A Short History of the Concept of Feedback
This chapter is an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work, the first in a series of books on toxic practices in the workplace. Read the introduction and previous chapter here on Medium, and find links to purchase the full book here.
The term feedback originated in the physical world of regulatory mechanisms. In particular, it was first used to describe closed (mechanical) systems in which dangerous or expensive flows of energy, fuels, or fluids are regulated in order to ensure safety, quality, and quantity. We are familiar with many of these systems in our everyday lives. One example is the gas pump, which shuts off the automatic flow of fuel to prevent overflow when we’re filling our cars. A simple feedback mechanism in the nozzle’s handle responds to a change in pressure and instantly closes the valve when a car’s tank is full.
Another example is an electric pressure cooker, which shuts off when its valve can’t release pressure fast enough. And these days most of us have thermostats in our homes that regulate furnaces in order to sustain comfortable air temperatures. Feedback mechanisms are pervasive in the mechanical world and very useful. Their only purpose is to stop something rapidly and certainly from continuing to flow and then to allow it to start flowing again, when appropriate.
Although feedback systems have existed since antiquity, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the notion was recognized as a universal abstraction or concept, “to feed back.” At that time, the phrase described only the action of “returning to an earlier position” within a mechanical process. In the early twentieth century, Karl Braun referred to the unanticipated coupling between components of an electronic circuit as “feed-back.” Within a decade of this use, audio feedback — the painful screech we hear when a microphone is aimed toward an amplifier — had been named, bringing the current term into the dictionary. And thus for most of the first half of the century, feedback was defined as a specific type of mechanical action or effect.
By the 1950s, feedback had become a concept of interest to theorists, and as such had acquired a more precise definition, “circularity of action,” still limited to mechanisms. Those who desired to make useful machines added to the meaning the notion of “deliberate effect” (via the connection of designed components).
Feedback was not used in conjunction with psychological and human science theory until after 1940. The first known association was made at the ten Macy Conferences on Cybernetics from 1946 through 1953, part of a larger series of conferences sponsored by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, which comprised 160 international meetings in the years from 1941 through 1960. These events convened scientists and others from across diverse disciplines for the purpose of developing a unified path for all scientific endeavor. In the end, this effort bent toward the physical sciences and swayed the life scientists toward the machine worldview.
The Machine Worldview
Let’s take a look now at the winds that blew science — and Western culture generally — away from whole-systems or living systems ways of knowing and toward a severely limited and mostly mistaken understanding of human mental processing and behavior.
The machine worldview is one of a set of five historically related conceptions that provide most of us in Western countries with a shared, overall interpretation of the way things work. It and the behaviorist worldview are the primary sources of most of our current corporate cultures, and thus they shape most business practices and the practices of all organizations that wish to operate with business-like efficiency.
Like worldviews generally, all five are based on societal values and beliefs and have mainly to do with how we ought to conduct ourselves. We willingly conform with them because they help us make sense of life and our place in the world and provide us with a context for understanding and working with others, even if incorrectly understood. There is consensus thinking which makes our lives easier.
Worldviews vary among cultural groups — for example, from atheist to Christian — and they define the possible range of discoveries and solutions within disciplines, such as sociology, history, musicology, and aesthetics. They also shape agreements between disciplines, framing them so that they align with one another and work together to describe how the world operates. Within disciplines or fields of endeavor, it is worldviews that describe origins and provide coherence.
The Machine Revolution
The important technological changes of the Industrial Revolution that brought about the mass production of material goods, also resulted in a transformation of business and work. A primary architect of this work design was Frederick Taylor, who created what we now call “scientific management.” He proposed that work could be done more efficiently and at less expense, if the production process was broken into small pieces and assigned, one each, to workers who could learn them easily and repeat them uniformly over and over again.
Taylor was a fan of the economist Adam Smith’s treatise on capitalism, which described this way of designing work systems as a narrowing of focus, or fine tuning. Like other intellectuals in this lineage, Smith imagined the human mind as a kind of clockwork and the universe as an infinitely complicated machine, set in motion by God and left to run on its own. Living systems and processes could be fully understood and mastered through the sciences of physics, chemistry, and mechanics. Historically, the worldview that grew out of this paradigm reduced workers to interchangeable parts in machines connected in linear manufacturing processes. Work became rote, and because workers were believed to be easily replaceable, their safety and wellbeing were disregarded.
Feedback entered management science based on the machine worldview via Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence, and as it evolved, it became a primary metaphor, shaping business culture and systems throughout the second half of the twentieth century and right up to today.
Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence
Within the context of the machine worldview, two factors have contributed in a major way to current impressions regarding the human mind. The first was the work of physicist Steve Joshua Heims, and the second was the theoretical models of John Watson and behavioral psychology (based on research with rats) which were instrumental in bringing the behaviorist worldview into being.
Heims interviewed participants in the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics and, from their remembrances, wrote up summaries of the conversations at the meetings, which had not been documented contemporaneously. These conversations were intended to explore the use of cybernetics, information theory, and computer theory as a basis for forming alliances among physical and life scientists. They were structured along the lines of the framework used in the science of artificial intelligence to understand large mechanical systems, and thus the metaphor of mind as machine was early adopted and integrated into the definition of cybernetics.
In a preliminary gathering, “The Cerebral Inhibition Meeting” of 1942, from which the cybernetics conferences originated, the primary link between machine and human functioning was identified as feedback.
It was Arturo Rosenblueth’s presentation of ideas he’d been developing with Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow that drew everyone’s attention. Rosenblueth outlined a conceptual agenda based on similarities between behaviors of both machines and organisms that were interpretable as being “goal-directed.” This goal-directedness (long spurned by hard science) was framed in terms of definitive and deterministic “teleological mechanisms.” “Teleology” was transformed from philosophical mumbo-jumbo to concrete mechanism through the invocation of “circular causality” in a system, whereby new behaviors were influenced by “feedback” deriving from immediately preceding behaviors. This approach allowed one to address apparent [human] purposiveness with reference to the present and the immediate past, without having to invoke references to possible or future events [i.e. processing inherent in human intelligence, but invisible and therefore impossible to study and explain].
From this it is clear that the bias toward the machine worldview way of understanding human behavior lay not only in the work of individual participants — which included top minds from the worlds of mathematics, social science and sociology, medicine, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics, and in particular, many who had worked on the Manhattan Project and the building of the world’s first nuclear weapons — but also in the premises, questions, and topics around which their conversations were organized. In other words, all thinking and all discussion assumed that people are controlled by the outside forces that immediately proceed their actions. We are not independent agents.
The second influence — behavioral theory and other psychological, medical, sociological, and philosophical contributions to the conversations — also failed to consider any of the inner processing that humans engage in when making decisions, planning, and acting with intention. The dominant belief was, in the behaviorist paradigm, that this processing did not exist — or at least, that it could not be observed objectively or studied with scientific methodologies. In the early twentieth century, when John Watson had established the school of behaviorist psychology, there were no instruments with which to “see” inside brains and study how they processed experiences, information, and ideas.
In an effort to make psychology rigorous along the lines of the physical sciences, i.e. to align it with the machine worldview, Watson had rejected lineages of the observation of human development and mental processing that included the traditions and insights of indigenous peoples and the world’s major religions and schools of philosophy. If the mind could not be studied objectively with external, mechanical devises, then nothing could be known about it.
A physicist himself, Heims evolved the information and understanding he took from his accounts of the meetings, based on memories that participants related to him in interviews, into a history of science. His own focus was on cybernetics, and from his thinking, paradigms emerged that became central to the new fields of artificial intelligence and cognitive science. In particular, his work deeply influenced the direction of cognitive science, which focuses on human thinking and behavior.
Thus, it was Heims who further extended the mechanical concept of feedback as a metaphor for human behavior, coupled with behaviorist theory and the analogy of human motivation with the observed behaviors of rats. Over time, feedback became a dominant paradigm, pervading behavioral science and organizational practice. This transfer to human psychology was accomplished despite the fact that neither mechanical processes nor observations made from the study of rats are in any way adequate to describe human mental processing or behavior.
The adoption of cybernetics as a basis for conversations concerning human biological and neurological processes is indicative of the fragmented, linear, and extremely biased thinking in the very conception of the entirety of the Macy Conferences. Although the Macy Foundation intended for the meetings to be interdisciplinary and to give equal weight to life sciences, and in particular to medicine, no living systems theorists were included.
This was especially significant given the prominence of the theory that the mind or consciousness could not be studied. The leaders of the Macy Foundation had apparently accepted this, adopted most of the cyberneticists’ language and thinking, and extended their metaphors into a way of pursuing knowledge, including technological research.
This summary is does not claim to be a comprehensive account of the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics or major moments in the history of science. It is only a collated or correlated set of basic facts, along with such illustrative tidbits as can be gleaned from Heims’s The Cybernetics Group, Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s The Mechanization of the Mind, and other sources.
This has been an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. Read the next chapter: