Going to Hell in a Hand-Basket

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“Where are we, and what are we doing in this hand-basket?” ~Bumper Sticker

When I was a graduate student at Stanford University, laboring toward a degree in Systems Theory, one of the technical courses in my curriculum was on the mathematics of Feedback Control Theory. That subject plumbed the arcane depths of the theory of “well-regulated systems.” At one point in the course, we came to the Fundamental Theorem of Feedback Control Theory, which set forth the necessary and sufficient requirements for a system to be well regulated. I was astonished to discover that one of the two requirements corresponded, almost verbatim, to the ninth item of the Ten Commandments. Let me briefly explain.

A Feedback Control System is comprised of two parts, called the Observer and the Controller. The Observer is the part that observes the current state of the system, so as to determine precisely how the current state of the system differs from the goal state. The Controller is the part that does the “steering” to systematically drive to zero the gap between the current state and the goal state.

One of the key necessary requirements for a system to be well-regulated is that the Observer must accurately detect and report the current state with utmost precision. Otherwise, the operation of the feedback control process will utterly fail. (Think of trying to drive your car while blindfolded.)

If we are blind, self-deluded, and failing to bear accurate witness, we are mathematically incapable of operating in a well-regulated manner. Most likely, we will reify the classic metaphor of the Juggernaut and blindly drive off the cliff, especially if the driver at the wheel is gunning it without having a clue where we are or where we are going. This is the state of affairs known colloquially as “Going to hell in a hand-basket.” The “hand-basket” was a reference to the basket that caught the severed head of a miscreant at the guillotine. If one has “lost one’s head,” the prospect of functional self-regulation is a manifestly lost cause. “Hell” (as readers may recall) is an old-fashioned term for an untamed recursion.

4 Comments

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  1. Rick Ladd

    Barry – Given the notorious difficulty in achieving useful, accurate communications between people, is it possible to have a well-regulated system with more than one person?

    • Barry Kort

      Yes, but the population might be limited to those who have achieved at least a modicum of education and enlightenment.

      • Rick Ladd

        In other words, as a nation we’re screwed . . . at least for the foreseeable future. :(

  2. Shava Nerad

    Thus, my emphasis to idealist anarchists that we need better people first. Gramps was a syndicalist, dad a wobbly and later a UU minister who worked night security for MLK/SCLC, I was the founding execdir of Tor. I believe in formal nonviolent anarchy, I just don’t think it scales well outside of a devoted principle-bound group — which is then emperiled by outside competition.

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