What Andrew Bird Can Teach Us About Complex Systems

"And the eye that eyes itself is your eye; and the ear that hears itself is near." - Andrew Bird

In a complex adaptive system, feedback shapes how change happens. Feedback loops form when there is mutual causal interaction (x affects y, and y affects x). 

Since feedback loops and Andrew Bird are two of our all-time favorite phenomena, we were pleased to uncover a video of this concept set to song in a musical Ted Talk.

At first, Bird describes feedback loops in terms of music, as "when the microphone gets too close to its sound source, and it gets in a self-destructive loop that creates a very unpleasant sound." Then with a few musical examples to carry the metaphor, he segues to the concept's natural complexity with a cantor not far off from Douglas Hofstadter

"There seems to be a rule in nature that if you get too close to where you came from, it gets ugly," Bird says. Examples: mad cow disease, inbreeding, autoimmune diseases. 

Bird's recent album "Break It Yourself" is an ode to creative destruction. Hewn from a series of elegantly constructed looping phrases, the songs tell of disrupting the downward spiral of heartbreak with acceptance and "reckless curiosity."

Like anything in complexity theory, a feedback loop is neither inherently good nor bad. As we understand the concept in complexity (from an explorer's perspective), positive feedback loops create attractors, or self-reinforcing associations among co-evolving agents, so that the system produces more of the same behavior. Negative feedback loops disrupt the pattern and produce novelty, resulting in innovation in the best cases, or putting the "brakes" on what could, at worst case, become a destructive spiral

Bird touches on the phenomenon of self-consciousness as just this sort of flirtation with the insight of one's own undoing (it's impossible to hear your own ears or see your own eyes from the inside of your head) much to the tune of Alan Watts, who referred to anxiety & mental feedback loops as "the quaking mess."

In this week's episode, we interview Diego Espinosa of Sistema Research on how unchecked feedback loops create inequality in financial markets and the world... Stay tuned. 

The HumanCurrent podcast is hosted by Angie Cross & Stacy Hale. Subscribe in iTunes or listen at www.human-current.com.