Feedforward, I. A. Richards, Cybernetics and Marshall McLuhan

Robert K. Logan


Abstract: I. A. Richards development of feedforward is reviewed. The impact of feedforward on the work of Marshall McLuhan is then surveyed and shown to have influenced his use of figure/ground, the user as content, the content of a new medium is some older medium, the use of the probe, effects preceding cause, avoidance of a point of view and roles versus jobs.

The term feedback is a commonly used term that most people are familiar with. Googling the term feedback resulted in about 2.48 billion hits. Less familiar is the term feedforward, which elicited only about 2 million hits less than 1% of the hits for feedback. The concept of feedforward, which I will introduce to you in this essay, is a very powerful concept that was first formulated by I. A. Richards in 1951 and which subsequently had an important impact on the work of Marshall McLuhan. The thesis that I intend to develop in this essay is that I. A. Richards? notion of feedforward had a feedforward effect of the work of Marshall McLuhan and helped McLuhan or at the very least influenced McLuhan to develop a number of his key ideas, including:

1.    his notion of figure/ground,

2.    the user is the content,

3.    the content of a new medium is some older medium,

4.    the use of the probe as a research tool,

5.    the idea that effects can precede causes, and

6.    the notion that a point of view is best avoided in doing research.  

7.    the prevalence of roles versus jobs in the electric age.

We will first examine Richards? development and use of the notion of feedforward in his study of rhetoric and then study how the notion of feedforward impacted McLuhan?s approach to the study of media.

I. A. Richards? area of research was rhetoric, which he considered to be more than just the art of persuasion. Richards was concerned with the accuracy of human communication. He considered the field of rhetoric to be about finding remedies for avoiding misunderstandings and hence improving communication as well as understanding how words work. He believed the notion of feedforward was an important tool for achieving these ends. Feedforward is basically a form of pragmatics where pragmatics is the use of context to assist meaning.

Richards considered his formulation of feedforward to have been one of his most important accomplishments. In an article entitled The Secret of ?Feedforward? he was invited to write for the Saturday Review summing up his life?s work, he wrote,

The process by which any venture of [a] creative sort finds itself, and so pursues its end, is something I have learned, I hope, something about. Indeed, I am not sure I have learned anything else as important? I realize now what a prime role belongs to what I called ?feedforward? in all our doings. Feedforward, as I see it, is the reciprocal, the necessary condition of what the cybernetics and automation people call ?feedback.?

The term feedforward according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was first introduced into the English language by I. A. Richards in 1951 at the 8th Macy Conference entitled Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems in a talk entitled ?Communication Between Men: The Meaning of Language.?