The Cybernetics of Dispute

Imagine a hypothetical social system in equilibrium. We already know that there will be no conflicts being perceived by any member of this system, because the whole social system is in equilibrium, (refer to The State of No Conflict); however, members of this system are human individuals, and they are indeed living, evolving, and changing creatures; they interact with their environment, as well as with other individuals and members of other social systems. They learn, grow, and change, and through these processes, their knowledge, beliefs, values, aspirations, wants, and needs will change—all major factors in defining what people know as their equilibrium state—and by definition, these changes will modify their equilibrium (figure below), consequently affecting people’s evaluation process, since they will be now comparing what they perceive with a new set of beliefs and understandings (i.e., their newly learned and adopted equilibrium).

Conflict driving the learning process - changing the equilibrium
Conflict driving the learning process, changing the equilibrium

The possibility of these changes to be exactly the same for each and every member of a social system is infinitesimal, and as time goes by and as the number of members increases, this possibility will shrink even more, steadily approaching the mathematical zero.

Having new equilibrium states, sooner or later, there will be a member of this society who perceives something that is different from their new definition of equilibrium and is discomforting at the same time; they will perceive it as a deviation to their equilibrium—and hence as a conflict—and they either do not choose to look inwards (refer to The Cybernetics of Learning), or if they do, they fail to learn a new equilibrium and clear the perceived difference.

According to what we discussed earlier (The State of No Conflict), this hypothetical social system is no longer in equilibrium, since at least one of its members is pushed out of their equilibrium state—it is a sobering thought, though, that no social system can stay in equilibrium for long.

Let’s assume that those members who have perceived the conflict have not yet acted upon it: There is no dispute yet; conflict is brewing underneath. Their control sub-systems are working hard to either return to their previous equilibrium states (the one before the conflict had emerged), or they are searching and probing for new ones.

Thin vs Thick Skin
System's tolerance in maintaining equilibrium

People will tolerate conflict and maintain their equilibrium (figure above) to some extent, but as long as the conflict is there, it will add to their stress because their control mechanism is continuously pushing them to resolve the conflict (i.e., correct the deviation), while they constantly tolerate it and do nothing.

This internal battle and the accumulation of stress will eventually lead to discernible outputs or discharges: Ranging from inside-oriented to outside-focused, from depression to explosion, from anxiety to mania. Amongst all these possible outcomes, we will be focusing on those in which the impacted person engages with other parties in some sort of communication (i.e., exchange of information) to address the discomforting feeling that the conflict has caused them.

If effective counteracting forces to balance the effect of the perceived conflict are not found, at some point, the conflict will become intolerable, and dispute happens between individuals: Between those whom perceived the conflict and those who they believe are responsible for initiating the conflict, and by doing so, the former will open a door through which many other internalized (tolerated) conflicts of other members may find a way out and an opportunity to erupt and materialize. While the very first conflict, and other tolerated ones, had already pushed the system out of equilibrium, the manifestation of such conflicts and emergence of disputes will elucidate the state of the system, revealing its out-of-equilibrium state.

A Social System Out Of Equilibrium

As mentioned before, a system out of equilibrium will try to get back to its original steady-state or will search to find another one. Regardless of the type and nature of the new equilibrium state, as long as it is not found, the system will be in turmoil, constantly moving, persistently searching, and unrelentingly shifting in pursuit of an equilibrium state, within which it can settle down.

Likewise, a social system out of equilibrium will be restless, seeking the steady-state, its members actively searching for their respective equilibriums, because the individuals in conflict need to find a way to counteract the perceived disturbance and return to an equilibrium state.

Conflict creating conflict
Conflict creating conflict

Figure above demonstrates how an individual’s actions to maintain their own equilibrium may create conflict for other members of the society, and as the number of interacting people increases within the social system, these simultaneous change impacts have the potential to grow exponentially. What person A believes helps them achieve their equilibrium state might be perceived by person B as a deviation from their own equilibrium state, and person B’s actions, subsequently, may as well be disturbing Person A’s equilibrium: Person A affects person B, B affects C and D, D affects A and C, and on and on it goes (figure below).

Individuals' actions impacting other members of the social system

Therefore, it follows naturally that if not managed properly, by conflicts creating new ones at an increasing rate, the society’s overall equilibrium will spiral out of control. The key term here is managing properly, and as discussed at “Why Cybernetics?”, the proper way of managing a system out of equilibrium is not to focus on isolated problems or conflicts, it is rather to view the system as a whole and manage it to reach an equilibrium state, with all the members reaching their own respective equilibrium states.

All complex systems, including human beings, as we know by now, have their internal control mechanisms, helping them manage perceived conflicts and maintain the equilibrium state[1]. A typical social system, however, as we saw above, proves considerably challenging to manage and maintain its equilibrium since it contains multiple individuals, each with its own control mechanisms geared towards maintaining different equilibrium states. The members of a social system in conflict need to learn how to align their control mechanisms so as to reach their respective equilibriums alongside other members: This is the only way the whole social system could move out of conflict and into equilibrium.

Maintain Multiple Equilibriums

Figure above (Conflict creating conflict) clearly depicts the fact that in any system, any sub-system’s actions will impact other sub-systems’ equilibrium. A very good example of this complexity is the human body, a complex system of inter-connected sub-systems, each maintaining its own equilibrium while the whole system remains in equilibrium. How does this work? How do we manage multiple concurrent cybernetic loops, knowing that each is targeting a different set of objectives (i.e., equilibriums)? How can such a convoluted, complex system maintain all different equilibriums?

Professor Stafford Beer (1985), in his invaluable work Diagnosing the System for Organizations, defines such a system as a Viable System, a system that contains many interconnected sub-systems and is able to manage varieties to maintain its viability in an ever-changing, and oftentimes disturbing, environment. He asserts that such systems follow a specific set of principles, amongst which his second principle states that the “channels carrying information between [sub-systems] must each have a higher capacity to transmit a given amount of information relevant to variety selection in a given time than the originating sub-system has to generate it in that time.” (Beer, 1985, p. 45).

In other words, and in a much simpler way, the communication channels need to have adequate capacity to flawlessly transmit required information in time (i.e., rate of data transmission); thereby, sub-systems have instant and constant awareness of the information they require to maintain their equilibrium, including other sub-systems’ actions as well as their own decisions’ impacts on others: total and complete awareness.

Therefore, it becomes clear that because in a dispute situation—which indeed is a social system—people’s actions affect others’ equilibrium states, to ensure an effective mediation, it is crucial for all parties to have constant awareness of their effects on others, and vice versa, meaning the mediator needs to ensure correct information is being exchanged between parties in a timely fashion, leading to parties’ awareness of their actions and others’.

Control loops and the notion of equilibrium were discussed earlier, and now communication is added to the mix, completing the definition of Cybernetics: Control and communication in the animal and the machines. We now have a clear understanding of the mechanism of dispute situations, the underlying dynamics, and how parties affect one another. Let’s move one step further by looking closely at the process of communication.

End Notes

[1] Examples: maintaining the sugar level in the blood stream, increasing and decreasing the heartbeat, decreasing or increasing the metabolism, putting the body into sleep, etc.


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