Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 51! Processes - The Astonishment of Feedback...
Good Morning open entangled processes one and all. This week we are just jumping straight into things:
It is week four of our focus on process — so let’s get going!
If you are new to the newsletter, or want to review things, here are the three previous newsletter on process:
So where do we go from there?
If everything is process, it could be easy to imagine that it is all one giant messy flow of nearly undifferentiated ever changing ‘stuff’.
You know that famous retort to the early greek philosopher Heraclitus who said “you cannot step in the same river twice”
“Well, you cannot step into the same river once!”
With a concept like “it’s all process — everything flows” — it is easy to imagine process as continuous, relentless undifferentiated flows.
But things are not that way. Sure we live in a very dynamic world but things are for the most part ‘reasonably’ stable. Most of us can be assured that when we wake up tomorrow the world will be familiar.
The processes that make up our lives from our bodies to our houses don’t just flow away into a great ocean of undifferentiated flowing.
The key question is why and how do processes cohere? Which is to say why do they repeat and sustain themselves as a process? Why don’t they just coalesce into a coherent form for a brief moment and then dissolve never to repeat again?
While it is true, as Heraclitus points out nothing repeats exactly the same — it is always repetition and difference — it is an astonishing thing that we live in a world where things repeat.
Given everything, we are not astonished enough by this reality.
When we talk about things repeating we are focusing on roughly cyclical processes — they repeat as a cycle of roughly the similar pattern. These patterns are processes where many things come together in an intra-connected network or assemblage to enact some outcome (this is what our previous three newsletters delved into).
The question is, what holds things together so they repeat?
The historical Western answer has been to see almost all processes as discreet things that are regulated by some variation and combination of two things: (1) an outside force (such as an omnipotent god) regulates things (linear causality), and (2) things have internal governing essences. Still today these two logics cast their shadow in implicit ways across much of our common understanding of things: ie. minds govern bodies, DNA determines what something becomes, a leader is necessary for well run organizations, creativity is an idea, etc. This list could go on far too long! — which is part of the problem of why we, as a culture, have little astonishment for the fact that processes repeat.
Let’s jump ahead and give the contemporary answer to this question:
Processes are held together and repeat because they are bound in feedback relations.
In its simplest form it is a circular process where A causes B which causes A.
But, feedback is strange. It is the ability of things to condition themselves, things to self-regulate — processes to be self-governing.
It allows a process that would normally run down or exceed itself to stay stable without an outside controlling force or an internal determining essence.
Neither an outside god nor a fixed inner essence…
But how can a process — something without a ‘brain’ exert control & ‘self-regulate’? How can a ‘dumb’ machine like our thermometer turn itself off or on at the right time?
The circular nature of this form of causality is perplexing in a culture like ours that has been shaped by a linear top down command theology for millennia. In our historical models of causality we are always on a hunt for the some essential spark (idea) that causes something to be. Circular causality & its notion of process autonomy does not fit in this world.
Now the term is ubiquitous, & theorists such as Tomlinson can state, “we might justifiably call our time the age of feedback”.
But, it is still worth pausing to reflect on the utter strangeness & power of the concept and process. We can easily take it for granted in the way it has slipped into everyday language: “I would like some feedback on this proposal…” But this everyday usage does not do justice to the radical nature of this concept. Nor how long it took for the concept to be developed whatsoever.
As a concept it was only defined & understood quite late — at the end of the 19th century (which makes sense given our aforementioned western conceptual proclivities).
And what is equally interesting and quite telling is that in the world of making and doing — the non-theoretical world of those who worked, built and crafted the tools, actual human-made feedback systems go back at least as far as ancient Egypt. Where they were used to independently regulate water flow & went largely unremarked upon or even noticed by theorists.
In the halls of theory it is only in 1868 with James Maxwell’s paper “On Governors” that the beginnings of conceptualizing processes of self-regulation & change were first established. And they really came of age in the mid 20th century with the development of electronics.
The history of the development of the concept of feedback is a great example of how making is thinking and how ideas emerge from doing.
Parallel to these explorations in the world of engineering and even prior to them the concepts of feedback were being explored in other fields.
For us, perhaps richer development of feedback systems was happening in evolutionary theory beginning with Darwin without the use of the term (and his work was inspired by Malthus & his problematic feedback system (1789)). Fitness mechanisms are are environmental feedback loops.
Contemporary evolutionary theory, specifically the ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ pushes all of this much further and we enter a world where the classical clear distinctions of self and other disappear into extended process dynamics. Feedback becomes inter-species feedback (co-evolution), feedforward systems (how elements can evolve in system, gain semi autonomy and then have a determining effect on the system), and niche construction (where a creature shapes its environment and the environment then turns around and fundamentally shapes the creature).
An astonishing novel world (and one we will turn to next week).
Feedback is not one thing but rather two differing processes: there is stabilizing feedback and transforming feedback. Most often these are simply referred to as negative and positive feedback. But this way of expressing things can be confusing so we prefer to refer to them by what they do: stabilizing and transforming.
Feedback in general requires that a process have a way of sensing/monitoring itself. This can be quite simple and direct like in the classical household thermometer or far more complex like in the process of drinking coffee throughout the day to maintain a steady state of heightened alertness.
Sense-making is part of all but the very simplest of linear processes. Of course this form of sense-making can be quite minimal, but it is worth noting nonetheless that processes sense and via feedback they are active in their sensing.
Stabilizing Feedback is a self-maintaining process. As a system falls out of a desired state an action is triggered to return that system to the desired state. This is why it is often called negative feedback, because there is no change — things stay roughly the same. But it is not negative in the value sense of the word — it can be a very good thing if things stay the same. That our body temperatures stay within their narrow range is critical to us staying alive.
Transforming feedback is a self-reinforcing loop so as to enlarge or magnify whatever change is happening. It will push a system across a threshold either into a differing state or cause it to fall apart.
Coffee or wine — our two favorite drinks are great examples of both Stabilizing and Transforming Feedback:
When one feels tired — senses one's energy is low — one grabs some coffee and you feel more energetic. Sipping coffee during the day as one's energy dips will roughly maintain this state — we are utilizing a stabilizing feedback loop. But if we were to increase how much we drank — hoping for more of the great buzz that coffee gives after a few too many espressos our metabolism will transform, we will get jittery, start shaking and not be able to concentrate.
Similarly with wine, in moderation it produces a mildly euphoric state, but push it too far and we cross a threshold into a new state: drunkenness.
But it would be a mistake to conceptualize transforming feedback as always leading to negative outcomes. Crossing thresholds into differing stable states is what processes do. And crossing thresholds are critical to all innovation.
A second thing to note is that while human and personal examples like our coffee and wine example are helpful in understanding the process, feedback is everywhere and everywhere it is allowing processes to have both autonomy (stabilizing feedback) and agency (transforming and stabilizing feedback working in concert) without the need for an internal fixed essence or an external director.
This is what is so astonishing — we live in a world of processes that self create, self regulate and self transform in open and dynamic ways that are irreducible to linear cause, essence or source.
Emergent events like last week's example of flight are great examples of this. Flight as an event is self generating, stabilizing and transforming. Creativity and innovation are likewise similar events.
But to get to this level we have to understand that it is never one feedback operation — in complex processes there are multiple feedback loops occurring at multiple scales and across multiple scales all the while influencing each other.
Transforming and Stabilizing feedback are key to 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.
This week we will leaving things here. Take time this week to immerse yourself in sensing these loops. Let things stabilize and let things push you across thresholds. Sense thresholds, test out differing stable states and how the processes you are part of move into and out of them. Live the dynamics of stabilizing and transforming — that ebb and flow…
Next week will be our 52nd weekly issue of our newsletter — our one year anniversary! We will say more next week — but it has been an astonishing journey — thank you for being here with us!
And in our 52nd newsletter we will continue our exploratory journey into the world of process and go further into all things feedback (and feedforward).
Have an astonishing week!
Till Volume 52,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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