Feedback is strange. It is the ability of things to condition themselves, things to self-regulate — processes to be self-governing.
It allows a process that would normally run down or exceed itself to stay stable without an outside controlling force or an internal determining essence.
In its simplest form it is a circular process where A causes B which causes A.
But how can a process — something without a ‘brain’ exert control & ‘self-regulate’? How can a ‘dumb’ machine like our thermometer turn itself off or on at the right time?
The circular nature of this form of causality is perplexing in a culture like ours that has been shaped by a linear top down command theology for millennia. In our historical models of causality we are always on a hunt for the some essential spark (idea) that causes something to be. Circular causality & its notion of process autonomy does not fit in this world.
Now the term is ubiquitous, & theorists such as Tomlinson can state, “we might justifiably call our time the age of feedback”.
“we might justifiably call our time the age of feedback”.
But, it is still worth pausing to reflect on the utter strangeness & power of the concept and process. We can easily take it for granted in the way it has slipped into everyday language: “I would like some feedback on this proposal…” But this everyday usage does not do justice to the radical nature of this concept.
As a concept it was only defined & understood quite late, which makes sense given our aforementioned western conceptual proclivities. What is equally interesting is that in the world of making and doing — the non-theoretical world of crafts people, actual human made feedback systems go back at least as far as ancient Egypt. Where they were used to independently regulate water flow & went largely unremarked upon or even noticed by theorists.
In the halls of theory it is only in 1868 with James Maxwell’s paper “On Governors” that the beginnings of conceptualizing processes of self-regulation & change were first established. And they really come of age in the mid 20th century.
“On Governors” that the beginnings of conceptualizing processes of self-regulation & change were first established. And they really come of age in the mid 20th century.
But, parallel to this, a perhaps richer development of feedback systems was happening in evolutionary theory beginning with Darwin without the use of the term(which was inspired by Malthus & his problematic feedback system (1789)). Fitness mechanism are feedback.
Contemporary evolutionary theory, specifically the ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ push all of this much further & we enter a world where the classsical clear distinctions of self & other disappear into extended process dynamics. Feedback becomes inter-species feedback (co-evolution), feedforward systems (how elements can evolve in system, gain semi autonomy & then have a determining effect on the system), & niche construction (where a creature shapes its environment and the environment then turns around & fundamentally shapes the creature)
An astonishing novel world.