Notwithstanding the relevance of scientific research, I feel that a contradiction hides behind the current debate on weak signals. To worry about weak signals is reasonable only if you already know that they signalize strong changes – for instance, a catastrophe or a disaster that you would rather avoid (if possible). However, only the observer who already knows how it came to an end can be aware of it. This is the reason why the discussion on weak signals usually has a retrospective structure. Why no one did perceive these signals? Why no one held the signalized change for relevant? In short, why nobody understood the strongness of weak signals?
This contradiction (the signal was weak, and yet it was retrospectively strong too with respect to events) is based on the fact that a future which does not exist is unknown. Before starting an enterprise, everybody would like to know to which signals he will have to pay attention in order to seize opportunities and not to run risks. Moreover, a strong signal of a weak change, or a weak signal of a weak change were not a problem for anyone. The difference between weak and strong is used to symbolically bridge the temporal gap between signalized and signal. As a consequence, the problem of lacking information is softened, if not neutralized.
In modern society, which is obsessed by the need of dealing with an open future, uncertainty is a resource but also a problem for every decision-making process. And every decision-maker must address the circularity of temporal references that turns any present into an undecidable situation. However, this undecidability is the essential condition that makes a decision possible . In other words, if future could be decided, we should simply wait that the decided future eventually occurs. There would be no decision any more that could be taken. Every type of action could no longer affect the future that ineluctably unfolds itself. Social reality would turn into a deterministic machine. On the contrary, if future cannot be decided we are able (and compelled too) to take decisions whose outcome cannot be fully predicted. Every decision-maker is therefore coping with an unpredictable future that depends on predicting decisions. To start a decision-making process, the circular relationship that links future and decision must be first of all turned into some kind of viable circularity.
This transformation is possible if, for instance, an asymmetric distinction is introduced. The latter does not remove the self-referential circularity; it rather enables the observing system to gain at least some information . The distinction between strong and weak is just an example of this type of asymmetries. This distinction refers to the observer rather than to the observed reality, and marks the ignorance which the observer has to cope with when he tries to get some bearings in the opacity of the time-to-come. In other terms, what is weak is the attention paid to the signal rather than the change in the situation that was signalized. As a consequence, the circular self-referentiality of observation does not turn into a tautology.
In this respect, Ansoff himself had distinguished future uncertainty into an uncertainty which preserves a certain continuity compared with the past and therefore enables observers to estimate historical regularities, and an uncertainty which, on the contrary, is characterized by discontinuities and can become a threat or an opportunity. Ansoff’s firm belief was that these discontinuities could be “anticipated by available forecasting techniques” ( p. 22) – which is to say, if the firm were able to forecast temporal discontinuities between past and future it would let itself not be surprised by such discontinuities, whereas, indeed, the only thing that can be foreseen is the continuity of discontinuities.
To understand how it is possible that an event may perform a signalling function, one has first of all to take into consideration the principle of operational closure. Communication systems have no operational contact with the external environment because they cannot link themselves with the outside world by means of their own operations [30–32]. Society can communicate on the environment but not with the environment. From the standpoint of a system, the environment is simply the filling of systemic external references, which are continually combined with concomitant systemic self-references. If the environment is conceived in temporal terms as time-to-come, it is clear that nobody can hurry up into the future to see what is going on and then come back to tell what he found.
In turn, the environment cannot communicate with a system. The former can behave either in a disruptive way (skiers are swept away by an avalanche, nobody can communicate anymore), or as irritation (a skier warns the other ones of the avalanche danger). Consequently, a system that is irritated by the environment changes its state, and yet every change of state is a systemic operation. In fact, closure does not mean closeness ( p. 147). A system does not exist without a respective environment; in turn the environment does not exist without a reference to a respective system. However, only systems can recursively reproduce their own operations by means of the outcome of previous operations. In turn, the environment can neither beget nor specify the nature of systemic operations, although the environment is an essential condition for the system being able to reproduce its own operations. In other words, environmental perturbations are never instructive for a system; on the other hand, without perturbations a system cannot instruct itself about what shall be done. This complicated situation is possible through the structural coupling of system and environment.
The concept of structural coupling refers to any environmental condition, which allows systemic self-irritation, i.e., which enables the system to irritate itself ( p. 80, p. 93–95;  p. 61). The environment cannot produce systemic operations (wood is not speaking), nor trigger systemic irritations (a burning wood gives no alarm). Every irritation is produced by the system through its own operations and arises against the background of those structures of expectation which coincide with the system’s current state. In this very sense, irritations are “purely internal constructs” and arise every time as perturbations, deviations or surprises ( p. 1432). This empirical assumption also implies that the information value of an environmental event does not depend on the event as such, rather it is contingent on system’s structures. Consequently, irritation is the intra-systemic side of the structural coupling of system and environment, that is, it marks one side of a form whose opposite side is indifference.
Telling examples of social irritation are ecological threats. In this respect, as well known, the search for warning signals is feverish and often becomes a reason for social tensions. However, if we remember the principle of operational closure of communication systems, it is clear that only society can threaten itself ( Ch. 6). In order to irritate and alarm itself, society can also employ very simple structures, for instance, distinctions. I would like to give an example.
The water of a river does what it does: it flows. We may draw a distinction, for instance 8 metres. This distinction is a technical device that works as a kind of threshold value. The distinction let the observer oscillate between over and under insofar as river rises or not, so that the observer can have some information. From this standpoint, signal is a difference for information processing. Without a difference, indeed, nothing can look like a selection and be thus information. Moreover, the information value of an event depends on the selectivity of selection. Such selectivity, in turn, depends on the number of possibilities, that is, the variety that a system can deal with. For instance, to guess the name of a person is much more informative than to guess his or her sex. Hence, not only observers depend on information, but also information depends on observers. In other terms, information is never transmitted by the environment, rather it is “generated by observers” ( p. 658).
This condition also goes for signals. A red light is informative for the one who just got the driving license in a different sense compared to the one who is working in an industrial plant. In everyday life, this is almost a truism and can be learnt very quickly. What instead is often neglected is the highly selective nature of signals that process information. Structural coupling itself cannot take into account everything is occurring in the environment, otherwise system should address an information overload. Rather, systems balance high irritability with high indifference. Signals focus system’s attention on environmental events which could have a surprising effect for the system; simultaneously, they distract system’s attention from other events which are not taken into account and could become a second-order surprise.Footnote 11
Technology and the use of computer hugely increase the irritability of social systems, so they help (if not even substitute) perception in many fields. Nowadays, no one would take the control of the danger of volcanic eruption seriously by looking at rising smoke. Technology provides society with a highly complicated and opaque system of technically controlled indicators. As always in the case of structural coupling, these indicators increase the structural uncertainties which the operationally closed communication system has to cope with. These structural uncertainties do represent what might be called social signalling system: its outcome is not simply an increase of security, but also a concurrent increase of uncertainty which society is able to address. This is the reason why, while actually living in a safer society, we feel that we live in a society that is substantially more vulnerable than before.Footnote 12
While structuring the systemic irritability towards environmental perturbations, signalling bounds the systemic capability to process information. To be coherent, we should say that it is not a signal that informs the system, rather it is the system that informs itself through a signal.Footnote 13 This reasoning also explains why the same whistle that for players is the signal of the beginning (or the end) of the match, for my dog is the signal of running back to me.
On a temporal dimension, signalling combines the simultaneousness of system and environment with the problem of their synchronization. System and environment behave simultaneously because time flows for both with the same speed. Neither can the system stay behind in the past while the environment is moving forward into the future, nor can the environment be anticipated by a system that is running more speedily toward the future. Therefore, anticipation is possible just because environment cannot be anticipated.Footnote 14
If a system is complex enough, it can combine the temporality of its operations with the temporality of environmental events, and look for some synchronization. Formal organizations know this problem very well and they deal with it especially when they are coping with warning signals. This point deserves further investigation.
Both time and attention are scarce resources. Scarcity increases when time and attention interact with each other. When only little time is available to solve a problem, one has to focus his attention on this problem; however, when one is focusing his attention on a problem, he must relinquish something else that could be taken into consideration only if more time were available. Signals that trigger irritation catalyze attention. Through sign systems, cognitive systems simultaneously save attention and produce attention. From this standpoint, pain might be regarded as an evolutionary advance.
Pain compels consciousness to become aware that something in body is wrong – which otherwise went unnoticed because consciousness and body are not operatively linked with each other, although consciousness depends on the autopoietic closure of a living organism. Therefore, a sign system is a type of ‘attention equipment’;Footnote 15 in social systems, it is used to distract people’s attention from everyday life and to focus their attention on a still uncertain situation that eventually requires a structural change (when fire alarm is belling, teachers cannot go on teaching as if nothing had happened). Although these structural changes usually are provisional, alarmism is an almost permanent hallmark of modern society.
Here again we address a temporal issue. A warning signal should be given neither too late nor too early. In the former case, there would not be time enough to react to the signalized threat. In the latter case, the warning signal could spread unnecessary panic, or change danger circumstances so that, eventually, signalling itself proves inefficient [39, 43, 44].
The difference between alarm and alarmism does not solve the problem; it simply defines it. If we investigate the criteria that control the difference between alarm and alarmism in the moment-in-being, we address the undecidability of decisional situations again. The true question rather is on what is based the credibility of a warning signal. As any structural coupling, also warning signals imply the simultaneity of system and environment. The paradoxical effect is that the efficiency of signals depends on the impossibility of verifying their efficiency, as Lars Clausen and Wolf Dombrowsky clearly proved. Also, we should remind that warning against risks implies the risk of warning. As the lacking of warning signals makes it impossible to react to threats by means of prompt remedies, so the excess of alarm can produce a tailing-off of attention (as those who live on the volcano slopes know very well), or the loss of credibility of the signal itself (the ‘crying wolf’ mechanism). In addition, there is the well-known danger of self-fulfilling prophecies: warning triggers the catastrophe which one would avoid simply because it has been communicated ( Ch. 13).