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The Illusion of Control


To what degree are the outcomes we seek as producers, creators and strategists determined by predictable rules inherent to the systems and technologies we employ? And to what degree are external factors responsible for our results? In other words, what is our authority and from where does it derive?

Under certain circumstances, open systems reach a steady state in which they are far from equilibrium and maintain that state. They are highly improbable, highly complex. Moreover, such a state can be reached from different starting points and in spite of disruptions along the way. The state is what is called “equifinal”.

Ilya Prigogine, winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1977, showed that organized systems arise naturally out of unorganized matter rather than being extraordinary flukes. He proposed the existence of a previously unrecognized principle: the creation of order by fluctuations. The tendency to move forward toward a highly organized state – rather than backwards toward a simpler state as traditional thermodynamics would suggest – is a property of open systems, or those that exchange matter and energy with their surroundings.

Prigogine saw open systems as being in a state of disorder, becoming unstable, and then entering a state in which energy accumulates and structure develops, all due to the fluctuations inherent in such systems. Fluctuations are always occurring, but some grow large while others are eventually smoothed out. If fluctuations reach a critical size, they stabilize in the equifinal state. Non-order can therefore be an important source of order in open systems.

Because of these ideas, Prigogine is seen by many to offer a bridge between the physical and social sciences. Noam Chomsky defined emergence as “the appearance of a qualitatively different phenomenon at a specific stage of organization” and suggested the example of human language competence, which must be among the most complicated structures in the universe and arises in evolution only when a certain stage of biological complexity is reached.

Many contemporary linguists believe that there exist universal structures of the mind which make language happen and preserve its variety and complexity, regardless of their specific form. According to Robin Lakoff, for example, “Every language has about the same number of rules. Indeed, we can be reasonably sure that our own language has the same amount of syntax, the same amount of structure, as Proto Indo-European.”

We could say that an anti-chance device inside the brain prevents language from becoming entropic or noisy as time goes on, so that it does not rely completely on the accidental, time-dependent features of experience to maintain its orderly structure. Language, Lakoff points out, has an internal rationale which keeps the number, if not the types, of rules fairly constant. Some biologists look at the language of genes, another information storage system, in similar terms.

The manipulation of complex systems to stimulate emergence is not a bad definition of what we do. So by developing a deep understanding of a open system’s initial conditions, we can more successfully introduce fluctuations that result in greater richness, far from equilibrium, whether that system in a organization’s culture or a market’s cognitive framework.

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