About designing freedom

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Designing Freedom [pdf]


The text of six radio broadcasts given in the autumn of 1973 as the thirteenth series of Massey Lectures which were established in 1961 bythe Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to enable distinguished authorities in fields of general interest and importance to present the results of original study or research.

The Real Threat to All We Hold Most Dear

… the little house where i have come to live alone for a few weeks sits on the edge of a steep hill in a quiet village on the western coast of chile …

… huge majestic waves roll into the bay and crash magnificently over the rocks, sparkling white against the green sea under a winter sun …

… it is for me a time of peace, a time to clear the head, a time to treasure …

… for after all, such times are rare events for today’s civilized man …

… we spend our days boxed in our houses, swarming in and out of office blocks like tribes of ants, crammed into trains, canned in aeroplanes, locked solid in traffic jams on the freeway …

… our unbiblical concern for what we shall eat, what we shall drink, and what we shall put on is amplified and made obsessional by the pressure to consume—way, way beyond the natural need …

… all this is demanded by the way we have arranged our economy …

… and the institutions we have built to operate that economy, to safeguard ourselves, protect our homes, care for and educate our families, have all grown into large and powerful pieces of social machinery which suddenly seem not so much protective as actually threatening …

… mankind has always been in battle with his environment …

… but until quite recently in history his battles were on a reasonable scale, a human scale …

… he could alter his house, if he would brave the weather: he did not have to take on the whole city planning department and the owners of his mortgage and his overdraft …

… he could dress his children as he pleased, teaching them what he knew and how to learn: he was not flattened in this natural enterprise by educational authorities, attended by boards of experts …

… when he fought with danger, he matched his strength and skill with another animal of similar size to his: he was not unexpectedly knocked flying by two tons of steel travelling at sixty miles an hour …

… and if he faced the fact of death, that also was a personal encounter, win or lose: he did not live under the stress of a remotely threatened genocide or nuclear extermination …

… bur this is how it is for us …

… we do not think much about it …

… when things go badly, there is all of this to blame, and not ourselves: perhaps that is some sort of consolation …

… do we indeed even want to think about such things? i believe that people increasingly do begin to question the assumptions of our society—and not because of any characteristic that i have so far mentioned …

… most people alive today in urban societies settled long ago for the role of pygmy man amidst the giants of his own institutions, and for the reason that it meant apparent advance— a higher standard of living, as measured by the gross national product per head …

… but in the last decade or two is the doubt as to whether the whole apparatus of our civilization actually works any longer …

… is it beginning to fail? the evidence for this suspicion is plentiful …

… i instance the decay of previously rich and healthy cities from the centre outwards, creating ghettos and all the social frightfulness that goes with them, stark inequalities, private penury, social squalor, a rise in crime, a rise in violence …

… i instance pollution on a world-wide scale: the poisoning of the atmosphere, of seas and lakes and rivers …

… then there is the widening chasm between luxury and starvation, whereby we somehow manage to concentrate more wealth with the already wealthy, and more deprivation with the already deprived …

… i will not go on with this baleful list, because conscientious people are already aware of these problems …

… the question i would like us to address in these lectures is just why? because if we can fathom that, maybe we can also conduct a fruitful search for answers …

… the first point to establish is the most difficult; and it is the most difficult because it sounds so easy …

… it is to say that all these institutions we have been contemplating— the homes, the offices, the schools, the cities, the firms, the states, the countries—are not just things, entities we recognize and label …

… they are instead dynamic and surviving systems …

… well, i did say it sounds so easy …

… obviously these entities are systems; because they consist of related parts, and the relations—the connexions— between those parts …

… obviously, too, they are dynamic …

… no-one believes that these institutions are just sitting there brooding; they are all “on the go” …

… finally, if they were not surviving, they would not be there …

… and having taken the point that we are talking about such systems, it is too natural to pass it by—to pass over the point, pass around the point, pass through the point—without ever grappling with the real meaning of the point at all …

… although we may recognize the systemic nature of the world, and would agree when challenged that something we normally think of as an entity is actually a system, our culture does not propound this insight as particularly interesting or profitable to contemplate …

… let me propose to you a little exercise, taking the bay i am looking at now as a convenient example …

… it is not difficult to recognize that the movement of water in this bay is the visible behaviour of a dynamic system: after all, the waves are steadily moving in and dissipating themselves along the shore …

… but please consider just one wave …

… we think of that as an entity: a wave, we say …

… what is it doing out there, why is it that shape, and what is the reason for its happy white crest? the exercise is to ask yourself in all honesty not whether you know the answers, because that would be just a technical exercise, but whether these are the sorts of question that have ever arisen for you …

… the point is that the questions themselves—and not just the answers—can be understood only when we stop thinking of the wave as an entity …

… as long as it is an entity, we tend to say well, waves are like that: the facts that our wave is out there moving across the bay, has that shape and a happy white crest, are the signs that tell me “it’s a wave”—just as the fact that a book is red and no other colour is a sign that tells me “that’s the book i want” …

… the truth is, however, that the book is red because someone gave it a red cover when he might just as well have made it green; whereas the wave cannot be other than it is because a wave is a dynamic system …

… it consists of flows of water , which are its parts, and the relations between those flows, which are governed by the natural laws of systems of water that are investigated by the science of hydrodynamics …

… the appearances of the wave, its shape and the happy white crest, are actually outputs of this system …

… they are what they are because the system is organized in the way that it is, and this organization produces an inescapable kind of behaviour …

… the crosssection of the wave is parabolic, having two basic forms, the one dominating at the open-sea stage of the wave, and the other dominating later …

… as the second form is produced from the first, there is a moment when the wave holds the two forms: it has at this moment a wedge shape of 120° …

… and at this point, as the second form takes over, the wave begins to break—hence the happy white crest …

… now in terms of the dynamic system that we call a wave, the happy white crest is not at all the pretty sign by which what we first called an entity signalizes its existence …

… for the wave, that crest is its personal catastrophe …

… what has happened is that the wave has a systemic conflict within it determined by its form of organization, and that this has produced a phase of instability …

… the happy white crest is the mark of doom upon the wave, because the instability feeds upon itself; and the catastrophic collapse of the wave is an inevitable output of the system …

… i am asking “did you know?” not “did you know about theoretic hydrodynamics?” but “did you know that a wave is a dynamic system in catastrophe, as a result of its internal organizational instability?” of course, the reason for this exercise is to be ready to pose the same question about the social institutions we were discussing …

… if we perceive those as entities, the giant monoliths surrounding pygmy man, then we shall not be surprised to find the marks of bureaucracy upon them: sluggish and inaccurate response, and those other warning signs i mentioned earlier …

… that is what these entities are like, we tend to say—and sigh …

… but in fact these institutions are dynamic systems, having a particular organization which produces particular outputs …

… my contention is that they are typically moving into unstable phases, for which catastrophe is the inevitable outcome …

… and i believe the growing sense of unease i mentioned at the start derives from a public intuition that this is indeed the case …

… for people to understand this possibility, how it arises, what the dangers are, and above all what can be done about it, it is not necessary to master socio-political cybernetics …

… this is the science that stands to institutional behaviour as the science of hydrodynamics stands to the behaviour of waves …

… but it is necessary to train ourselves simply to perceive what was there all the time: not a monolithic entity, but a dynamic system; not a happy white crest, but the warning of catastrophic instability …

… so far we have spoken a little of the nature of dynamic systems; but the other qualification that i used at the start was the word “surviving” …

… the wave is not a surviving dynamic system, because its destruction is built into its organization …

… however we certainly regard our institutions as survival-worthy …

… after all, they have survived until now, because they are capable of a trick we call adaptation, which waves are not …

… so why should there now be a fuss about instability and impending catastrophe? our institutions have already proven that they can survive, says the argument, and we can have confidence that they will continue to adapt successfully to change …

… indeed, we insist that they must—for our institutions enshrine everything we hold most dear …

… beginning with the family unit, based on love and mutual support; extending through the school—and perhaps that alma mater the university; bound together in the cohesion of the neighbourhood, the community, and the churches; ramifying into business and the growth of prosperity for all; exemplified, protected, and projected by the state; this— our society—is an entity that survives, albeit by adaptive change …

… and if this society embodied in its institutions is threatened by too rapid change, then the answer that many serious and concerned people give is to reinforce the rules of the societary game, strengthen the institutions, tighten up the criminal, social, and moral laws, and weather the storm …

… that is the conservative attitude …

… it is not mine …

… it is not going to work much longer …

… indeed, we ought to face the fact that this theory does not work now …

… people convince themselves that it does, because they see society as an entity, and its main characteristic is to be held most dear …

… then they grit their teeth and declare that whatever is wrong with it must and can be put right again …

… broken barriers, swept away by permissive morality, can be repaired …

… departed children can be summoned home to eat the fatted calf …

… the majority of people, who do not attend a church, are still (surely to goodness?) fundamentally christian …

… the starving two-thirds of the world will eventually be fed (well, not those two-thirds dying right now, but their descendants) …

… and somehow a finite planet, with exhaustible resources, will be made indefinitely to support more and yet more growth …

… oh no: this only even looks possible if we are dealing with a fixed entity, a society or a way of life that is held to enshrine eternal values, a golden ideal …

… if this has become rather tarnished, then it can be reburnished with a little elbow grease …

… so some people, and especially some politicians, seem to think …

… but if society is a dynamic system all these phenomena are not simply blemishes—they are its outputs …

… these unpleasing threats to all we hold most dear are products of a system so organized as to produce them— to produce them, and not their contraries …

… these are not accidental; and they are not mistakes …

… they are the continuing output of a systemic conflict which is due to specific modes of organization …

… and those modes of organization have currently arrived at a stage in their inexorable pattern of behaviour which, like the wedge-shaped wave of 120°, is incipiently unstable—on the verge of catastrophic breakdown …

… or so i think …

… i hope you will accept my invitation to investigate this hypothesis with me …

… and let me be more cheerful right away …

… these dire predictions i am making have to come about, which is why i said they were inexorable, if—but only if—we continue to support modes of organization into which these outcomes are inbuilt …

… we do not have to do that …

… we really can change the whole thing …

… but to succeed, we must first perceive the nature of dynamic surviving systems, and the conditions they must meet to remain stable yet adaptive …

… in order to get rid of the concept of an institution as a fixed entity, we have to get rid of the classical picture of its organization …

… you know how this looks …

… the institution’s activity is divided into chunks, which are also perceived as entities; these chunks are divided into smaller chunks, and so on …

… in every chunk there is a bossman, with lesser bosses reporting to him and running the smaller chunks …

… this picture looks like a family tree; and it is useful for just one purpose …

… if something has gone wrong, you can use the picture to trace whose fault it is …

… in fact, this whole picture of an institution is just like a fault-finding chart that shows how an automobile is organized …

… some people, and the channels connecting them, are shown in red (as if they were the fuel system), others are shown in blue (as if they were the electrical system), and so on …

… but nowhere on the automobile chart can you find such a thing as speed, which is what the automobile is all about …

… what this orthodox organization chart leaves out of account, when it comes to understanding institutions, is that we are not dealing with pistons, pumps, and distributor arms, but with people; and the connexions between the parts are not crankshafts, pipes, and electrical wires, but human relationships …

… what matters about the institution is not its set of dependencies but its performance— if you like, its speed …

… the organizational forces by which the whole institutional machinery is held together include psychological conflict, loyalty and perfidy, integrity of purpose, hard and lazy work …

… they also include all manner of special arrangements making crosslinkages between the cousins of the family tree, which are the formal boards and committees, the less formal liaison officers and advisory groups, the informal old-pals network—and even maybe secret connexions whose existence will be denied …

… how can we picture this dynamic system in our minds, and how contemplate its output and stability? i will ask you to think first of a tennis trainer—two poles held in place by guy-ropes pegged to the ground, and connected by a piece of elastic from the middle of which hangs a tennis ball suspended by an elastic thread …

… suppose that an institution has only two members …

… they are sitting on the top of the poles—held firmly in place by the guy-ropes, which define their formal positions …

… what they must do between them is the work of the institution, and for this they need a connexion, which is the elastic thread …

… now the role of the suspended tennis ball in this example is not too obvious, and it is vital to understand it …

… the ball stands for the output state of the system …

… however complicated a system may be, there is one output state that defines it …

… that state is an output of the system—not in terms of what special things or detailed consequences are flowing from the institution’s activity, but in terms of its total net performance …

… this is rather like saying that a human being, characterized as he is by all manner of detectable outputs, is in the net state of sleep—or violent effort, or concentration, or fighting …

… or again we might liken the tennis ball to the net state of a game of chess at the (let’s say) 26th move …

… there are all sorts of tensions implicit in the relationships of the pieces, and if the game were speeded up by cinephotography we really should see a dynamic system operating under its organizational conflicts …

… but if instead we take a still photograph of the board at the 26th move, then the output state is a single state, and it might be called “white losing”, or “checkmate” …

… if the men on top of the poles do their respective jobs properly, they will pull correctly on the elastic …

… the ball—which marks the output state of the system—will bob about for a bit, and then be still …

… the dynamic system is doing its work, and producing stability …

… if the men are inefficient, and cannot make up their minds how to pull on the elastic (especially if they keep passing the buck), then the ball will bob about for ages, and may never settle …

… this system is unstable …

… however: if we assume goodwill and reasonable efficiency on the part of the two men, so that they behave like proper elastic connexions, the ball will soon stop bobbing about …

… the time it takes to stop is called the relaxation time of the system …

… well, this picture is a bit too simple for our needs …

… so let us erect a lot more poles (try to imagine about forty of them) arranged in a circle, where our original elastic connexion marks a diameter …

… now let us join all the new men on the top of these poles to the system, by giving each one a piece of elastic and tying the other end to the central knot …

… these new members of the institution are not all equally proficient, or loyal, or hard-working; and we can represent that by giving some of them thin pieces of elastic, and some of them thick pieces …

… the ball was disturbed while we did that, and i think we can bet that the relaxation time will now be extremely long …

… in fact, and this is really rather interesting: the harder all the men try conscientiously to manipulate the system so that it settles, the more unstable it is likely to become …

… just imagine the chaos …

… “hey, george, stop pulling a minute;” “harry, you pull a bit harder.” and so on; in fact if all of forty men are each trying to give instructions to each of the others, we shall have 1,560 communication channels trying to speak all the time …

… you are right: it isn’t going to work …

… the reason is that this system as a whole has too many possible states …

… i am not talking now about the solitary output state, but about the vast number of configurations which the organization itself can assume …

… every one of those men on the poles may behave in a great many alternative ways; and these are permuted together to reveal the total richness of possible organizational behaviour …

… if we consider the total number of behavioural configurations that are possible, we have a measure of the system’s complexity …

… let us turn this perception into a formal definition …

… the number of possible states of a system is called its variety …

… this will be a most useful word for us, so may i repeat: variety means the number of possible states …

… suppose that each man can do only one of two things, which is an absurd simplication after all …

… then between them they can produce more than a million million possible sets of conditions for the system …

… it is too many; and the tennis ball will never be able to settle …

… at least, it will in theory .but in practice the world is not going to leave the system alone for long enough …

… just imagine those poor men feeling they have almost exhausted the possibilities after a week’s work, when the cat comes into the garden, and takes a playful swipe at the ball with its paw …

… it is back to square one. all our major societary institutions are high-variety systems; all of them need to have a finite relaxation time; but all of them are subject to constant perturbation— which is the word to use for the unexpected interference of the cat’s paw …

… how do they cope? there is only one way to cope, and all institutions use it—although they use it in many forms …

… they have to reduce the variety of the system …

… here are some of the ways. they may put in four more taller poles, and connect ten of the shorter ones to each …

… the man on the tall pole gives instructions to his ten subordinates …

… that reduces the total system variety, but it also interferes with the short-pole men’s freedom to do the best they can …

… it is in this way that freedom starts to be subordinated to efficiency; but the only alternative—which we must face—is total anarchy …

… second, they may put in a lot of rigid connexions, called rules, between the elastic threads, so that the system looks like a spider’s web …

… that also reduces variety …

… but that confounded cat keeps coming around, and spoiling the whole effort …

… or suppose that the child of the house comes into the garden and takes a tremendous crack at the ball with a tennis racket …

… then the system may not have the resilience to take the strain, and may collapse altogether …

… a third variety reducing method used by institutions, for example banks and insurance companies, is to shoot the cat …

… this works, but is no fun if you are the cat …

… in any case, you had better not shoot the son of the house …

… we have no time to go on exploring our model (for this is the name of our elastic network) but you can do that yourself …

… remember these aspects of our work together so far …

… a dynamic system is in constant flux; and the higher its variety, the greater the flux …

… its stability depends upon its net state reaching equilibrium following a perturbation …

… the time this process takes is the relaxation time …

… the mode of organization adopted for the system is its variety controller …

… with these points clearly in our minds, it is possible to state the contention of this first lecture with force and i hope with simplicity …

… here goes …

… our institutions were set up a long time ago …

… they handled a certain amount of variety, and controlled it by sets of organizational variety reducers …

… they coped with a certain range of perturbations, coming along at a certain average frequency …

… the system had a characteristic relaxation time which was acceptable to society …

… as time went by, variety rose—because the relevant population grew, and more states became accessible both to that population and to the institutional system …

… this meant that more variety reducers were systematically built into the system, until today our institutions are nearly solid with organizational restrictions …

… meanwhile, both the range and the frequency of the perturbations has increased …

… but we just said that the systemic variety has been cut …

… this produces a mismatch …

… the relaxation time of the system is not geared to the current rate of perturbation …

… this means that a new swipe is taken at the ball before it has had time to settle …

… hence our institutions are in an unstable condition …

… the ball keeps bobbing, and there is no way of recognizing where an equilibrial outcome is located …

… if we cannot recognize the stable state, it follows that we cannot learn to reach it—there is no reference point …

… if we cannot learn how to reach stability, we cannot devise adaptive strategies—because the learning machinery is missing …

… if we cannot adapt, we cannot evolve …

… then the instability threatens to be like the wave’s instability— catastrophic …

… i said before that there are solutions, but i have also shown that they concern organizational modes …

… they concern engineering with the variety of dynamic systems …

… by continuing to treat our societary institutions as entities, by thinking of their organizations as static trees, by treating their failures as aberrations—in these clouded perceptions of the unfolding facts we rob ourselves of the only solutions …

… in particular: by advocating a new insistence on variety reducing methods which worked in a bygone epoch, we advocate precisely the wrong thing, and seal our doom …

… this is the real threat to all we hold most dear …

The Disregarded Tools of Modern Man

A Liberty Machine in Prototype

Science in the Service of Man

The Future That Can be Demanded Now

The Free Man in the CyberneticWorld