Inertial Damping

I have been thinking a lot about damping lately.  To be specific, inertial damping.  You know, that aspect of your hybrid electric car’s regenerative braking system that recharges your batteries while you stop?  Or the gyroscopic properties of a bicycle wheel that keeps you moving forward instead of falling over when you turn?  Yeah, that stuff.  People think about that all the time, don’t they?  No?

This is what happens when a geek starts talking about their internal thought processes, and especially since I recently talked about postcards from the future, maybe I do need to explain my terms.  Apparently, one of the first things I need to do is to explain that I am not talking about “inertial dampening,” which, as far as I can tell, is a science fiction plot device highly likely to get yourself into a fight with physicists for dissing their man Newton.    That’s not my focus today.  I’m trying to take a real physics and engineering term, and see how application of that term in a complex human setting helps me design, analyze, or improve sociotechnical systems in a more effective way… because that’s something that engineers do.

Actually, I started thinking about damping a lot based on a question that someone asked me at the end of the Jefferson Science Fellowship (JSF) lecture I gave on January 24.  (For reference, the point of this lecture is to summarize the general area of work that each Fellow does, both for the policy audience of the State Department and Agency for International Development, and for the scientific audience of the National Academies.)  I spoke about information flow and distributed expertise (because that’s something I do), including the challenges of appropriate coordination during event response for either physical (civil unrest, natural disaster) or cyber-physical (network or security operations) events.  I got quite a few questions, as well as invitations for additional discussions with various groups across the State Dept.  This was a very good feeling, in that it gave me the sense that some people could finally hear some of what I have been trying to study and communicate for years.

However, that does come with a price: when one of those people asks a question, can I give an answer that they understand and know what to do with it?  In essence, that was the challenge when someone asked me a damping question.  (They didn’t really ask it as a damping question, but since I am likely to see lots of things as connected feedback control systems, it’s not surprising that I heard it as one.)

If you have a large bureaucratic organization which lives on sending lots of messages to lots of people for their opinion and approval (aka “clearance”), don’t you run the risk of taking too long to respond to emerging, critical timeline events?

That’s a very reasonable question.  And it takes me immediately to thoughts about damping.  Imagine your new event as some sort of input function.  However, the event isn’t always purely evident immediately, and it doesn’t just go from off to on instantaneously.  There might be multiple events that may or may not be related to each other.  You want your response (output function) to match the demands of the input function.  The engineering version of this problem is one of “critical damping”.  If your damping ratio is too high (over 1), your response to the new event is very slow.  Although you may never over-respond to the event, it takes you a long time to actually respond to the event, and in fact, you may fail to do what needs to be done within the deadlines (people need fresh water and shelter and warmth within a matter of hours to days, or they die).  We tend to assume that faster is always better.  However, there is a limit / problem with that, which we now understand from the world of social media.  Someone can respond *too quickly* with *too little* information, and be unable to tell the difference between the actual event that needs to be responded, and some distractor or misinformation.  (Remember, I’m not trying to be political here, but since the lecture was just a few days after the Inauguration, I may have made a reference to a social media event or two.)  This would be an example of having a damping ratio that is too low (close to 0), which is a different problem.  (You might ask what is the inertial property here.  Well, I have talked in the past about knowledge as “little inertial balls of expertise,” in the sense that expertise allows you to devote energy to efficient processing of the world and move to where you need to go in the future.)  People going off on their first impression without checking sources or others’ understanding would be an “underdamped” response (damping ratio too low), which can be just as bad (but in a different way ) than a bureaucratic, “overdamped” response (damping ratio too high) that takes too long and doesn’t want to risk or challenge anything for fear of being wrong.

In essence, an effective inertial damper takes energy that comes at you, with bounces and noise and possible confusion that you don’t want to respond too much to, and turn it into energy that works for you in a time frame that makes for the tasks you need to do.  That sounds great, and it’s a very interesting problem to work on.  Perhaps the additional challenge is, How do I apply this to my own life?  As much as I enjoy a string of fist-pumping, high-fiving successes in a non-athletic context,   there is the challenge of appropriately damped responses when shifting from State Dept. to Purdue stuff.  Reminder to Barrett: it’s not good to try to do two full-time jobs simultaneously for long periods, and I am feeling now the stress of trying to complete a large number of Purdue (or Indiana Space Grant) activities after spending all day working on Japan Desk activities.  In fact, that stress might be better described as hysteresis, rather than damping.  (Discuss.)  More accurately, damping is the ability to take the frustration of emails and news feed updates and channel that energy into productive work, such as a book chapter, or journal manuscript, or even a blog entry.   Like this one.