Thursday, March 01, 2007

Kauffman's Rules, 15-21

by Sara

The next installment of Kauffman's Rules: more stuff to think about, and more to talk about.

15. High morality depends on accurate prophecy. You cannot judge the morality of an action unless you have some idea of what the consequences of the action will be. According to this point of view, an action cannot be good if it has evil results, and everyone has a moral obligation to try to foresee, as well as possible, what the results of various decisions will be.

Another of my favorites. We tend not to consider good foresight essential morality -- but foresight is nothing more than forward-looking judgment; and we know that real- world morality (as opposed to the synthetic fundamentalist product) has everything to do with sound judgment.

This explains why double-highs (people who are high in social dominance, and also in right-wing authoritarian traits) are unfit to hold positions of political or cultural leadership. Double highs don't look much farther ahead than their next conquest; and morality has no place in their worldview at all. You might as well put your future in the hands of a Class V hurricane rather than hand it over to people who are constitutionally incapable of assessing or accepting the results of their own decisions. (Oh….right. Never mind.)

16. If you can't make people self-sufficient, your aid does more harm than good. This usually comes up in discussing problems of poverty or hunger, where temporary relief often postpones the disaster at the cost of making it much worse when it comes. It is not really an argument against helping, but an argument against half-way measures. Ghandi said the same thing in a more positive way: "If you give me a fish, I eat for a day; if you teach me to fish, I eat for a lifetime."

Or, as another beloved freedom-fighting guru of a later generation put it: Do or do not. There is no try.

Partial fixes that are focused one part of the system alone almost always make the situation worse. They're usually just big enough to throw the system out of balance, forcing it to adjust elsewhere to compensate. And that adjustment, more often than not, creates a bigger problem than the one your tweak was trying to solve. In other words, the road to unintended consequences is paved with quick patches.

17. There are no final answers. As Ken Boulding put it, "If all environments were stable, the well-adapted would simply take over the earth and the evolutionary process would stop. In a period of environmental change, however, it is the adaptable, not the well-adapted who survive." This applies to social systems as well as natural ones. In a time of rapid change, like the present, the best "solution" to a problem is often one that just keeps the problem under control while keeping as many options for the future as possible.

I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who think that the way things are now is the way they're always going to be. (Again, it's probably a more common conservative habit of mind -- was it only a year ago that the GOP was gloating they'd be running the show for the next generation?) But the fact is that change is the only constant -- and there are a lot of serious people who think we're going to keep seeing more and more of it in the decades ahead.

The future belongs to those who stay open to constant adaptation. But people who allow themselved to be seduced into thinking that it's all settled, and they can relax now, are setting themselves up for disappointment. It's never been true, and never will be. Life is flux. Get over it.

18. Every solution creates new problems. The auto solved the horse-manure pollution problem and created an air pollution problem. Modern medicine brought us longer, healthier lives--and a population explosion that threatens to produce a global famine. Television brings us instant access to vital information and world events--and a mind-numbing barrage of banality and violence. And so on. The important thing is to try to anticipate the new problems and decide whether we prefer them to the problem we are currently trying to solve. Sometimes the "best" solution to one problem just creates a worse problem. There may even be no solution to the new problem. On the other hand, an apparently "inferior" solution to the original problem may be much better for the whole system in the long run.

Kauffman is foreshadowing Smart's Second Law of Technology here: All new technologies are inherently dehumanizing in their first iteration. Whenever we step beyond the limits of our current experience and understanding, we're forced to guess. We're doing something that's never been done before; we have no idea what the consequences will be; and so there's no real way to prepare ourselves. All we can do is take the best precautions we can, test small before going big, and remain open to the option of turning back if it proves too dangerous to continue.

19. Sloppy systems are often better. Diverse, decentralized systems often seem disorganized and wasteful, but they are almost always more stable, flexible, and efficient than "neater" systems. In Boulding's terms (#17), highly adaptable systems look sloppy compared to systems that are well-adapted to a specific situation, but the sloppy-looking systems are the ones that will survive. In addition, systems which are loose enough to tolerate moderate fluctuations in things like population levels, food supply, or prices, are more efficient than systems which waste energy and resources on tighter controls.

This is why central planning usually fails; and why small distributed networks are a much better environment for almost everything from moving data to moving food to ensuring economic risks are shared rather than concentrated. It's also the ultimate indictment of monopolies.

20. Don't be fooled by system cycles. All negative feedback loops create oscillations--some large, some small. For some reason, many people are unable to deal with or believe in cyclical patterns, especially if the cycles are more than two or three years in length. If the economy has been growing steadily for the last four years, nearly everyone will be optimistic. They simply project their recent experience ahead into the future, forgetting that a recession becomes more likely the longer the boom continues. Similarly, everyone is gloomiest at the bottom of a recession, just when rapid growth is most likely.

Another example of that common fallacy: It's no different now than it's ever been. Yes, it is. The question is: is the current situation within the normal parameters of past cycles -- or are we headed into uncharted territory here? You may recognize this frame as a favorite of global warming skeptics, who still don't think there's anything at all out of the ordinary about the fact that it's the first of March and I'm writing this in a snowstorm.

21. Remember the Golden Mean. When people face a serious problem, they tend to overvalue anything that helps solve it. They mobilize their energies and fight hard to solve the problem, and often keep right on going after the problem is solved and the solution is becoming a new problem. When most children died before their tenth birthdays, a high birth rate was essential for survival and societies developed powerful ways to encourage people to have large families. When the death rate is reduced, a high birth rate becomes a liability, but all those strong cultural forces keep right on encouraging large families, and it can take generations for people's attitudes to change. Like the man who eats himself' to death as an adult because he was always hungry as a child, people tend to forget that too much of something can be as bad as too little. They assume that if more of something is good a lot more must be better--but it often isn't. The trick is to recognize these situations and try to swing the pendulum back to the middle whenever it swings toward either extreme.

I consider this a restatement of #20, but from a different angle. The main caution here is: just because a tool always worked before, don't expect it will continue to deliver the same results in the future. Every situation's different, and deserves its own unique response.

All right: that's the third set. Stand by for the fourth and last set. And thanks to those of you who've grabbed on to this and are playing with it. These rules are delightfully simple stuff; but once I started working with them, I found they made a sweet little shift in how I approached people and problems that used to just drive me to despair or annoyance. I found I could forego being annoyed at foolish people (who usually can't be changed), and instead focus my energy on foolish systems (which often can be).

And in these rough days, anything that gets us out of our stuck places is worth looking in to.

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