This is the 5th in a series of postings on whole systems thinking.
A system is maintained, often within specified limits, by providing information about how well or poorly the system is performing relative to its purpose. Since systems exist for a reason, it’s important to know whether or not, how well or how poorly, that reason is being actualized.
Feedback comes in two forms, positive and negative. Both are necessary. The soldier tying knots receives positive or negative feedback depending on the outcome of each trial. When a stand-up comedian gets a laugh, she knows that her delivery was effective. That’s positive feedback. If she repeats her performance exactly, she’s likely to get a similar result. If the laugh doesn’t happen, the negative feedback tells her something didn’t work and more attention needs to be given to the parts of her presentation. Without feedback from the audience, she would have no way of knowing whether or not her intention was realized.
In living systems, feedback is syntropic. It overcomes entropy by providing information that produces learning, which can bring about positive or growthful adjustments to change within the system or its environment. The more feedback, the better the learning. And the better the quality of the feedback, the better the quality of learning, which translates to better performance. In the 50s, door-to-door interviews about television viewing patterns were conducted to measure audience size but they did a poor job of providing networks with quality information. Studies showed that people often reported watching programs they thought they should be watching, or programs their neighbors were talking about, rather than the ones they actually watched. This was variously attributed to poor memory, a desire to impress or avoid being embarrassed in front of the interviewer and outright lying. Poor sampling information yields poor learning.
The challenge, of course, is getting feedback that is both robust and accurate. In any kind of polling, there are so many variables, companies that provide that service include a caveat saying the sample size is “representative” of a group within plus or minus margins. Science is never perfect; everything is relative and even the best results are approximations. But often that’s enough to satisfy a company, organization or government office because some feedback is better than none at all. And over time, adjustments to change based on feedback can demonstrate a pattern of success or failure. “We added an odorless tissue to our product line and found that customers preferred it over the ones with odor. So let’s do a better job of promoting the odorless product.”
For an organism, business or social entity to survive and grow, it must have feedback. A critical component in evolution, feedback from changes in the environment urge the process of species adaptation. The lesson for human evolution is to design, incorporate and manage mechanisms at every level that provide the most accurate feedback possible. Aside from ethical issues, this is why truth in media reporting is critically important.
Contemplating Global And Social Feedback Mechanisms
How do we know if a given society or even the earth as a whole, is functioning properly? Always, when assessing the functionality of a system, the place to begin is with clarity about its purpose, understanding its reason for being—how it should be functioning.
For example, the earth is the largest whole and living system that most directly affects our lives. The question is: What is the purpose of the Earth? To gain a working appreciation, we can examine function. Since it came into being, what has it been continuously doing? As noted in a previous posting, the prime identifying mark of a living system is autopoeisis—it propagates more life and it does so on its own, without anyone “pulling the strings.” Part of the “doing,” is increasing the diversity, complexity, and consciousness of its forms. Earth isn’t just “home” to life, it generates, maintains, proliferates and advances it. Systemically speaking, the purpose of our planet is to continuously produce diverse and viable sub-systems—all living entities—viable in that they will reproduce in ways that propagate even more and more varieties of life. Imagine, all this from—our best guess—a sprinkling of “potentials” deposited from space in a chemical soup at just the right time and place. I marvel at that.
Currently, the most complex living “emergent,” human beings, has been increasingly interfering with the Earth’s natural processes to the point where dramatic adjustments are being made throughout the system in order to overcome our consumptive, life-diminishing behaviors. Suffering under the ancient and destructive idea that we’re separate from God, nature, the soil and each other, we are fouling, and in many cases destroying, the elements that sustain and contribute to the quality and continuation of life—atmosphere, water, soils, and forests. Because we in the “developed” world don’t experience the degradation personally, we tend to ignore the information—negative feedback—as too technical to understand, pass it off as remote or somebody else’s problem, assume nothing can be done to curb the human appetite for more, better, faster or cheaper, or hope that some genius or technology will rescue us before the quality of life diminishes to the point where survival is at stake.
The paradigm of separation and greed is a virus that has infected human consciousness at all levels, globally. We see it trending in the mentality of fundamentalism, where there is only one right way to think, in nationalism, where we want our group to be the sole makers of our destiny, in prejudice, where one “type” matters more than others, in unregulated capitalism where the privileged few can make the rules governing wealth and the use of resources, in corporations that enjoy the benefits of personal identity while executive actions are only accountable to stockholders and in industrial development where the earth is treated as a “thing” rather than a living body. For many years now and increasingly, the earth has been providing feedback in the form of dramatic weather fluctuations, desertification, water and air pollution, deforestation, melting ice in the poles and mountain glaciers, increases in the frequency and severity of floods and storms, species extinctions, decimation of coral reefs and sea life, extermination of predators, disruption of the carbon cycle and so on. The feedback is impossible to ignore. The earth is not a machine, it’s THE LIVING BODY that sustains and determines the quality of all life for every life form, cockroach to king, and every social group, family to nation.
Rather than enumerate our social dysfunctions and make this posting even more depressing, suffice to say the cause is the same—the erroneous perception that we are separate from God, the planet and each other. It’s a perspective that encourages self-centeredness, inordinate consumption, greed, segregation and discrimination, hate crimes, corruption, war and treating Earth as a resource rather than a living body. Through these, the world is providing feedback. It says to me, “The virus of separation has metastasized to the extent that vital organs are in jeopardy. As quickly as possible, change your thinking! Regard the planet as your greater body, the source of your life—because it is. Amend your lifestyle. Examine everything you do through the lens of quality rather than quantity, giving rather than taking, loving rather than ignoring. Experience the joy in living lightly on the planet, look for opportunities to reuse and recycle and read about “deep ecology,” the shift in consciousness that views Nature and humanity as one, interconnected and interdependent system.”
Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, made a distinction between “shallow” and “deep” ecology. He observes that shallow ecology is anthropocentric, human-centered, viewing our species as above and outside of nature, as the source of all value, considering it as something to be used. The root of the separation paradigm derives from Genesis 1: 28: (King James Version) “And God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Considering the current level of the world population and that the planet’s resources are finite, the continuation of this injunction is a recipe for species extinction. In contrast, according to Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Lusisi in The Systems View of Life, “Deep ecology does not separate humans—or anything else—from the natural environment. It sees the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life… It questions the very foundations of our modern, scientific, industrial, growth-oriented, materialistic worldview and way of life.”
Feedback is a method of controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of past performance. If feedback can change the pattern of performance, then we have a process which may very well be called learning.
My hope lies in the education of children, in introducing them to the state of the earth and showing them the way through—the perception and understanding of personal and global interconnection and interdependence that encourage ethics, sharing, collaboration, and love.
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