Jul 3rd 2024

How Humanity Lost Control

by J. Bradford DeLong

J. Bradford DeLong, a former Assistant US Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

 


 

BERKELEY – How can we be at least 15 times richer than our pre-industrial Agrarian Age predecessors, and yet so unhappy? One explanation is that we are not wired for it: nothing in our heritage or evolutionary past prepared us to deal with a society of more than 150 people. To operate our increasingly complex technologies and advance our prosperity, we somehow must coordinate among more than eight billion people.

We therefore have built massive societal machines comprising market economies, government and corporate bureaucracies, national and sub-national polities, cultural ideologies, and more. Yet we struggle to fine-tune these institutions, because we simply do not understand them. We are left with a globe-spanning network of profoundly alien leviathans that boss us around and make us unhappy, even as they make us fabulously rich compared to previous generations.

The economist Dan Davies has written a wonderful little book about our problematic creations. In The Unaccountability Machine: Why Big Systems Make Terrible Decisions – And How the World Lost Its Mind, Davies weaves together an argument from five separate threads. The first is his observation that our world is rife with accountability sinks: places where things are clearly going wrong, but where there is no one to blame. Instead, the entire system is at fault, and the system has no way of seeing or correcting the problem.

Second, Davies points out that every social system needs not only to pursue its mission but also to preserve itself. This generally means that it cannot focus on one narrow metric. Instead, every system must perform multiple sub-tasks in addition to its core mission. These include providing sufficient resources to the people doing the work; coordinating things in the here and now; looking ahead from the here and now to the “there and then”; and maintaining the human participants’ focus on what the organization is for (its guiding philosophy). Davies gives the example of an Elton John cover band, where these tasks are carried out, roughly, by “[the] musicians, conductor, tour manager, artistic director, and Elton John.”

Third, delegation is crucial to reducing complexities and keeping an organization’s mission manageable. You do not need to watch the temperature inside the squirrel cage minute by minute; you just need to set a thermostat.

Fourth, it is important to build strong feedback loops. This means amplifying the outside signals that you most need to see, and maintaining enough internal processing power to act on them before it is too late.

Lastly, the best way to reform organizations so that they do not become unaccountability machines is to revive the post-World War II quasi-discipline of management cybernetics. Pioneered by the computer scientist Norbert Wiener and the political scientist Herbert Simon, the approach was named for the Greek word kybernētikos: “good at steering a boat.” 

The guru who made the most progress in building management cybernetics was the counterculture-era management consultant Stafford Beer, whose book Brain of the Firm explored how bureaucracies can be reformed so that the internal flow of information between deciders and decided-upon is kept in balance. Without that, a system will not remain viable and useful to humanity over time.

Reviewing The Unaccountability Machine in the Financial Times, Felix Martin describes Davies’ approach as “a kind of psychoanalysis for non-human intelligences, with Stafford Beer as Sigmund Freud.” I could not have said it better. Our social world is no longer confined to our families, our neighbors, our co-workers, and those with whom we directly interact via networks of affection, antipathy, barter and exchange, small-scale planning, and arm-twisting. Instead, more and more of what we do is driven by an extremely complex assembly of vast interlocking social and technological mechanisms that we have made but do not understand.

If the challenge of modernity is to figure out a better way to work and think together as a global community of more than eight billion people, how can we improve our understanding, and thus our control? Unfortunately, Davies does not give us much of an answer. His book concludes with typical business-school blather. Nonetheless, he deserves credit for defining the task we face and pointing us toward a new intellectual path forward.


J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century (Basic Books, 2022).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.
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