I’ve referred several times in this series of posts to the cybernetics/systems thinking movement of the 20th century. The other day I came across this interview with the daughter of two of the greats that movement – Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. In the article, Mary Catherine Bateson laments how systems thinking got hijacked by the technology industry. This struck a chord with me because it’s through my work in the IT that I was introduced to those ideas. I think she probably overestimates the degree to which the concepts of systems thinking are actually used in IT but she’s right on the whole that this is where the attention has gone towards while moving away from systems thinking as a way to think about the world. What gets called systems thinking in the academic world these days seems to be driven by the idea that it’s a way to do better science which is ironic because systems thinking was, among other things, a sharp critique of the naïve scientific thinking of the late 19th and early 20th century. It set out to define clearly the limitations of science so that hubris did not take over. The corona event represents the reappearance of that hubris in our culture. For that reason, our response to corona can be sharply critiqued from the perspective of systems thinking. Let’s just have a look at one important concept from systems thinking to get an idea of what that critique might look like. It’s one raised by Mary Catherine Bateson in the article above: side effects.
From the point of view of the universe (does the universe have a point of view?), there is no such thing as a side effect. Effects are just effects. The phrase side effect is about intention. I act with an intended effect and that is the thing that I care about. Side effects are the other effects which follow from my action; the ones I didn’t intend. But we can be more specific because side effects are normally the effects I didn’t intend but which also come to my attention usually because they are negative effects. There are a whole host of other effects that never come to my attention. They exist but I don’t give them the name side effects because I am unaware of them.
Effects and side effects are information. Gregory Bateson defined information as “a difference that makes a difference”. In the case of an effect, it must make a difference that we notice. Otherwise, we don’t call it an effect. This is a very important point because it makes explicit the role of the observer. An action may have all kinds of effects that an observer does not notice because they do not get above the threshold of awareness of the observer. For example, there are sound waves floating around all the time that we do not perceive because they do not get above the noise floor that is partly hard wired in our hearing apparatus and partly a function of our attention. There was a ‘difference’ but it did not make a ‘difference’ to us. We must be attuned to perceive the effect.
So, there are effects which we are looking for and are able to notice, side effects which we were not looking for but which came to our attention anyway and then all the effects we were not looking for and didn’t come to our attention. There is one other kind of effect worth mention which is a perceived effect which is not related to the action or cause. An example of this is optical illusions which relate to edge cases around our perceptual apparatus. In more complex domains, we can fool ourselves into perceiving effects which were not really there. Let me give my favourite personal example of this.
Just over ten years ago I started to get into audio engineering in a big way. I have always been an enthusiastic amateur musician and, with the advent of cheap home recording technology, it seemed like a good thing to get into recording music if for no other reason than as a practice tool. Learning how to mix and master recorded music is fiendishly difficult. To do it well requires you not so much to master the tools (although you must eventually do that) but how to rewire your aural perception. You must learn to hear when a difference makes a difference. Newbie audio engineers will fiddle around with the various settings on reverbs and compressors but they aren’t really hearing the difference. They haven’t learned how to listen properly. It’s not until you have learned how to listen that you can make real progress. In the meantime, you’re swimming around in a world where nothing seems to make any difference.
I was swimming in that world on the morning in question. I was working on a song that was sounding like shit. I was frustrated. Nothing I did seemed to make any difference. I added reverb, it still sounded shit. I took the reverb away. Still shit. Then I made a big but very tempting mistake: I went to the internet and typed “why does my mix sound like shit.” There are five bazillion answers to this question but the one that came up first was compression. That’s the thing that makes the difference between pro recordings and amateurs. So said the internet. I followed a thread where there was a link to a new compressor that somebody said would fix all my problems. I eagerly downloaded it. This was gonna be great. I would install this thing and be on a way one ticket to recording superstardom. I inserted the plugin into the mix, took a deep breath and then switched it on.
The effect was instantaneous. The track burst to life. The guitars were clearer, the drums bigger, the vocals cut through with the clarity of a spring morning and the mellifluousness of a choir of angels. I sat back and took it all in marvelling at how wonderful this new compressor was. Once the euphoria had died down, I opened my eyes and decided to check the settings that I was using so I wouldn’t forget them. I looked down at the compressor plugin on the computer screen and to my horror, to my sheer disbelief, realised the compressor was not even turned on. I had clicked the wrong button. To be sure of my mistake, I turned it on for real. The mix of my song changed but not in any significant way. It still sounded like shit. My mixes continued to sound like shit for about another year till I finally learned that it didn’t really matter what compressor you used so much as how you used it.
In this case I had convinced myself that I heard an effect that wasn’t really there. Why? Because I really wanted it to work. If intention and will are required to perceive an effect it’s also true that emotions and imagination can create an effect where one does not exist. Then you have fooled yourself. Most of the time it’s hard to know whether you are fooling yourself or not. There’s usually no on/off button which can give definitive feedback. A big part of science is learning how to test things in a way that gives definitive feedback. That’s why not fooling yourself was one of the main rules of science outlined by the great Richard Feynman but it holds in life in general. Learning to be objective is largely learning to be able to put aside emotions and see something for what it is even when you really, really, don’t want it to be the case. It’s also about knowing when you haven’t set up your testing in such a way as to give a clear answer about what is happening. That is why blind testing and randomised control trials are so important in science. They exclude the researcher’s emotions from the equation. Even scientists allow their emotions to get in the way and to see and effect where there isn’t one.
The point to be made here is that just perceiving an effect is often very difficult. In complex domains like sound engineering and science, it takes a lot of practice and it’s easy to fool yourself. What about side effects? These are normally not so hard to ascertain as they usually force their way into our attention whether we like it or not. The challenge is not to see them but to simply admit their existence and deal with the inevitable frustration or disappointment they cause. Let me give an example of such a side effect from my personal experience.
I decided to set up some raised wicking beds in my backyard. The summers in Melbourne are typically hot and dry. There is definitely not enough rain to grow vegetables without extra watering. Wicking beds are an excellent way to irrigate vegetables as there is almost no evaporative loss of moisture and you can fill them up about once a week and then forget about them for the rest of the week which makes maintenance very easy. The effect I was looking for out my wicking beds was to grow vegetables with the least amount of work and watering possible. That was the happy path. Of course, any gardener knows gardens rarely deliver the happy path, at least not straight away. Gardens are complex systems and side effects pop up regularly.
In constructing my wicking beds, I decided to make them look nice by re-using some weatherboards I had lying around as cladding. It worked and the beds looked attractive enough. In the process, however, I had inadvertently created the perfect habitat for snails. In between the weatherboards and the container that was holding the soil was a nice dark, damp place that was about an inch wide and protected from the outside world. It was also right next door to a food supply: the seedlings for my vegetables. My wicking beds were like a five star snail hotel with an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet thrown in. One day I went outside to check on my seedlings and they were gone with the tell-tale trail of slime indicating clearly who the culprits were.
Systems theory says that any system you build will produce effects that you did not foresee. This includes side effects that will barge their way into your consciousness whether you like it or not and a whole host of other effects that you will never know about because you are not looking for them. Sometimes those affects are small and localised like my snail problem. But with large systems you can get very big negative effects such as major environmental damage or loss of life. Side effects are information and, used correctly, that information will allow you build a better system. I could have removed the weatherboards from my wicking beds to solve the snail problem. However, once I learned where the snails were, it was a trivial matter to pick them off the boards and feed them to my chickens. In so doing, I was able to turn a negative side effect into a positive one. This is known as adaptation, which is another important concept in systems thinking.
We’ve seen that effects can be hard to determine and that side effects are always present. Knowing all this we can make some general statements about systems. The newer a system, the more side effects there will be and most of these will be negative. (I can state the truth of this as my job is to test newly built IT systems. There are always more bugs at the start than at the end). When building a system you should be sure to set up information channels for side effects to be dealt with so you can learn and correct. It is never a good idea to roll out a big new system at scale without first prototyping and testing at a smaller scale. To do so invites collateral damage from negative side effects on a large scale.
Which brings us to the corona event and I’m sure the reader can see where I’m going with this. Never before attempted lockdowns on a global scale, all kinds of governments measures that have never been tried or tested and now as the fitting finale to the whole show a never before tried vaccine rolled out on mass after being rushed through testing. From a systems point of view, all this is guaranteed to cause large scale side effects. We have already begun to see these in the mass unemployment, closure of small businesses, massive new government debt and all the rest. But with corona it’s not even clear any more what main effect we are aiming towards. Originally, it was ‘two weeks to flatten the curve’ but that has changed to, well, who knows? The newly elected President Biden admitted as much a week or so ago when he said there was nothing much that could be done about corona (after promising during the election campaign that he had a plan, of course). We have no idea what we are doing. It all reminds me of my early days of audio engineering, desperately flailing away trying anything to find something that works. That’s not a good look for politicians who are supposed to be leading our society.
In relation to the vaccine, the media, as the modern propaganda machine that it is, is reassuring the public that side effects are ‘normal’ for vaccines. That may be true, but what about the side effects of the new vaccine that we don’t know about yet. Those are the ones that are going to be game changers if they do happen. I’m thinking of autoimmune disease and antibody dependent enhancement. Then there are the social and political side effects. One of these, at least in the US, looks certain to be a growing loss of faith in the government, although that has been building for decades. We have seen in the past few weeks quite ridiculous things like Biden admitting he has no plan for corona, Fauci recommending two masks or even three, Cuomo and Newsom suddenly realising the economy matters. We have the same ridiculousness here in Australia with WA recently mandating masks for people exercising outdoors in the middle of summer in one of the least densely populated cities in the world (Perth).
For now, the public here seems to support it. Will they continue to support it if the vaccines don’t make corona ‘go away’ and once the budget deficit hits several trillion? Who knows? Budget deficits don’t seem to matter anymore. Does anything matter anymore? We live at a time where it’s quite impossible to know what is going to happen next. That outcome was already baked into the cake as soon as we went into lockdown. The main reason not to lockdown was because it would lead us into a situation just like this. The corona event demonstrates that we still haven’t learned the lessons from cybernetics and systems thinking. Rather, we have reverted back to that old hubris and over confidence in ‘science’.
Will we still believe in ‘science’ when all this is over or will one of the side effects of our new system be a cynicism not just of science but our whole society? Time will tell. For now, buckle up and keep your eye out for any side effects that come flying in your direction.
All posts in this series:-