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Feedback, Social Power, the Evolution of Social Systems


by Tom Atlee

December 1999 (revised April 2006)


It is widely known that in a complex living system, certain dynamics increase forces within the system and other dynamics modify or balance those forces. Dynamics which tend to maximize factors are called positive feedback. Dynamics which tend to moderate factors are called negative feedback.

The upside of positive feedback is creativity. Positive feedback is always pushing the limits, generating more. But when positive feedback isn't moderated by negative feedback, it can become so extreme that it creates chaos: the system goes wild, often to the point of breakdown. But that breakdown sets the stage for something new -- literally, transformation -- so even overdoing positive feedback dynamics ends up being creative.

The upside of negative feedback is stability and order. But when negative feedback isn't enlivened with positive feedback, it can become so extreme that it generates stagnation, rigidification, or closedness. But a system that stagnates (i.e., one that is overly balanced inside itself) soon creates imbalances in its relations with the world around it, because the world is always changing. In this way, negative feedback can generate the potential for the system's transformation into some new form of order.

There's a third kind of feedback I haven't heard referred to, which helps maintain the balance between positive feedback and negative feedback. For now, I'm calling it creative-adaptative feedback. In creative-adaptive feedback dynamics, the system's intelligence (whether rudimentary or highly developed) recognizes or creates new patterns to guide its internal frame of reference and external behaviors into life-serving congruence with its (often changing) environment. Transcendent feedback loops reach outside the system -- into its environment or into metaphysical realities -- in search of both creative and balancing/cohering energies (positive and negative feedback). Learning and evolution are the most familiar manifestations of creative-adaptive feedback.

From a big-picture view of systemic development, all forms of positive and negative feedback -- even the extreme ones -- can be viewed as facets of creative-adaptive feedback. If a particular system can't properly digest the novelty and order involved in its life, it will die and dissolve into its environment, generating something new for the environment (as a system) to digest.

All learning, evolution or transformation involves the death of something -- an idea, an organism, an old way of doing something. Intelligence is what contains and transmutes this narrative of death into a rebirth: Intelligence is a property of the system within which deaths happen so that more workable patterns are born. If the system, itself, dies then its intelligence has failed.

Individual organisms that die are part of a larger species intelligence that is honing the quality of its members -- and species are part of a larger natural intelligence that is finding new successful patterns of organism through the birth and death of entire species. Ideas and hypotheses that fail to withstand critique or evidence are part of a larger intelligence (individual intelligence or the collective intelligence of science, say) that is finding new successful conceptual patterns through the birth and death of ideas and hypotheses.

There is perhaps a tendency in evolution to push intelligence down into lower levels of system, as those lower systems attempt to survive. Cosmic intelligence contains and invokes natural intelligence. Natural intelligence contains and invokes biological intelligence. Biological intelligence contains and invokes the intelligence of ecosystems. Ecosystemic intelligence contains and evokes the intelligence of species, organisms and cultures (cultures also contain and evoke the intelligence of organisms). Organism and cultural intelligences contain and evoke the intelligence of ideas and behaviors. Each level survives because it has internalized the capacity to explore possibilities and to feed back the results of those explorations into its evolutionary (learning) dynamics.

The aim of systemic intelligence (in any given level of system) is to internalize creative-adaptive feedback as much as possible. By this I mean that a system "tries" to contain pattern-exploration-and-evolution processes within itself instead of leaving them to the higher-level system of which it is a part -- precisely because the pattern-exploration-and-evolution that happens in the higher system may well involve the death or damage of the lower system. Thus there is evolutionary pressure to internalize creative-adaptive feedback (intelligence) into any system that wants to survive.

With intelligence, the models/patterns/habits a system uses can be changed or destroyed, as needed, without the system itself being destroyed. For example, reflection and planning allow us to develop scenarios for our actions that have a better chance of working in the real world than simple action without reflection and planning. If, at every step of our lives, we also actively rework our plans and scenarios to include recent changes and lessons, then we would be becoming ever-more appropriately attuned to our environment, rather than deviating so far from appropriateness that the environment has to eliminate us (at which point the creative-adaptive feedback -- the intelligence -- is no longer happening within us, but within the environment -- the larger system of which we were a part, which then continues, perhaps a bit wiser, without us).



A basic human tendency is to avoid the negative consequences of one's actions. It is a rare person, group, or human system that welcomes negative consequences on themselves for the learnings and evolutionary impetus they provide. One of those rare cases is the institution of science: although it resists criticism of itself as an institution, and although individual scientists are often ideologues about their hypotheses or biased by their funders, within science's proper zone of inquiry it characteristically welcomes negative feedback, since its fundamental spirit is one of learning. The "failed" experiment is often the one most valued: the hypothesis may have failed, but the experimental outcome advanced the knowledge of the experimenter and the field as a whole.

The human tendency to avoid negative consequences is naturally magnified by the increase in human power. Let us look at three types of human power: technology, the corporation and wealth.

Technology has the power to generate consequences, and the power to mitigate or protect us from those consequences. Many people are growing concerned that our technological power to create intended effects is rapidly outstripping the ability of technology to save us from its "side effects" and "unintended consequences." Technological development has been enhanced -- in other words, its positive feedback dynamics have been strengthened -- by its ability to "cut the negative feedback loop" of consequences. By applying more technology (such as insulation and air conditioning to reduce the felt impact of climate change), technology's fan club can be kept from realizing technology's downsides for quite a while. However, as the feedback loops involve larger and larger systems, the day will come when the consequences are so gigantic that they can no longer be ignored or ameliorated with more technology. Whether the negative and creative-adaptive feedback loops created at that time will be sufficient to save us remains to be seen.

Corporations are institutions designed to limit the ability of negative feedback dynamics (such as liability suits) to impact people working to maximize profit (a positive feedback effort). The extension of the civil rights of personhood (such as First Amendment protections) to these social constructions (corporations) accentuates this dynamic of profit-maximizing irresponsibility (positive feedback reinforcing positive feedback). Civil rights were first conceived as a negative feedback function to moderate the natural tendency of social power to concentrate in a few hands and oppress dissent. (A few people, such as John Dewey, also saw these rights as allowing the evolution of powerful creative-adaptive feedback systems -- collective intelligence capable of guiding the creative and order-generating dynamics of our society.) The idea of applying civil rights to institutions designed to concentrate social power is to turn these democratic feedback dynamics on their heads.

Money is used to create effects we want and reduce effects we don't want. In the lives of most individuals this is mostly beneficial and only a bit problematic. However, the picture changes when a person or group gets enough money to exercise this power in the larger public domain. The health of the entire system is impacted when those with excessive financial power begin to manipulate the feedback dynamics of the system for their own benefit. In their natural state, media, elections, political decision-making, regulation, the judicial system, education, academia, science, the arts, the non-profit sector, etc., all play primarily negative (moderating) or creative-adaptive (evolutionary) feedback roles in the society. They are all sources of societal learning, balance, moderation. However, when their social role is manipulated by those with concentrated power (The State in totalitarian countries, and wealthy elites in others), their feedback role is changed into something to reinforce the power of the powerholders (positive feedback magnifying that power). One of the more sophisticated variations of this is the effort by corporations and elites to concentrate the benefits of economic and technological activity in their part of the system, while directing the downsides/costs of such activity into other parts of the system (taxpayers, the environment, the poor, other countries, future generations). The effort to "internalize the costs" and to establish "quality of life indicators" is one way to revitalize the negative feedback loops needed to balance this rush towards elite profit at the expense of the whole system.



So far I've been painting this excessive human power as bad. To the extent irreparable damage is done to individuals, cultures, ecosystems, etc., this is a useful categorization. However, since excessive positive feedback that throws a system out of equilibrium into chaotic transformation has, on a larger scale, an evolutionary (crative-adaptive feedback) role, let us take a look at what history looks like from this higher vantage point.

Many models of human development suggest that people as infants are physically and psychologically tied (quite appropriately and closely) to their parents (especially mothers) in a way that, at a later stage, is not healthy. Maturation involves developing an individual identity and the ability to exercise one's own agency in the world. Then, as a mature individual, one establishes a different relationship with one's family, parents, community and the other systems of which one was once an unquestioning, immersed part. One becomes re-integrated into these systems, but as a whole individual, not simply a part.

It is easy to imagine, given this pattern, that humankind may be on a developmental path that required it to separate itself from its Mother Nature and break itself and life into billions of pieces (a process we call civilization), so that it could re-integrate with itself and nature at a higher level of collective selfhood and function. The entire history of humankind -- including all its horrors -- can be seen (in this light) as necessary preparation -- as ripening, stage-setting and practice -- for an evolutionary leap into greater complexity, adaptability, elegance and aliveness. If this is the case, then the most dramatic part of this leap is most likely about to happen. We may or may not like it during the process (chaotic transformations are often painful and disorienting: things are dying). And we may or may not make it -- at least in anything like our current form.

If the fragmentation of life was part of a healthy development, then the concentrations of human power that happened with technology, corporations and wealth are not simply "bad", any more than adolescence is. The right question to be asking, rather, is whether these fragmenting social forces are still appropriate (developmentally speaking), or whether it is time to move on to the next stage in our cultural maturation, possibly using very different, presumably more integral, forms and dynamics that were made possible by the earlier fragmentation (individuation, exploitation, etc.).

This question is purely theoretical, however, unless there is a way for the collective "we" to actually reflect on it and act appropriately. If we want to internalize the creative-adaptive feedback on this issue -- to do this learning within our culture and species (rather than have it "happen" to us) -- then we need to have cultural institutions that enable us to have the needed collective reflection. If we don't care to do that learning and evolving consciously and collectively, we can always turn it over to the larger natural world, which will probably learn and evolve through the elimination of the likes of us, or through providing us with enough pain and death that we evolve whether we like it or not.

Which brings me to the question of wealth. The immense concentrated wealth that exists on the planet today can be viewed as the captured, combined and concentrated life energy of billions of humans, animals, plants and the earth, itself, for thousands of years -- just as oil is the captured and concentrated energy of the sun (through the transmutation of prehistoric plants).

This concentration of life energy has had -- and still has -- a profound role to play in the evolution of our planet and its cultures. Most of the vast wealth we now see in the world was accumulated by taking apart the wholeness of life: The exploitation and commodification of life is accomplished by interfering in natural cycles and relationships, often with the help of physical boundaries and ideological framings (including PR spin) and the scientific power of analysis and technology. Things and people in their natural state don't need money. Nature and primary human communities have natural distribution systems and wealth-generating capacities. So those trying to accumulate wealth took the world apart to do it -- creating chemical plants, housing projects, trucking companies, evil enemies, etc. That accelerated the separation of human and natural worlds (and our alienation from ourselves and each other), a (perhaps) necessary step in our evolution.

However, if we continue that track much longer, we will be dead. The positive feedback loops of fragmentation cannot be maximized without massive systemic distress and breakdown. They need to be balanced with negative (moderating) feedback dynamics through the use of creative-adaptive (evolutionary) feedback dynamics.

So we could say that the next evolutionary role of all this wealth is, apparently and appropriately, to heal and reweave the current brokenness of life, integrating unprecedented levels of diversity into dynamic forms of wholeness that have never existed before.

Just as feudalism, monarchy and colonialism created sophisticated leisure classes out of which sprang the vast creations of art, religion, philosophy, and science (at the cost of great suffering on the part of millions of people and ecosystems), so the next healing stage of evolution must be fueled by the very energies that cut us apart, the vast accumulated wealth of the wealthy.

To be wealthy and invest your wealth in this transformation is to play a heroic, mythic role in the Story of our species. To be wealthy and continue to use your wealth for self-aggrandizement is to totally miss the point of the Great Story you have been part of, and to thus to play an old role, to be an anachronism at the most critical point in the history of civilization. The choice is pretty stark, very real and very urgent.

And for us collectively, the question is:

How do we draw concentrations of wealth and talent into the service of balance, correction, collective intelligence, wholeness, and the creation of an integral, wisdom culture capable of conscious evolution?



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