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Human Societies as Feedback Systems


One of the most important insights I’ve picked up over the years is the concept of constructivism–the idea that all human knowledge is generated from the interactions between our experiences and ideas which we’ve previously absorbed. Our current understanding is that all knowledge is built in this way, by taking basic concepts learned during early development and gradually building upon them into more complex thoughts and ideas. This also has the (sometimes uncomfortable) implication that all human knowledge is subjective: everything we know is derived from experience, therefore everything we know is also subjective.

How does this apply to human societies, then?

Each individual’s personal concept of reality–let’s call it a “worldview,” for easier reference–is not created in isolation, but is constructed out of what the individual has learned. What has been learned reflects not an objective reality, but a socially-constructed reality presented by other humans. We first learn from our parents, from interactions guided by our parents (as well as free play), and from other family members, friends, teachers and mentors, and so on. Each of these individuals brings their own version of reality, which may slightly or dramatically differ from one person to the next. Each influences the reality you construct for yourself, so the worldview you end up with is a synthesis of the worldviews of others as filtered through your own personality and experiences.

These interactions are not unidirectional. Especially as you get older and begin to exercise more agency for yourself, actions that express your worldview have the capacity to influence others. Since your worldview is itself a combination of what is learned from others along with personal experience, what I have described is a feedback system. Inputs and outputs flow in both directions. Memes, for instance, function in exactly this manner. Though a meme may originate with a single person, the meme itself is inevitably an outgrowth of the social context surrounding its creator. As it propagates, it influences those it reaches, who may in turn alter the meme or interpret it differently. It’s like an endless game of telephone, in which the message changes from person to person but may yet carry traces of its original conception. The most successful memes insinuate themselves into the socially-constructed reality, such that they are difficult if not impossible to escape.

To work with an example, racism has proven to be a particularly resilient construct. The persistence of racism, particularly in the US, has been ascribed to some “natural” human tendency to stick with people who look similar to ourselves, and shun those who don’t. While there may be a grain of truth to this, the intensity and extent of racism goes well beyond any innate human tendency toward self-preservation. Indeed, race as conceived in modern times is a rather recent invention. There are many ideas bound up in (specifically) anti-black racism, which have proven highly resistant to eradication. These are ideas such as:

  * Black people are lazy.
  * Black men are unusually strong.
  * Black people are unusually resistant to pain.
  * Black people are inherently violent.
  * Black women are highly sexually available.

These messages used to be uttered openly and were commonplace beliefs. Over time, it has become less and less acceptable to utter them, and yet these ideas have stubbornly refused to disappear. Why is this the case? It is because racism is institutionalized. It has ingrained itself into our socially-constructed reality so effectively that individual efforts to remove its influence have met with little success. What we have seen is a more gradual erosion of it, which makes much more sense if we take as given that it is part of a feedback system. Racism did not exist until it was created, and even once it was created, it took a long time to fully insinuate itself into the consensus reality. But once an idea has taken hold there and made itself part of the “background noise” of the culture surrounding it, it becomes very difficult to dislodge.

Once an idea has become institutionalized–which is to say that it has become built into social, traditional, legal, and governmental structures–it becomes largely self-sustaining. Racism is, of course, hardly the only large-scale idea woven into our institutions. Not all such ideas are malevolent, either. Sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry are generally part of our reality, but so are notions are free speech, due process under the law, democratic participation, the value of education, and so forth. What I am describing are obviously traditions and values, which inform our worldview to a considerable extent, and affect how we see the world. We would hesitate to call forms of bigotry “values” but they function much like values in terms of they work within the feedback processes of a human society. The feedback can be positive, meaning the idea in question is reinforced and strengthened, or it can be negative, which means it encounters resistance and even unpleasant social consequences for those who attempt to propagate it. A fine example of the latter would be open admiration for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime: most feedback on the matter would be strongly negative. People lose their jobs and become socially shunned for making positive remarks about Hitler and Nazis. This is true to the effects of negative feedback more generally: it reduces “fluctuations” away from acceptable norms and enforces a return to an equilibrium state in which unacceptable behaviors and expressions are minimized. In other words, negative feedbacks combat disruption.

By contrast, then, positive feedbacks are inherently disruptive. Sticking with the example of racism in the US, it used to be that black people were viewed as less than human and could be owned as property. Conflicting feedback cycles could be seen as the root of the basic disagreement between northern and southern states. As abolitionist sentiment grew in the North, pro-slavery sentiment grew in the South. In their respective contexts, the positive and negative feedbacks were different, but also influenced one another: the more abolition-minded the North became, the more tightly the South held to slavery, and vice versa. That is, the ideological leaning of each side acted as a positive feedback on the opposing ideological leaning of the other side! That time, it led to war, after which pro-slavery sentiment was no longer tenable. Importantly, however, while slavery was no longer condoned, all the racist ideas that enabled and supported slavery remained. To put it another way: there was little positive feedback to nurture anti-racist ideas, and plenty of negative feedback to discourage it. The North could force the South to give up slavery, but not racism. (There is a substantial argument to be made that the North is just about equally racist, in which case it makes more sense that eradicating racism is a much more difficult proposition. The public support to do so simply didn’t exist at the time.)

What we have seen since that time is a very slow and gradual erosion (but not elimination) of institutional racism. It has been a piecemeal process, with racist practices being diminished essentially one at a time. Major strides for civil rights were made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but after those significant victories, momentum for further change was lost. From a feedback perspective, it seems likely that the amount of disruption caused by the pro-civil rights positive feedback of that era eventually proved too disruptive, at which point negative feedback (in the form of conservative and moderate white resistance) pushed back to slow or halt progress, returning the “system” of our society to a more stable state.

And to make it clear that “positive” feedback does not necessarily suggest a positive trend or outcome, consider the implications of what I wrote yesterday, in that Donald Trump has only been encouraged in making his xenophobic, racist, hateful comments. At least among conservative voters, his ideas have seen mostly positive feedback, to a point that his opponents have had to adopt similar rhetoric to gain much attention at all. It remains to be seen whether enough negative feedback–in the form of disastrous primary election results for Trump, or a failure of such rhetoric to secure conservative power next November–will be brought about to return the conservative base to a pre-Trump worldview. Indeed, there is a range of acceptable public discourse, known as the Overton window, which shifts over time and varies across geography. This window shifts in response to mass feedback: it can be grown or shrunk, moved in one direction or the other, as the sentiments of the society or subgroups within it dictate. In terms of US political dynamics, the Overton window has both shifted to the right and narrowed in the past few decades, as a consequence of everything from the lack of an organized left-wing, the de-unionization and deindustrialization of the country’s workforce and economy, to a conservative reactionary response that began roughly around the New Deal and seeks an essentially imaginary 1950s-era status quo.

The important takeaway here is that social shifts take time. Existing facets of our consensus reality resist being broken down and dismantled. Disruptions to that reality take time to get rolling–facing negative feedback that seeks to tamp them down–but once they gain momentum, such disruptions begin to feed on themselves and intensify. But counter-disruptions–again, negative feedbacks–may eventually emerge to push the system back to a more stable state, and whatever has been changed in the meantime might be slowed, stopped, or reversed.

I say all this because it influences very much how I approach the idea of social change. It has been said that change begins with awareness, and in a sense it is true. No forces need act on a problem that none know exists–it will persist because the conditions which enable it to continue are already present. A state of awareness is itself disruptive, as it identifies a problem–some injustice or otherwise unacceptable condition–that otherwise goes unnoticed. As this awareness spreads, it leads to discussion and action. The hope for such a trend is that it enters a positive feedback loop, to grow and expand in order to address the identified problem. It must, of course, also contend with the negative feedbacks that attempt to push it down. When the system–the society–eventually returns to a stable state, the hope is that the new normal will be better than the old.

It is my aim, then, that what I write here is just one more little bit of feedback boosting the cause of social progress, to work toward a better shared reality for all of us.