Virtual control, attractors

[From Bill Powers (961018.1430 MDT)]

Martin Taylor 961018 12:00 --

I support you in your description of how reorganization may tend to
orthogonalize control systems in individuals and in groups. Given the
definitions and the basic underlying model, I think it approaches the status
of a mathematical theorem.

What we need is a vocabulary in which we can talk about this phenomenon
without seeming to bring in unintended meanings that imply superodinate
coordinating systems or intelligences or laws floating in the air between
people. What you are doing is reasoning directly in the basic terms of
control theory and reorganization theory. The phenomena of interest emerge
directly from this reasoning, with no side-track through metaphor. You make
it perfectly clear how interacting people can remain completely autonomous,
while a social system that they comprise can settle to forms in which it
appears that there is some coordinating law or intelligence at work.

Because this process of interactive reorganization involves a large and
loosely-linked system, the characteristics we see in social organizations
are slow to change and therefore hard to study. It is hard to visualize any
alternative to the social systems we see. It is hard to see things that are
variables as anything but constants. I think that we always need to ask the
question, concerning any social phenomenon that we observe, is "Is this the
only way it could be?" The implication of looking for social "laws" is that
we are looking for something as immutable as physical laws are generally
imagined to be. Indeed, some people start trying to imagine evolutionary or
other reasons why the present social system is the one that is "naturally
best," which is just another one of the factors that slows change. But if
you begin to think of social patterns as emergent from a continuous slow
process of interactive reorganization, no particular social pattern can be
thought of as a _necessarily_ being a permanent feature of human relations.

Indeed, one of the complaints of every generation, as it ages, is that
people just don't behave properly any more. Clearly, the forms of social
interactions drift with time; the "laws of social behavior" change. Some
people drive this drift by experimenting with new goals at all levels of
organization, while others resist, always with good (and different) reasons
on both (or all) sides. At all times, the society as a whole exhibits the
properties of conflictive control, as if there were only a few virtual
social actors with a few simple virtual reference levels, maintaining the
status quo (including all the more popular conflicts) and resisting
disturbances. Yet beneath this convincing appearance is a reality that is
much more interesting, and much more promising for the future of human affairs.

How can we learn to talk about this situation, which you have outlined so
clearly, without seeming to say what we don't mean?



This brings me to your discussions of attractors. One way we can talk about
interesting phenomena without seeming to say what we don't mean is to avoid
the use of colorful metaphors that have strong but unwanted popular
meanings. I meant to say this earlier, but the crush of other subjects
clamoring for my attention led me to skip past your fine post on attractors
of a few days ago. While your intent was to justify the use of the term, the
essence of the post was a clear description of the phenomena in which the
only use of the trendy jargon came up in sentences like "there, that's what
<X> means." The post could have stood on its own as a clear exposition of an
interesting phenomenon if those sentences had just been omitted.

There is no advantage in using trendy metaphors. In fact using these
metaphors presents a continual danger of over-applying some new idea simply
because the metaphorical terms suggest other areas of application for no
better reason than word-associations. If you use suggestive language, others
will take your suggestions and run with them, often in directions that
dismay you (if you haven't been fooled by your own words).

When a term like "attractor" is used over and over again in a particular
context, you tend to hear it as having only the meanings you consider
relevant, and definitely not the meanings that someone else might read into
them. But when others persist in misunderstanding you -- if they hear you as
saying that there is something in a problem that is pulling all the possible
solutions toward itself -- you have only yourself to blame. You wanted a
word that sounded colorful and suggestive, and you got the consequences of
finding one. The consequences are that people hear you saying things that
you don't mean, and that they start applying your conclusions in fields
where they don't apply. Interactive reorganization becomes social control of
individual behavior. Attractors pull things to themselves, hand over hand.

This is a general plea. Let's try, in PCT, to use clear descriptive language
that says what we mean in the basic terms of the theory as it stands at a
given time. Let's try to avoid jazzing it up with lovely-sounding metaphors
just because the language sounds "richer" when you use it that way. Let's
avoid the temptation to use metaphors to lay claim to territories we haven't
yet visited. Remember that people can hear many meanings that you may not
have had in mind, as in the apocryphal commercial in which the announcer
cries enthusiastically, "Use Preparation H and you can kiss your hemmorhoids


Bill P.