, an auto-conspired form, out of
which the more complicated ego can later distinguish itself, should its
complexity allow that.
Every self is a tautology: self-evident, self-referential,
self-centered, and self-created. Gregory Bateson said a vivisystem was
"a slowly self-healing tautology." He meant that if disturbed or
disrupted, a self will "tend to settle toward tautology" -- it will
gravitate to its elemental self-referential state, its "necessary
Every self is an argument trying to prove its identity. The self of a
thermostat system has endless internal bickering about whether to turn
the furnace up or down. Heron's valve system argues continuously around
the sole, solitary action it can take: should it move the float or not?
A system is anything that talks to itself. All living systems and
organisms ultimately reduce to a bunch of regulators -- chemical pathways
and neuron circuits -- having conversations as dumb as "I want, I want, I
want; no, you can't, you can't, you can't."
The sowing of selves into our built world has provided a home for
control mechanisms to trickle, pool, spill, and gush. The advent of
automatic control has come in three stages and has spawned three nearly
metaphysical changes in human culture. Each regime of control is boosted
by deepening loops of feedback and information flow.
The control of energy launched by the steam engine was the first stage.
Once energy was controlled it became "free." No matter how much more
energy we might release, it won't fundamentally change our lives. The
amount of calories (energy) require to accomplish something continues to
dwindle so that our biggest technological gains no longer hinge on
further mastery of powerful energy sources.
Instead, our gains now derive from amplifying the accurate control of
materials -- the second regime of control. Informing matter by investing it
with high degrees of feedback mechanisms, as is done with computer
chips, empowers the matter so that increasingly smaller amounts do the
same work of larger uninformed amounts. With the advent of motors the
size of dust motes (successfully prototyped in 1991), it seems as if you
can have anything you want made in any size you want. Cameras the size
of molecules? Sure, why not? Crystals the size of buildings? As you
wish. Material is under the thumb of information, in the same handy way
that energy now is -- just spin a dial. "The central event of the twentieth
century is the overthrow of matter," says technology analyst George
Gilder. This is the stage in the history of control in which we now
dwell. Essentially, matter -- in whatever shape we want -- is no longer a
barrier. Matter is almost "free."
The third regime of the control revolution, seeded two centuries ago by
the application of information to coal steam, is the control of
information itself. The miles of circuits and information looping from
place to place that administers the control of energy and matter has
incidentally flooded our environment with messages, bits, and bytes.
This unmanaged data tide is at toxic levels. We generate more
information than we can control. The promise of more information has
come true. But more information is like the raw explosion of
steam -- utterly useless unless harnessed by a self. To paraphrase Gilder's
aphorism: "The central event of the twenty-first century will be the
overthrow of information."
Genetic engineering (information which controls DNA information) and
tools for electronic libraries (information which manages book
information) foreshadow the subjugation of information. The impact of
information domestication will be felt initially in industry and
business, just as energy and material control did, and then later seep
to the realm of individual.
The control of energy conquered the forces of nature (and made us fat);
the control of matter brought material wealth within easy reach (and
made us greedy). What mixed cornucopia will the blossoming of full
information control bring about? Confusion, brilliance, impatience?
Without selves, very little happens. Motors, by the millions, bestowed
with selves, now run factories. Silicon chips, by the billions, bestowed
with selves, will redesign themselves smaller and faster and rule the
motors. And soon, the fibrous networks, by the zillions, bestowed with
selves, will rethink the chips and rule all that we let them. If we had
tried to exploit the treasures of energy, material, and information by
holding all the control, it would have been a loss.
As fast as our lives allow us, we are equipping our constructed world to
bootstrap itself into self-governance, self-reproduction,
self-consciousness, and irrevocable selfhood. The story of automation is
the story of a one-way shift from human control to automatic control.
The gift is an irreversible transfer from ourselves to the second
The second selves are out of our control. This is the key reason, I
believe, why the brightest minds of the Renaissance never invented
another self-regulator beyond the obvious ones known to ancient Heron.
The great Leonardo da Vinci built control machines, not out-of-control
machines. German historian of technology Otto Mayr claims that great
engineers in the Enlightenment could have built regulated steam power of
some sort with the technology available to them at the time. But they
didn't because they didn't have the ability to let go of their creation.
The ancient Chinese on the other hand, although they never got beyond
the south-pointing cart, had the right no-mind about control. Listen to
these most modern words from the hand of the mystical pundit Lao Tzu,
writing in the Tao Teh King 2,600 years ago:
Intelligent control appears as uncontrol or freedom.
And for that reason it is genuinely intelligent control.
Unintelligent control appears as external domination.
And for that reason it is really unintelligent control.
Intelligent control exerts influence without appearing to do so.
Unintelligent control tries to influence by making a show of
Lao Tzu's wisdom could be a motto for a gung-ho 21st-century Silicon
Valley startup. In an age of smartness and superintelligence, the most
intelligent control methods will appear as uncontrol methods. Investing
machines with the ability to adapt on their own, to evolve in their own
direction, and grow without human oversight is the next great advance in
technology. Giving machines freedom is the only way we can have
What little time left in this century is rehearsal time for the chief
psychological chore of the 21st century: letting go, with dignity.