042 Feedback control of social goal-seeking

One of the more successful aspects of modern systems research is the field of cybernetics, and more specifically the concept of the feedback loop as a basic mechanism underlying system regulation and control. We wish to discuss briefly in this Section the possibilities of borrowing this latter principle as the basis of a model of societal or organizational goal-seeking, where the goals or purposes are explicit, conscious, and intentional.

A social feedback model has been suggested occasionally since the mid-forties by a few social scientists, though it was not developed at any length until recently in the works, for example, of Geoffrey Vickers, Karl Deutsch, and David Easton. Thus, Kurt, Lewin, in a 1947 article, treats of „Feedback Problems of Social Diagnosis and Action.“ Planned social action, he suggests, usually emerges from a more or less vague idea that develops into a „plan“ when the objective has been clarified, the goal-path and available means have been determined, and a strategy of action worked out. Recognizing that this plan, or „blueprint for action,“ should be kept flexible and subject to modification as the action is carried out, he then makes reference to the self-steering missiles and other armaments developed during the war, and carries the underlying feedback principle over to the social sphere. After pointing out the important assumption underlying such steering, namely, that fact-finding methods have been found that permit a close enough determination of the nature and position of the social goal, as well as the direction and amount of „locomotion“ brought about by a given action, he goes on to say:

To be effective, this fact-finding has to be linked with the action organization itself: it has to be part of a feedback system which links a reconnaissance branch of the organization with the branches which do the action. The feedback has to be done so that a discrepancy between the desired and the actual direction leads „automatically“ to a correction of actions or to a change of planning.

In the general cybernetic model of the error-regulating feedback system, we may distinguish — though more or less arbitrarily — five stages
(See Figure 6-2)

1) A control center establishes certain desired goal parameters and the means by which they may be attained; 2) these goal decisions are transformed by administrative bodies into action outputs, which result in certain effects on the state of the system and its environment; 3) information about these effects are recorded and fed back to the control center; 4) the latter tests this new state of the system against the desired goal parameters to measure the error or deviation of the initial output response; 5) if the error leaves the system outside the limits set by the goal parameters, corrective output action is taken by the control center.

This kind of model calls for a great deal of caution by the user, for while it may serve to illuminate the systemic nature and complexities of societal or organizational goal-seeking, any attempts at concrete application warn us against the hope of an easy breakthrough. Put in another way, such a model seems valid as a generalized picture of what tends to occur in group goal-seeking, or what would (or perhaps should) occur were it not for „complicating factors“; but these complicating factors are just what prevents the analyst from any easy use of the model.