Discover more from Subconscious
Effort is evidence of broken feedback loops
Humans think linear. You reap what you sow. No free lunch. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. A penny saved is a penny earned. You get what you pay for.
But linearity is rare in nature. Our world is made up of complex tangles of feedback loops—ecology, biology, societies, economies. Feedback loops are nonlinear.
Feedback rules everything around me
Really, there is no such thing as linearity in living systems. Anything that looks linear is the result of complex networks of opposing feedback loops. This feedback comes in two flavors:
Reinforcing feedback generates exponentials—exponential growth or collapse, runaway change. In a reinforcing loop, the results of the previous state feed into the next, creating a snowball effect.
Compound interest: more money makes more money.
Population growth: more people make more people.
Melting ice caps: less ice means less sunlight reflected means more warming means less ice.
Balancing feedback generates equilibrium—self-correcting, self-stabilizing change. In a balancing loop, the loop responds to change by pushing back, resulting in oscillations toward an equilibrium state. Biology and ecology are full of balancing loops. Nature is self-healing.
Sweat: more sweat makes less heat makes less sweat.
Hunger: more hunger means more eating means less hunger.
Inventory: more inventory orders mean less inventory shortage means less inventory orders.
These two loop types work together to produce a dynamic equilibrium. Whenever we see something linear in nature, what we’re actually seeing is an evolving balance between reinforcing and balancing feedback.
For example, more foxes mean less rabbits (balancing feedback), but too much predation will cause the rabbit population to collapse (reinforcing loop), causing the fox population to collapse (reinforcing loop), allowing rabbit population to surge (reinforcing loop).
Or as explained in Adventure Time:
To a casual observer, the ratio of foxes to rabbits might appear stable, but this balance is dynamic and adaptive. When the environment changes, it changes.
This makes dynamic systems extremely resilient. It also means we can fool ourselves about their apparent linearity. Knock out a few balancing loops, and you might find yourself spiraling out of a linear world into an exponential catastrophe.
There is great power in the making and breaking of loops.
Effort is evidence of broken feedback
Every tool is a feedback system between you and your environment. That includes our tools for thought. This suggests three different relationships we might have with our tools for thought: broken, balancing, reinforcing.
Broken feedback: linear efforts yield linear returns
Balancing feedback: linear efforts yield convergence
Reinforcing feedback: linear efforts yield exponential returns
Most note-taking apps have broken feedback. Step one, you write a note, step two… there is no step two! You cast your note into the abyss of Apple Notes. It will never return to you, unless you go back and deliberately look for it (effort).
The result is blank page anxiety, creative block. You have to expend effort. This is the feeling of broken feedback.
Most of us try to overcome broken feedback through sheer force of will. I know people who sit down every Saturday and triage their notes from the week, manually closing the loop, like Spider Man holding that boat together.
But applying linear effort to a superlinear force is a losing battle. Most of us aren’t superheroes. Our strength will eventually be exhausted.
There is a better way: design your feedback loops. There are already, today, some tools for thought that construct useful feedback systems.
Anki uses balancing feedback to generate memorization. Anki is an app for reviewing flashcards. When you succeed, that flashcard is shown less often. When you fail, the flashcard is shown more often. The result is that you converge toward memorizing the cards.
Zettelkasten uses reinforcing feedback to generate ideas.
The core game mechanic of Zettelkasten is to file your note some place where you would want to stumble over it again. As you rifle through old notes to find this place, you recurse over notes you had forgotten about, sparking new ideas, which you then write down, and have to file, causing you to rifle through again, sparking more ideas… in a cascade of idea generation. Zettelkasten is a feedback system.
(Subconscious, 2021. Knowledge gardening is recursive.)
Of course feedback can also work against you. A misaligned balancing loop might mean your linear effort produces no return at all. A misaligned reinforcing loop will overwhelm your efforts and may even manipulate you!
Social media, for example, constructs reinforcing loops around engagement. The reinforcing feedback loops of likes, reacts, retweets, and algorithmic feeds act like gain-of-function research for viral memes.
I suspect this kind of viral procreation favors small ideas with low information payloads and high contagiousness. Why? The same reason Goldberg’s Building Block Hypothesis selects for short genes. The more compact the meme, the easier to copy. The higher the contagiousness, the more often repeated. R-selected information organisms.
This does seem to be what we see proliferating on social media. Exploitables, snowclones, #relatable content, hot takes, thirst traps, flamebait fishing for dunks, all under ruthless selection pressure to enhance virality.
(Subconscious, 2022. Complex ideas procreate through citation)
Agency is stored in the loops
Agency is not a function of effort or willpower, but a function of the feedback loops you garden around you.
What are the feedback loops around me? What do they generate? What do they converge toward? Do they share my goals? Are my goals my goals, or the goals of the feedback loop? How might I construct my feedback loops to generate agency?
Ask what you want out of your feedback loops and build them accordingly.
Elsewhere in the Noosphere… I recently had the opportunity to join two podcasts.
GreenPill: A Protocol for thinking together Kevin Owocki reached out about my article Thinking Together. I told him we had to get Michael Garfield, host of the SFI podcast to join. We have a wide-ranging discussion about social complexity, sensemaking, and how we can scale our civilizational CPUs.
Lux: The p-zombie theory of consciousness. I join Sam Arbesman and Danny Chrichton to riff on LLMs, philosophical zombies, and Peter Watts’ hard sci-fi cosmic horror masterpiece, Blindsight. Spoiler warning: we delve into the book’s big ideas, so if you haven’t read it, don’t click!