Is Feedback Good For You?


Saturday, 6.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A decent man who doesn’t consider himself a bigot can indeed be trained to behave like a bigot if he welcomes feedback exclusively from those who consider bigotry no big deal or, indeed, an attribute to be admired. – Adam-Troy Castro

I’ve been thinking about research and learning for a few posts now and I’m starting to wonder if a few things I’ve been told are actually all they seem.

For example, take the idea of thinking in systems. The essential concept here is that we start thinking in terms of parts and wholes and the relationships between the parts, and the emergent nature of the whole that comes from the interactions of these parts. Russell Ackoff presented an approach to this, describing four systems that came from this model, as shown in the table below.


In this approach what’s important is whether the part or the whole has choice – whether it can decide to do one thing or the other. So a clock, for example, is a machine made up of parts. But the gears of the clock and the clock as a whole does not display any indication of wanting to do something else – there is no choice involved anywhere. An animal, on the other hand, from an amoeba to a human makes choices as a whole – where to go, what to do, even if that choice is simply to move towards a source of food. The part of that animal, like the heart and lungs of a human, don’t have any choice – they just do what they do. Then you have a social system where choices are made by individuals and choices are made by societies as a whole. And then finally you have systems where the parts have choice – like animals and humans – but the whole doesn’t – because it’s the ecology or environment.

We’ll come back to this in a second but the next model that I looked at was about Cybernetics, which is the study of control and communications. In essence, Cybernetics is about steering your way to where you want to go. In the image above you start with where you are and figure out where you want to get to. There is a direct route from start to finish – but in reality what happens is that you set off and then check if you’re on course and if you’re not you correct your course. Often this results in an over-correction and you go the other way and so you check again and in this way keep getting feedback and correcting until you get to the destination. Makes sense, right?

The third thing I wrote about was models of gods. The two approaches I described were god as the creator and god as everything – a Western and an Eastern approach in simple terms.

Now, I’m questioning the wisdom of accepting any of these theories. Take the first one, about the systems model. Although you can talk about systems that have no choice when it comes to the part or the whole, such systems do not self-assemble themselves in the absence of input from a creator. You don’t take a walk and find clocks embedded in the sides of hills. A mechanistic system cannot exist without a creator, whether that creator is a human building a clock or a beaver making a dam. And if it does assemble by accident then if there isn’t someone around to notice does it make any difference? In essence, the first element of the division, while logical, cannot exist without consciousness. In fact, all those four systems have something in common – human consciousness to notice their existence. This may be relevant in a bit.

Now, the Cybernetic idea that you can steer your way from a start to a finish assumes that you know where you are and you also know where you want to be. Neither one of these is assured, in my experience. Quick, take an inventory of your assets, experience and capabilities? Do you think you know exactly where you are or are you still figuring out your strengths and weaknesses? And what happens if you do everything to get to where you want to get to – will that make you happy? And why are so many successful people apparently not entirely content? What if you live your life trying to be what you think you should be – steering your life on the right path. But if you didn’t have that feedback, perhaps you could have gone somewhere else? What if you’d followed your interests rather than looking around and seeing what else was out there or what someone else thought would be a good thing to do? You’ll never know now, will you?

The Gods argument came from Ackoff as well, the idea that a deterministic universe must have a creator – if the world is a machine someone must have built it. But if it isn’t a machine then actually what that tells us is not that God is everywhere but that we don’t need a God to explain how things were created. Which brings us to Terry Pratchett and his third model of a God which I had forgotten. He argues that we create gods as we need them. If we’re tired or scared or lonely and we pile a few rocks up and light a little flame and it makes us feel better and we decide that a good spirit lives there and then others notice and add their offerings and little prayers and then a thousand years later that’s a sacred spot with a temple and monks and rituals – we’ve just ended up creating a another god. These gods are everywhere – all it takes to make one is a few people with a belief. And gods today encompass everything from two thousand year old avenging old men to the ones that live in the temples of agile programming. It all comes down to belief and gods don’t exist – they are created by humans. For a god to be, we have to want them to be.

What’s the takeaway here. Well, it’s something around the idea that what you believe in matters. And that means that every once in a while you should question everything you believe in.


Karthik Suresh

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