January 07, 2004

Reading: Kelly, Out of Control

The earliest title on The Howard Dean Reading List, Kevin Kelly's annotated update on the state of cybernetic research, Out of Control was first published in 1994, shortly after the public emergence of the World Wide Web (I read that edition, a 1995 edition has been published). Yet Kelly writes about our body of knowledge and science as "a web of ideas pointing to, and reciprocally educating each other. Hypertext and electronic writing accelerate that reciprocity." He presents schools of thought that life itself, as well as evolution and organizational behavior are predictable consequences of networks of connected interactors in a variable environment, moving us toward 'network culture' and democratic forms of society. 25 pages of annotated bibliography (itself a worthwhile read) provide for further study. (More ... )

The central focus of the book is an educated layman's view of the science of how complex systems (such as life itself) spontaneously arise from disorder and grow steadily more rich and complex. How simple organisms, processes, even bits of computer code, can self-organize themselves from raw materials and then grow more complex as a result of their web of interaction with each other and a variable environment. How the computer simulations of Stuart Kauffman reveal that complicated networks routinely produce instances of spontaneous order and "strange loops" in which a sequence of effects loop back and become their own remote causes, in effect "crystallizing" life in clumps of stable interactions.

Physicist Erwin Schrödinger called this inherent force for life and organization "negentropy" to contrast it with "entropy," the measure of the effect of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that all order tends to decay over time. These behaviors follow laws (as yet unclear to us) as strict as those governing light, according to Freeman Dyson's 1988 book Infinite in All Directions (out of print, to be republished 8/04), referenced by Kelly.

According to the research referenced, these complex systems exhibit the logic of biology, as they self-organize and emerge from successive layering of large numbers of simple systems that interact with each other. Such "vivisystems" exhibit four recurring facets of distributed being: 1) the absence of central control, 2) autonomy of the subunits, 3) high connectivity between the subunits, 4) a "webby" nonlinear causality of peers influencing peers.

Kelly looks also at "postDarwinist" schools of evolution, some of whom conclude that evolution is primarily a science of probability and that non-biological systems can and do evolve. It appears to many of those scholars that evolution is a natural property that emerges from a community of dynamic interactors (whether or not biological) in a variable environment. As the various interactors "co-evolve," each affecting the other's evolution, they generate what James Lovelock called a "persistent state of disequilibrium," the mark of life and evolving systems.

These post-Darwinist schools explain the discontinuous nature of evolution, and see it as happening in jumps ("saltatiously"). These jumps result because the nature of evolving systems is to differentiate into persistent clumps (Kauffman might say "crystals") from which further incremental change is difficult, sometimes impossible. Kelly suggests these characteristics apply also to "organic" but non-biological entities such as an economic firm or nation-state that is "severely limited in the directions and ways it can evolve, because it is a hierarchy composed entirely of subentities, which are also limited in their room for adaptation ... ." Kelly, p. 381.

"In the Network Era -- that age we have just entered -- dense communication is creating artificial worlds ripe for emergent coevolution, spontaneous self-organization, and win-win cooperation. In this Era, openness wins, central control is lost, and stability is a state of perpetual almost-falling ensured by constant error." Kelly p. 90. He sees this culminating in a transition from a hierarchical social order to a 'network culture,' in which democracy is "an unavoidable self-organizing strong attractor," as long as "ideas are free to flow and generate new ideas." Kelly p. 396.

Kelly takes this all together for some editorial conclusions on the costs and benefits of network forms of organization. Benefits that Kelly sees include adaptability, evolvability, resilience, boundlessness and novelty. "The only organization capable of unprejudiced growth, or unguided learning," Kelly writes, "is a network. All other topologies limit what can happen." Kelly p. 26. The downside is that network organizations are non-optimal, non-controllable, non-predictable, non-understandable and non-immediate.

"A decentralized, redundant organization can flex without distorting its function, and thus it can adapt," writes Kelly. "It can manage change. We call that growth." Kelly, p. 448. "But we cannot import evolution and learning without exporting control. * * * There is no control outside of a self-making system. Vivisystems, such as economies, ecologies and human culture, can hardly be controlled from any position. They can be prodded, perturbed, cajoled, herded, and at best, coordinated from within." Kelly pp. 448-449.

"The chief psychological chore of the 21st Century," writes Kelly, is "letting go, with dignity."

Kevin Kelly founded the WELL, was Founder and Publisher of the Whole Earth Review, and for many years served as Executive Editor of Wired, where he continues today as "Editor at Large." Out of Control is published by Addison-Wesley (1994).


Posted by dougsimpson at January 7, 2004 11:47 AM | TrackBack

Out of Control can be read in its entirety, online, courtesy of the author's website at:

That site also includes reviews and 62 quotable "maxims" from the book, such as: "The only organization capable of unprejudiced growth, or unguided learning, is a network."


Posted by: Doug Simpson at January 28, 2004 10:33 AM