After a recent Uber ride, I hesitated between offering the four-star rating that captured my adequate ride and the five-star rating that I knew the driver expected. Eventually I tapped five stars and closed out of the app, relieved to be done with this tiny moral quandary. Later, the phone buzzed in my pocket with a text asking me to rate my experience getting an oil change. The next day, I politely declined to stay on the line “for just four to six minutes” to complete another customer-satisfaction survey. Sorry, but I have feedback fatigue.
Companies promise that “your feedback is important to us,” but providing it does not necessarily yield discernible change. Instead, the endless requests for feedback often feel dehumanizing. Being pestered for thumbs-ups and “likes” makes me feel like just another cog in the machine.
There’s a reason for that: The current mania for feedback can be traced to the machine that kick-started the Industrial Revolution, the steam governor. Revisiting that machine, and understanding feedback’s lost, mechanical origins, can help people better use, and refuse, its constant demands.
Traceable to antiquity, the idea of feedback roared to prominence in the 18th century when the Scottish engineer James Watt figured out how to harness the mighty but irregular power of steam. Watt’s steam governor solved the problem of wasted fuel by feeding the machine’s speed back into the apparatus to control it. When the machine ran too fast, the governor reduced the amount of steam fed to the engine. And when it slowed down, the governor could increase the flow of steam to keep the machine’s speed steady. The steam governor drove the Industrial Revolution by making steam power newly efficient and much more potent. Because it could maintain a relatively stable speed, Watt’s steam engine used up to one-third less energy than previous steam-powered engines.