Out of Control

Kevin Kelly’s ‘Out of Control‘ (1994) sub-titled “The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World” gives ‘the nine laws of god’which it commends for all future systems, including organisations and economies. They didn’t work out too well in 2008.

The claims

The book is introduced (above) by:

“Out of Control is a summary of what we know about self-sustaining systems, both living ones such as a tropical wetland, or an artificial one, such as a computer simulation of our planet. The last chapter of the book, “The Nine Laws of God,” is a distillation of the nine common principles that all life-like systems share. The major themes of the book are:

  • As we make our machines and institutions more complex, we have to make them more biological in order to manage them.
  • The most potent force in technology will be artificial evolution. We are already evolving software and drugs … .
  • Organic life is the ultimate technology, and all technology will improve towards biology.
  • The main thing computers are good for is creating little worlds so that we can try out the Great Questions. …
  • As we shape technology, it shapes us. We are connecting everything to everything, and so our entire culture is migrating to a “network culture” and a new network economics.

In order to harvest the power of organic machines, we have to instill in them guidelines and self-governance, and relinquish some of our total control.”

Holism

Much of the book is Holistic in nature, The above could be read as applying the ideas of Smuts’ Holism to newer technologies. (Chapter 19 does make explicit reference to JC Smuts in connection with internal selection, but doesn’t reference his work.)

Jan Smuts based his work on wide experience, including with improving arms production in the Great War, and went on to found ecology and help modernise the sciences, thus leading to the views that Kelly picks up on. Superficially, Kelly’s book is greatly concerned with technology that ante-dates Smuts, but his arguments claim to be quite general, so an apostle of Smuts would expect Kelly to be consist, but applying the ideas to the new realm. But where does Kelly depart from Smuts, and what new insights does he bring? Below we pick out Kelly’s key texts and compare them.

The nine Laws of God

The laws with my italics are:

Distribute being

When the sum of the parts can add up to more than the parts, then that extra being … is distributed among the parts. Whenever we find something from nothing, we find it arising from a field of many interacting smaller pieces. All the mysteries we find most interesting — life, intelligence, evolution — are found in the soil of large distributed systems.

The first phrase is clearly Holistic, and perhaps consistent with Smuts’ view that the ‘extra’ arises from the ‘field of interactions’. However in many current technologies the ‘pieces’ are very hard-edged, with limited ‘mutual interaction’. 

Control from the bottom up

When everything is connected to everything in a distributed network … overall governance must arise from the most humble interdependent acts done locally in parallel, and not from a central command. …

The phrases ‘bottom up’ and ‘humble interdependent acts’ seem inconsistent with Smuts’ own behaviour, for example in taking the ‘go’ decision for D-day. Generally, Kelly seems to ignore or deny the need for different operational levels, as in the military’s tactical and strategic.

Cultivate increasing returns

Each time you use an idea, a language, or a skill you strengthen it, reinforce it, and make it more likely to be used again. … Success breeds success. In the Gospels, this principle of social dynamics is known as “To those who have, more will be given.” Anything which alters its environment to increase production of itself is playing the game … And all large, sustaining systems play the game … in economics, biology, computer science, and human psychology. …

Smuts seems to have been the first to recognize that one could inherit a tendency to have more of something (such as height) than your parents, so that a succesful tendency (such as being tall) would be reinforced. The difference between Kelly and Smuts is that Kelly has a general rule whereas Smuts has it as a product of evolution for each attribute. Kelly’s version also needs to be balanced against not optimising (below).

Grow by chunking

The only way to make a complex system that works is to begin with a simple system that works. Attempts to instantly install highly complex organization — such as intelligence or a market economy — without growing it, inevitably lead to failure. … Time is needed to let each part test itself against all the others. Complexity is created, then, by assembling it incrementally from simple modules that can operate independently.

Kelly is uncomfortable with the term ‘complex’. In Smuts’ usage a military platoon attack is often ‘complex’, whereas a superior headquarters could be simple. Systems with humans in naturally tend to be complex (as Kelly describes) and are only made simple by prescriptive rules and procedures. In many settings such process-driven systems would (as Kelly describes them) be quite fragile, and unable to operate independently in a demanding environment (e.g., one with a thinking adversary). Thus I suppose that Kelly is advocating starting with small but adaptable systems and growing them. This is desirable, but often Smuts did not have that luxury, and had to re-engineer systems such as production or fighting systems, ‘on the fly’

Maximize the fringes

… A uniform entity must adapt to the world by occasional earth-shattering revolutions, one of which is sure to kill it. A diverse heterogeneous entity, on the other hand, can adapt to the world in a thousand daily mini revolutions, staying in a state of permanent, but never fatal, churning. Diversity favors remote borders, the outskirts, hidden corners, moments of chaos, and isolated clusters. In economic, ecological, evolutionary, and institutional models, a healthy fringe speeds adaptation, increases resilience, and is almost always the source of innovations.

A large uniform entity cannot adapt and maintain its uniformity, and so is unsustainable in the face of a changing situation or environment. If diversity is allowed then parts can adapt independently, and generally favourable adaptations spread. Moreover, the more diverse an entity is the more it can fill a variety of niches, and the more likely that it will survive some shot. Here Kelly, Smuts and Darwin essentially agree.

Honor your errors

A trick will only work for a while, until everyone else is doing it. To advance from the ordinary requires a new game, or a new territory. But the process of going outside the conventional method, game, or territory is indistinguishable from error. Even the most brilliant act of human genius, in the final analysis, is an act of trial and error. … Error, whether random or deliberate, must become an integral part of any process of creation. Evolution can be thought of as systematic error management.

Here the problem of competition is addressed. Here Kelly supposes that the only viable strategy in the face of complexity is blind trial and error, ‘the no strategy strategy’. But the main thing is to be able to identify actual errors. Smuts might also add that one might learn from near-misses and other potential errors.

Pursue no optima; have multiple goals

 …  a large system can only survive by “satisficing” (making “good enough”) a multitude of functions. For instance, an adaptive system must trade off between exploiting a known path of success (optimizing a current strategy), or diverting resources to exploring new paths (thereby wasting energy trying less efficient methods). …  forget elegance; if it works, it’s beautiful.

Here Kelly confuses ‘a known path of success’ with ‘a current strategy’, which may explain why he is dismissive of strategy. Smuts would say that getting an adequate balance between the exploitation of manifest success and the exploration of alternatives would be a key feature of any strategy. Sometimes it pays not to go after near-term returns, perhaps even accepting a loss.

Seek persistent disequilibrium

Neither constancy nor relentless change will support a creation. A good creation … is persistent disequilibrium — a continuous state of surfing forever on the edge between never stopping but never falling. Homing in on that liquid threshold is the still mysterious holy grail of creation and the quest of all amateur gods.

This is a key insight. The implication is that even the nine laws do not guarantee success. Kelly does not say how the disequilibrium is generated. In many systems it is only generated as part of an eco-system, so that reducing the challenge to a system can lead to its virtual death. A key part of growth (above) is o grow the ability to maintain a healthy disequilibrium despite increasing novel challenges.

Change changes itself

… When extremely large systems are built up out of complicated systems, then each system begins to influence and ultimately change the organizations of other systems. That is, if the rules of the game are composed from the bottom up, then it is likely that interacting forces at the bottom level will alter the rules of the game as it progresses.  Over time, the rules for change get changed themselves. …

It seems that the changes the rules are blindly adaptive. This may be because, unlike Smuts, Kelly does not believe in strategy, or in the power of theory to enlighten.

Kelly’s discussion

These nine principles underpin the awesome workings of prairies, flamingoes, cedar forests, eyeballs, natural selection in geological time, and the unfolding of a baby elephant from a tiny seed of elephant sperm and egg.

These same principles of bio-logic are now being implanted in computer chips, electronic communication networks, robot modules, pharmaceutical searches, software design, and corporate management, in order that these artificial systems may overcome their own complexity.

When the Technos is enlivened by Bios we get artifacts that can adapt, learn, and evolve. …

The intensely biological nature of the coming culture derives from five influences:

    • Despite the increasing technization of our world, organic life — both wild and domesticated — will continue to be the prime infrastructure of human experience on the global scale.
    • Machines will become more biological in character.
    • Technological networks will make human culture even more ecological and evolutionary.
    • Engineered biology and biotechnology will eclipse the importance of mechanical technology.
    • Biological ways will be revered as ideal ways.

 …

As complex as things are today, everything will be more complex tomorrow. The scientists and projects reported here have been concerned with harnessing the laws of design so that order can emerge from chaos, so that organized complexity can be kept from unraveling into unorganized complications, and so that something can be made from nothing.

My discussion

Considering local action only, Kelly’s arguments often come down to the supposed impossibility of effective strategy in the face of complexity, leading to the recommendation of the universal ‘no strategy strategy’: continually adapt to the actual situation, identifying and setting appropriate goals and sub-goals. Superficially, this seems quite restrictive, but we are free as to how we interpret events, learn, set goals and monitor progress and react. There seems to be nothing to prevent us from following a more substantial strategy but describing it in Kelly’s terms.

 The ‘bottom up’ principle seems to be based on the difficulty of central control. But Kelly envisages the use of markets, which can be seen as a ‘no control control’. That is, we are heavily influenced by markets but they have no intention. An alternative would be to allow a range of mechanisms, ideally also without intention; whatever is supported by an appropriate majority (2/3?).

For economics, Kelly’s laws are suggestive of Hayek, whereas Smuts’ approach was shared with his colleague, Keynes. 

Conclusion

What is remarkable about Kelly’s laws is the impotence of the individuals in the face of ‘the system’. It would seem better to allow for ‘central’ (or intermediate) mechanisms to be ‘bottom up’ in the sense that they are supported by an informed ‘bottom’.

See Also

David Marsay

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About Dave Marsay
Mathematician with an interest in 'good' reasoning.

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