Is This The Most Important Mental Model There Is?


Thursday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There is no failure. Only feedback. – Robert Allen

I was driving along today when I found, rather to my surprise, that I was having an intense argument with myself.

Or, in any case, I was rehearsing one – for something that had been on the news a few days ago.

It turns out that there are species of insects going extinct at an alarming rate.

We don’t really think of insects that often – although we know they are important – more important than we are, in any case.

Someone said that if all the insects in the world died out, humanity would be gone soon after.

If, on the other hand, humanity died out, life on the planet would thrive.

Anyway, some chap on the radio said that throughout history species have died – that’s just normal and we should all stop making a fuss about these pesky insects.

At the time I paid no attention – but then today I realised that I had two reactions to that opinion – an emotional one and a rational one – that emerged while I argued with myself.

The emotional reaction was “That’s an incredibly stupid point of view.”

The rational reaction was, also, “That’s an incredibly stupid point of view.”

And it’s stupid for one simple and obvious reason.

Most species, when they go extinct, don’t have a say in the matter.

They die because their environment changes – land turns to desert, ice covers grass or an inconvenient meteor blocks out the sun for a year.

We’re different.

We know what’s going on.

And that makes a laissez faire attitude – one that simply stands by and says that’s just normal stupid.

It’s just as stupid as driving towards a tree and choosing not to stop.

Now, the point of this post isn’t to argue an environmental point.

You either already agree that people have a different level of responsibility for the planet we live on than the animals and other life forms that share it with us or you’re wrong.

It’s to ask whether the engineering model of feedback is the most important one there is.

Wherever you look inputs are transformed into outputs by a process.

Sand turns into glass, guesses turn into experiments and arguments turn into wrecked relationships.

Feedback takes place when the output from the process is fed back to modify the input so that the new output is closer to what we want it to be.

So, for example, you might create a new business because you think it’s a good idea.

It’s the actual sales numbers that, when fed back to you, will tell you whether you’re likely to succeed or fail.

Anything not based on the output is guesswork, opinion or wishful thinking.

So why don’t we use feedback – the real kind of feedback – that often?

One reason is that it’s hard to collect the data.

It’s much easier to hope that you’ll do well than take the trouble to interview a hundred potential customers to find out what they’re doing right now and the kind of jobs they need doing and seeing if what you have will do those jobs.

It’s also hard to remember to do things.

Like turning off the lights or setting the heating lower.

If you need to manually collect data and manually make changes you won’t do it for very long.

That’s where perhaps the best hope for humanity lies with machines that can manage vital feedback loops for us.

Like intelligent building control systems that monitor who is in the building and change temperatures as needed – like Nest does at home.

The harsh truth is that if we rely on humans to save insects that’s probably not going to happen.

We need to get the machines involved.

Machines and the control engineers who understand that feedback is everything.


Karthik Suresh

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