Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Kauffman's Rules, 8-14

by Sara

Well, y'all seem to be having a lot of fun with the first seven -- so let's move on to the next group.

8. Look for high leverage points. Nearly every feedback system has weak spots. These are almost always the control points which measure the system's behavior and determine its response to change. The best way to change a system's behavior is either to change the "setting" of the control unit or to change the information which the control unit receives. If you want to make a cold house warmer, turn the thermostat up or stick an ice pack on it, but don't build a fire in an inefficient fireplace--it will do little if any good.

One of the assumptions behind the Why Protests Don't Work post was that your garden variety street protest is a big, blunt, soft instrument that's ineffective against most political and cultural leverage points. If you want to change the physics, you need to find the exact lever hinge, stick just the right sharp, strong tool in there, and then yank for all you're worth. Modern protests aren't designed to have that kind of surgical focus, and that's why they fail.

Another lesson implicit in this is the old rule attributed to Lord Kelvin: You can't control what you can't measure. The corollary to this is that you only tend to value what you do measure. Corporations measure profit, and work to optimize it. Most still don't measure their environmental and social effects, so these factors get ignored in decision-making. So changing how the system's metrics are reckoned is often key to changing its entire structure and outcome.

9. Nothing grows forever. The exponential growth curves produced by positive feedback keep on growing only in mathematics. In the real world, growth always stops sooner or later and the faster the growth, the sooner it will stop. If the Earth's human population could continue to grow at its current rate for another 7 centuries, we would be the only living things on the planet. After just ten more centuries, the mass of human bodies would outweigh the entire rest of the planet--an obvious impossibility. If energy use continued to grow at its current rate for another 400 years, the surface of the earth would be hotter than the sun. And at current rates of growth in food consumption, we would have to eat every living thing on the planet in a single year only 5 centuries from now. Obviously, these projections are ridiculous and the growth of population, energy use, and food consumption will stop long before such extremes are reached. The question is, how soon and in what way?

The fact that this was still news to most people 25 years ago gives you some idea of the uphill battle we're facing when it comes to sustainability. It's more general knowledge now; but getting people to understand a principle is one thing, and getting them to act on it is another. Even Americans who intellectually know better still believe, at heart and against all reason, that our lives are going to continue pretty much as they have for the past 50 years. (And, worse, they're staking their futures on this belief.) They won't believe the limits exist until they see them with their own eyes -- and won't act for change until they feel them closing in around their own lifestyles.

10. Don't fight positive feedback, support negative feedback instead. Don't poison pests, support their predators. Don't order people to have fewer children, make it more profitable for them to have small families instead. Don't ration energy, raise the price instead (and give the money back by cutting taxes somewhere else, like the social security tax). And so on. England used a version of this rule for centuries in European politics. Whenever one nation or group got too strong, England would throw its support to the weaker side. Don't try to weaken your enemy, strengthen your enemy's enemies instead.

Rule 1 talked about how exhausting direct conflict can be. This is one alternative way of changing a system without having to throw all your resources into a head-to-head pitched battle.

11. Don't try to control the players, just change the rules. When the National Football League wanted to make football games a bit more exciting, it didn't order quarterbacks to throw more passes. Instead, it changed the rules slightly so that pass plays would have a better chance of working. If the, league had gone the first route, teams would have looked for ways to evade the order, perhaps by throwing a few more short, safe passes, and the game would still have been dull. In the actual case, however, teams were aggressive about taking advantage of the new opportunities to pass. The same principle applies in economics, politics, science, education, and many other areas. If the system tries to make choices for people, the people will try to outwit the system. It is much more effective to change the "rules of the" game" so that it is to most people's advantage to make the choices that are good for the whole system.

This is one of my personal favorites. One of the usual ways we separate the moderates from the true radicals is that moderates "want to work from within the system" and radicals are quite clear that it's the system itself that's the problem. System theory sides with the radicals on this one.

I stand on middle ground, which says that it's often possible to change systems from the inside -- hard (there's always that immune reaction mentioned in Rule 7), but not impossible. Being inside gives you your best shot at the leverage points, and also allows you to take things at an evolutionary rather than revolutionary pace that will allow related systems to adapt slowly, creating less breakage. If the system's near failure anyway, though, go ahead and break the sucker. No point in prolonging the agony.

Rule 8 explains why workers who keenly understood the day-to-day problems seem to get lobotomies a year or two after being promoted to management. They're in a new place in the system now; and that position demands that they prioritize things in a different way. It's also why throwing the old city hall bastards out usually results in nothing more than fresh city hall bastards; and why corporate housecleanings that bring in new executive staff usually result in more of the same. Changing the players changes absolutely nothing. You have to change the system in ways that change the players' behavior.

12. Don't make rules that can't be enforced. If many people want to disobey a law and nearly all of them are able to get away with it, then the law will not be obeyed. But this gets people used to disobeying laws, and it reduces respect for laws in general. It also creates ideal opportunities for corruption, blackmail, and the acceptance of organized crime. A society that really gets serious about enforcing unenforceable laws can tear itself apart. (See, for example, the tremendous damage done by witchhunts, inquisitions, and civil wars that result from enforcing laws against thinking certain kinds of religious or political thoughts.) The same problem arises in business, government, and many other kinds of systems, where a higher system is weakened by trying to overcontrol lower subsystems.

People who try to enforce unforceable rules are typically either authoritarians, utopians, or both. Invariably, when respect for the law and its makers has broken down, they resort to force to maintain order. On a larger level, if it's chaos you're after, there's nothing like demanding that a system behave in ways contrary to its own internal intelligence and performance capacity.

A corollary to this is that all legitimate authority springs from mutual respect between the leader and the led.

13.There are no simple solutions. Real-life systems are big, messy, complicated things, with problems to match. Genuine solutions require careful thought for their effect on the whole system. Anyone who tries to sell you a simple answer--"All we have to do is. . . .and everything will be perfect! "--is either honestly dumb, dishonest, or running for office.

We'll just show up, and they'll throw flowers. It'll be that easy -- a cakewalk, really. Three weeks, and we're on our way home, mission accomplished…

14. Good intentions are not enough. Few things are more painful than trying to do good and finding out that you've done a great deal of harm instead. Simple compassion and simple morality are inadequate in a complex world. The bumbling missionary causes tragedy because he follows his heart without using his head to try to understand the whole situation.

If you don't have a thoughtful plan that's based on a thorough understanding of the system -- and which has been subjected to critique by the affected parties, and shaken out in a couple of proof-of-concept test runs -- then do us all a favor and just keep your damn fingers out of the system entirely. Sometimes (more often than not, in fact), it's best just to leave even not-quite-well-enough alone.

There'll be seven more tomorrow. See you then.

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