August 28, 2009 Ben Peters

Beth Noveck and The Purpose of Negative Feedback

At a recent Personal Democracy Forum, Beth Noveck, Deputy CTO in the Obama Administration, New York Law School prof, and the supremely smart former director of the ISP at Yale asked for thoughts on how web 2.0 tools, or anything else, could help political campaigners “not only get the message out but bring it back in,” and in the process to inform and speed political movements. Rasmus Nielsen, my peer in the Communications PhD program at Columbia University, replied that “closing the feedback loop” often creates so much internal discussion it derails real political momentum. He names as example the 2,000 job announcements posted by the Obama administration, which brought 350,000 job applications, a mountain to manage. The high costs of cheap communication, Rasmus astutely notes, go largely unaccounted for. The subtext I read here is that hardy dictum among Democrats: do more, talk less. (Ironic, then, that a dictum has to be said so often to be a dictum.) So do something, and watch the full (2:23) exchange here.

Both Beth and Rasmus mention “feedback loops,” an oft used term. Beth asks to bring information back in, closing the loop; Rasmus points out that often generates distracting noise within an organization. I think the term “feedback” has if not a solution then at least analytical clarity to add to the conversation.

What is feedback? Simply, things go out and then some come back. First, political campaigners put out a message, which eventually comes back in an altered form. Then, to become true feedback, the returned message needs to influence future messages. To state it generally: Feedback is a process whereby part of an output of a system becomes an input to that system with the purpose of influencing future output. Other languages help color the term: retroaction in French, Rueckkopplung (back-coupling) in German, obratnaya svyaz’ (return connection) in Russian, and retroalimentación (back feeding) in Spanish.

Consider two types of feedback: positive and negative (not open and closed). The terms positive and negative here refer to an arithmetic multiplier and carry none of the normative sense of when, say, a businessman speaks of receiving “positive feedback” from a client. A positive feedback system amplifies (cf. positive) the next round of output. As Norbert Wiener and two colleagues wrote in their famous six-page 1943 article “Behavior, Purpose, Teleology”: “the fraction of the sign of the signal that which reenters the object has the same sign as the original input signal. Positive feed-back adds to the input signals, it does not correct them.” Examples of positive feedback systems include avalanches, snow melting on black mountain soil, malignant cancer, viruses, the nuclear arms race, keeping up with the Joneses, supernovas, and narrative climax: all these behave like positive feedback loops. They build until they burn out. Negative feedback to do the opposite: they check their own growth, they self-regulate. Examples include warm-blooded animals, the proprioceptive balance of the inner ear, steam-engine boilers with release valves, automated thermostats, ecosystems, and, of course, the Madisonian democracy of checks and balances. (Historian and philosopheor of science Otto Mayr finds feedback loops at the heart of liberal systems in his Authority, Liberty, & Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe)

If Rasmus fears the positive feedback of a web 2.0-enabled conversation, Beth asks for a negative feedback loop when she requests something “manageable.” It’s a reasonable request: what could be more manageable than a self-managing conversation after all? So how does one build a negative feedback loop?

The “simple” key, my reading suggests, lies in building a conversation around a common purpose. In fact, according to the same 1943 article, all purposeful, goal-oriented behavior can be found in negative feedback systems. It stands to reason that if purpose is a higher order of negative feedback, then political conversation should be pursue purposes beyond conversation itself. If this seems almost self-evident, it should. Action-oriented groups already have change, not conversation, on the front burner.

Still, conversation framing remains an issue. Consider the difference between these an open-ended and a closed question: “what should we do about X?” and “submit proposals that analyze and address problem X by date Y. Selected proposals will be receive treatment Z.” Both questions propose to want answers to problem X but their purposes are very different. The first aims for conversation; the second, for solutions.

If change is the goal, build the question before you build the crowd. If conversation is the goal, best let the crowd build it for you.