Definition of Feedback and Feedforward

What is Feedback?

Life is cyclical — patterns repeat. Networks of relation dominant components are held together in patterns. In each repetition they are constructed anew. And in each instance, there is variation and difference. 

Positive and negative feedback are key to this stability or change — negative feedback stabilizes a cycle and positive feedback pushes the cycle out of its state towards and potentially across thresholds.

Both are always active. 

Stability is anything but stable or singular — it is highly dynamic with most patterns able to cycle through many distinct stable states.

New states and stabilities can (and are) invented, explored, and stabilized continuously— some deliberately and some spontaneously. Loops are also pushed too far by positive feedback and breakdown completely (to be folded into other vastly different networks).

Feedback is multi-modal and multi-scalar. What is material feeds into what is conceptual feeds in habits feeds into other species feeds into policies… 

There are loops everywhere interacting in a non-linear causal manners— much to the consternation of those desiring neat mono-causal and reductionist explanations. 

Positive and negative feedback are critical to the invention and stabilization of the new.

What is Feedforward?

But to understand creative processes another concept is needed: Feedforward.

Outside of any cycle there will be elements that play a significant role in determining the system, but are themselves unchanged by the system — these are called feedforward elements. 

A good example of this is historical climate change — the last ice age. 

Diagram of the feedforward process

Why Does Feedback and Feedforward Matter to Creativity?

“In certain circumstances, feedback cycles can generate a [novel] element that can come to stand outside them with emergent organized dynamics of its own. These can function as if they were controlling, feedforward elements, altering and determining the system from which they arose with little change to themselves.” (Tomlinson)

A new practice (with a tightly integrated relation dominant network of tools, environments, concepts, habits, embodiments, etc) can emerge from evolving feedback cycles that is “so integrated, autonomous, and durable that it comes to exert a control-like function over the cultural cycles from which it arose” (Tomlinson)

Tomlinson calls this form of feedforward a novel cultural epicycle and points to practices like stone tool production practices as an example. 

His contention is that production of novelty in the human realm that is qualitatively different is always a form of quasi-feedforward. It is always a type of epicycle.

Joining feedback to emergence to feedforward to epicycles is very helpful in giving us new tools, practices and concepts to engage with creative processes.

See: Tomlinson in the bibliography

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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