All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2/3)

Part 2: The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts

In which I continue to post my thoughts about a documentary everyone else watched six months ago.

I thought during this episode that I could see a central point being made in Adam Curtis’s series. He seemed to be attacking the myth that networks are inherently self regulating and stable. I think he’s off-base painting it as a myth promoted by computer scientists or engineers, however. People who build computers know that they only stay stable because they are so simple, with the fundamental simplification being treating everything as digital binary information. There were analog computers, such as the Norden bombsight, but they were ultimately a dead end precisely because it was so difficult to make them reliable.

Today, enormous amounts of engineering go into making computers stable, trying to make them immune to chaotic behavior triggered by noise and unexpected input in their feedback loops. CPUs have to be designed so that their circuits can filter out thermal noise, quantum effects, and other unwanted sources of randomness and unpredictability. Serious business computers use special ECC RAM designed to catch and fix errors and small divergences that would otherwise cause crashes and instability. We’re actually hitting the point where hard drive storage becomes problematic because the error rates are too high to keep big disks from chaotically losing information. Instead, companies like Google have to build their petabytes of storage using multiple distributed storage units. There are new file systems (ZFS and btrfs) which are adding data duplication and error correction techniques to try and make multi-terabyte disks and distributed disk clusters work as if they were reliable single drives.

Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, of course, the problems were different. Then it was ferrite cores cracking, paper tape wearing out, floppy disks going bad, and so on. But the fact that computer-like systems easily end up behaving chaotically is not, I think, something that any engineer would have been unfamiliar with.

Aside #1: When it comes to music, chaotic feedback systems are very much preferred. From the electric guitar to the Moog synthesizer, feedback loops are one of the first things you implement with any new piece of music technology in order to make it sound more interesting.

Aside #2: While it seems quaint now, during the 50s it was seriously considered that the entire universe might be a feedback system that naturally tended towards a steady state.

The thing is… Economies based on perpetual growth really aren’t sustainable indefinitely. We’ve been in an anomalous period of history, effectively cheating by using up finite natural resources. However, human managed stability isn’t workable either, because we don’t have the control we think we have, or the knowledge to work out how to adjust a complex natural system to keep it stable. Wildfires are perhaps the best example. It seems obvious how to prevent forest fires; so obvious that cartoon bears tell children they can do it. But catastrophic wildfires have been getting worse and worse, precisely because the US has attempted to prevent fires.

The truth nobody likes to admit is that we need to live our lives on the assumption that change will happen, including disastrous change. We need systems which keep disaster localized. In economics and political terms, that means smaller markets, smaller countries, smaller companies, less control. Obviously, nobody in power wants to admit that that’s the case.

Not mentioned in Curtis’s documentary is that this view of the world as a place where steady states are possible, even desirable, is a very Western idea. If you look at Chinese philosophy, Taoism teaches that change is inevitable, and to be welcomed; that even catastrophe can be viewed as an opportunity for positive change. (The idea that the Chinese character for crisis is composed of the characters for change and opportunity, though—that’s a myth.) Buddhism, too, teaches that impermanence is inevitable, and that our clinging to a desire for perpetual stability is the root of what makes us unhappy—not just because we are inevitably disappointed, but because our actions in seeking permanence cause suffering.

Personally, it’s not even clear to me why a stable steady-state world would be a good thing. Looking at reality, the only things which are steady state are dead things; life is characterized by constant change and adaptation. So basically, as presented by Adam Curtis, both sides of the debate are wrong: The world can’t be treated as a dumping ground without ill effect, and it isn’t self-regulating—but equally, we can’t turn it into a regulated stable system and prevent ecological disasters.

The scary thing is that the environmental debate today is still dominated by the two same incorrect ideas: the one side insisting that we can carry on without any climate crisis, the other that we can fix the problem and avoid crisis. There’s a Woody Allen quote that’s closer to the truth:

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

A final note: It’s interesting that both hippies and Randian Libertarians ultimately have the same mistaken belief, that a simple system with no imposed power structures will end up egalitarian and stable.