Positive Feedback
when extreme adds to extreme...
Feedback is the message, from a sensor of a system to the controller of the system, of the difference between expectation and performance.
Negative feedback in a system attenuates. Positive feedback amplifies. Positive feedback, out of balance with negative feedback, leads to instability in a system; unchecked, it leads to increasing oscillation and, ultimately, breakdown due to exceeding the limits of the system.
Feedback in mechanical systems is relatively straight forward; even so, we are now building systems of such complexity and scale that providing adequate feedback is a serious design issue. In very complex and adaptive systems like a society, the issue of feedback is far more complex than with the physical tools and systems we build. This is what Norbet Weiner, the father of Cybernetics, called ”feedback of a complex kind.”
In complex systems, just what is feedback is not easy to understand and how to act on it is not always clear or determined by a single rule. A very complex system (VCS) does not has a single controller. It has multiple controllers with multiple feedback loops on multiple levels of recursion. These various feedback loops learn, evolve and often compete with one another. This is a feature. Systems built this way can get wildly out of balance and still find a path back to stability. Indeed, going to the edge of non-stability is a strategy by which a VCS, and in particular living and social systems, brings themselves to transformation and evolution. Creating initial instability is an essential function of the creative process. Creative people do it habitually. They also know how to use feedback to regain stability.
Our society has just exited the decade of the 90s which by any measure was characterized by multiple positive feedback loops. Many if not most of these out-of-balance messages are still in place. In recent months, we have seen a contested election, Enron et. al., a stalling economy, 9-11, the war on terrorism, the gulf crisis, weapons proliferation and many other signals related to energy waste, state economies in crises, educational breakdown and drug abuse. We are outstanding among the so called developed nations in the percentage of our citizens who are in jail, the preventable deaths in our hospitals and the general health of our citizens. Are we paying attention to these signals? Will they function, in our system, as negative feedback? What do they mean as a system response? In the late 80s, there was a great social shift at the end of the Cold war. It seemed that few noticed the implications of so sudden and peaceful end to a conflict that had lasted nearly a half a century. By ther mid 90s the “new economy” took off - a study in excess if there ever was one.
It has been pointed out that, periodically, there is a large scale engineering catastrophe because, in a generation or so of successes, engineers tend to forget the past, “believe the numbers” and move towards cutting what come to be considered conservative safety factors; good engineering focuses on what can go wrong and systematically taking those risks out of the system. Poor engineering thinks that 10, or even a hundred, successes in a row means that we understand what we are doing and we can afford to cut the safety margins and function routinely.
Gail and I facilitated at the World Economic Forum in 2001 and 2002. The difference between these two experiences and the implications of what had happened in the year between them were staggering. Yet, the attention was on the specific incidents: a contested election, 9-11, the emergence of corporate scandal, the strong signs of a rapidly failing economy. The majority wanted to fix these things, almost no one wanted to discuss the system-ness of one of the most remarkable social reversals in recent times and what may be the drivers of this. A year later (January 2003) questions that challenge the fundamental structure of our society and how we may have brought down our own house of cards are still being ignored, and in some cases, actively repressed.
And, the Roman Circus goes on. The distractions continue to build. Attention Deficiency, in the US, is becoming a national characteristic.
There is much about our society that is accelerating already excessive trends. Excessiveness-on-excessiveness. Extreme adding to extreme. Look at our media, political “debate,” consumerism, economic swings; add your own list. The same pattern can be seen embedded in all of it.
Matt Taylor
February 1, 2003

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posted: February 1, 2003

revised: February 2, 2003
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Copyright© Matt Taylor 2003

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