The model underneath

It will probably not come as a surprise to you that we humans are a retained-mode bunch. It’s cool to imagine ourselves as the immediate-mode beings: everything in the world around us would be brand new! For every cycle of our OODA loop, nothing is retained. Talk about living in the present.

Alas, — or fortunately, it’s hard to tell — we aren’t like that. It would totally suck if for every situation, we would need to relearn everything from scratch. We can only learn a tiny bit from each iteration of the OODA loop. Our strength, individual and collective, is in harnessing the retained mode. For example, when we look around the room, we can only see what’s in front of us. Yet we retain details of the room that aren’t in our direct eyesight, and can reason about them. We can reach for a glass of water without looking at it. This is our model being put to work. Every cycle makes the model a bit richer and more nuanced, helping us not just visualize things that we’re not seeing directly, but also make predictions about what happens to them in the immediate future.

When I first learned about the OODA loop, I naively presumed that all steps in the process operate directly on the environment. I observe the environment, I orient within it, I decide on what to do, and then I act on it. It wasn’t until later, after I learned about the concept of constructed reality, that a different understanding of the OODA process had emerged.

Aside from the first step, the OODA loop operates on the model of the environment, rather than directly on it.  This can be amazing, allowing us to connect our hockey stick with the puck for that awesome from-behind pass that sets the stands afire. It can also be a lot less awesome, because our models aren’t always representative of the environment. I reach for a glass — and accidentally poke it with my thumb, spilling the water. The model lied. 

Put differently, most steps in OODA occur in a mirror world of the environment that we created in our minds. If the mirror is clear, our actions proceed as intended. If it’s one of those funhouse mirrors, your guess is as good as mine. Our models are the sources of both our clairvoyance and our blindness.

Whether we want it or not, the OODA loop serves two interrelated purposes: one is to produce an action between the two ticks of the environment’s clock. The other is to update the model of our environment and keep it accurate. How well we manage to perform both tasks reflects in how we produce jank.

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