Friday, January 25, 2008

Tight Feedback Loops

One reason posts have been few and the curmudgeon hasn't been so grumpy of late is that societal pressure points have been getting more and more predictable in recent decades-years-months-
weeks-minutes, and adaptive responses from the body politic happen much faster than they have historically. This may be part of the reason people occupy their time with stupid gossip -- they have an underlying assumption that large systems are increasingly adaptive and self-correcting, so the don't-worry-be-happy ethic applies.

This should not blind us to the fact that there are problems, like hangnails, that fester and refuse to respond to feedback. The selfish behavior of Western governments (and large emerging economies) regarding carbon footprints means that practical responses to global warming are virtually nonexistent. Bashir has appointed the head of the Janjaweed to an official Sudanese post. George Bush is still in office. Cybernetics does not always work.

And yet, it's funny to see how the collective human intelligence, both in its conscious response to events and in its unconscious intuitive reflexes, is much better at anticipating and dealing with problems than even 20 or 30 years ago. The subprime crisis and collapse of the economy, for example, was anticipated for months, and the response of both the Federal Reserve and the Bush-Congress coalition was immediate. Elite groups like Davos, whatever their real faults may be, look for cultural pressure points a decade off and try to develop feedback loops today.

When David Simon asked in the Washington Post the other day why the public does not appear to value news any more, part of the problem may be an assumption that in a perfect-information and perfect-feedback society, problems fix themselves in the same way that messages on the Internet recover from attempts at censorship: you route around the bottleneck. There's a danger here in lulling the public into a false sense of security, and the kind of somnambulence we saw pre-9/11, when the only important thing on anyone's mind was the Chandra Levy murder case. We depend on adaptive behavior at our own peril.

And yet, despite recurring wars and the "clash of civilizations" crap, global society actually is operating much more efficiently on automatic pilot than it has at any time in human history. That might just be a sign of maturity, which old curmudgeons don't get to see too often.


Ruth said...

Brilliantly observed and articulated. Very insightful.

It makes real intuitive sense to me, and fits a sense I've had for my huffing site.

Loring Wirbel said...

Thanks, Ruth, I always value your opinion highly. There was a nun active in the local peace community, Sister Barbara Huber, who moved to El Paso, and I really miss her. She asked me shortly before she left how many active wars were going on globally, and was shocked when I told her the number and size was actually less than it had been in the last 600 years or so. I think that we get so concerned with dealing with crises on the ground that we lose an historical sense of how we're doing. Also, progressives sometimes get caught up in an ain't-it-awful mentality.

Ruth said...

Yes. Also, I can't help but think, for instance, of the millenia of warring that have taken place on the ground of present day Iraq, Iran, etc. What makes us think (Bush and us, the same) that we will stop this archetypal violence when it seems rooted in the very ground, like mycelium?