Why automatic regulatory controls are always essential, and what happens when we don’t have them
In case anyone clicked on this article expecting something about half-human/half-machine sci-fi monsters, let’s state up front that we’re going to be talking about the real world and not about any version of Cowboys In Space.
Our tireless friends at Wikipedia define Cybernetics as the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things.
All life depends on cybernetics. Phytoplankton have internal control mechanisms by means of which they attempt to stabilize their metabolisms. Their simple sensory system detects external stimuli and communicates with its self-regulatory mechanisms. Plants likewise have biological cybernetic systems that respond to environmental stimuli so as to optimize metabolism. As mammals, we humans have a wide range of automatic control systems adjusting everything from body temperature and fluid retention to balance and heartbeat. Signals travel from organ to brain and back, sensing and regulating in a complex series of interactions essential for keeping us alive.
Since the Industrial Revolution we’ve also become quite good at creating mechanical automatic control systems. Although nowadays computerized fuel injection systems are responsible for vaporizing gasoline and ensuring the right amount makes its way into each cylinder, until a few decades ago the regulation of fuel flow was achieved by a an adjunct to the carburetor. This regulatory adjunct consisted of a small weight attached to a spring and the assembly rotated in time with the engine’s crankshaft. As engine revolutions per minute increased so did the centripetal force acting on the spring. This in turn pulled on a mechanism to restrict the fuel-air mixture passing into the carburetor. The result was to regulate the fuel & air mixture making its way into the cylinders, thus preventing a runaway feed-forward loop that would end with the engine ultimately turning so rapidly that it would destroy itself.
Today we have all around us cybernetic systems that automatically regulate our world: power transformers that control the voltage running into our homes, tiny fans in our laptops that do their best to regulate the temperature of the processor chips, and software regulators in our smartphones that can automatically adjust screen brightness according to the level of ambient light, to name but a few.
Both biology and machines require all kinds of automatic control systems in order to avoid catastrophic feed-forward loops. When control systems are absent, bad things invariably happen.
Deep within our genes lie instructions for coding a protein called p53, which is summoned into existence when a cell begins to “go rogue.” Left unchecked, such a cell can become the foundation for cancer and so there are automatic regulation mechanisms within each cell to prevent this from occurring. It’s been estimated that around 10,000 of our cells every day develop faults that could lead to cancer. The reason these cells usually don’t progress to become a problem is because of p53. Four units of p53 fit together to attach to a strand of DNA, open it up, and expose that section so that proteins can be made that act to destroy the cell concerned. Without autoregulation to induce apoptosis, we’d all succumb to cancer within a few years of life. Cancers frequently occur after DNA in a cell experiences damage to the genes that code for p53, thereby removing our primary autoregulatory mechanism essential for preventing runaway cell division.
An example of an accidental feedforward loop that has zero autoregulation is climate change.
As the Earth warms up, methane is released from permafrost. As methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, this further increases the rise in global temperature, causing the release of yet more methane. Often these methane plumes cause huge moss fires, which generate CO2 and thereby further accelerate climate change. Although a gesture towards attempting to regulate greenhouse gas emissions was made with the Paris Accords, the harsh reality is that few countries are even remotely close to meeting their CO2 reduction targets and most are blithely planning to exceed them for decades to come.
Significant climate change is thus inevitable and its consequences are difficult to foresee. While people can argue about whether or not some areas will become more fertile in consequence of increased rainfall, and while people will eventually move away from areas suffering too-frequent inundation, what’s currently not much talked about is the acidification of the oceans. As CO2 is absorbed into water it forms carbonic acid. Once there’s enough carbonic acid to alter the pH balance of the oceans, this will make it more difficult for phytoplankton to maintain population levels. As phytoplankton generate 65% of the oxygen we breath, any significant reduction in phytoplankton levels would have effects even more catastrophic than humanity’s persistent destruction of the world’s remaining rainforests.
Cybernetic autoregulation of biological and mechanical systems is obviously essential. Unfortunately, we humans often are totally oblivious of the need for such cybernetic systems, especially when we’re dealing with social rather than purely mechanical constructs. While we’ve been modestly successful in engineering mechanical regulatory systems for many of our ingenious devices we’ve been abysmal at attempting anything similar with social systems. The most remarkable, and virtually only, attempt to create such an automatic regulatory mechanism for a social system was the US Constitution with its concept of separation of powers, each to act as a check on the others.
Sadly, it turned out to be child’s play to render void this attempt at autoregulation, which is why the USA is so totally dysfunctional and essentially ungovernable today.
But before we look more closely at the problem of the polis, let’s first tackle a more obvious example: obesity.
Today 86% of US citizens are overweight. Forty percent are obese. Yes, that’s correct: forty percent of all US citizens are obese. That is an extraordinary state of affairs and extremely damaging both to individuals and to society as a whole. How did we get here? We neglected autoregulation.
Here’s how it happened: after WWII, large food manufacturing corporations realized that adding plenty of fat, salt, and sugar to their products reliably triggered our hardwired stimulus-response mechanisms. For nearly all of our evolutionary history, salt and sugar were extremely scarce and fat was a useful source of calories needed to power muscles that were working far more often than is the case with today’s indolent couch-bound lifestyle. So we’re wired up to crave salt, sugar, and fat and when these are crammed into food we can’t help ourselves: we consume as much as we can.
Now comes the feed-forward loop. Once this gustatory arms race begins, every manufacturer of food has to play the same game or they will lose customers who have become accustomed to getting their sugar-salt-fat hit every time they open a can, unwrap a packet, or reheat a sachet.
As food manufacturers are in perpetual competition with each other, they all add more salt and sugar and fat in a desperate attempt to make their products stand out from the crowd. At every turn the amount of salt and sugar and fat increases and at every turn we find ourselves craving more and more as our hardwired instincts are triggered past anything the natural world would ever have managed. And so we cram endless junk into our bodies, the junk makes us ill, and we seek solace by eating even more junk.
More than twenty-two percent of US males aged twenty already have cardiovascular disease. Nearly ten percent of the US population has Type II diabetes, including a terrifying number of children. In addition, around half of all US adults has hypertension. All thanks to the daily consumption of grotesquely unhealthy “convenience” food products.
This is all because there’s no cybernetic autoregulatory mechanism. From an evolutionary perspective, we never needed one. From a social perspective, we fail to put health before corporate profits. And because large food corporations have plenty of money with which to buy always-pliant politicians, there’s little chance of any meaningful reform. In fact, things are so bad that when local governments attempt to limit the amount of toxic food products available, ordinary citizens rise up in protest. People literally demand the right to eat and drink themselves into sickness and early death.
We reliably do the wrong thing even when it kills us because we don’t have any evolved internal cybernetics to cope with the problems we’ve created for ourselves through our technical ingenuity. The problem of junk food simply didn’t exist for 99.995% of our evolutionary history and thus we have no way to cope with it.
Now let’s look at a very similar phenomenon, this time concerning not excess weight but excess fear.
As all journalists know, nearly everyone wants something to divert them from the mundanity of life. Thus the “news” is in reality part of the entertainment industry and so it feeds us a constant diet of trivia and sensation. As most events are neither interesting nor sensational, this requires journalists (i) to select a very unrepresentative subset of events to present to us, and (ii) to remove any context by means of which we could see that these things aren’t in any way representative of ordinary life, and (iii) to distort the story in order to maximize its amusement factor or its sensationalism.
Every news organization is in competition with every other news organization and so, just as in the case of the food industry, everybody is in a perpetual arms race. The more we become accustomed to their output, the more the journalists have to dial it up in order to grab our attention again for a moment or two. And so inexorably we reach the place we are today, where the “news” is nothing more than a perpetual barrage of nonsense designed alternately to amuse us and terrify us so that, for a few precious moments, our attention will linger over whatever they happen to be pushing on us.
Just as junk food makes our bodies very ill, so junk infotainment makes our minds very sick. Much of the “news” is disaster-oriented, which triggers our fear reflex. When we’re afraid, our limited capacity for reason vanishes as activity in the frontal cortex is suppressed by the hippocampus in order to promote an instant fight-or-flight response. We thus become open targets for whatever bogus “news” is presented to us because we’ve lost any ability to evaluate rationally what we’re being fed.
As one news organization discovers a wonderful new source of sensationalism, all the other news organizations jump on it too because this is what it now takes to compete for audience attention. This phenomenon then amplifies the “story” to the point where it becomes ubiquitous. Now wherever we look we find we’re being told the same thing over and over and over. Which means we accept it as truth, regardless of how spurious it may actually be.
After all, if everybody is saying the same thing, then it must be true, right?
Unlike the obesity epidemic, however, we don’t even notice how sick this junk infotainment is making us. We now think it’s normal to have nearly no attention span and to be frightened every day by the relentless message death is everywhere and you can’t escape it!
The recent global hysteria over SARS-COV-2 is currently the most elaborate example we have of this uncontrolled feed-forward loop but without any doubt there soon will be even more overwhelming examples of this very same phenomenon, for the same reasons that there is always some new grotesquely unhealthy kind of junk food being pushed on us: it’s the easiest way for the producers of these outputs to thrive.
Our brains have no evolved cybernetic mechanisms to protect us from this endless barrage of mind garbage. And so, fearful and desperate to be “saved” from totally spurious threats, we look to others to “save” us. We project our hopes onto purported authority figures in precisely the same way as a hunter-gatherer projects their hopes onto the local witchdoctor or shaman. We embrace all manner of harmful notions and behaviors because we erroneously think they will protect us. We pass beyond any capacity for even modest reasoning, and thus we stampede lemming-like over whatever cliff presents itself.
Politicians rush to exploit our gullibility and our fears, but the mass media creates those fears in the first place. Together, media and politicians form a toxic sludge that harms whatever it touches.
And all the time, we think it’s normal.
There is thus a complex interplay between the feed-forward loops created by irresponsible journalism and the feed-forward loops created by politicians seeking to maximize their advantage. The US Republican Party provides a wonderful historical case study that is worth examining in detail.
Back in 1968 the Nixon campaign used newly developed techniques of market segmentation, developed by media organizations, to appeal to less intelligent voters who were of necessity inclined to hold backward opinions on race and cling strongly to religious beliefs. The Nixon ploy was so successful that subsequent Republican campaigns copied and amplified and refined these techniques, capturing ever-more voters of modest intelligence and regressive beliefs. This is why Republican presidents since the Nixon years have been notably more stupid than was hitherto the case, and always far more intellectually limited than the Democratic presidents who’ve won office since then.
Right-leaning news organizations naturally embraced the strategy and amplified it because they are likewise reliant on the same groups of people for their revenue streams. Both intentionally and unintentionally, the GoP and the right-wing media increasingly collaborated to promote ideas and policies that are catastrophic for the nation but superb at garnering the votes and dollars of the ignorant and foolish.
The astute reader will realize that such a situation inevitably creates a series of feed-forward loops, unintended by the originators of the strategy but inescapable nevertheless.
As the GoP came to rely increasingly on the votes of the ignorant, foolish, and bigoted, it necessarily had to coarsen its messages and policies in order to meet the increasingly affirmed prejudices of its core voter blocs. Furthermore, as simple-minded people generally prefer to vote for people just like them (because intelligence is distrusted, being beyond the grasp of such people), this meant that being intellectually stunted became a positive trait for many candidates aspiring to be elected on the Republican ticket. Simultaneously right-wing media organizations likewise coarsened and amplified their messages, further dumbing-down their audience and further reinforcing backward (and largely reality-free) beliefs.
Thus within a few decades the majority of Republican politicians, whether local or national, became by simple selection bias far more dull-witted and bigoted than those who preceded them because these were the key traits that improved a candidate’s odds of winning the support of Republican voters.
This in turn resulted in ever-more regressive policies designed to appease the unbound atavistic yearnings of those who are intellectually disadvantaged, racist, and happily ignorant.
The creature Trump was therefore, in one guise or another, sooner or later inevitable because he’s the inescapable product of a feed-forward loop that has no cybernetic mechanism to keep it in check.
One can regard the US Republican Party and its accompanying right-wing media support as components of a simple petrol engine that lacks a governing mechanism: the engine spins faster and faster and for a long time people applaud wildly as they think this is a very good thing (after all, engines spinning faster are surely doing what they’re supposed to be doing, only doing it better!) right up to the moment when the machine grenades itself and sends a piston or con-rod smashing through the engine casing.
Alas for those who dream of the GoP self-destructing, the engine casing in our metaphor is US society.
A society aspiring to health would begin to engineer mechanisms by means of which we could identify such large-scale feed-forward loops and consequently employ the concept of cybernetics to mitigate our worst behaviors.
A thoughtful citizenry would, for example, look to develop systems to prevent the excesses of uncontrolled profit-seeking and prevent excess pandering to voters. A healthy society could even conclude that representative democracy is a truly abysmal approach to the complex problems of governance because it lacks nearly any semblance of cybernetic mechanisms, despite all claims to the contrary.
Perhaps, if we don’t exterminate ourselves in the next century or two, attempts will be made in to incorporate the basic principles of cybernetics into our social systems.
It is, in all probability, the only hope we have.