On instability, pulling levers and taking control

This is about the idea of “taking” control.

The things of the world - countries, companies, people, machines and such - have, for decades, been getting more closely connected. The Internet is accelerating this. Hugely.

In complex systems like our global society, if we pull one thing, lots of other things move. They move in ways we don’t expect. Distance is now irrelevant. Little causes can have big effects and there can be long delays between one and t’other; or no delay at all. This makes things unpredictable.

Increasing connectedness means it's getting increasingly hard to maintain control. Far harder than it has ever been... ever. Which may account for the unusual instability we are seeing at the moment.

When things get unstable, our natural reaction is to pull levers (or disconnect the things). This makes us feel good because we are acting and being seen to act. The bigger the problem, the bigger and swifter the measures. That's taking control.

But stability is not the same as being in control. Often the unintended consequences of decisive action make things worse. Sometimes a lot worse. We can take control of levers but we can't control the system; because everything is connected and everyone else is busy pulling their levers - if you’ll forgive the expression.

The mental model of “taking” control is not a very good one. Because we can’t. Not really.


Photograph: Maggie Stephens