commencement '93

Hadas Zies (
Mon, 11 Aug 1997 07:48:02 +0200 (MET DST)

To: BISC Group
From: L. A. Zadeh

The many comments which I have received relating to my commencement
address made me think that perhaps it may be of interest to some of you to see
the text of a commencement address which I delivered in May 1993. The text

Warm regards,

Lotfi Zadeh

August 4, 1997
The Crisis of Undercoordination

Lotfi A. Zadeh

Our society is beset with a long list of both major and minor crises;
crime; drug addiction; unemploy
ment; malfunctioning of the welfare system; problems with health care and
transportation systems; under
funded schools and universities; growing national debt; and the struggle for
survival of our libraries,
museums, orchestras, dance companies and other cultural institutions.

Is there a deeper crisis which underlies -- at least to a degree -- some
of the crises in question? In a
paper published in 1974 which dealt with the analysis of large-scale systems, I
suggested that there is such
a crisis -- a crisis rooted in an imbalance between interdependence and
coordination. In the 1974 paper, I
referred to this crisis as the crisis of undercoordination. In the intervening
years, the degree of imbalance
has grown and manifestations of the crisis of undercoordination have become more
pronounced. It is
important to understand the nature of this crisis and realize that it is a
systemic dysfunction which threatens
the survival of our democratic institutions.

In essence, the crisis of undercoordination has its roots in the
constant growth in the degree of inter
action and interdependence in all strata of modern society. The growth is
brought about by two factors:
first, technological progress, which facilitates travel, communication, trade,
networking and the transfer of
material and intellectual resources; and second, the growth in numbers -- the
numbers of people, houses,
automobiles, airliners, TV channels, computers, telephones, buildings, roads,
and most other constituents
of modern society.

As a result of the growth in interdependence, the events in Kuwait,
Sarajevo, Moscow and Tokyo have
a much more pronounced impact on our lives than they did in the past. We all
know this, but what is not
known as widely is that our experience with the behavior of large-scale systems
suggests that an
unchecked growth in the degree of interdependence -- without a countervailing
increase in the degree of
coordination -- eventually leads to instability and catastrophic failures.

A case in point is the catastrophic failure of the electric power
distribution system in the Northeast in
1965. In that event, in the absence of coordination, the tripping of local
circuit breakers spread unchecked
through the whole system. A more recent example is the massive failure of the
telephone network in the
Washington area in June of 1991. Other examples are the S & L debacle in the US
and the bursting of the
real estate bubble in Japan.

A lesson that can be drawn from these and related experiences is that to
maintain stability in a large-
scale system, the growth in interdependence must be accompanied by an increase
in the degree of coordi
nation. In the case of societal systems, the balance is achieved without
resistance in those cases in which
there is a compelling need for safety and stability -- as in air traffic
control. In most societal systems, how
ever, increase in coordination entails some restrictions on the freedom of
choice, a higher level of taxation
and more intervention on many levels of societal governance.

A case in point is the problem of vehicular traffic jams on our
highways, and congestion and inade
quate parking facilities in our cities. What has to be realized is that there
is no solution to this problem
which does not entail substantial increases in the levels of coordination and
regulation -- increases which
would go considerably beyond what would be acceptable today.

The same applies to the problem of unemployment. Unemployment is not a
problem in times of eco
nomic boom, but at other times it is a deep-seated problem which cannot be
solved without significant
reductions in the freedom of choice -- reductions which relate to the necessary
increases in levels of coor
dination and regulation. A related point that should be recognized is that
acceleration of technological
progress -- which is fueled by global competitive pressures -- has reached a
point where it is exceeding the
capacity of the workforce to adapt to new technologies. The result is a rapid
obsolescence of skills and a
concomitant growth in unemployment.

The problem with most democratic societies is that the electorate is
unwilling to pay the price for
bringing the level of coordination in balance with the level of interdependence.
The result is a chronic cri
sis of undercoordination. In the United States, in particular, the crisis of
undercoordination reflects -- more
so than in other countries -- the deep-seated tradition of suspicion of and
distaste for government interven
tion, and an unwillingness to accept restrictions on the freedom of choice and
imposition of higher levels
of taxation.

The dilemma is that so long as we are unwilling to pay the price of
increasing the level of coordina
tion, we are lacking the ability to come to grips with the crises which beset
us. The 200 billion dollar defi
cit which we are running is one measure of our unwillingness to pay the price
for solving the problems
which we face. The trouble with democratic societies is that future generations
have no vote.

To say that we are experiencing a crisis of undercoordination does not
imply that all our problems
would be solved by raising the level of coordination to a point where it is in
balance with the degree of
interdependence. But it does suggest that increasing the level of coordination
is a necessary step. How
ever, it should be noted that coordination is not synonymous with regulation.
Excessive regulation can
coexist with inadequate coordination.

At this juncture, the United States is pressing many countries --
especially former members of the
Eastern block -- to reduce the level of government planning and control and move
in the direction of wider
privatization. The crisis of undercoordination calls into question the
correctness of this policy when it
leads from excessive coordination to pronounced undercoordination, as in the
former Soviet Union. The
visible backlash is threatening to weaken or snuff the growth of democratic
institutions in countries in
which this has become a reality.

In the final analysis, what we should aim at is the achievement of a
balance between interdependence
and coordination. The acceptance of this premise is a prerequisite to finding
solutions to the problems
which we face. But what is clear, unfortunately, is that painless solutions do
not exist.