Re: feedback

Michael Lorrey (
Mon, 22 Sep 1997 20:56:30 -0400

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky wrote:
> Damien Broderick wrote:
> >
> > The term is regularly abused in the general English-speaking culture. New
> > Age types, and many others, are always smiling gratefully when they receive
> > what they call `positive feedback' (meaning, for them, encouragement or
> > praise) and recoiling from the dreaded `negative reinforcement' (meaning,
> > they suppose, disapproval). In fact, positive feedback is nothing more
> > than returning a part of the system's output in such a way that the output
> > *increases*, while negative feedback uses part of the system's current
> > output to *restrict* or *lower* continuing output. (So, in a restricted
> > sense, smiling at each other *is* `positive feedback', since it makes us
> > feel good and improves our mood.)
> Ain't abuse.
> Pleasure is positive feedback.
> Pain is negative feedback.
> Positive reinforcement is a smile which causes pleasure, indicating please continue.
> Negative reinforcement means shut up and sit down, or stop.
> The terms may have been exported to the domain of conversation, but they have
> exported accurately with both surface and deep analogies.
> --

You are correct, but it is this correlation that has imbued into the
unwashed the concept of negative feedback as being "bad", "wrong",
"painful" etc. even though negative feedback is much more useful for the
stability of any system one may imagine, be it the human system, a
lawnmower, or the economy. Because early economists did not sufficiently
understand this, the early concepts they espoused as being "good" for
the economy, stimulating growth and prosperity, typically resulted in
synthesizing a cyclic behavior based originally natural disasters
affecting crop yeilds that was quickly amplified out of all control,
resulting in great "Booms" and "Busts". Cyclic amplification is the
natural result of positive feedback, while cyclic dampening is the
result of negative feedback. Quoting Robert Heinlein: "Do I know what
caused the 1929 crash and the Depression? No, but have you ever seen an
engine running solely on positive feedback? It tears itself apart."

This is the one downside of laissez faire economics, it restricts
negative feedback and stimulates positive feedback, especially in
economic systems that are secretive and where information is guarded
jealously. The downside of government is that its only good at being
negative feedback. Anytime it tries to do positive feedback, it is
usually more harmful than a free economy left alone.

You'll notice in todays economy in the US, the only numbers that are
still kept relatively secret are the numbers that the Fed bases its
decisions on. If they didn't keep them secret, then the negative
feedback policies they decide on would not be as effective. Just about
everything else is open. All publicly traded corporations have to
disclose their performance, and polling organizations and economic
analysts are contantly crunching huge amounts of data trying to
prognisticate what the fed will do. They seem to be right about half the

			Michael Lorrey
------------------------------------------------------------	Inventor of the Lorrey Drive
MikeySoft: Graphic Design/Animation/Publishing/Engineering
How many fnords did you see before breakfast today?