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Optimizing Uncertainty Raymond H. Dean We instinctively modulate our boundaries, expanding them to expose new options and contracting them to cull out poorer options. As boundaries expand, more accessible information raises the level of complexity , and we must pay more careful attention to understand that higher complexity. As boundaries expand beyond our ability to comprehend, danger increases. Wisdom tells us to set our boundaries so that we can just comprehend the accessible information within those boundaries. Weak or distant boundaries expose us to more information than we can digest. Poorly digested information is perverse ignorance. As boundaries expand , that perverse ignorance grows into a strange distortion of reality —a distortion that can seduce us into serious error.1 Nature and culture automatically react to inadequate boundaries by building new ones. Unless we restrain ourselves in our manipulation of the natural world, that world and the social, political, and economic world within it will impose restraints on us. grasping the situation Scientific development changes the way people think about the human situation . Copernicus’s description of planetary motion removed humans from the center of the universe. A century later, Isaac Newton provided proof that the knowable universe was orderly. But two centuries later, Darwin’s description of biological variation and the inherent uncertainty of quantum mechanics muddied the waters again.Then we began to think of the orderly patterns we see as emerging from randomness, and this way of thinking permeated biology, ecology, the social sciences, and communications. 82 Raymond H. Dean In the course of this development, we learned that a collection of data and a collection of energetic particles share a common property called entropy. This common concept of entropy provides a basis for an analogy among different scientific and cultural domains.2 Also, Shannon , Nyquist, and others independently discovered an important information -processing principle called the sampling theorem. To faithfully reconstruct original information, the receiver of incoming data must sample at a rate no less than twice the bandwidth of the analog filter through which that data flow. Lower sampling rates distort the original information in a strange way—like the images created by a strobe light at a rock concert or the occasional impression that wheels on a car are rotating the wrong way.3 In other words, if our boundary of consideration (sampling rate) is smaller than our physical boundary (filter), our understanding is not just incomplete or obscured by random noise. It’s deceptively perverted into strange patterns. Toward the end of the twentieth century, we begin to notice that many other supposedly random phenomena are not actually random. Agents are interconnected. Older agents accumulate more interconnections , and now we see optimized interconnection networks4 in nested patterns that look like fractals5 —patterns that crowd into relatively small portions of the available space and repeat at different levels of scale. Thus, we had a deterministic thesis, followed by a random antithesis , followed by a synthesis. In the synthesis, we see that the inorganic world and the organic creatures within it are interconnected in complex ways and dwell in an uncertain state between order and disorder. They naturally seek a balance between no alternatives (too little information), on the one hand, and excessive confusion (too much information), on the other.6 The balance provides just the right awareness of plausible opportunities and threats—optimized available information. However, many would say that, instead of trying to optimize available information, it’s better to try to maximize it. They imagine that maximizing available information also maximizes control. But sometimes we get carried away. We invent gunpowder, dynamite, and atomic weapons. We extinguish species. We exhaust natural resources that took millions of years to accumulate. We wash away the soil that grows our food, poison the water we drink, and pollute the air we breathe. In spite of these pernicious effects, our faith in technology—“modern optimism”—persists. We believe that we’ll get the best of all pos- Optimizing Uncertainty 83 sible worlds if we just do more of what we have been doing—gather more information, use faster communication to disseminate it, and depend on free enterprise to produce the best results. Fast communication and cheap oil have made it easy to employ cheap labor in remote parts of the world, and governments have removed trade barriers. Thomas Friedman says that now the world is “flat.”7 Flat doesn’t mean physically flat. It means a level playing field, a shallow hierarchy—everyone has access to everyone else...


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