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We live in a world of feedbacks

We live in a world of feedbacks We live in a world of feedbacks
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When you swing an ax to chop a piece of wood, the wood either splits or it doesn't. If it doesn't, you set the wood upright and swing again. When you put your bread in the toaster, you push the lever, and it clicks when you've pressed it far enough to turn the toaster on. Then you hear the filaments start to hum with electric current, a sign that the toaster has in fact turned on. You're getting feedback all along the way that the toaster has done what you'd wanted it to do. There was the click of the button, which had to be designed and engineered. And there was the sound of the wires heating up, which is simply a useful by-product of the toaster's physics. Without all those signals along the way, you'd just be endlessly fiddling, trying to understand whether the toaster was working.

The natural world is filled with feedback; in the man-made world, that feedback has to be designed. When you push a button, does the button actually affect the thing it's supposed to? The world of everyday life is so densely layered with information that it can be hard to realize how much information—how much feedback—we have to re-create in the world of design. And yet feedback is what turns any man-made creation into an object that you relate to, one that might evoke feelings of ease or ire, satisfaction or frustration. These are the bones of our relationship with the world around us. Is there any problem in which our behavior doesn't match how we'd like to live that isn't a feedback problem? When we eat too much or eat the wrong things, it's a problem of not realizing in the moment how that tiny choice might affect our future. In the United States, doctors rarely track what happens after they've prescribed a drug or procedure, and so they just keep prescribing both to new patients, aiming to try everything since they can't see if any one thing actually works. And so we spend more and more each year on medical costs. Even climate change can be seen as a feedback problem. We cannot see our everyday contributions to carbon emissions, and the timeline is too long for us to see their effects. Imagine if carbon emissions had no other effects than they do now, but that carbon accumulation turned the sky from blue to green. In a world like that, it's hard to believe that we'd still be arguing about whether mankind was having an effect on the climate. We might instead be arguing about what to do about it. These are all problems of not feeling the stakes. Until the worst has happened, there is no feedback about what the effects of our actions are, and by then it's too late. There may be no greater design challenge for the twenty-first century than creating better, tighter feedback loops in places where they don't exist, be they in the environment, health care, or government.

Feedback already defines the world we live in today. For example, we tend to assume that the internet's great revolution was connecting people. That's partly true. But consider the birth of buyer/seller feedback. eBay was an unknown startup until it rolled out a feature in which buyers and sellers could rate one another. Today, buyer/seller feedback is what has made us comfortable with the online economy—from buying products that we've never seen before on Amazon to staying in the homes of people we've never met, through Airbnb. In a previous era, we used brands to create trust—when you saw a toothpaste stamped with Colgate, you knew it was the product of a big, stable company whose long-term success depended on good products. Today, we have feedback from people who've tried out something we might like; even if you don't know them, you put your faith in there being a lot of them. As the economist Tim Harford has mused, without feedback, Internet commerce might not be like it is now, with strangers trusting one another. It might be more like hitchhiking, something done only by people willing to take a risk.' Even the biggest startup of the last fifteen years, Facebook, was a company formed because of feedback. The Like button offered nothing less than a new way to send and receive affirmation, and in so doing, it rewired the social fabric of one-third of the world.

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