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Our Recursive World

November 11, 2018

I’ve come to think of almost everything as explainable by some sort of feedback loop.

Consider wealth and poverty. For the poor, everyday troubles (car problems, illness) can trigger cascading financial consequences, where your inability to pay an immediate bill forces you to accept a high-interest loan, or perhaps to give up a job that’s impractical without that car. Living paycheck to paycheck, you can’t explore other careers; you can’t afford to pass on so-so opportunities in favor of better ones; you can’t budget for the future. These challenges form a headwind that can make it almost impossible to hold your ground, let alone save for a rainy day. (Homelessness seems to represent a sort of event horizon beyond which difficulties increase so steeply that turning things around can become impossible.)

For the wealthy, on the other hand, money is a tailwind. Without debt, you have plenty of extra savings to invest, and enough liquidity that you’ll never need to sell in a downturn. You pay low interest rates across multiple lines of credit. You put your children through college and pass along your head start in life.

It’s as if the wealthy and the poor are separated by some centrifugal force, pushing them ever apart. Compounding interest isn’t just a mathematical phenomenon; it’s a metaphor for the general role of feedback loops.

Or consider reading. Much interesting writing forms a sort of conversation with the writing of others—philosophical ideas defined in contrast with one another, etc. (And, as Borges notes, great writers create their precursors by expressing an idea or theme so powerfully that it resonates—becomes visible—in the work of others who would otherwise have little in common. Even writing that does not overtly engage a given book can nevertheless enrich it.) That means reading creates a feedback loop where every book you read helps you get a little more out of the one you read next.

Even thought works like this: the ideas you contemplate now set the stage for the ideas you’ll develop in the future. (Consider the recursive strangeness of “mind-expanding ideas”—objects within consciousness that modify consciousness.)

Or, in another domain, look at the shockingly wide range of outcomes in human goodness. How can murderers and saints belong to the same species? Their nature is the same; how can their nurture possibly differ enough to explain the space between them? It seems possible only in the exponential world of feedback loops, where actions and outcomes compound over a lifetime.

The phenomenon is also at work in day-to-day life:

  • You start exercising and it’s a chore. You do it more and it becomes something of a pleasure. Then the feedback loop kicks in: you start winning competitions or beating PRs, and your success makes you want to do nothing but train.
  • You resolve to become a better cook; the first few recipes are pure frustration. As you discover more new dishes and techniques, cooking becomes easier and more rewarding; soon you’d rather cook than eat at almost any restaurant.
  • You start to learn a new language. At first, almost everything is impenetrable. Then you pass a threshold (the loop kicks in) and you understand enough to read real books and carry on conversations, exposing yourself to an exponentially steeper rate of learning.

We’ve all heard about the importance of habits. I’ve come to believe that the real reason habits work is that they buy enough time for feedback loops to take effect. Not all loops are under your control (again consider poverty), but if you’re trying to change some part of the world, try looking for an underlying feedback loop to interrupt or encourage.