Liberalism And Cybernetics : Hyperpost 6

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

I was only going to linkblog today, but I’m going to have to push on with these… I’ve said for a while that were this series of posts ever to be complete, it would actually take the form of two full books – one non-fiction series of essays, and one gigantic fanfic epic crossover novel. Today my friend Tilt, based on the content of my earlier posts, sent me an email titled “My silly idea for the day” which was actually the core of the plot of the epic fanfic thing (which remains unwritten, but is entirely there in my head). So if people are jumping ahead, I need to write more.

This one’s on politics and science, but it does relate to the others in the series…

As most of you know, I am a member of the Liberal Democrats, a British political party that are liberal in the British, rather than the American, sense – while for the most part the beliefs of the party as a whole (though not of every member) tend to overlap with the USian definition, for us liberalism is based around the idea of allowing the individual the maximum freedom to run their life as they wish – the role of the state being to remove, rather than to add, restrictions on individual liberty. (In the opinion of some/most of us, those restrictions include things like poverty, illness and lack of education, so the state has a role in those areas).

So we support things like greater democratic representation and accountability, mutualism, devolution of power to local levels, civil liberties, and so on.

Now, I actually support these things because I’m arrogant and stroppy – I’m arrogant enough to think that no-one is my better, or knows better than me about… well, anything really, but certainly not about how I should live my life, and I’m stroppy enough that if anyone tells me what to do I’ll do the opposite just to spite them. So I want as much freedom as possible for myself. Politically, that gives me two choices – either become absolute dictator of the world and crush the wretched masses under my bootheel for all eternity, or try to get freedom for *everyone*, so I can have some myself. The first sounds like a lot of work, to be honest. and I’m also phenomenally lazy, so I joined the Liberal Democrats.

However, if you *tell* people that you support a political position because you’re arrogant, stroppy and lazy, they tend to see that as a bad thing, for some reason (this kind of thinking almost tempts one to the whole bootheel thing…) so it’s better to say you do it because it makes sense practically, or there’s evidence it’s a better system, or something like that. Happily, this happens to be the case – it’s called Ashby’s Law Of Requisite Variety.

Assuming that governments are meant to control things (and we can argue about what, and how much, they should control, and why, but their function does appear to be to control stuff), then they are subject to the laws of cybernetics, which despite what many many bad SF TV shows have told you isn’t about turning people into hideous machine creatures, but is rather the science of control systems. Ashby’s Law is the most fundamental law in cybernetics, and simply states that if you want to control a system, you must have more options open to you than there are possible things that can happen.

As an example, say you’re driving a car, you don’t want just a button that says ‘left’ and one that says ‘right’ – you want a steering wheel, so you can constantly correct the direction. Even if it just goes in a straight line, you need to be able to compensate for drift, by making minute changes. Anything other than a steering wheel with a huge number of possible positions will cause you to crash almost instantly.

The same goes for controlling systems made of people. You need to have an option for *every possible thing that can go wrong*.

Now, the problem with this is that people can do quite a lot of different things, and there are quite a lot of them. And that means quite a lot of different things can happen.

For example, say you’re a manager, and you manage three people, and you have to keep track of all the different relationships between them. And say the only real relationship you’re interested in is who’s ‘formed an alliance’. With three people, A, B and C, there are only three possible ‘alliances’ of two or more people – A&B vs C, A&C vs B, B&C vs A. With four people, that number increases to thirty-six. With five, two hundred. So imagine how many possible ‘alliances’ could be made in a country of sixty million… (hint – it’s several orders of magnitude higher than the number of subatomic particles in the known universe…)

If you want to control that, then, you need as many options open to you as there are possibilities. Clearly, no government has more options open to it than there are particles in the universe – and even if it did have, it would be impossible to find any way to choose between them. So what can a government do?

The simple answer is – prioritise, localise, and allow as much freedom as possible. The effect of Ashby’s law is that attempts at control actually lead to increased chaos (in fact one can formulate Ashby’s law as a corollary of the second law of thermodynamics – anyone who thinks they’ve found a perfect method of controlling people with no unforeseen results, that won’t lead to increased societal chaos, is saying something that is *exactly equivalent* to having invented a perpetual motion machine, or at best a time machine, and their claims should be treated with the same scepticism one would apply to those claims).

But we don’t care about some kinds of chaos – or shouldn’t, anyway. It might be possible for a hypothetical government to, for example, completely stop all murders from happening (a desirable kind of control), but at the expense of, say, a relaxation in what society considers an acceptable dress code (a kind of control that doesn’t matter to our hypothetical government). The key is to only try to control – at the national level – a small, relatively simple, subset of things, and accepting that this control *will* have unforeseen, probably bad, side-effects – so only trying to control something when the alternative is worse than the side-effects, rather than trying to micro-manage away the side-effects as the current government does.

You then devolve as much as possible to low levels – a regional government has to deal with fewer factors than a national one – and allow as much freedom as possible in implementing the details.

Incidentally, this is *not* saying ‘let the market decide’/’let corporations run everything’ – large corporations. some of which have a hundred thousand or more employees, and on top of that have millions or billions of customers, are just as inefficient as any government for exactly the same reasons (in fact, more inefficient – democratic governments have to pay at least token attention to the will of the people, which corporations don’t). It’s saying that if you’re going to have publicly funded education or healthcare – as I think you should – the decisions should be made by pupils and teachers, or patients and care staff, rather than being based on centrally-imposed one-size-fits-all targets.

This is also *NOT* saying that ‘progressive’ aims shouldn’t be pursued by government – in fact if governments stop trying to do stupid stuff like punish kids for swearing at old ladies or give everyone in the country an ID card, they’ll be able to concentrate on doing stuff like health services and education *properly*. Governments have power, but it’s not unlimited, and the problem comes when they think it is…

But what does this have to do with Darkseid and Doctor Who? Find out tomorrow

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14 Responses to Liberalism And Cybernetics : Hyperpost 6

  1. pillock says:

    Oh, I think I can guess…

    But you bring up an old thought: Canada was a full-on colony for a hell of a long time, and run that way, sort of like Rhodesia without the diamonds…well, sort of like Rhodesia <i.with the diamonds, actually, but there were a lot of “diamonds”, and most were pretty low-hanging. Fur, wood, coal, metals, etc. etc. So: XXL country, XS government. What would you do?

    We let a few big companies pretty much have the run of it: monopolistic grants in exchange for cash, construction, and a growing population of European immigrants. And obviously one could say a whole lot more!, but as a study in cybernetics I think it’s rather interesting…because this wasn’t your basic “let the market decide” business either.

    You’ll give a nod to the cybernetics of Crisis, I hope? Not that I think it’s a central matter to your overall topic-cluster (though I know I sound like I do!), but I think the political analogy is fitting, and besides I think it’s a peculiar avenue into “fanon”…

    Having said that though, these posts need a bit more Doctor Who!

  2. LemmusLemmus says:

    “democratic governments have to pay at least token attention to the will of the people, which corporations don’t”

    Corporations have to pay attention to the preferences of customers and employees, no?

    • Kieran says:

      I think most modern commentators view Universal Sufferage as a necessary component of democracy. The likes of Lockheed Martin are if anything equivalent to, say, 18th century Britain, accountable only to other members of their class.

  3. pillock says:

    There are lots of corporations in this world that don’t have to worry about such things, I believe.

  4. pillock says:

    Nice spot for a corporation to be in, in fact!

  5. Zom says:

    So we’re going to be looking at canon as a misguided attempt to impose too much order on narrative possibility? Keen to read.

  6. Zom says:

    Marvel Universe continuity: it’s Jurassic Park all over again

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