Feedback, Social Power, the Evolution of Social Systems
by Tom Atlee
December 1999 (revised April 2006)
It is widely known that in a complex living system, certain dynamics
increase forces within the system and other dynamics modify or balance
those forces. Dynamics which tend to maximize factors are
called positive feedback. Dynamics which tend to moderate
factors are called negative feedback.
The upside of positive feedback is creativity. Positive
feedback is always pushing the limits, generating more. But when
positive feedback isn't moderated by negative feedback, it can become
so extreme that it creates chaos: the system goes wild, often to
the point of breakdown. But that breakdown sets the stage for something
new -- literally, transformation -- so even overdoing positive feedback
dynamics ends up being creative.
The upside of negative feedback is stability and order.
But when negative feedback isn't enlivened with positive feedback,
it can become so extreme that it generates stagnation, rigidification,
or closedness. But a system that stagnates (i.e., one that is overly
balanced inside itself) soon creates imbalances in its
relations with the world around it, because the world
is always changing. In this way, negative feedback can generate
the potential for the system's transformation into some new form
There's a third kind of feedback I haven't heard referred to, which
helps maintain the balance between positive feedback and negative
feedback. For now, I'm calling it creative-adaptative feedback.
In creative-adaptive feedback dynamics, the system's intelligence
(whether rudimentary or highly developed) recognizes or creates
new patterns to guide its internal frame of reference and external
behaviors into life-serving congruence with its (often changing)
environment. Transcendent feedback loops reach outside the system
-- into its environment or into metaphysical realities -- in search
of both creative and balancing/cohering energies (positive and negative
feedback). Learning and evolution are the most familiar manifestations
of creative-adaptive feedback.
From a big-picture view of systemic development, all forms of positive
and negative feedback -- even the extreme ones -- can be viewed
as facets of creative-adaptive feedback. If a particular system
can't properly digest the novelty and order involved in its life,
it will die and dissolve into its environment, generating something
new for the environment (as a system) to digest.
All learning, evolution or transformation involves the death of
something -- an idea, an organism, an old way of doing something.
Intelligence is what contains and transmutes this narrative of death
into a rebirth: Intelligence is a property of the system within
which deaths happen so that more workable patterns are born.
If the system, itself, dies then its intelligence has failed.
Individual organisms that die are part of a larger species intelligence
that is honing the quality of its members -- and species are part
of a larger natural intelligence that is finding new successful
patterns of organism through the birth and death of entire species.
Ideas and hypotheses that fail to withstand critique or evidence
are part of a larger intelligence (individual intelligence or the
collective intelligence of science, say) that is finding new successful
conceptual patterns through the birth and death of ideas and hypotheses.
There is perhaps a tendency in evolution to push intelligence down
into lower levels of system, as those lower systems attempt to survive.
Cosmic intelligence contains and invokes natural intelligence. Natural
intelligence contains and invokes biological intelligence. Biological
intelligence contains and invokes the intelligence of ecosystems.
Ecosystemic intelligence contains and evokes the intelligence of
species, organisms and cultures (cultures also contain and evoke
the intelligence of organisms). Organism and cultural intelligences
contain and evoke the intelligence of ideas and behaviors. Each
level survives because it has internalized the capacity to explore
possibilities and to feed back the results of those explorations
into its evolutionary (learning) dynamics.
The aim of systemic intelligence (in any given level of system)
is to internalize creative-adaptive feedback as much as possible.
By this I mean that a system "tries" to contain pattern-exploration-and-evolution
processes within itself instead of leaving them to the higher-level
system of which it is a part -- precisely because the pattern-exploration-and-evolution
that happens in the higher system may well involve the death or
damage of the lower system. Thus there is evolutionary pressure
to internalize creative-adaptive feedback (intelligence) into any
system that wants to survive.
With intelligence, the models/patterns/habits a system uses
can be changed or destroyed, as needed, without the system itself
being destroyed. For example, reflection and planning allow us to
develop scenarios for our actions that have a better chance of working
in the real world than simple action without reflection and planning.
If, at every step of our lives, we also actively rework our plans
and scenarios to include recent changes and lessons, then we would
be becoming ever-more appropriately attuned to our environment,
rather than deviating so far from appropriateness that the environment
has to eliminate us (at which point the creative-adaptive feedback
-- the intelligence -- is no longer happening within us, but within
the environment -- the larger system of which we were a part, which
then continues, perhaps a bit wiser, without us).
FEEDBACK DYNAMICS IN SOCIAL SYSTEMS
A basic human tendency is to avoid the negative consequences of
one's actions. It is a rare person, group, or human system that
welcomes negative consequences on themselves for the learnings and
evolutionary impetus they provide. One of those rare cases is the
institution of science: although it resists criticism of itself
as an institution, and although individual scientists are often
ideologues about their hypotheses or biased by their funders, within
science's proper zone of inquiry it characteristically welcomes
negative feedback, since its fundamental spirit is one of learning.
The "failed" experiment is often the one most valued:
the hypothesis may have failed, but the experimental outcome advanced
the knowledge of the experimenter and the field as a whole.
The human tendency to avoid negative consequences is naturally
magnified by the increase in human power. Let us look at three types
of human power: technology, the corporation and wealth.
Technology has the power to generate consequences,
and the power to mitigate or protect us from those consequences.
Many people are growing concerned that our technological power to
create intended effects is rapidly outstripping the ability of technology
to save us from its "side effects" and "unintended
consequences." Technological development has been enhanced
-- in other words, its positive feedback dynamics have been strengthened
-- by its ability to "cut the negative feedback loop"
of consequences. By applying more technology (such as insulation
and air conditioning to reduce the felt impact of climate change),
technology's fan club can be kept from realizing technology's downsides
for quite a while. However, as the feedback loops involve larger
and larger systems, the day will come when the consequences are
so gigantic that they can no longer be ignored or ameliorated with
more technology. Whether the negative and creative-adaptive feedback
loops created at that time will be sufficient to save us remains
to be seen.
Corporations are institutions designed to limit
the ability of negative feedback dynamics (such as liability suits)
to impact people working to maximize profit (a positive feedback
effort). The extension of the civil rights of personhood (such as
First Amendment protections) to these social constructions (corporations)
accentuates this dynamic of profit-maximizing irresponsibility (positive
feedback reinforcing positive feedback). Civil rights were first
conceived as a negative feedback function to moderate the natural
tendency of social power to concentrate in a few hands and oppress
dissent. (A few people, such as John Dewey, also saw these rights
as allowing the evolution of powerful creative-adaptive feedback
systems -- collective intelligence capable of guiding the creative
and order-generating dynamics of our society.) The idea of applying
civil rights to institutions designed to concentrate social power
is to turn these democratic feedback dynamics on their heads.
Money is used to create effects we want and reduce
effects we don't want. In the lives of most individuals this is
mostly beneficial and only a bit problematic. However, the picture
changes when a person or group gets enough money to exercise this
power in the larger public domain. The health of the entire system
is impacted when those with excessive financial power begin to manipulate
the feedback dynamics of the system for their own benefit. In their
natural state, media, elections, political decision-making, regulation,
the judicial system, education, academia, science, the arts, the
non-profit sector, etc., all play primarily negative (moderating)
or creative-adaptive (evolutionary) feedback roles in the society.
They are all sources of societal learning, balance, moderation.
However, when their social role is manipulated by those with concentrated
power (The State in totalitarian countries, and wealthy elites in
others), their feedback role is changed into something to reinforce
the power of the powerholders (positive feedback magnifying that
power). One of the more sophisticated variations of this is the
effort by corporations and elites to concentrate the benefits of
economic and technological activity in their part of the system,
while directing the downsides/costs of such activity into other
parts of the system (taxpayers, the environment, the poor, other
countries, future generations). The effort to "internalize
the costs" and to establish "quality of life indicators"
is one way to revitalize the negative feedback loops needed to balance
this rush towards elite profit at the expense of the whole system.
A BIGGER PICTURE
So far I've been painting this excessive human power as bad. To
the extent irreparable damage is done to individuals, cultures,
ecosystems, etc., this is a useful categorization. However, since
excessive positive feedback that throws a system out of equilibrium
into chaotic transformation has, on a larger scale, an evolutionary
(crative-adaptive feedback) role, let us take a look at what history
looks like from this higher vantage point.
Many models of human development suggest that people as infants
are physically and psychologically tied (quite appropriately and
closely) to their parents (especially mothers) in a way that, at
a later stage, is not healthy. Maturation involves developing an
individual identity and the ability to exercise one's own agency
in the world. Then, as a mature individual, one establishes a different
relationship with one's family, parents, community and the other
systems of which one was once an unquestioning, immersed part. One
becomes re-integrated into these systems, but as a whole individual,
not simply a part.
It is easy to imagine, given this pattern, that humankind may be
on a developmental path that required it to separate itself from
its Mother Nature and break itself and life into billions of pieces
(a process we call civilization), so that it could re-integrate
with itself and nature at a higher level of collective selfhood
and function. The entire history of humankind -- including all its
horrors -- can be seen (in this light) as necessary preparation
-- as ripening, stage-setting and practice -- for an evolutionary
leap into greater complexity, adaptability, elegance and aliveness.
If this is the case, then the most dramatic part of this leap is
most likely about to happen. We may or may not like it during the
process (chaotic transformations are often painful and disorienting:
things are dying). And we may or may not make it -- at least in
anything like our current form.
If the fragmentation of life was part of a healthy development,
then the concentrations of human power that happened with technology,
corporations and wealth are not simply "bad", any more
than adolescence is. The right question to be asking, rather, is
whether these fragmenting social forces are still appropriate (developmentally
speaking), or whether it is time to move on to the next stage in
our cultural maturation, possibly using very different, presumably
more integral, forms and dynamics that were made possible by the
earlier fragmentation (individuation, exploitation, etc.).
This question is purely theoretical, however, unless there is a
way for the collective "we" to actually reflect on it
and act appropriately. If we want to internalize the creative-adaptive
feedback on this issue -- to do this learning within our culture
and species (rather than have it "happen" to us) -- then
we need to have cultural institutions that enable us to have the
needed collective reflection. If we don't care to do that learning
and evolving consciously and collectively, we can always turn it
over to the larger natural world, which will probably learn and
evolve through the elimination of the likes of us, or through providing
us with enough pain and death that we evolve whether we like it
Which brings me to the question of wealth. The immense concentrated
wealth that exists on the planet today can be viewed as the captured,
combined and concentrated life energy of billions of humans, animals,
plants and the earth, itself, for thousands of years -- just as
oil is the captured and concentrated energy of the sun (through
the transmutation of prehistoric plants).
This concentration of life energy has had -- and still has -- a
profound role to play in the evolution of our planet and its cultures.
Most of the vast wealth we now see in the world was accumulated
by taking apart the wholeness of life: The exploitation and commodification
of life is accomplished by interfering in natural cycles and relationships,
often with the help of physical boundaries and ideological framings
(including PR spin) and the scientific power of analysis and technology.
Things and people in their natural state don't need money. Nature
and primary human communities have natural distribution systems
and wealth-generating capacities. So those trying to accumulate
wealth took the world apart to do it -- creating chemical plants,
housing projects, trucking companies, evil enemies, etc. That accelerated
the separation of human and natural worlds (and our alienation from
ourselves and each other), a (perhaps) necessary step in our evolution.
However, if we continue that track much longer, we will be dead.
The positive feedback loops of fragmentation cannot be maximized
without massive systemic distress and breakdown. They need to be
balanced with negative (moderating) feedback dynamics through the
use of creative-adaptive (evolutionary) feedback dynamics.
So we could say that the next evolutionary role of all this wealth
is, apparently and appropriately, to heal and reweave the current
brokenness of life, integrating unprecedented levels of diversity
into dynamic forms of wholeness that have never existed before.
Just as feudalism, monarchy and colonialism created sophisticated
leisure classes out of which sprang the vast creations of art, religion,
philosophy, and science (at the cost of great suffering on the part
of millions of people and ecosystems), so the next healing stage
of evolution must be fueled by the very energies that cut us apart,
the vast accumulated wealth of the wealthy.
To be wealthy and invest your wealth in this transformation is
to play a heroic, mythic role in the Story of our species. To be
wealthy and continue to use your wealth for self-aggrandizement
is to totally miss the point of the Great Story you have been part
of, and to thus to play an old role, to be an anachronism at the
most critical point in the history of civilization. The choice is
pretty stark, very real and very urgent.
And for us collectively, the question is:
How do we draw concentrations of wealth and talent
into the service of balance, correction, collective intelligence,
wholeness, and the creation of an integral, wisdom culture capable
of conscious evolution?
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