The rise of the general systems theory in the twentieth century would not have been possible without the concept of feedback. Of special interest to the present paper is Niklas Luhmann’s reconstruction and critique of Wiener’s cybernetic approach to the feedback concept. Luhmann has suggested that the operation of the feedback-controlled systems potentially poses problems of sustainability. The purpose of this paper is to explore this suggestion in more detail.
The reconstruction of the arguments of Luhmann and Wiener shows that both scholars approached the feedback concept from the “system-environment” perspective. Luhmann takes system-environment relations to be inherently precarious. Wiener underscores the importance of the sensitivity of the feedback-controlled systems to their environment.
Drawing on Norbert Wiener’s and Niklas Luhmann’s ideas, the paper shows that every specification of the feedback mechanism implies the drawing of the moral boundary that demarcates those parts of the environment to which the relevant system is sensitive from those to which it is not. A likely outcome of this boundary drawing is the maintenance of intra-systemic complexity at the cost of the deteriorating sustainability of the system in its environment.
Until today, the general system theory has sought to explain organized complexity and rightly underscored the role of feedback in maintaining it, thereby inadvertently creating the chasm between the complexity and sustainability dimensions of human civilization. The present paper pleads for reorienting of the systems-theoretic analysis of the feedback concept toward closing this chasm.
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