Gathering storms of unwanted change
In addition to its immediate relevance for our personal behaviors and health and as a public health issue, this report from The Ecologist on "The Gathering Brainstorm" of damaging Wi-Fi impacts, includes the sentence "The technology is now moving far faster than it can be tested or regulated."
This is one of the rare occasions of a specific reference to a phenomenon that really concerns me:
As the speed of technological development moves beyond our ability to comprehend, individually and collectively, there is no time or capacity for adequate collective reflection or action, which breaks the balancing feedback loop of intelligence, learning, and response. (The acceleration of technological development is central to the idea of "the singularity", but I've seen little about its implications for our collective comprehension and response.)
A formula for disaster: laissez-faire economics, science, governance, etc., in the absence of
(a) negative, or balancing feedback loops (such as regulation, quality of life statistics, social taboos, etc.) to counter the expansion of unwanted "positive" (magnifying) feedback loops (i.e., self-reinforcing technological and market dynamics) and
(b) the development of the kind of societal collective intelligence that can evaluate and institute such limits and balancing feedback loops.
Positive (magnifying) feedback loops exhibit "runaway" dynamics in the absence of balancing feedback loops -- they grow exponentially to dominate the system until they destroy themselves, often along with the system they are part of. Cancer is an archetypal example.
The social magnifying (positive) feedback dynamics involved in runaway technological development are similar to the positive feedback loops in nature which are driving the runaway acceleration of climate change. Melting ice caps, released methane, and forests dying from new pests all enhance and accelerate the climate change that causes them.
We may not be able to predict where the disaster will come from, but my understanding system dynamics makes it seem almost inevitable to me, without a dramatic shift in awareness, attitude, and action. If there is hope it must include public and powerholder recognition of the systems dynamics described above, and efforts to simultaneously slow the pace of development (e.g., the precautionary principle) and increase the reflective and responsive capacities of society (e.g. wise democracy).
posted by Tom Atlee on Sunday April 27 2008
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