Designing Freedom

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  • Designing Freedom. Stafford Beer.



Stafford Beer:

"all these institutions we have been contemplating — the homes, the offices, the schools, the cities, the firms, the states, the countries—are not just things, entities we recognize and label. They are instead dynamic and surviving systems. Well, I did say it sounds so easy. Obviously these entities are systems; because they consist of related parts, and the relations—the connexions — between those parts. Obviously, too, they are dynamic.

No-one believes that these institutions are just sitting there brooding; they are all “on the go”. Finally, if they were not surviving, they would not be there. And having taken the point that we are talking about such systems, it is too natural to pass it by—to pass over the point, pass around the point, pass through the point — without ever grappling with the real meaning of the point at all.

Although we may recognize the systemic nature of the world, and would agree when challenged that something we normally think of as an entity is actually a system, our culture does not propound this insight as particularly interesting or profitable to contemplate."


"All our major societary institutions are high-variety systems; all of them need to have a finite relaxation time; but all of them are subject to constant perturbation— which is the word to use for the unexpected interference of the cat’s paw. How do they cope? There is only one way to cope, and all institutions use it—although they use it in many forms. They have to reduce the variety of the system. Here are some of the ways.

They may put in four more taller poles, and connect ten of the shorter ones to each. The man on the tall pole gives instructions to his ten subordinates. That reduces the total system variety, but it also interferes with the short-pole men’s freedom to do the best they can. It is in this way that freedom starts to be subordinated to efficiency; but the only alternative—which we must face—is total anarchy.

Second, they may put in a lot of rigid connexions, called rules, between the elastic threads, so that the system looks like a spider’s web. That also reduces variety. But that confounded cat keeps coming around, and spoiling the whole effort. Or suppose that the child of the house comes into the garden and takes a tremendous crack at the ball with a tennis racket. Then the system may not have the resilience to take the strain, and may collapse altogether.

A third variety reducing method used by institutions, for example banks and insurance companies, is to shoot the cat. This works, but is no fun if you are the cat. In any case, you had better not shoot the son of the house. We have no time to go on exploring our model (for this is the name of our elastic network) but you can do that yourself. Remember these aspects of our work together so far. A dynamic system is in constant flux; and the higher its variety, the greater the flux. Its stability depends upon its net state reaching equilibrium following a perturbation. The time this process takes is the relaxation time. The mode of organization adopted for the system is its variety controller. With these points clearly in our minds, it is possible to state the contention of this first lecture with force and I hope with simplicity."

"Only variety can absorb variety. It sounds ridiculous, but the perfect, undefeatable way to run this store is to attach a salesman to each customer on arrival. Then we could forget about those departments, where the shoe salesmen are run off their feet, while the girls in lingerie are manicuring their fingernails, and absorb the customers’ variety as we go along. For, you see, not only do we need variety to absorb variety, but we need exactly the same amount of variety to do it. We were speaking just now of the law of gravity in physics: it is perhaps the dominant law of the physical universe. What we have arrived at in the departmental store is the dominant law of societary systems, the Law of Requisite Variety—named Ashby’s Law after its discoverer.

The example is ridiculous, because we cannot afford to supply requisite variety by this obvious expedient. We cannot give every departmental store customer a salesman, because we cannot afford it; but you may already have noticed that in very superior (and therefore very expensive) special-purpose stores, such as those selling automobiles or hand-made suits, this is exactly what happens. In fact you cannot shake the fellow off. Nor would you be able to shake off your personal policeman, if half the population were enrolled as detectives to spy on the other half. It is just because this is impracticable that we have crime. We cannot meet the demands of Ashby’s Law. But we must come somewhere near it, somehow, or we are in for catastrophic collapse. How is this done?

When varieties are disbalanced, as they usually are, we structure our organizations to cope. Fundamentally there are two ways, and only two ways, of doing this."

"what about the antithetical variety amplifiers? If the spurious reason for not using them is cost, the real reason is that it would mean redesigning everything—so as to get rid of the built-in attenuators, and install instead the amplifiers that could really work to achieve requisite variety, viable relaxation time, and hence some sort of social stability.

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