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Out of Control

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 paradox."

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 selves.

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 force.

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 intelligent control.

What little time left in this century is rehearsal time for the chief psychological chore of the 21st century: letting go, with dignity.