Feedback loops, self-regulating mechanisms that direct you toward a good product or sequence of actions or behavior that leads to a reward, are almost always workarounds for flawed rewards. Those corrupted rewards usually involve some conditional interaction between you and an external party. If there’s no character beyond you that you can trust, and you end up splitting a small sum of money with the bully, or hand in defective homework on the condition that it’s not displayed to anyone else, you will tend to go in the direction of self-regulation, toward those arrangements that yield a larger sum than what your own individual goals would merit.
Similarly, if there is someone constantly pointing out to you the fruits of your own labor and offering you small tokens for making your job easier, there’s likely to be a tendency to come up with more strategies that not only generate more money, but also make it easier for other people to excel. It’s a winning combination, it seems, and I have come to trust these feedback loops, whatever their consequences, to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong, and to reward me appropriately for what I’ve done. But when you add social media to the mix, then you start to see the problem of feedback loops change, not just by introducing a new, potentially harmful feature, but also by changing the algorithm.
You start to see these feedback loops turn extremely skewing, when the feedback loops in question include things like weight-loss apps and social media, and your goals are in some cases negated by the rewards that are offered, or in cases, where you simply have an unrealistic idea of how much weight you should want to lose. How is this?
The feedback loops are self-regulating. The algorithms themselves are not. They self-regulate in certain kinds of ways, sometimes by offering a bad reward and just hitting “ignore” after a while, other times by nudging you toward some new reward. But in neither case does the algorithm actually answer to what you’re actually thinking and thinking about, or what you should want. And that’s one of the root problems.
Here’s an example from my own life. I love to read, and I’ve been avoiding reading anything that concerns myself personally to the exclusion of all other material, so that I can devote all my attention to mere socializing. Instead of becoming distracted by any of the social pressures of my peers, I’ve reduced myself to reading only the stuff that’s entertaining and commercial-free. Occasionally, I’ll get involved in something that has some personal interest — sometimes even real, legitimate interest. So, of course, I’m attracted to writing.
But my reading of that kind of writing, taken as a whole, simply barely satisfies me. Thus, I’ve come to go on one “routine” of avoiding any writing that has anything important to say, even if what I’m writing is, in fact, insightful, or useful. And that’s a problem. It simply violates the architecture of feedback loops. By negating whatever I was originally doing, those personal challenges impeded my ability to explore deeply into the really important things, and missed out on the valuable rewards.
So here’s a pro-tip for you: If you want to read any worthwhile things about yourself or the world, block out time from Sunday through Thursday. The answers to your personal questions are already out there, hidden in the natural hunger to unearth something meaningful about the world. You don’t need to go to the market, or make a large purchase. The subconscious mind can get through just fine without your help.
Also, it’s always a good idea to check in with yourself frequently. Life happens so quickly that you might never have a chance to try out how great of a good outcome you got from all of the feedback loops, if you ever want to look back at them.