3: Patterns, Objectivity and Truth
4: Patterns and Processes
The Pattern Library:The second pattern that will be introduced today is going to be quite familiar to many; it is feedback. The concept of feedback has a long history, but I would personally consider Harold Black to be the 'father' of our current understanding of this process. In the 1920's he discovered regenerative, or negative feedback, and this introduced a mechanism that largely contributes to the technological achievements of the 20th Century. Feedback is at the heart of the systems theories (there are many dialects), cybernetics and many forms of engineering, and in analogous or metaphorical sense it returns in the humanities and many other areas. Heck, even Hegelian dialectic can be considered a form of feedback!
| Pattern 4: ||Feedback|
|Description||A flow where data from a source feeds back to it (re-entry).|
|a.k.a|| Self-referentiality, when data that is strongly related to the identity of a source is reflected |
|Notes|| - Projected data are not necessarily entirely reflected.|
- Only a little bit of reflection is needed to alter the characteristics of the source
- Feedback typically has four manifestations:
· Regenerative feedback stabilises around equilibrium states
· Positive feedback progresses towards boundary states
· Temporal effects may cause oscillations
· Complex feedback is typically the result of non-linearity
These depend on the internal structure of the source.
Feedback often localises a process in bounded space
(Positive) feedback is probably one of the most robust processes at work in highly contingent environments.
|Expert Domains||Electronics, computer and information science, physics, cybernetics etc. |
This broad application justifies feedback as being a pattern, and when we 'scale down' this pattern, we end up at the notion of pattern itself; a pattern that feeds back onto itself and therefore is able to create its own context. In other words, a pattern that is caught up in a process of feedback is the minimal 'form' or 'formation' in the sort-of metaphysics of PAC. If we then extrapolate this idea to the notion of matter being a hadron caught up in a process of feedback, the sort-of metaphysics of PAC allows a transformation to our current understanding of the material Universe, as I explained earlier. But for the purposes here, feedback can explain how stable or robust forms can be found in our Universe, as it allows processes to become localised. Usually patterns 'wash into' each other, which allow only temporary forms, like interfering waves on the surface of a lake. With feedback the waves interfere with themselves, and thus become stable, localised 'formations'. The Genesis of PAC thus becomes:
" In the beginning there was pattern and there was process, and process folded pattern back onto itself; thus the first stable forms appeared"
Not very exciting, I agree, but good enough for a transformation to the material realms...
As feedback is well-known in many areas, I will not dwell on the specifics here. The only point I would want to make is that PAC does not (necessarily) aim to 'invent' new patterns, rather it wants to expose' wisdom from some domains, and make it accessible for others. As feedback goes, the main advantage of the simple graph above, is that it has been stripped of the mathematics that is often used to describe feedback, while maintaining a few essential properties that prevents feedback from becoming a hollow metaphor.
For complexity, feedback is essential because it is one of the most robust processes there is. The slightest bit of re-entry is sufficient to start the process, and so many forms of feedback are extremely difficult to discover, because re-entry often becomes invisible in the noise of a complex environment. Possible clues of feedback are observed temporal regularities, and often an exponential behaviour, at least for the more straightforward forms of feedback. In order to demonstrate this, I will use an example of feedback that for many will be a bit unusual; history.
An increasing number of historians have started to criticise the 'linear perception' of history. They argue that many historical developments have an exponential character, which start slow, but suddenly become very dominant when the exponential form moves past the knee of the curve. Ray Kurzweil has taken this idea to radical proportions in his discussion of the impending 'Singularity', a point in time in the near future when technological evolution surpasses biological evolution, and we humans become 'transhuman', with (almost) infinite intelligence, longevity, and so on.
Even though I am sceptical to his transhumanist visions, his argument that technology tends to increase at an exponential rate is sound. The idea is that the process of technology tends to be self-reinforcing (i.e. feedback), because innovation results in new products (e.g. instrumentation), which in turn results in new ideas and subsequently new innovations. Brian Arthur has elaborated on this idea in "The Nature of Technology", and David Christian's "Maps of Time" (Also on TED) also hinges strongly on these ideas. I myself have opted for an alternative effect, namely demographics (population growth, which is also exponential), but even then the results are still the same, and one explanation does not exclude the other.
As a result, the European Renaissance was not an 'atomic' disruption of history, but must be seen as the 'knee' of a curve that was already being fuelled by the innovations in the Middle Ages (which are often inappropriately called the 'Dark Ages' between the glory of Rome and the Renaissance, according to Newton biographer Michael White). Thinkers as James Hannam ("Gods Philosophers") and David Landes give strong support for the notion of exponential processes in history, and the re-instatement of the importance of the Middle Ages for human history.
When we consider feedback as a prime robust process in human society, then 'equilibrium economics', such as neo-liberal free-market economics becomes extremely fragile in real world settings. Strong players in this area can construct self-reinforcing feedback loops by using the accumulating wealth to increasingly secure and expand their power. This means that the Law of Supply and Demand (which, by the way, is not a law but an hypothesis, especially if one takes the standard economic equation as being the Law) is fragile with respect to these dominant self-reinforcing effects. This is what Ha-Joon Chang and Naomi Klein have exposed: a fragile theory can only survive in a real-world setting if the environment allows it, or is subdued to facilitate it! In our modern society, media exposure becomes a strong amplifier of these self-reinforcing loops, as companies can target consumers through these channels in order to strengthen their positions. Of course, experts in feedback know that self-reinforcing feedback loops always run into boundary conditions, and depending on the nature of these boundaries, the growth can stabilise or collapse (if for instance resources run out). An economic 'bubble' that bursts is nothing else than a self-reinforcing feedback loop that runs into a boundary state.
As a result, one of the biggest challenges of our time is not a choice between one kind of 'system' against another, but rather the question how we can construct (form) intelligent societies, that are able to be robust to handle the challenges at that level of complexity.
More than neo-liberal capitalism, marxism or other modern humanist experiments that were based on a single idea, or philosophical concept, I think 'democracy' has been a major step to create such a intelligent societies, especially in combination with equality in education and possibilities for personal growth. That this needs constant attention is also something that current developments in the West are demonstrating; while people are fighting and dying for freedom and democracy in many places in the world, democracy in the West is becoming a lounge-chair rebellion against boredom, with the 'protest-vote' as the weapon of choice. Complexity is a major force to be reckoned with, especially for those who are dozing off in the warmth of a beautiful sunset.