Boundaries enable positive material-informational feedback loops

(Cross-posted from my blog)

[epistemic status: obvious once considered, I think]

If you want to get big things done, you almost certainly need positive feedback loops. Unless you can already do all the necessary things, you need to do/​make things that allow you to do/​make more things in the future. This dynamic can be found in RPG and economy-management games, and in some actual economic systems, such as industrializing economies.

Material, information, and economy

Some goods that can be used in a positive feedback loop, such as software and inventions, are informational. Once produced, they can be used indefinitely in the future. In economic terms, they are nonrivalous.

Other goods are material, such as manufactured goods and energy. They can’t be copied cheaply. In economic terms, they are rivalrous.

In practice, any long-lasting positive feedback loop contains both informational and material goods, as production of information requires a physical substrate. While ensuring that informational goods can be used in the future is an organization and communication problem (a subject beyond the scope of this post), the problem of ensuring that material goods can be used in the future is additionally a security problem.

An important question to ask is: why haven’t material-informational positive feedback loops already taken over the world? Why don’t we have so much stuff by now that providing for people’s material needs (such as food and housing) is trivial?

To some extent, material-informational positive feedback loops have taken over the world, but they seem much slower than one would naively expect. See cost disease. As an example of cost disease, the average cost of a new house in the USA has quadrupled over a 60-year period (adjusted for inflation!), whereas models of capitalism based on economy-management games such as Factorio (or, more academically, according to the labor/​capital based economic models of classical economists such as David Ricardo) would suggest that houses would be plentiful by now. (And no, this isn’t just because of land prices; it costs about $300K to build a house in the US in 2018)

Security and boundaries

I’ve already kind of answered this question by saying that ensuring that material goods can be used in the future is a security problem. If you use one of your material goods to produce another material good, and someone takes this new good, then you can’t put this good back into your production process. Thus, what would have been a positive feedback loop is instead a negative feedback loop, as it leaks goods faster than it produces them.

Solving security issues generally requires boundaries. You need to draw a boundary in material space somewhere, differentiating the inside from the outside, such that material goods (such as energy) on the inside don’t leak out, and can potentially have positive feedback loops. There are many ways to prevent leaks across a boundary while still allowing informational and material to pass through sometimes, such as semiporous physical barriers and active policing. Regardless of the method to enforce the boundary, the boundary has to exist in some geometrical sense for it to make sense to say that e.g. energy increases within this system.

Not all security issues are from other agents; some are from non-agentic processes. Consider a homeostatic animal. If the animal expends energy to warm its body, and this warmth escapes, the animal will fail to realize gains from the energy expenditure. Thus, the animal has a boundary (namely, skin) to solve this “security problem”. The cold air particles that take away heat from the animal are analogous to agents that directly take resources, though obviously less agentic. While perhaps my usage of the word “security” to include responses to nonagentic threats is nonstandard, I hope it is clear that these are on the same spectrum as agentic threats, and can be dealt with in some of the same ways.

It is also worth thinking about semi-agentic entities, such as microorganisms. One of the biggest threats to a food store is microorganisms (i.e. rotting), and slowing the negative feedback loops depleting food stores requires solving this security problem using a boundary (such as a sealed container or a subset of the air that is colder than the outside air, such as in a refrigerator).

Property rights are a simple example of boundaries. Certain goods are considered to be “owned” by different parties, such that there is common agreement about who owns what, and people are for one reason or another not motivated to take other people’s stuff. Such division of goods into sets owned by different parties is a set of boundaries enabling positive feedback loops, which are especially salient in capitalism.

What about trust between different entities? A complex ecosystem will contain entities satisfying a variety of niches, which include parasitism and predation (which are on the same spectrum). A trust network can be thought of as a way for different entities to draw various boundaries, often fuzzy ones, that mostly exclude parasites/​predators, such that there are few leaks from inside this boundary to outside this boundary (which would include parasitism/​predation by entities outside the boundary). There are “those who you trust” and “those who you don’t trust” (both fuzzy sets), and you assign more utility to giving resources to those you trust, as this allows for positive feedback loops within a system that contains you (namely, the trust network).

Externalities and sustainability

Since no subsystem of the world is causally closed, all positive feedback loops have externalities. By definition, the outside world is only directly affected by these externalities, and is only affected by what happens within the boundary to the extent that this eventually leads to externalities. A wise designer of a positive feedback loop will anticipate its externalities, and set it up such that the externalities are overall desirable to the designer. After all, there is no point to creating a positive feedback loop unless its externalities are mostly positive [EDIT: unless the boundary contains things that have intrinsic value].

A positive feedback loop’s externalities modify its environment, affecting its own ability to continue; for example, a positive feedback loop of microorganisms eating food will exhaust itself by consuming the food. So, different positive feedback loops are environmentally sustainable to different extents. Both production and conquest generate positive feedback loops, as Ben Hoffman discusses in this post, but production is much more environmentally sustainable than conquest.

One way to increase environmental sustainability is to move more processes to the inside of the boundary. For example, a country that is consuming large amounts of iron (driving up iron prices) may consider setting up its own iron mines. Thus, the inside of the boundary becomes more like an economy of its own. This is sometimes known as import replacement.

Of course, the environmental sustainability of a positive feedback loop can also be a negative, as it is better for some processes (such as rotting) to limit or exhaust themselves, thus transitioning to negative feedback or a combination of positive and negative feedback. Processes that include intentionally-designed positive and negative feedback can be much more environmentally sustainable than processes that only have positive feedback loops designed in, since they can limit their growth when such growth would be unsustainable.

While in theory the philosophy of effective altruism would imply a strong (and likely overwhelming) emphasis on creating and maintaining environmentally sustainable positive feedback loops with positive externalities, typically-recommended EA practices (such as giving away 10% of one’s income) are negative feedback loops (the more you make, the more you give away). While in theory the place the resources are given to could have a faster positive feedback loop than just investing in yourself, your friends, and your projects, in practice I rarely believe claims of this form that come from the EA movement; for example, if a country has a high rate of poverty, that indicates that the negative feedback loops (such as corruption) are likely stronger than the positive ones, and that giving resources is ineffective. Thus, I cannot in good conscience allow anything like current EA ideology to substantially control resource allocation in most systems I create, even though EA philosophy taken to its logical conclusion would get the right answer on the importance of boundaries and positive feedback loops.

Policy suggestions

How do these ideas translate to action? One suggestion is that, if you are trying to do something big, you use one or more positive feedback loops, and ask yourself the following questions about each one:

  1. What’s the generator of my positive feedback loop (i.e. what’s the process that turns stuff into more stuff)?

  2. What is the boundary within which the positive feedback increases resources?

  3. How am I reducing leakage across this boundary?

  4. What are the externalities of this positive feedback loop?

  5. How environmentally sustainable is this positive feedback loop?

  6. Are there built-in negative feedback loops that increase environmental sustainability?

(thanks to Bryce Hidysmith for a conversation that led to this post)