Slot Long Range Plans Into Ecosystems

A principled system has predictable relationships between its modules, whereas an adaptable system has sparse and flexible relationships between its modules.

In a selfconscious culture, design and construction is a specialized task, taught in schools using abstract principles, whereas in an unselfconscious culture, design and construction is taught using direct demonstration and reflects the constraints and variation of an environment.1

The structures of a selfconscious culture are principled; they are not meant to change. If the environment changes, the structure is hardened against the change rather than adapting to it. Some principled structures, like skyscrapers or stadiums, can hold thousands of people.

The structures of an unselfconscious culture are adaptable; they reflect the present needs of the inhabitants. Examples include igloos – there is no “architect” – each person builds their own home. If an igloo grows too warm, someone can poke a hole in the wall. When it grows too cold, the hole can be filled in. Such structures tend to be only large enough to hold a single family.

How can we be principled, having long-range plans, and also be adaptable? How can we balance what we want to be versus what we want now?

An interface pulled in many directions is intrinsically stable, but an interface pulled in a single direction tends to shift – the interface itself will become vestigial. For example, the mitochondrion is now just another interdependent part of a principled whole – it is no longer an independent organism.

It is the ecosystem, not the organism, that adapts to change. An organism may disappear, its niche filled by something else. Roles are fungible because organisms consume and emit the same resources; they share a common interface.

Consider Overton windows: lawmakers often position proposed legislation (principled components) wrt an observed ecosystem of discourse (currently-stable interface).

We cannot have a system that is wholly principled. We can have a collection of principled components, built to be discarded, slotted into / separated by interfaces that can last only given a rich ecosystem of alternatives.

This post was adapted from a note sent to my email list on Machine-Centric Science.
I'd love for you to subscribe.

  1. C. Alexander, Notes on the synthesis of form, 1964. ↩︎