Everyone has a sense of what a feedback loop is. It’s what makes the awful screeching noising on a PA or other amplified sound system system. Among other things.
Today, feedback effects are often talked about in the context of global warming and we are broadly aware of positive and negative feedback effects: the former tend to amplify small changes or differences, while the latter tend to lessen changes or differences.
The feedback effect was first written about by Norbert Wiener and developed in its application to social settings by Gregory Bateson (in Steps to an Ecology of Mind) who compared the (competitive) positive feedback that leads to an arms race to the (modulating) negative feedback that exists in a sado-masochistic relationship, where both parties needs are met by the behaviour of the other. Bateson called the former symmetrical relationships and the latter complementary relationships.
[Incidentally, and in the process, Bateson makes a fascinating, but probably spurious, observation about Balinese culture. He says that Balinese drama and music are characterised by an almost complete absence of climaxes and that Balinese daily life has mechanisms for resolving disagreements which mean that they almost never become fights or civil disputes. So far, so good. His explanation lies in the way that children are brought up in Bali:
" Typically, the mother will start a small flirtation with the child, pulling its penis or otherwise stimulating it to interpersonal activity. This will excite the child, and for a few moments cumulative interaction will occur. Then just as the child, approaching some small climax, flings its arms around the mother’s neck, her attention wanders. At this point the child will typically start an alternative cumulative interaction, building up toward temper tantrum. The mother will either play a spectator’s role, enjoying the child’s tantrum, or, if the child actually attacks her, will brush off his attack with no show of anger on her part. These sequences can be seen either as an expression of the mother’s distaste for this type of personal involvement or as context in which the child acquires a deep distrust of such involvement. The perhaps basically human tendency towards cumulative personal interaction is thus muted. It is possible that some sort of continuing plateau of intensity is substituted for climax as the child becomes more fully adjusted to Balinese life. This cannot at present be clearly documented for sexual relations, but there are indications that a plateau type of sequence is characteristic for trance and for quarrels."
Gregory Bateson: Steps to An Ecology of Mind
Jack Harich has developed this approach to show how feedback loops work in politics. Specifically, he explains why it is that politicians and the global political-economic system have failed to address ‘the environmental problem’ for the last 30 years (and particularly since the Rio Convention of 1992).
Harich says that there are two races: to the bottom and to the top. The race to the bottom is characterised by the use of falsehood and favouritism. (Harich calls these two, together, ‘corruption’.) When this strategy prevails, politicians make false and/or unfeasible promises, they play on fear and create scapegoats (terrorism, communism, liberalism, etc.), they campaign using half-truths and generalities and they rely on support that is bought or rewarded with political favours. In the race to the top, politicians will, by contrast, confront the truth and the harsh realities of any situation, they will make honest assessments of their motivations and their ability to achieve change, they will make realistic undertakings and they will appoint the best people for the job regardless of what favours they may owe.
Now these two models are not particularly new. For a long time, commentators have deplored the race to the bottom and the role that the mass media play in that race. Again and again, we have seen politicians apparently setting out on a race to the top (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair come quickly to mind) but getting diverted or diverting to a strategy that more often uses falsehood and favouritism.
What is important to notice is that both strategies are feedback loops. In the case of falsehood, the race to the bottom depends on those falsehoods being spread about widely, being taken up and becoming accepted. The theory talks of these falsehoods as memes and suggests that the population becomes ‘infected’ with them. As more people are infected, the falsehoods gain more credibility and they are spread more widely. The weight of opinion gradually shifts. The role of the media is central here.
Of course, political leaders themselves are implicated in this loop. It is probably rare for ‘race to the top’ politicians to wake up one day and choose deliberately to race to the bottom instead. It’s more likely that, under pressure, on the defensive and advised by pragmatic ‘courtiers’, they will resort to a white lie here or there. The support of a key player may be bought on one occasion ‘for the greater good’ and so on. The demands of the ‘powerplace’ invite politicians to compromise and realpolitik offers seductive and effective ways for politicians to get the job done. If the politicians are buoyed up by a wave of popular support, we – their supporters – will also be caught up in the loop. We will look the other way and refuse to acknowledge what is happening until gradually, repulsed by what is going on, we become part of a new feedback loop characterised by disillusion and disenchantment and we seek a new political leader on whom to bestow our faith.
We’ve been talking here about politics, but Systems Thinking tells us that the principles underlying the operation of one sociosystem will be pretty much like those underpinning another. So we can look to organisations and expect to find something similar happening. And, sure enough, we can recognise – beside those who clearly set out on the path of corruption – that many organisational leaders drift into the race to the bottom, espousing falsehood and favouritism and relying more on packaging, presentation and PR than on lived values and ‘walking the talk’.
And what is true of organisational leaders is also true of the organisations themselves and the culture espoused by staff or members of the organisation. (Perhaps it was a tacit recognition of this fact that led Google to adopt the disingenuously simplistic ‘Don’t be evil’ motto. And perhaps it is a tacit recognition of the same fact by the media that results in commentators hovering round the Googleplex like vultures, determined to show that Google’s policies on scanning the world’s books or storing and using customer data are in breach of that same motto.)
Russell Ackoff, et al.: Systems Thinking for Curious Managers
Russell Ackoff et al. - Systems Thinking for Curious Managers
Gregory Bateson - Steps to an Ecology of Mind
Jack Harich - The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace
Norbert Wiener - Cybernetics