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.