Taking Control of Your Information Loop

Listen to Kate read: Taking Control of Your Information Loop

Where we learn that effective feedback
travels in two directions.

Come along with me on this short explorational journey of mathematical loops which will include a very quick drive-by of Control Theory. As I let the engine warm up, I’ll familiarize you with your surroundings.

I’m pretty certain you know what a loop looks like.

In the gorgeous world of mathematics, this is described as being a closed curve whose starting and ending points ever-so-slightly overlap at a fixed point that is known as the basepoint. Interestingly, this definition also means that a basic knot can be defined as a loop. 🧐

A circle, though, a circle is not a loop. A circle is a curved line that, on its own, has no defined beginning nor end to it. A loop, on the other hand, besides having a definitive start point and end point, it also has its basepoint, that meet-up place where each of the ends of that curve don’t merely come together as they form their closure, but they’re ever-so-slightly overlapping as they meet.

In the physical world, you see loops all the time: a lasso loop, a button loop closure on a sweater, a freeway loop – which, incidentally, a freeway is not the same as a beltway (cuz, well, the shape of a belt is circular ◯ ). Freeway loops are those highway exits that connect one major freeway to another and – aerially – they look more like the leaves of a clover, where one freeway crosses above the other.

Now that our engine is sufficiently warmed up, let’s journey into the non-physical realm ✨ and you’ll recognize how there’s a ton of loops here, too, – loops that are conduits for the transfer of information IRL between you and me and them as we communicate with each other, both analog and digital. These are feedback loops.

I really like mathematician Norbert Wiener’s all encompassing – and quite empowering – definition of the word, feedback:

The property of being able to adjust future conduct by performance.

from “The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society” by Norbert Wiener (pg. 33)

We’re all familiar with feedback loops, those paths pinging information back and forth where the input is affecting the output. But here, as we continue on this journey together, I’d like to direct you to look out your window as we pass Feedback Loop Airfield so that I may point out the most important part of a feedback loop (as drawn by meeeee, cuz I just took an obscene amount of time looking online – and not finding – the most basic illustration of a loop).

On a feedback loop, the takeoff and landing points for its information path are at the same location and – of course – you can see that those paths are not merely meeting up and closing this curved line cuz then this would be a circle, right? (Right.)

These staggered info takeoffs and landings really highlight the in-the-moment purpose of any feedback process. This input/output real-time exchange of info can affirm – and maybe even amplify – the direction of a joint process, or it could offer feedback that’d assist in iterating a joint process. I see those tail-ends of the loop – that are still within the basepoint, they’re still on the airfield but it’s like the taxi’ing runways, where you’re getting up to speed or decelerating.

That overlap moment is such a great visual to embrace for creators, makers, engineers, and anyone else who is building something with others. It’s an opportunity that I’ve seen out there IRL be passively misused or not taken at all. Active feedback is what gets the airplane airborne, whereas passive feedback sucks the wind out of any creator’s sails because it’s in the specifics where the gusty wind (in my sails and the wind beneath those planes’ wings, y’all) inputs are given the impactful information.

Very quickly, in a blink-or-you’ll miss it moment, I wanna skirt by the edge of where you will find reinforcing feedback loops. You can see that their flow of feedback only goes in one direction, which of course means that this misnamed ‘loop’ is not actually a loop, it’s a circle.

While reinforcing feedback circles 😉 tend to effect their self-growth exponentially, I actually detoured into this neighborhood for a specific reason; this is also where balancing loops reside.

Reinforcing feedback loops accelerate change; balancing loops stabilize… Interventions, whether intentional or not, can introduce balancing feedback loops, which slow down a process and promote stability.

“Sustainability through Soccer: An Unexpected Approach To Saving Our World”
by Leidy Klotz 
(pg. 38-39)

Balancing loops are indeed true loops because they employ that active process of information that is flowing in more than one direction. What makes a balancing loop, though, is that the input interrupts one of those info flows. The lovely thing with balancing loops is that they offer that pause at the input/output basepoint which I wholeheartedly believe assists in its job of modulating the activity that is going on.

Balancing feedback loops are equilibrating or goal-seeking structures in systems and are both sources of stability and sources of resistance to change.

“Thinking In Systems: A Primer” by Donella H. Meadows
(pg. 30)

I’m in the middle of some travel right now in parallel with being in the middle of researching & writing. I’m finding this to be the epitome of a meta/ snake eating its own tail kind of experience given that I have revised this very essay multiple upon multiple times, what with all the feedback loops I find myself noticing and then slip-streaming into (for a few rounds of input/output). Airports, relatives, cat-sitters, changing weather conditions, and one new suitcase that is on its own maiden voyage of new pocket placements and schmancy spinner wheels, I’m feeling lasso’d by all these loops. They’re everywhere in everything.

Loops recirculate signals and resources (as when trees absorb water from the ground, which then evaporates from the leaves and ultimately returns to the ground through rainfall)…

“Complexity: A Very Short Introduction” by John H. Holland
(pg. 39)

Our journey is now gonna loop us back towards our starting point, taking us past what government-looking building, with the words Control Theory stenciled above the door. This is a branch of applied mathematics that is all about the analysis and synthesis of all types of feedback systems.

(In Control Theory) feedback refers to a situation where the output of a dynamical system is connected to its input. For example, a feedback loop is created if room temperature in a building is measured and used to control the heating. Feedback is ubiquitous in nature as well as in engineering. Our body uses feedback to control body temperature, glucose levels, blood pressure, and countless other quantities.

The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics
(pg .523)

Obvs, I’ve harped a bit about that all-important pause-in-the-action at the basepoint of a loop, right there at that overlap. It’s where decisions are made and then propagated, admittedly sometimes to the point of nauseability, as in when you can always rely on that one person to give a long soliloquy with little to no point, but they love to hear their own voice so 😐. Here’s how active & intentional feedback can be so important — especially in hierarchical contexts:

“Here’s something I’ve picked up from one of the leaders we studied at LifeLabs: Any time she would get critical feedback from someone on her team, she would — with permission — advertise it broadly,” says Luna. “It can be as simple as passing it along to others in conversations. Saying things like ‘I’ve gotten feedback that I interrupt people. Would you please keep an eye on that? And if you notice it, please let me know. That’s something I’m really eager to be aware of.’

“The Manager’s Guide to Inclusive Leadership” from First Round Review

We’re just a block or so from the basepoint, where we began this journey, and I’m now gonna ask you to roll up your windows and I’ll hit the recirculate button on the air controls because up ahead there’s something that is, potentially, a bit stinky. You know how I said that, by definition, a knot is a loop? Now think about that being a knot in a string or a knot on a necklace chain (which is The Worst) and that string/chain is also a representation of a feedback loop. Ooof.

That information path is a’tumblin’ over on itself, the messaging overlap is so tight, creating frustration because there’s no space to breathe and get a good perspective on the input or output journey in either direction. The time allowance on this loop is completely truncated; you barely have enough time to think let alone react. And though the fixed point surely exists, it’s just about impossible to see it when the information arrives and, well, sorry about the stink.

We’ve now looped back to our basepoint. Like I said earlier, the amount of feedback loops that I’ve been inputing & outputting information on during my travels and that have coincided with writing this essay has seemed to be around every corner that I take. My greatest takeaway from all this alley-oop of many a loop has been going back to the definition from Wiener of the word feedback and realizing that the control that I can always own in any looping experience is that – once I take that moment to pause – I always get to choose what my output will be in response to any input I receive, never forgetting that my reaction now directly contributes to the design of the future.

Thanks math, you’re the best.

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