Sapient Governance II — Coordination Level, Part B

Tactical Coordination

Natural Coordination in Living Systems

In Part A I tried to establish the role of coordination control in living systems, and logistical control specifically. There I introduced the concept of an autopoietic system where a layer of monitoring and control decisions meant to coordinate the interactions of many discrete processes that need to cooperate in order for the smooth functioning of the whole system. In this installment I want to complete the coordination level controls by looking at the tactical issues. Basically, every living system needs to coordinate itself with respect to its environment, and that is the purpose of tactical control.

In logistical control the problem was how to get disparate processes to act as if they were cooperating even when they might, at times, compete for resources. The underlying operational system was essentially completely under control as long as resources from the external environment were available. The problem of resource obtaining and threat avoidance is the job of tactical control. The system needs to interface with a variety of other systems that might or might not be in a cooperative mood!

The tactical problem is slightly different for cells within a multicellular organism than it is for single-celled organisms. Similarly it is different for colonial animals such as ants and bees than it is for solitary or even social animals where other agents are not necessarily signed up to the same strategic plan. In the case of cells in a multicellular organism or animals in a colony the main problem is one of signaling other cells/animals. In many ways these 'unitary' groups are like a super-cell where the overall system has to provide logistical support to enhance the already built-in collaboration of the different unit types. So, in a sense, the tactical problem is basically solved by the logistics of the larger system. I won't go into the details here, but I want to note that the amount of resources that are needed to maintain a tactical control system for these kinds of agents (where cooperation is tantamount) is much less than is needed for solitary or singleton agents. One advantage of evolving a strong inter-agent cooperation level is that less energy is expended on 'maneuvering'.

In the case of singleton agents tactical coordination is essential. Agents often find themselves competing with both agents of other species and con-specifics alike. They may be some other agent's food. And if they are motile animals they have to worry about the non-living environment as well.

Tactics can generally be described as the planned moves that orient the agent in its environment in such a way that it can capture/absorb resource materials and energy (for animals energy and material come in the same package), stay away from possible predators, and not get injured. Actually tactical moves for plants tend to be kind of uninteresting and are basically mandated and orchestrated by genetics. So from this point on I will largely be talking about animals. Non-sessile animals have to solve some very interesting problems in finding food and staying out of trouble. Oh, yes, and finding mates!

Fundamentally tactical control has some similar features to logistical control in that the animal needs to have a working model of the external environment just as the logistical controller needs a model of the internal environment (the body). As we go up the phylogenetic tree or toward more complex animals, we note that they have more complex (bigger) brains. The nature and size of the tactical model is often greater than the logistical model for the same species. This is because the external environment of animals higher in the complexity hierarchy is generally more complex. Additionally, whereas the model of the internal environment, the body, requires considerably less adaptation (learning) since much of it is genetically ordained (not completely of course), the external environment is not only more complex, it is also very non-stationary. That is the behaviors of external agents and even the physical environment are subject to change over time. Hence the parts of the brain capable of learning new relationships expands as one goes up the complexity scale. Mammals and birds have very large cerebral cortices relative to reptiles. The neocortex of hominids expands this capacity many times over.

The figure below shows a basic relationship between the animal's operational system (body) and the tactical and logistical controllers (brain). The figure shows the tactical controller's environment model as larger than the logistical (internal) model to reflect the above considerations.

Relationship of tactical and logistic controllers (brain)

The tactical controller gets information from the environment through sensory capabilities. This information is used to update the tactical model. The latter maintains a real-time map of what is in the immediate environment and how it is acting, especially relative to the animal. The tactical model includes the ability to categorize objects in the environment, or at least can categorize according to a genetically determined template. For example, many monkeys are naturally (instinctively) afraid of snakes because snakeness is built into their limbic system and it is associated with danger. Evolution wrote that program. Monkeys who noticed snake-like things tended to survive and procreate. The others didn't.

The model then computes (neuronally of course) what the important objects in the environment are likely to do next. That information is used by the tactical controller to plan and execute muscle movements so as to orient the animal favorably to that anticipated future environment. Tactical control also figures in obtaining food/water and depositing excrements under appropriate conditions. Not shown is the sexual organs involved in reproduction. But you probably get the picture.

This general model pretty well describes most animals up through the reptiles and the cerebral cortices of early mammals. I am leaving strategic control to the third piece in this series, Sapient Governance III. For most of what would be considered strategic 'thinking' for animals from reptiles down the brain structures responsible for longer term behavior are pretty much hard wired by evolution. For early mammals and birds the paleo-cortex accounts for the extra sensory processing and learning that is needed to deal with their more complex environments.

One last point here. It turns out that what I have described above is also found in single-celled organisms, but it is the autopoietic mechanisms within the cell that handle the various sensory/movement/ingestion/excretion and mating functions. Sensing is done mostly by chemical signals (olfaction is the evolutionarily oldest sense), though some protozoa have light sensors as well (no images, just presence or absence of light). So even at the cellular level we can find tactical controls at work.

Basically these functions are found in colonial animals as well. Time and space do not allow for explication here, but you can find lots of descriptions of coordinated tactical functions in ant colonies, for example.

My paradigmatic example of living hierarchical control is the brain. Brains have evolved to perform all of the major control functions (also coordinate with the endocrine and immune systems, both control functions), at least in animals more complex than an annelid worm. So the brain will be a reference model in what is to come.

Tactical Control in Social Governance

What is a social unit? A family? A neighborhood? A city, state, country? Or the world?

In the societies of humanity there are so many different forms of social organization that it would be easy to get caught up in myriad details. But my approach has been to focus on economics since every kind of social unit has similar economic problems to solve. They all have to obtain needed resources and avoid external threats just like animals. So too will I proceed here.

Take a look at any social unit organization, be it a household, a firm, a country, you will find components of tactical control at work. Let's start with sensing. Every unit will devote resources to finding out what is going on in the world outside itself. Household heads (partners) buy a newspaper or reads stories on-line, keeps track of economic and political news to keep abreast and possibly make decisions about where to work, where to live, etc. Purchasing managers are scanning their suppliers price/availability information constantly. A nation's diplomats, military, trade agencies, and foreign intelligence agencies are constantly assessing and reporting the state of the world to the central governments. Whatever the unit, it needs to be updated regularly on what is going on in its environment. And that information feeds into tactical decisions.

The same can be said for motor functions, as mentioned above. Basically, a unit needs to respond to external conditions with a change in behavior. Less may be known about excretory functions simply because most of us take those for granted. In the household we stuff the trash cans and put them on the curb for the garbage truck. Many companies have more elaborate excretory concerns, especially if their waste matter includes toxic effluents. Cities have much larger problems in terms of where to put all the garbage collected at the curb. And now there are CO2 emissions that all of us have to worry about.

Every unit has a model of how the environment behaves. Shoppers keep track of prices for goods and services they need. They keep track, either formally or informally, of price trends. They keep track of quality of products and services. Income earners and profit centers keep track of the job market/wages and sales, respectively. More sophisticated organizations (and some households) keep track of trends in an attempt to anticipate changes in prices and incomes.

The tactical issues of income and costs are directly interlinked with the logistical functions of distributing resources internally. Household heads might have a budget that they have developed in which they have a sense of what they can spend on food and other 'resources'. These budgets represent the coordination between logistical control (what things do we need and how much can we afford) and tactical control (shopping for the best price to meet budget constraints). When prices rise they respond with more careful shopping. Firms, too, have at least a budget, but also keep track of customer behaviors and financial conditions. The federal government? Who knows? You can find lots of bits and pieces of tactical components, here and there. But no one at that level really has a comprehensive view to know. You can generally find lots of overlap in function that isn't really redundancy (a legitimate reason for duplication) but simply no one understands what is going on. I would argue that at the level of the federal government there is a substantial breakdown of coordination between logistical and tactical control. Moreover, there are many tactical agencies that don't communicate with other agencies that are doing the same job (overlap) or worse, working at cross purposes (State Dept. vs. Military).

Speaking of the military, for most of our history the military is one fairly good example of a reptilian-like brain at work. They have got the operational, logistical, and tactical control structures down pat. The military definition of tactical is probably more restrictive than I have indicated above. It is generally down to battle command. Strategy is given by which wars to fight and how to go about engaging the enemy. But tactics revolve around when, where, and how to engage the enemy in a specific battle arena. Logistics, of course, is the movement of men, material, and weapons, stockpiling such and so on. The beauty of military system is that it is one of those that responds to external threats (or sometimes made up threats) and so the pure command-and-control method is apropos. And they have the roles down pat. The army is more like an ant colony.

Sapient Tactical Control for Humanity

Humanity and the economic system is embedded within the entire ecosystem of Earth. As a unit then mankind's tactical interactions are primarily with the Ecos. Later I will mention a few other tactical-level interactions, but for now the problem of tactical control comes down to how do we interact with the Ecos. The planet is finite. Low entropy resources (natural capital) taken in by the economy must be replenished by Ecos services. They are the products that the Ecos manufactures to supply the human economy. The figure below summarizes this relationship.

The tactical issues for the human economy involve interactions with the Ecos

The economy produces high entropy waste products, which, given enough time, are recycled by the Ecos into low entropy products again. This is done by virtue of energy sources to the Ecos. The size of the economy and the amount of resources it consumes and waste it produces must be in balance with the Ecos. When economic throughput exceeds the capacity of the Ecos to recycle and restore natural capital, the system will ultimately break down. The finite aspect of the whole world system mandates that there must not be competition between the Ecos and the economy, or both will ultimately fail. We cannot have a world that is all Ecos and no economy that also has man in the picture. Nor can we have a world of all economy and no Ecos since there are restorative services that only the Ecos can perform. So mankind must find the tactical way to coordinate its activity, the economy, with that of the Ecos. As shown by the relative sizes of the two ovals, the human economy currently occupies a significant proportion of the Ecos as a whole. It has been estimated that nearly 40% of photosynthetic activity (agriculture and naturally occurring plants) is now consumed by humans, directly in eating plants or indirectly by eating animals that ate the plants. Most ecologists today agree that that is far too much. Our population size and consumptive habits are putting an unprecedented and harmful stress on the Ecos (as a trading partner). As we will see in the final installment on strategic control, this cannot lead to long-term human viability. The Ecos has a way of balancing things out when one or another of its occupants gets uppity.

Our tactical systems with respect to the Ecos and our interactions with it are very poorly designed and are not yet providing adequate information. We do not have a completely functional model of the Ecos with which to make tactical decisions. We're getting better. Our climate models, for example, have improved to the point that we can anticipate the results of global warming in terms of climate changes and anomalies. We are developing, through science, better models of fisheries, drinkable water, sea level rising, etc. So we are building our understanding of the Ecos little by little. This in response to the threats that attend those Ecos services due to man's over consumption. A sapient government (at a global scale) would put all out effort into building better and better models as well as constructing much better data collection facilities. If we are to understand the Ecos enough to know what our proper size and activity is to be, we must expand our tactical sensors and models to a level where good tactical decisions can be made. These are essential too so that we can develop good logistical models. We need to know what to budget, what our income (energy) can be without disrupting the Ecos' energy budget. We often hear policy wonks call for Manhattan-style projects for renewable energy development as if such a project would allow us to go on with our current lifestyle. But what we really need is knowledge and data. I would call for a Manhattan-style effort (only greatly expanded) to instrument the Earth extensively with concomitant build up of computing facilities to process that data and develop models. I would, in other words, be building a brain-like structure for logistical and tactical decision-making relative to our Ecos.

As things stand right now, processes like the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents a kind of first attempt to organize a tactical-level process. It is composed of the science-as-usual (that is independent researchers competing for grants and then writing journal articles) to collect and interpret data, some modeling efforts, basically now to understand the large-scale phenomena associated with anthropogenic greenhouse gases, and periodic meetings of scientists and policy makers to try and decide what to do about the threat. This is a long and involved process. It has always been behind the real-time science in terms of policy recommendations (forget the political processes that follow that). It is too slow for effective tactical control with respect to mitigation, probably even adaptation. Global investment (which really means investment by developed countries and especially the US) in a massive coordinated scientific effort along with model building and anticipatory policy development — followed of course by real political action instead of the cartoon politics currently underway in the US — is what is needed in order to effectively deal with our tactical relationship to the rest of the Ecos.

Alas, this kind of effective action requires a more far-reaching vision that cannot come from the coordination layer alone. It must come from a strategic viewpoint. And as of now, there is no global architecture for strategic governance. The UN is the closest thing we have to a global strategic apparatus. Unfortunately it doesn't see itself in that role. It wasn't really created for that role, being more an instrument of international peace keeping (i.e. the Security Council is a main core function). Yet something is needed at that strategic level. The United States, after emerging from the Cold War as THE major power, was, I think, viewed by many as taking on something of a strategic decision role in the world. But that meant the President and the Congress thinking strategically for all of mankind. Didn't happen. In truth, it can't really happen unless the rest of the world acquiesces to grant the US that kind of role (after Bush, what are the chances?), and whoever the next president is will actually have that kind of vision, and (and this is probably an impossible dream) the Congress develops a world view and a more cooperative working arrangement. Given the current retinue of players and the partisan attitudes prevailing, I simply don't see the US ever rising to that occasion.

In the final installment I will outline a global human economy strategic-level architecture for governance. I will rely heavily on what we now know about the human brain as a model of such governance. And I will provide a cursory, crude map of how the kind of strategic control afforded by the human brain can be realized in governing the economy.

One last note about tactical issues for humanity. There are a number of other environmental coordination efforts, some of which actually apply to the Earth as a whole. For example, we now know that there is a non-zero, and actually significant, probability that the Earth will be struck by a celestial body large enough to do major damage. The Earth needs a tactical plan for its interactions with the rest of the Solar System. Mankind has aspirations for visiting other planets and the stars. We've already ventured out, more on compulsion than with a real tactical plan. But these kinds of interactions involve decisions that must have a strategic overlay. Our first obligation is to learn tactical coordination with the Ecos. Once we are getting that down, and have a strategic level operating, we can turn to the more aspirational tactical efforts. Indeed the same can be said for logistical aspirations, such as elimination of poverty and suffering within the human family.

So in the final installment of this series I will take up strategic management of planet Earth and the human economy in particular. But for now, I hope you basically see that our system of governance has been evolving bit by bit towards the hierarchical model. This evolution has been patchy owing to the fragmentation of nations and ideologies. But it has been inexorable. We are already moving in this direction. With globalization, even if we end up with communication globalization and more localized wealth production, we see a trend in evolution of governance toward a more integrated system. But it is still slow and painful. I'm suggesting it needn't be so. By recognizing this natural tendency and seeing that we are already moving in that direction, we could, in principle, leapfrog some of those growing pains and work intentionally toward a system that will put us, as a species, in good stead with our home world and one another.

'In principle'. In practice it may actually take a major catastrophe to get people's attention. Maybe after some truly horrendous calamity (hurricane Katrina being a nearly non-event by comparison) mankind will put aside its pitiful ideologies and groundless faith in miracles and see that sapient governance is the way forward. On the other hand, if the calamity were too severe, mankind would more likely devolve back into the mindless, aggressive, brutes from which we came.