History of Systems Science

Norbert Wiener

Elinor Ostrom

Part 2: Negative Feedback and Cybernetics

Walter Cannon and his colleagues, such as Norbert Wiener, expanded the idea of homeostasis, or “negative feedback,” from individual organisms to society as a whole. Writing in 1950, Wiener noted that Indigenous cultures had achieved social homeostasis by allowing decisions to happen in a “generative” fashion, from the bottom-up rather than top-down: “This matter of social feedback is of very great sociological ...interest. There are communities like the Eskimos, among whom there seems to be no chieftainship and very little subordination.” He also pointed out how racism prevented bottom-up, democratic life in the US: “Until white supremacy ceases to belong to the creed of a large part of the country [democracy] will be an ideal from which we fall short.” Wiener invented the term “Cybernetics” to describe the study of bottom-up, generative systems.

Cybernetic models of Indigenous societies (like the Yupik Eskimos, the Ashanti of West Africa, or the Iroquois of New York) all show how feedback can create a generative balance between nature and society, as well as keep an economic balance to prevent one group from having power over others. Economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for showing how Indigenous societies use “the commons” (such as a communal lake, grazing land, or storehouse). With the commons, everyone voluntarily contributes, and everyone benefits. The same idea was used in computer science as the model for open source sharing online. Using websites such as Creative Commons you can contribute code as well as share code made by others.

A famous “commons” example from systems science: on the island of Bali rice is grown in terraces on the mountain slopes. Because you have to simultaneously flood all terraces in one area to kill off insect pests, no one is hoarding water. Ecologist Stephen Lansing used environmental data and a computer model to show that the traditional system gave the maximum possible rate of rice production. The model helped to stop a development corporation that was adding fertilizers, because it showed that would lead to “eutrophication” (over production of green slime and other algae). In 2012, the model helped convince the United Nations to make Bali rice terraces a world heritage site.

In the simulation below you have been hired to run an eco-tourism company. The tourists come to Bali and get to experience planting and harvesting rice. But tourists also produce waste, which can leach into the soil and cause eutrophication. Your job is to find the “set point” for a “steady state,” where there are just enough tourists to grow all the needed rice, without so many tourists that it causes eutrophication. Go to the simulation here, and click on the green flag at the upper right to start.

When you are done, create a flowchart to show how you introduced balance in the system. (Click and drag the blocks to form a flowchart)