Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Kauffman's Rules: The Final Seven

by Sara

I've been on the road since Friday, and plagued by a lack of time and funky Internet access for most of that. But I seem to have found a quiet corner with reliable wifi, and some time to finish this mini-tutorial on thinking systemically and realistically about the situations we find ourselves in.

So here they are: Draper Kauffman's last seven rules on reality hacking:

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.

What Kauffman is describing here is a feedback delay. Systems often fall apart because the feedback mechanisms that keep them within an optimal range don't return current information; or because there's a disconnect between the feedback mechanism and the rest of the system that keeps that information from being acted on in a timely way. Creating a feedback delay is one of the better ways there is to wreck a functioning system.

Unfortunately, one of the greatest weaknesses of democracy is that has a stronger structural tendency toward feedback delays than most other forms of government. In monarchies or oligarchies, you only have to convince a few people to take action; and once they're convinced, things happen. But in a republic, you have to convince everybody -- and they have to convince their representatives -- and that takes time.

A lot of us knew a decade ago that global warming was going to be a defining issue of our time. In this case, the feedback delays are killing us.

22. Beware the empty compromise. There are also times when the middle ground is worse than either extreme. There's an old, old fable about an ass who starved to death halfway between two bales of hay because it couldn't make up its mind which one to eat first. Sometimes you just have to choose, because a compromise won't work. The only way to tell is to examine the entire system carefully and try to anticipate what the results of different decisions will be.

Twenty-two rules in, it's still amazing to me how many of these rules W violated on his way to Iraq. (Which, I guess, proves that he doesn't listen to his cousins -- Draper Kauffman's mother was Prescott Bush's sister -- any more than he does the rest of us.) The road to Iraq was a succession of empty compromises; and the longer we're there, the more of them seem to crop up.

23. Don't be boiled frog. Some systems are designed so that they can react to any change that is larger than a certain amount, but they can't respond to changes that are below that threshold. For example, if a frog is put in a pan of hot water, he will jump right out. But if he is put in a pan, of cool water and the water is then gradually heated up, the frog will happily sit there and let itself be cooked. As long as the change is slow enough, it doesn't trigger a response. Sometimes a country can use this tactic to defeat an enemy in a patient series of small steps. Each step weakens the opponent a little bit, but is "not worth going to war over" until finally the victim is too weak to resist an attack. (These are sometimes called "salami-slicing tactics". "Divide and conquer" is another version of the same thing.) While a healthy system shouldn't overreact to small changes, it has to be able to identify and respond to a series of small changes that will bring disaster if allowed to continue.

Rule 19 said that loose systems are often a good thing, because they can adapt. But, sometimes, you can adapt yourself right out of existence…or at least a perfectly decent Constitution.

24. Watch out for thresholds. Most systems change pretty gradually. But some systems are designed to switch abruptly from one kind of behavior to a completely different kind. Sometimes this is a defense against the "boiled frog" problem. ("He's meek as a lamb until you push him too far. Then you'd better watch out!") In other cases, it's a way of avoiding "empty compromises" (#22). But most often it's because the system, or a subsystem of it, has exhausted its reserves for coping with some pressure on it. This can be disastrous if you are relying on a system that has seemed able to absorb a lot of abuse and it suddenly collapses as a result of something apparently trivial. Democracies, market economies, and natural ecosystems are all prone to behave in this way. They seem so sturdy that we can kick them around, interfere with subsystem after subsystem, increase the load more and more, and they will always bounce back. But we can never be sure which straw is going to break the camel's back.

Actually, if we're watching the right spots closely and interpreting feedback correctly, we can get a pretty good idea of just how close we are to loading that last straw. The trick, of course, is figuring out which spots are the right ones, and reading the feedback rightly.

25. Competition is often cooperation in disguise. A chess player may push himself to the limit in his desire to defeat his opponent, and yet be very upset if he finds out that his opponent deliberately let him win. What appears to be a fierce competition on one level is actually part of a larger system in which both players cooperate in a ritual that gives both of them pleasure. Not "doing your best" is a violation of that cooperative agreement. Similarly, the competitions between two lawyers in a courtroom is an essential part of a larger process in which lawyers, judge, and jury cooperate in a search for just answers. Businesses cooperate to keep the economy running efficiently by competing with each other in the marketplace. Political parties cooperate in running a democracy by competing with each other at the polls. And so on.

How do you tell cooperative competition from destructive competition? In cooperative competition, the opponents are willing to fight by the rules and accept the outcome of a fair contest, even if it goes against them.' One reason extremist or totalitarian movements are dangerous in a democracy is that they turn politics into destructive competition.

Kauffman wrote this upwards of 30 years ago -- but was prescient about the way in which the right wing has decimated our ability to engage with the right on the same field, under the same rules, for cooperative control of our government. They took their ball, went home, and came back with guns. And, at that moment, any possibility of democracy as usual vanished.

26. Bad boundaries make bad governments. Unlike most cities, St. Louis is not part of a larger county. St. Louis County surrounds the city and keeps it from expanding its city limits. As a result, the communities in the county have become parasites on the city, using the city's commercial and cultural resources but contributing nothing toward the cost of maintaining them. As long as there is a boundary that splits the metropolitan area in half, and no government with authority over the whole area, the county will keep getting richer and the city will keep getting poorer until urban decay completely destroys it. Similar boundary problems afflict states, nations, ecosystems, and economic regions. As a general rule, the system with responsibility for a problem should include the entire problem area; authority must be congruent with responsibility, or commons problem (#27) results.

The CFC/ozone hole problem was a major landmark in human history, because, for the first time, the boundary of both the problem and its solution transcended the boundaries of individual countries. We needed to mount a planet-wide response, and we did.

The fact that we successfully rose to this first-ever global challenge bodes well for our ability to deal with the other challenges that are now rising ahead of us. However, it also means that we're headed into a century in which we'll have extend the strength and reach of our international political, scientific, legal, and other institutions -- because they're the only ones with boundaries large enough to deal with the issues raised by economic globalization, global warming, rogue states, environmental refugeeism, and so on.

27. Beware the Tragedy of the Commons. A "commons" problem occurs when subsystems in a competitive relationship with each other are forced to act in ways that are destructive of the whole system. Usually, the source of the problem is the right of a subsystem to receive the whole benefit from using a resource while paying only a small part of the cost for it. The solution is either to divide the common resource up (not always possible) or limit access to it.

The only real solution to a commons problem is to form a government to regulate access to the shared resource. Much of the violence that the GOP has done to the American body politic over the past 30 years has resulted from the fact that the right wing a) does not recognize the concept of the commons in any way, shape or form (that's what all their talk about privatization is about -- eliminating any commons, anywhere); and b) does not recognize the legitimate right of government to regulate the commons that do exist. These people want to privatize our air and water, and sell it back to us for a price. For them, the only valid function of government is to protect the property rights that allow them to own things, and charge for access to them.

Of course, the Earth is reminding us that this is wrong-headed: nobody can possibly own the atmosphere and the oceans, unless we all do -- and manage them accordingly. It's coming clear now that our very survival depends on creating institutions that are big enough and credible enough to handle this job.

28. Foresight always wins in the long run. Solutions to problems affecting complex systems usually take time. If we wait until the problem develops and then react to it, there may not be time for a good solutions before a crisis point is reached. If we look ahead and anticipate a problem, however, we usually have more choices and a better chance of heading the problem off before it disrupts things. Reacting to problems means letting the system control us. Only by using foresight do we have a real chance to control the system; or: those who do not try to create the future they want must endure the future they get.

Unfortunately, in a democracy, it's very hard to summon the will for change until most of the voters are convinced change is needed. And, in most cases, that's not until they've already felt the brunt of a crisis -- by which point, any action will be strictly reactive, instead of preventative.

Sources: Although some of these guidelines are associated with particular people, it is impossible to trace most of the concepts back to specific originators with any confidence. Rules 1, 3, and 5 were either coined or popularized by Barry Commoner. Rules 2, 14, 16, and 27 are associated with Garrett Hardin. Number 4 is associated with Commoner and science fiction author Robert Heinlein, among others. Number 6 is an old idea, but the words apparently come from humorist Will Rogers. Number 7 is associated with Jay Forrester. Number 9 is also an old idea; it has been emphasized by Isaac Asimov, Paul Ehrlich, Hardin, Forrester, and Donella Meadows, among others. Number 15 is a quote from John Platt's book, The Step to Man. The Boulding quote in number 17 is from The Meaning of the 20th Century. Most of the rest are "in general use"--i.e., not especially associated with an originator or a popularizer. They have generally been paraphrased or re-stated for this list.

No comments: