Lexicon / feedback

Douglas Edric Stanley


The notion of purpose in algorithmic machines can be traced back to the early texts of cybernetics, and specifically to the seminal 1943 paper « Behavior, Purpose, Teleology » {1} in which Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow use the term « purpose » to describe a temporal process known as « negative feedback » within which an organism or machine is capable of adjusting its behavior in relation to a material « goal ». By observing the behavior of the entity relationally, we can track its ability to change itself and determine whether its behavior is purposeful or purposeless in relation to that goal. As examples of random or purposeless machines, they cite a roulette wheel, or a clock, which — while seeking a certain outcome by design (a number or time) — have no specific behavioral relationship to these material goals: they do not readjust themselves in relation to their goal, and are therefore closed systems. Similarly, a gun can be designed to seek a certain target, but can also be used entirely without relation to any specified target, à la André Breton for whom the simplest surrealist act was to walk down the street, revolver in hand, shooting randomly into the crowd {2}. On the side of purposeful behavior, the authors cite the torpedo and the cat, two very un-surrealist entities that are capable of aligning themselves behaviorally with their targets — be it a ship or a mouse — and endlessly adjust their internal states in relationship to these material (or external) goals.

The words « purpose », « goal », and « teleology » are to be understood here as circular structures that define behavior actively, despite our western eschatological tendencies to see these processes as mere « ends », and thereby annul the actual activity itself. By placing an essential ingredient of internal activity outside of that activity’s core, an open relationship is defined that can no longer consider finality as an « end ». So while a bullet, a torpedo, and a cat all seek out certain « ends », it is only the latter two — the torpedo and the cat — that would do so purposefully as « voluntary activity » {3}. Another way of stating this principle, and avoiding the somewhat metaphysical attribute « voluntary », would be to say that the torpedo and the cat both react to and interact with their environment proactively, and by doing so define their behavior as profoundly « purposeful ». The purpose of their behavior is to maintain a specific relationship with their environment, and to be able to adapt themselves as that environment evolves. This maintenance in relation to their environment is in fact a form of dynamic modeling, and in a certain sense could be considered a construction of the environment itself. The « goal » therefore acts as the « model » — our present-day « algorithm » — that animates the machine or organism from within, in relation to environmental factors. As such, it is a temporal circularity that acts in strict contradistinction with the metaphysical notions of « finality » or « end » {4}.