Ashby presents his Design in terms of an organism which is located in an environment. The organisms of interest in social impact assessment may be an individual, an organization, or a community. Their environments consist of other organisms of all three types, and a physical environment. Hence, an organism, whether an individual, organization, or communtiy, is a mechanism which emits learned behaviors: behaviors which are adaptive or survival promoting.
In Ashby‘ approach it is argued that consciousness is unnecessary. The organism and its environment
are interlocked in a state-determined system which may be described by a collection of variables and
the sequence of values they take over time. The interlock is such that there is a feedback relationship. Ashby points out that „systems with feedback cannot adequately be treated as if they were of one-way action, for the feedback introduces properties which can be explained only by reference to the particular feedback used.“ This has the interesting consequence that virtually all of the popular techniques of statistical modeling, such as path analysis, analysis of variance, and factor analysis are not applicable to such systems. The feedback provides the organism with non-affective information about the environment. A subset of variables is identified as the essential variables: those variables in the system which when changed to a significant degree, produce changes in other variables which become even greater until the organism, itself, changes to something very different from what it was originally. A problem for the organism is to maintain the essential variables within a set of boundaries; a boundary is a value of an essential variable such that once it is exceeded, the system becomes different from what it was.
The organism-environment system with its feedback relationship and the organism’s essential variables are assumed to be state-determined as long as variables not included in the system remain constant. However, some changes in variables outside the system may change and, subsequently, results in changes in variables in the system. The outside variables are called parameters.
A second feedback loop exists for the organism consisting of a channel from the environment to the
essential variables to the parameters, and, then, to the organism. „It carries information about whether the essential variables are or are not driven outside the normal limits, and it acts on the parameters …“ In comparing the feedback loops, Ashby notes that the first feedback plays a part within the reactions of organism and environment, but the second „determines which shall occur“.
The set of variables and feedback loops can be diagrammed as in Fig.3. The first feedback loop consists of the arrows labeled a and b. The second feedback loop consists of a, c, d, and e. In this formulation, the essential variables are isolated from the non-affective inputs and responses. The consequences of this separation have been explored for individuals by Nicolai M. Amosov. He suggests that such isolation of the higher intellectual functions (some of the essential variables) from the stream of sensory inputs and reactions makes their development possible. These include hierarchical processing of information, anticipation, feelings, planning, and (for Asimov) consciousness and creativity. It appears that similar concepts should be developed for the organizational and community levels.
Ashby contends that the system is goal seeking in the sense that as long as the parameters remain
constant, the trajectories of the variables in the system will approach equilibrium. When a system has
the two levels of feedback and is goal seeking it is called an ultra-stable system or homeostat.
An ultra-stable system possesses many of the properties claimed to be lacking in traditional social impact assessment. However, the challenge is to provide a usable interpretation of the Ashby concepts for social impact assessment.
When the organism for which impact is being modeled is intensely involved in interaction with
other persons, whether corporate, civic, or individual, as well as being involved in interaction with a
physical environment, and when its response to inputs from the environment depends on whether the input originates from an individual, a corporate person, a civic person, or the natural environment, it is conceptually useful to partition the organism’s environment. One equivalence class of the environmental partition is the physical environment. Karl Wittfogel described the concept of interaction between man and his physical environment which seems most defensible:
„Contrary to the popular belief that nature always remains the same—a belief that has led to static theories of environmentalism and to their equally static rejections-nature changes profoundly whenever man, in response to simple or complex historical causes, profoundly changes his technological equipment, his social organization, and his world outlook. Man never stops affecting his natural environment. He constantly transforms it: he actualizes new forces whenever his efforts carry him to a new level of operation. Whether a new level can be attained at all, or once attained, where it will lead depends first on the institutional order and second on the ultimate target of man’s activity: the physical, chemical, and biological world accessible to him.“
In other words, the organism (whether individual, corporate, or civic) and the physical environment are in a complex relationship of mutual effect. Its activities have come to have increasing ability to greatly modify the physical environment. At the same time it depends on the environment for its food, energy, and enjoyment. Its mode of mass food production, and the reliance on non-solar sources of energy have led it to extend its domination of the physical environment to the point that it is capable of severely upsetting the physical environmental system and subsequently harming itself. The capacity has been repeatedly demonstrated regionally, but fortunately never universally. As individuals, corporations, and civic actors have increased in population and technology, they have occasionally recognized a threat to the physical environment and have attempted to set up organizations to mediate the interaction between society and the natural environment. Figure 4 illustrates the position of the second equivalence class for the organism’s environment: mediating organizations. The mediating organization is a type of two-way filter. It attempts to control the inputs from the environment to the organism and at the same time restrict the organism’s outputs in such a fashion that changes in the physical are either eliminated or channeled in directions which keep the essential variables within their boundaries. There are two general types of inputs to the organism from the physical environment, one of which is through the mediating organization to the organism. The inputs which are directly from the physical environment to the organism include rainfall, storms, earthquakes, and mountain vistas which are not currently controllable through mediation and raw materials whose extraction is not currently restricted by the mediating organization. The second type of inputs is conceptualized as a set of withdrawals from the environment, but are controlled by the mediating organization. Timber or minerals are extracted from the environment, but they are extracted under severe controls in most areas.