Knobs and Buttons

Imagine that you decide to run for political office. After your successful campaign you are finally elected to government. You arrive at the capital and meet a friendly bureaucrat assigned to your orientation of the legislature. She leads you through assembly halls, committee rooms, libraries, and office hallways, introducing you to numerous civil servants along the way.

Finally, your guide leads you to a big set of imposing doors. Turning to you she says, “This is where change really happens!” She opens the door into a room that looks like ‘mission control’ for a rocket launch. Large screens line the walls. Images, graphs, and data flash everywhere. The middle of the room is dominated by an elaborate control panel, packed with levers, knobs, switches, and dials.

“What is this place?” you ask.

“The Control Centre,” she replies. “This is where you will implement your policies. See here – this lever controls capital spending on infrastructure. The dial over there determines the budget for health care. This knob sets the minimum wage, and this one sets the interest rate. These control wheels here set the tax rates. As you can see, you can set parameters and variables here for everything — from air pollution standards, to law enforcement and military budgets, to education spending and daycare subsidies.”

Your tour guide walks around the control panel and gestures to an enormous array of screens. “These are the outcome monitors. This one shows air quality. That screen over there gauges population health. These displays monitor natural resources. This numerical readout is the national debt. You can see everything here: gross domestic product, income rates, exchange rates, birth rates, life expectancy, employment rates, literacy rates, and even a metric of national happiness and satisfaction!”

“Now this is why I wanted to get into politics,” you exclaim. “All we need to do is to figure out the best configuration of dials and inputs on the control panel to make the best results and outcomes appear on these screens!”

Your guide smiles, a little wearily, as if though she had heard the sentiment a thousand times before. “Welcome to government.”

Let’s digress from our imaginary tour of the capital. On one hand, a ‘control centre’ for a nation would be like a policy-maker’s dreamland; wouldn’t it be amazing to monitor and simulate the affect that a set of small changes have across a complex network? The knobs and dials of this imaginary control are analogous to the policies of real-life governments. And in real-life, politicians, citizens, and pundits, argue ceaselessly about how the settings should be tweaked and adjusted. As the public, we argue about who should be allowed to do the tweaking and adjusting on our behalf; we call it democracy.

Environmental scientist Donella Meadows (1941-2001) describes these switches and dials as parameters. She says that when most of us think about effecting change in society, we intuitively start thinking about how we can adjust the dials of the control panel. If we want to feel more secure, we crank up national defence as a priority. If we want people off the streets, we invest in social programs and affordable housing. Of course, every time we turn up a knob to address one situation we must reallocate resources previously invested in something else. The system only has finite energy. How we distribute our resources is a matter of setting these parameters.

However, as instinctive as it might be to address problems by finagling together a new configuration of knobs and buttons, Meadows proposes a counterintuitive idea. She suggests that fiddling around with parameters is actually the least effective way to achieve systemic, lasting change in a system or a society. To put it succinctly, adjusting parameters only adjusts how the system behaves in the short-term. It pushes the needle in a certain direction, but just barely, and rarely without having it swing back again later. In other words, tweaking the system does not change much about the system itself. At the end of the day, you are left with the same system, just tweaked.

Putting different hands on the faucets may change the rate at which the faucets turn, but if they’re the same old faucets, plumbed into the same old system, turned according to the same old information and goals and rules, the system isn’t going to change much. (Meadows 1997)

If you really want to intervene in a system, Meadows says that arguing about digits — piecemeal adjustments in parameters — is little more than a waste of time. Transformation happens in other ways, like when information becomes more openly shared, when self-organization develops, when movements are born, and when the overarching goals and values of the system are rewritten. The renewal and revolution of a system rarely happens by committee. All committees can do is tweak parameters.

Meadows’ thesis is provocative: if you are trying to change the system by following the rules for change (the knobs and buttons on the system’s own control panel) you are not really changing anything about the system at all.

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