Way back in the 1950s, a pioneering British cybernetician, W Ross Ashby, proposed a fundamental law of dynamic systems. In his book An Introduction to Cybernetics, he formulated his law of requisite variety, which defines “the minimum number of states necessary for a controller to control a system of a given number of states”. In plain English, it boils down to this: for a system to be viable, it has to be able to absorb or cope with the complexity of its environment. And there are basically only two ways of achieving viability in those terms: either the system manages to control (or reduce) the variety of its environment, or it has to increase its internal capacity (its “variety”) to match what is being thrown at it from the environment.
Sounds abstruse, I know, but it has a contemporary resonance. Specifically, it provides a way of understanding some of the current internal turmoil in Facebook as it grapples with the problem of keeping unacceptable, hateful or psychotic content off its platform. Two weeks ago, the New York Times was leaked 1,400 pages from the rulebooks that the company’s moderators are trying to follow as they police the stuff that flows through its servers. According to the paper, the leak came from an employee who said he “feared that the company was exercising too much power, with too little oversight – and making too many mistakes”.