Controlled actions

[Note: I learned this concept directly from John Salvatier. All credit for the ideas goes to him. All blame for the incoherence of this post goes to me.]


This post doesn’t have a payoff. It’s just laying out some ideas.

Controlled actions

Some actions are “controlled”, which is to say their consequences are very precisely determined by the actor.

The term is in reference to, for instance, a controlled demolition. A controlled demolition occurs when a building collapses in a specific pattern, compared to an uncontrolled demolition, which would just be knocking over a building, without any particular concern for how or where the pieces go.

The following are some axis that influence how controlled an action is.

How precisely predictable the effects of the action are

Rocket launches are highly controlled, in that the one can precisely predict the trajectory of the rocket. Successfully changing the social norms around dating, sex, and marriage (or anything really) is uncontrolled because human society is a complicated knot of causal influences, and it is very hard to know in advance what the down-stream impacts will be.

(In general, actions that involve physical deterministic systems are more controlled than actions that involve human minds.)

How reversible the results of an action are

But you don’t need to be able to predict the results of your actions, to have controlled actions, if your actions are reversible.

Dynamiting a mountain (even via a controlled demolition), is less controlled than cutting down a forest, which is less controlled than turning on a light.

How much you “own” the results of your actions

Inventing and then open-sourcing a new technology is uncontrolled. Developing proprietary software is more controlled, because you have more ability to dictate how the software is used (though the possibility of copycats creating can create similar software mitigates your control). Developing software that is only used within one’s own organization is more controlled still.

Processes that are self perpetuating or which take on a life of their own (for instance, sharing an infectious idea, which then spreads and mutates) are extremely uncontrolled.

How large or small the step-size of the action is and how frequent the feedback is

It is more controlled to cut down a tree at a time, and check the ecological impact after each felling, than it is to only check the ecological impact after the whole forest has been removed. Careful gradual change is more controlled.

(Unfortunately, many actions have different effects at large scales than at small scales, and so one doesn’t get information about their impacts until the action is mostly completed.)


In general, there’s a pretty strong tradeoff between the effect sizes of one’s actions, and how controlled they can be. It’s easy to keep many small actions controlled, and nigh-impossible to keep many large actions controlled.

Problems requiring high control

Some problems inherently require high control solutions. Most construction projects are high control problems, for instance. Building a sky scraper depends on hundreds of high precision steps, with the later steps depending on the earlier one. Building a watch is a similarly high control problem.

In contrast, there are some problems for which low control solutions are good enough. In particular, when only a single variable of the system being optimized needs to be modified, low control solutions that move that variable (in the right direction), are sufficient.

For instance, removing lead from the environment is a moderately low control action (hard to reverse, hard to predict all the downstream consequences, the actor doesn’t own the effects) but it turns out that adjusting that one variable is very good move. (Probably. The world is actually more confusing than that.)


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