Niklas Luhmann in the society of the computer - Dirk Baecker - 2001




Niklas Luhmann in the Society of the Computer ·

Baecker Dirk (Autor) · 2001 (2001)

Herausgeber:  · Verlag: Cybernetics And Human Knowing. Vol. 13, no. 2, pp. xx-xx · (Ed)
Sprache: English · Version: v1.00 (Volltext)
Jones, Stan ; Welle, Anna · Niklas Luhmann in der Gesellschaft der Computer. ·  · Merkur 55, no. 7 (2001), pp. 597-609, reprinted in: Dirk Baecker, Wozu Soziologie? Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2004, pp. 125-149.
Baecker Dirk: Niklas Luhmann in the Society of the Computer . In: (Hrg.), 20. April 2014. URL:
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We want to thank Prof Baecker for his support.

Cybernetics And Human Knowing. Vol. 13, no. 2, pp. xx-xx

Niklas Luhmann in the Society of the Computer [1]

Dirk Baecker [2]

PDF-Version of this article on Prof Baecker's webpage.

Niklas Luhmann is not exactly known for his thinking about a possible change of the society due to the introduction of the computer. His society is the modern society, based on the overall importance of the communication medium of the printing press. Yet, his double volume book on Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft is so rich in remarks about the possible influence of the introduction of the computer on the society, equal only to the introduction of, first, writing and, then, the printing press, that one might be tempted to consider this book his way to bid farewell to the modern culture of the society based on the printing press. Let us look at what modern society has achieved relying on a notion of order stemming, with only slight exaggeration, from the library, and then let us try to watch how this very same society has to find equally wide-ranging solutions to a society relying, for a dominant part of its communication, on an order adapted to the computing machine, or so he seems to tell us. This paper looks at Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft in terms of a theory of the emerging computer culture of a society we cannot any more call the modern one. And it proposes to call for a competition to complete one of the most speculative chapters of this book in which Luhmann attributes the central cultural notion, or theory form, of the literal society, telos, to Aristotle, of the printing press society, self-referential restlessness, to Descartes, and leaves the slot open for the one possibly defining the culture of the computer society, which is the theory form of the form.


Niklas Luhmann did not trust computers even as far as the other side of the street. In fact, he refused to entertain the possibility of continuing his copious and no longer transportable collection of file cards on a computer and pointed out that, when writing, he needed to spread out whatever file cards he was using next to him on the desk so that he could survey his topics and his argument. A computer’s screen was too small for his way of working. And what is more, computers seemed to him so prone to defects that he was worried about losing notes and texts if he worked with one. Instead, he worked right to the end on an electronic typewriter and maintained his file cards by hand. A footnote in his book Risk: A Sociological Theory is typical, where he quotes a footnote in which over 20 lines of small print list technical terms, which point out things to note regarding a computer system’s proneness to defects and their possible containment (Luhmann, 1993, p. 92, fn. 17, with reference to Ortmann, Windeler, Becker, & Schulz, 1990, p. 547, fn. 15).

As regards the widespread hope or concern, depending on your temperament, that computers could soon overtake the capacities of human consciousness, Luhmann tended not to worry. That certainly might be very possible, but it was scarcely problematical, as then computers might well be able perhaps to think and perceive, but would be far from communicating, as communication means not only exchanging signals but also dealing with lack of knowledge. Hence, computers could perhaps replicate the autopoiesis of consciousness but certainly not the autopoiesis of communication. Accordingly, we can read in his book Organisation und Entscheidung:

Communication actually arises only under the precondition of a mutual lack of transparency, which includes the lack of transparency of systems in themselves. You do not know about yourself and others, and so talking, writing, printing, broadcasting happens. What cannot be operatively and structurally grasped in what has been constructed by “people” in history so far would lie for computers in the peculiarity of social systems rather than in that of psychic ones. The refuge for humanists would then not lie in consciousness or the subjectivity of the human being, but in the autopoiesis of communication, or, to make it tasty for them: in culture. (Luhmann, 2000, p. 377)

Mistrust over their proneness to defects, along with reassurances relating to their capacity to communicate, is however, not Luhmann’s last word on computers. They are, in fact, part of a considerably more complex observation of computers, which always brings in tandem the suspicion that computers, like writing earlier and then printing somewhat later, have already caused more profound change in society than society is already conscious of and is opening up its theory to.

For that reason, Luhmann did not neglect any opportunity of considering how the introduction of computers possibly affected organizations and functional systems. That computers, as always defect-prone albeit functioning technology, play a significant role in unburdening communication from tasks connected with integrating individuals, because they are not only indubitably perceptible but intervene every time in communication with directives as to what is to be done next, all that plays the least important role here. And the growing dependence of the organisation too, and that of its customers as well, on computers’ functioning, was, much rather, part of Luhmann’s constant reference to the highly risky dependence of society on technology and particularly on energy. He used to like telling the story of how he was held up for hours at an airport because the computer refused to check anyone in, and the staff could not transfer to checking in by hand, because there were no suitable forms or possibilities for checking bookings. That society was, to this extent, risking the transfer of production facilities, official processes, hospitals, airports, databases, communications networks, legal aid (and police custody), virtual sex, confession, enjoying the arts and, as next move, political elections too onto energy-dependent technology, that was a source of permanent amazement to Luhmann.

He was also worried that people were too much bound physically to the interfaces with computers, something that would lead “to the chance meetings of freely circulating bodies decreasing” (Luhmann, 1997, p. 309). That would also apply even if the devices were portable and it was worrying, because society had more to thank chance for than it has all technically-enabled communication. It would be good to know how Luhmann, who did not experience the successful march of the mobile phone and the internet, would have pronounced on the way they provide society with the possibility of new chance encounters. As no other communication before it, the mobile phone does indeed intensify interactive relations beyond the bounds of physical presence, but it also allows these relations to be strung together extremely loosely. And the proverbial surfing in the internet does seem once again to fail in fulfilling the hopes raised, yet again, for a transparent society; that changes, however, nothing about the way search engines, portals and databases list intended and unintended contacts together and so give chance new latitude.


It was, in fact, clear to Luhmann that the results of introducing computers as a medium extending communication went beyond these already considerable effects on an increasing dependence on technology. Two things particularly struck him: networked computers as knowledge databases and the screen. “What we can actually observe,” so he wrote in Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (The Society of Society), are connective networks operating globally to gather, assess and re-assess data, in the medical area, for instance, which operate via limitations to specific themes but not to territories” (1997, p. 304). Meanwhile these networks have long been transcending the realm of medicine. In fact, there is certainly no longer any topic which is not registered connectively. With that, the questions about combining, accessing and also trusting knowledge reach new dimensions, which have been discussed for a long while now under the keywords information society and knowledge society. Among other things, the not unimportant difference between laypersons and experts is not being flattened out, as was widely anticipated, in many social relations, like the areas of engineering, health, education and consulting, but shifted up to a higher level, on which it becomes more difficult to separate technical, economic and legal questions and to deal with them separately from each other. The interaction between laypersons and experts thus becomes more prone to defects and with that, which is not the least of it, more socially sensitive too, because we cannot depend any more on familiar mechanisms and signals of individual dependence and individual trust.

In the long term, this will considerably modify the working capacity of functional systems, which all have a professional core based in the asymmetry of experts and laypersons. Politics, economics, education, science, art, medicine and religion will either constitute themselves anew on the basis of a new professionalism not solely drawing on knowledge, or incur difficulties in preserving their autopoiesis. We can observe today how doctors, medical researchers, managers, educationalists, lawyers, therapists, and consultants point to their expertise not in dealing with what we know but with what we do not know and try to gain new authority from that. But that is a risky game, as what we do not know counts more as problem than a skill according to the standards of the modern, library-learned, print-oriented society. Socratic irony has long signalled a sovereign handling of the human inclination to an uninformed over-evaluation of the self. But it does not count as self-defining heuristics. Now, however, the question may concern just that.

The other point Luhmann accords any systematic relevance is the computer screen. That is because it alters the relationship of surface and depth, which was previously determined by religion and art but now receives a new sort of urgency. In religion, we were used to discerning prophecies from patterns of lines on tortoise shells or in the entrails of animals or the flight of birds. And in art, we had employed ornaments to emphasis meanings, which could not be uttered but only indicated. In this way, a relationship was ingrained between accessible surface and inaccessible depth, from which heuristic systems, as in critiques of ideology or in psychoanalysis, could later profit as well.

Computers also profit from this relationship. And they changed it.

The surface is now the screen with extremely limited demands on human senses; depth, by contrast, is the invisible machine, which is today in a position to alter its structure from minute to minute, for example, in response to commands. The connection between surface and depth can be re-established via commands, which instruct the machine to make something visible on the screen or in print. It remains itself invisible. (Luhmann, 1997, p. 304)

As invisible as was once (and today) only that hand, which organized the market according to Adam Smith, the machine is in a position to deal with data entered according to the parameters of its own programmes in such a way that they are not only ordered but how they were processed and who entered them cannot be discerned from the display of the data on the screen or in print. The computer user believes they control the machine, because nothing happens independently of their commands. But they know that they do not, because they have no insight into what the machine does in its functions.

This description of computers in comparison to religion or art makes clear some of the fascinations, which routinely accompany computers and have led to the establishment of many areas of life—expert cultures just as much as everyday cultures—which do not want to imagine a life without computers any longer, less because of their actual performance than because of this fascination. The more networked computers are, that means the more they acquire not only data but also programmes from the net and share in the invisible use of other invisible machines’ capacities, the stronger the fascination.

These two points about the processing of knowledge and the invisible machines behind the surfaces of the screens are themselves sufficient to impel Luhmann to build a spot of indeterminacy into his theory of society. The consequences of introducing computers into society are so unpredictable that every theory of society should anticipate “a place of indeterminacy” so as not to lose sight of this unpredictability (Luhmann, 1997, p. 118).


Luhmann, nevertheless, does not shy from defining this spot of indeterminacy for itself, which means explicating the framework within which as yet unpredictable definitions can be undertaken. The computer defines today’s sole predictable alternative to the structural linkage of consciousness and communication. That needs explaining.

We live in a society, where for millennia a co-evolutionary development has determined that consciousness capable of perception participates in a communication, which cannot perceive itself. Prizes, declarations of love, truths, prayers and commands are sensorially blind and regulate their connections strictly communicatively and can only accommodate any attention to perception indirectly, and that means only via the detour through communication able to attract, fascinate, and convince participating consciousnesses. Prizes, then, must carry a reflection in ethics, declarations of love be accompanied by sensitive gestures, truths guaranteed empirically, prayers believed and commands underpinned by threats, so that consciousness has sufficient cause to compare its own perception of the world with these communicative offers.

The software of computers, however, is invisible to perception and incomprehensible to communication, and yet it functions all the same. In this respect, computers resemble the world which is, as a whole, invisible and incomprehensible as well. Where computers differ from the world is that they cannot be understood after the pattern of halfway stable, if also corruptible circumstances, but must be understood as machines always sequentially calculating circumstances anew. That is why we speak of a virtual reality and an artificial intelligence. Both have their own ways to produce and reproduce themselves, depending, as it were, from interaction interfaces which, however, rather add to their unpredictability instead of reducing it to causal coupling. And that is why, Luhmann says, computers are an alternative to the structural linkage of communication and consciousness. Both communication and consciousness find ways to interact with computers because they seem to have their ways as up to now only communication and consciousness, apart from a sometimes whimsical nature, seemed to have had.

However, that also means that no phenomenon presents a harder test to Luhmann’s sociology and theory of society than computers. I maintain that Luhmann was more aware of this fact than the frequency of rather sparse points relating to computers in his work as a whole would lead us to believe. When Luhmann says that computers, as a distributive medium, sunder the difference of information and message, which constitutes communication, still further than do writing and printing already, then he is not only saying that this medium still falls within the catchment of his theory of communication, but also that it resides at the borders of that catchment.

For, if the relation between information and message is totally abandoned in the distributive medium of communication, as Friedrich Kittler’s theory of the media moots, so that, as Luhmann would say, communication happens without understanding, then for Luhmann’s theory there arises the critical case: communication that no longer lends itself to description through his theory of communication which insists on the necessity of a synthesis of the tree selections of information, utterance, and understanding. We would actually be faced with a secrecy system, which only the crypto-analytical procedures designed and respectively promoted by Claude E. Shannon can cope with. Communication would become nature, and we with it.

Previously, it was the rule in human history that all information could be tested not only for itself but also against the circumstance of its communication, so that we had the possibility of accepting a perhaps clumsy declaration of love because it comes from the beloved, or of rejecting an idea of God, as grandiose as it may be, because it was formulated by an all too earthly priest. We could reject or accept a communication on grounds other than those, which had been sent along with it. That was what first constituted society in the single but vital degree of freedom in the option for dealing with communication. And that was what first caused to flourish institutions and systems, which indeed wanted to regulate this degree of freedom, yet, in doing that, can only delineate it anew. What we understood by communication was never to be reduced either to the issue itself or to the intention of the person communicating, but it possessed its free space in the shifting perspective betwixt issue and intent and its circumstantially differing, situational contents. We had our way out—and not only by breaking off the communication. On the contrary, through interpretation we could give it a new twist, albeit never, in fact, a random one, as a new twist depends in its turn on relations of relation to other issues.

If computers sever the connection between information and message, which is still recognizable in writing and print via paratexts (Gérard Genette), through idiosyncratic and invisible calculating processes making intentions just as inaccessible as informative contexts, communication becomes empirically incomprehensible and theoretically impossible. Communicative behavior reduces down to itself, as this previously was only possible for lunatics and the violent. And information calculates peculiar circumstances from peculiar circumstances, without having any teleological, causal or cybernetic rules of limitation at its disposal. Every disturbance suffices to pitch it into upheaval anew. That is the reason why we regard robots’ new forms of intelligence so suspiciously and, if in doubt, opt rather for madness and violence.


It was clear to Luhmann that how computers intervene in circumstances of communication—made first visible only thanks to his theory—defines the true test of his theory’s utility. And he did not hesitate to make this test explicit and to allot it a particular place in his theory. For this reason, the book Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft contains a scarcely concealed section, indicating the maximum claim, which the book advances and on which it can founder. It is this final section XIV of chapter two, thus concluding Luhmann’s theory of communication media just before embarking for his theory of evolution in chapter three, which contains the speculation this paper is taking its starting point from.

The introduction of writing just as much as printing, as Luhmann puts it in this section which is rather an excursus to an albeit sceptically assessed possibility of a theory of culture, has led society into developing what he calls theory forms, by which the results of this introduction can be not only processed but also exploited. The theory form, in reaction to writing, we know, so Luhmann has it, under the name of Aristotle, the theory form, in reaction to printing, under the name of Descartes (Luhmann, 1997, p. 410-412). The question arises as to whether there is a theory form, which reacts to computers and whether we can put a name to it. Luhmann sketches the theory form but he allots it no name. Of course, that can have many grounds, above all the fact that the choice of theoreticians and philosophers, in the twentieth century alone, is too big and imponderable. It can also have something to do with the fact that the theory form itself is not visible in all of its contours and, therefore, cannot, and if only for purposes of memory, be attributed to one name. In my opinion, we cannot, however, rule out Luhmann allowing himself the joke of also being able to imagine his own name here. Because it would be less modesty that forbids utterance as much as the possibility of signalling a piece of self-testing, which leads to not declaring the name. Luhmann seldom hesitates at other times to point to his own writings and, with that, to his own name, even if he also, that we must add, never spoke of his theory but always only, if at all, of his language. That, however, plays into the hands of my supposition, as the theory form lodges in a considerably more extensive and responsive form in the language than in the theory itself.

His claim would, in any case, be admittedly the greatest. If the self-testing were successful, then the name of Luhmann could be spoken in the same breath as the names Aristotle and Descartes. The names ought, of course, not to be confused with the persons, as it is a question of abbreviations for the characterization of theory forms, on which numerous authors had cooperated in each case. But the choice of such an abbreviation is not fortuitous. It would need to have to a work the sort of links that the work could attribute to itself.

The point where Luhmann includes this self-testing stands out conspicuously. The theory forms, which he here sketches out, are not frameworks for theories of society but frameworks for theories of culture. And that makes them frameworks for a type of theory, the possibility of which is, accordingly, assessed only sceptically, because the theory of culture is a theory of the ways and means a society uses to deal with excess in the allotments of meaning. Even if the accent lies on the relations, and theory is, therefore, possible in the sense Luhmann adopts from Hegel: designation of the form of transitions (Luhmann, 2000, p. 56; cf., Luhmann, 2002), the theory of culture has, nonetheless, to do with excesses and in that with a phenomenon, which cannot be circumscribed theoretically but only speculatively. Luhmann includes the self-testing at a point, the reliability of which he indicates does not really convince him. It is not his theory of society but his eventual contribution to a theory of culture, which is here up for discussion. He could fail in the self-testing and yet consider his theory of society valid. But his disclaimer only applies in part. Because he does then himself introduce the possibility of a theory of culture, just now adjudged with scepticism, after all. And he does this through the object at the limits of what he considers possible, computers.

The self-testing is easy to perform. We only have to match up the theory form of Aristotle with writing and the theory form of Descartes with printing in such a way, that we get pointers to the sort of theory form hovering before Luhmann for computers and for what share he himself has in the genesis of this theory form.


All three new developments, that of writing, that of printing, that of computers, we can best imagine as catastrophes in the mathematical sense, that is, as brutal leaps, which enable a system to survive, when it actually should have ceased existing (Thom, 1980, p. 86). The system reacts to a disturbance occurring, which outstrips all its parameters by leaping up to a new level of existence.

According to Luhmann, writing and printing are catastrophes, which the system of society has only survived by no longer reproducing itself on the level of first order observation but on the level of second order observation (see also Luhmann, 1992). Texts make it impossible to come to an agreement on the practical level just because they try to do this, and consequently there are so many of them. Instead, we reach agreement on permitting a level of various texts on whatever issues. We do not quarrel about being right as observers, but we accept ourselves as observers who, according to the differentiation chosen, respectively see some things and miss many others. Of course, it takes centuries for this solution to establish itself on the level of the system of society, and politics orientates itself no longer towards power but towards its chances of power, business no longer towards profit but towards the market, love no longer towards sex but towards seduction, education no longer towards knowledge but towards its assessment, art no longer towards beauty but towards acceptability, science no longer towards truth but towards proof, and morality no longer towards values but towards justification. Yet, all the same, it is exactly this which, as, in the words of Norbert Elias, the “process of civilization,” distinguishes those societies no longer only oral.

This is well known as a topic in the theory of society and does not need explicating here. Less known and more difficult to deal with is the question as to how society has survived the respective catastrophes of writing, printing and computers. What has enabled it to make the leap in each case from one level of reproduction to another? Luhmann indicates that he can imagine theory forms as bottleneck factors. That is because something must have made it possible for society to get to grips with the explosive excesses of sensory signals from each new broadcast medium. If a society only communicates orally, the secrets of religion and the taboos of morality suffice to provide an image for the limits of society, behind which the uncanny begins, and to regulate the behavior of those persons, who are its most important suppliers of memory. Writing, however, blows up the world of these taboos by making the moralizing in morality obvious and hence provides reasons, with an eye to whoever is sending the message, for withdrawing ourselves from its impositions. Hence, for a while the attempt is made to amalgamate morality with religion, so that the sender can be subsumed into God’s protection.

Society opens itself to the richness of sensory signals, which can no longer be regulated by secrets and taboos. Each text confronts us with a mass of possible decisions only now visible, which not only call upon philosophy to get them into order, but also need a system with which they can be ordered. Aristotle provided this system with teleology, the semantics of purposes. Differentiations of all kinds can be made as long as they succeed in organizing themselves into a cosmology of the whole via reference to a purpose they serve. Doing that is less a question of actually carrying out this order, however numerous these attempts may be right up to today, than rather of having at all available a criterion for selection in dealing with each particular differentiation. Because the culture, which is now discovered, does not consist in the organisation of all purposes but in being able to regulate the transitions between individual communications and with that communication itself as a form of transition. If in doubt, purpose is help. And if no purpose is in sight, communication can be discerned without any anxiety about consequential problems (which are maybe not lacking because of that).

In this new cultural circumstance of selection, society can reproduce itself in the context of teleology. It provides itself with a memory of the aimless violence of oral society in the shape of theatre and it introduces, guided by the goals of the moment, the semantics of love, commerce, politics, art, education and religion, which the later functional systems can latch onto. It systematizes its systems of personal relations, which it knows about from earlier forms of society, and it sorts out the differences nevertheless appearing in language and semantics by sorting them into domains. Families and religions become, according to Luhmann, the guarantees for the stability of the society of writing. And on the basis of these guarantees, a variety of possible forms of society (cultures) can arise.

Printing is the next catastrophe, because now texts can be compared with each other and hence systematically criticized thanks to their reproduction, so that criticism on a wider scale than ever before becomes a new form of heuristics, of which we will realize too late that it cannot be contained teleologically. In the ordering of purposes, the disorder of purposes becomes apparent. They are inconsistent among themselves and contradictory. They are imprecise in selecting acceptable means and they are temporally anything but stable: al-in-all as windy as values are today. Excesses in indicating meaning explode again and allow political, commercial, educational, religious, legal possibilities to become visible, which cannot be brought under control by any utopian scripture whatever. Pamphlets, paper money, exam certificates, permits, opinions on art and court decisions, to say nothing of books and newspapers, are only governed any longer by how much the printing press can turn out.

What now? The world gyrates wildly and finds itself temporarily in this state and then in the next. There is only one thing for it, namely, a method for clarifying all concepts and thoughts. And, as it is safe to assume that will not be available at the drop of a hat, a morale par provision, which keeps us going in the meantime. It is in the promulgation of this morality, which recommends setting ourselves up comfortably, as long as we are building a new house, sticking with the convictions of the wisest heads, as long as we cannot prove our own beyond doubt, coming across as decisive, so that we do not at least go round in circles, and changing much rather our own wishes—that comes easier—than changing the way the world is, where lies Descartes’ achievement.

This morality still does not, however, provide a new theory form. It follows the oldest precepts from antiquity. It confirms the tenor of a teaching on cleverness, which has been kept up from the Stoics via the Mirrors of Princes as far as today’s treatises on the art of living. It defines an attitude towards the products of printing as well, but not yet any theory form, which could take the place of the Aristotelian semantics of purpose.

What is important is that this attitude creates the space, in which Descartes can occupy himself with his goal of finding the method for clarifying all concepts and thoughts. And what does he find? Doubt about all conceivable and imaginable points of departure, including the world and his body in the world. Whilst he is, however, doubting, he cannot be in doubt about one thing: that he thinks. Thought follows thought and certainly does not find either the purpose of everything nor the sought-after method, but does find its own continuation. Descartes concludes that he himself exists and that there is a God, because the idea of perfection, which in turn complements his own imperfection, must for that reason certainly correspond to a reality.

The theory form conceals itself in this constellation of morality, doubt, thinking and a notion of God. Descartes does not formulate it, but Luhmann discovers it. It is self-referential restlessness. Only self-referential restlessness can guarantee that thought follows thought, when everything else is subject to doubt, itself a purveyor of restlessness too. Like the balance spring in a clockwork, restlessness is central to the rationality of the modern period as well: we cannot hold onto the purposes, but we can keep on comparing the means with each other, how fit they are to the purpose, and swap between purposes, when the state of the means makes this seem opportune.

With that, the excess of meaning produced by printing is once again not organized, but a criterion for selection is provided, which can regulate dealings with excess. This restlessness is able not only to depict the experiences of reading and writing, as Montaigne, for instance, lent them particularly pointed expression, namely experiences of a loss of written meaning, which are, à la longue, rather more confirmed by the idea of education than they are compensated for, but it can also be built into the developing functional systems as a motor and a regulator. No business without the question whether possible profits do not accrue higher somewhere else; no politics without the question as to how long our own power remains secure; no science without the question whether a competitor will succeed in the discovery earlier; no love without the question as to how long faithfulness can be assumed on both sides. It is not the questions that are new here, but that they, as indexes of self-referential restlessness, bring about a style and become the actual foundation, on which everything else rises up as a structural gain, competition in business, democracy in politics, publication in science, passion in love. Descartes’ theory form reacts to the phenomenon of printing and defines the modern society. Self-referential restlessness means not being content with any interrelations but to be always working on them.

The guarantees of stability in the society of printing cannot lie any longer in families and in the regions. No dynasty and no territory is a match for this sort of restlessness. In its place, certainly without making them redundant, there step in, according to Luhmann, the libraries and the functional systems. The librarians provide the rubrics, under which politics can and must recognize itself as politics, business as business, science as science and then also art as art and religion as religion. The concomitant structures of their autopoietic reproduction rush on ahead of the semantic systems allotted to them. That we have to be able to justify what we intend to do is an idea, which can only now be imagined and which straightaway equips self-referentiality, which now becomes the only dependable point of reference, with the obligation to immediately come up with that sort of reason, which is administered in the libraries.

Descartes’ theory form defines self-referential restlessness as the cultural form of the society of printing. Every intellectual—precisely where, since Rousseau, he has been taking the critique of culture into his colors—cooperates with this form of culture and ensures that nothing escapes the functional systems, that could perhaps still oppose them from the viewpoint of unquestioned purposes and values. Under the name of modernity, society reestablishes itself as fashioned in its own likeness and still celebrates its own principle in those movements, trends and traditions, which protest against it. But it is not over the fact that protest cannot affect it, but over the fact that it has succeeded right up to the present in stylizing its own cultural form as surface—which only distorts the view of howsoever reliable structures (of capital, for example, the apotheosis of restlessness)—that we can and should be amazed.

That is why Luhmann was all his life in the dilemma of having,first of all, to write the theory for the society of printing to accompany the theory of the society of computers, so that we can understand what is at stake. We can only comprehend that introducing computers still does present a catastrophe in the mathematical sense, when we have a feeling for what sort of other catastrophes the society already has behind it and how precarious are, then, the levels of the respective situation, on which it has always reestablished itself up to now. So Luhmann has to risk going down in the history of sociology as a theoretician of functional systems, although these, as he well knew, are really nothing new in the history of sociology. In fact, Luhmann is not concerned in the books on the history of the structure of society and semantics with proving that these functional systems arise in the 17th and 18th centuries, but with tracing the ways and means society used to survive the catastrophe of printing. Only in this way, so he believed, could he furnish the ways of asking and the conceptual means, which make it possible to observe the catastrophe represented by the introduction of computers in the 20th century.

Yet how this catastrophe can be observed is anything but clear-cut. Drawing conclusions through allegories rules itself out, when we see how diverse the theory forms are, which reacted to the introduction of writing and printing and how varied seem the guarantees of stability, which society re-invents every time. There is no one step leading from the purpose to the self-referential restlessness or from the families to the libraries. Only the problems remain the same, the production of excesses of meaning, and the solution to them, the definition of strongly selective forms of transition from one communication to the next.

In the case of the introduction of computers, there arises the additional problem that we experience the catastrophe as contemporaries and so cannot assume for a moment that we can already understand how society deals with it. That is the reason why Luhmann goes about posing the problem so carefully and observes the society of computers so unspectacularly. He does ascertain that computers as a transmission medium affect the possibility of a concept of communication at its core, but with that he also leaves almost anything to do with the observation of society to one side. He chooses another path. He takes, to overstate it somewhat, his own interest in ‘theory’ as a proof that something is going on here that could already have something to do with the introduction of computers. That is because, with Luhmann, there is no doubt that it is not individual observation and reflection, but only the distributed intelligence of theory that would be in a position to define a new form of culture, which would betimes prove itself capable of discernment in the face of the excesses of meaning produced by computers. Just because he considers society itself as already sufficiently improbable, can he occupy himself optimistically with the question of how it would actually manage the next leap. That is what explains his insistence on systems theory, which is not by chance on a quite habitually familiar footing with computers through the detour via informatics and cybernetics and, as a theory of difference, does not only provide the starting point for a theory of computers but also for a theory of computers-in-society.

We have to quote more fully than usual here to allow Luhmann’s approach to the sought-after theory form to become clear. “What can arise from the situation,” that in the practical dimension of meaning computers also de-couple communication in its components information, message and comprehension, “that escapes,” according to Luhmann, “at the moment even the boldest speculations.” And further:

All the same we can already observe new trends in the cognitive treatment of such circumstances, which are starting to influence the form and order of knowledge. The point of departure is a principally operative and then procedural (Herbert Simon!) understanding of reality—with or without “autopoiesis.” This leads to imagining an ineffable complexity and further to work on cognitive structures, which depart from time and, for example in the form of calculations, postulate re-applications at other points in time. Such temporally abstract models of operative sequences principally depending on time (historical ones) explode the classical concept of movement, which can only be recognized by the difference from something consistent, and, with that, the differentiations of mobile/immobile, dynamism/stasis, and so forth. What appears in their place, if we can indeed understand the reconstruction of knowledge at all as this sort of substitution process, cannot be made out with any certainty—all progress in areas like cognitive sciences, artificial intelligence, computer linguistics and the new mathematics of the unexpectable notwithstanding—in any case, not by a sociologist, who can only react to already recognizable social facts. (Luhmann, 1997, pp. 310-311)

And in another place: “The connection,” between computers on the one side and psychic and social systems on the other side,

seems to require making forms temporal. We no longer start out from established configurations, which can be judged by the codes of the functional systems as true or not true, useful or not useful and so on, but each determination produces an undefined space and in it, another side, which can only be defined via further operations (with the same results). With these ‘transclassic’ machines (reference to Gotthard Günther), it is no longer a question of potent instruments alone, although they can be so understood and used in practical contexts, but it is a question of determining forms which permit a richer differentiation and designation, with as yet unforeseeable consequences for the communications system that is society. In any case, along with the ability, the in-ability (recognisable from just that) also seems to increase. The possibilities of arguing with recourse to the invisible machine are clearly declining and the proneness to defects is increasing. (Luhmann, 1997, p. 305).

In the section where Luhmann conceals the self-testing, it reads laconically that the form of culture equal to the introduction of computers will have to react to “the acceleration of control operations by certainly renouncing the positive view of durability” (Luhmann, 1997, p. 412).


Is this enough to discern the theory form, or at least, a theory form by Luhmann? If we add the extraordinarily explosive methodological preface—already as such highly unusual for Luhmann, who taxed Max Weber, of instance, with his pedantic interest in methodology—in which Luhmann puts forward nothing less than a form concept of society, we gradually approach the suggestion remaining implicit in it. Every theory of society, according to Luhmann, could not endure as such simply through the usual research into variables in the topic under investigation, but must consider “that the relationship of inclusion and exclusion is regulated by the social systems themselves”; and that otherwise “the application of meaning in social systems also carries indications of unknown factors, of exclusions, of inexpressibilities, of gaps in information and of our own ignorance” (Luhmann, 1997, p. 37-38). The choice of italics by Luhmann should already warn us against inferring here a reference to methodological problems only interesting to experts in empirical social research. Indeed Luhmann here defines his object. And here he reveals what concept is for him crucial in his theory of society.

It is the concept of form in the framework, which the mathematician George Spencer-Brown gave it (Spencer Brown, 1969). That is because only this concept is equal to computers as that transclassical machine, as Gotthard Günther describes them (Günther, 1963). Whilst the classical machine can be recognized through its moving parts doing work, the transclassical machine only has to do with processing information. Cybernetics, whatever that achieves otherwise, is the theory of this machine, which does not work but directs and steers critically. For that reason, the form of culture, which is equal to the society of computers, can only persist in some sort of observing attitude towards information.

The book Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft knows information, in tandem with the concept of risk, almost only as “a product of decay” and is surprised at the way we can talk about an “information society” on this basis (Luhmann, 1997, p. 1088). Like every social scientist of his generation, Luhmann does not take up with Claude E. Shannon and his, as yet the most precise, definition of information, although he too, like all post-war social science and social philosophy, is anything but unimpressed by this definition. Above all, the grandiose essay “Meaning as fundamental Concept of Sociology,” which marks out the arena of the confrontation (not only) with Jürgen Habermas, can be read in this sense (Luhmann, 1971; there is still no English translation available).

Information, as Shannon had unambiguously determined, even if under the guise of the telecommunication engineers’ probability theory, only comes about by any message being read as a selection from a set of other possible messages (Shannon & Weaver, 1963, p. 31). No reading of the selection—no understanding of the message. The simplest case of that is the alphabet, in which each letter can only be understood because it is a letter of this alphabet. Nothing, apart from the indignation over the fact that the meaning of a message should be accessible at all to mathematics and to an engineer, can hinder the use of the same concept as well in all those cases, where the set of other possible messages is not technically defined but socially disputed. And nothing can hinder using the sender/channel/interference/receiver model, so often decried, in this way too, where, if Shannon’s own concept is right, communication is “made possible, so to speak, from behind” (Luhmann, 1995, p.143) and meaning as much “determined by the hearer” (von Foerster & Poerksen, 1998, p. 100), as Luhmann and Heinz von Foerster could only want it to be. That is because information only comes about if the sender, just as much as the hearer, is deemed to have invented and constructed, to different respective degrees, the area of selection, in the light of which the message actually chosen can then be understood. For that reason, no one sentence, like: “I love you,” resembles another.

In our context, the crux of these reflections is that this way of dealing with information can certainly not be attributed to the computers Gotthard Günther was talking about, but certainly can be to any communication (Baecker, 2005). For this very reason, Luhmann, in his theory of society, comes down to the concept of form, which makes this relationship of a marked state to an unmarked state into the foundation for everything else. Information becomes a particular case out of the general run, and one which does not consider any definition at all of anything whatsoever as possible without differentiation of what is definite before anything else and without reading in this differentiation.

If this is the case, then with it there would be found not only a yardstick, which can enable the observation of the striving towards artificial intelligence, above all the distributed, according to whatever is the prevailing status of technology. By contrast, a criterion would be formulated which could serve as a framework for any processing of information and, with that, for observation, howsoever critical or howsoever obliging. Whatever excess of meaning computers produce, we could reckon it down to the forms still possible then. And even then, when computers themselves begin to calculate using forms, hence beginning to process not only using what we know, but also what we do not know, we will still be observing social and psychic systems to see in what forms we reproduce ourselves. That is why communication and consciousness are, according to Luhmann, switching to processing in temporized forms. And that is why we need a form concept, which no longer, as with Aristotle, differentiates form from matter and no longer, as in the aesthetics of the 18th century, form from content, but locates in form itself the operation of self-reference, and with that including what it has to exclude. That works only in the paradoxical sense that the temporized form is the reusable form, as tested out not least by Derrida’s concept of writing. And it only works in as far as the modern concept of the present—which has opted too quickly for the fleeting in place of the self-renewing, against the old European, and no longer supportable, concept of eternity—will presumably have to be thought over again (Luhmann, 1997, p. 997). Under these preconditions, however, it could be that we will one day know form as that form of culture, which makes it possible for us to deal with computers, and Luhmann, along with George Spencer-Brown, as the name standing for the theory form applicable.


I do not want to indulge myself in speculations here, as to what could comprise the guarantee of stability, which will give the society of computers its form. The libraries and the functional systems seem for various reasons just as disposable as were once families and religions. All of them will be newly and differently constituted on a new level of reproduction of society. The only thing that seems certain to me is that society’s present disinterest in sociology has also got something to do with sociology as yet tending to fail in developing and applying a new theory form. In the last lines of the passage, which has occupied us here, Luhmann points the way to a genetic analysis, working with the means of evolutionary theory, and gives this analysis its first shape in the chapter of his book following on from it. But for Luhmann it is also true that the sociology now needed is hidden in his book rather than worked out there. And so much the greater are, mind you, his chances of coming through the self-testing.


Baecker, D. (2005): Form und Formen der Kommunikation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Günther, G. (1963): Das Bewufltsein der Maschinen: Eine Metaphysik der Kybernetik. Krefeld: agis. Correct?

Luhmann, N. (1971): Sinn als Grundbegriff der Soziologie. In J. Habermas and N. Luhmann, Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie: Was leistet die Systemforschung? (pp. 25-100). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. Luhmann, N (1992): The form of writing. Stanford Literature Review, 9, 25-42. Luhmann, N (1993): Risk: A sociological theory. New York: de Gruyter. Luhmann, N. (1995): Social systems. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

Luhmann, N. (1997): Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. Luhmann, N. (2000): Organisation und Entscheidung. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verl. Luhmann, N. (2002): The modern sciences and phenomenology. In N. Luhmann, Theories of distinction: Redescribing

the descriptions of modernity (pp. 33-60, William Rasch, Ed.).Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Ortmann, G., Windeler, A., Becker, A., & Schulz, H.-J. (1990). Computer und Macht in Organisationen:

Mikropolitische Analysen. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verl. Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (1963): The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, IL: Illinois University

Press Spencer Brown, G. (1969): Laws of form. London: Allen and Unwin.

Thom, R. (1980): Modéles mathématiques de la morphogenése ( 2nd ed.). Paris: Bourgeois. von Foerster, H., & Poerksen, B. (1998). Wahrheit ist die Erfindung eines Lügners: Gespräche für Skeptiker. Heidelberg: Carl Auer.


  1. The paper is the translation of the German paper “Niklas Luhmann in der Gesellschaft der Computer.”Merkur 55, no. 7 (2001), pp. 597-609, reprinted in: Dirk Baecker, Wozu Soziologie? Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2004, pp. 125-149. Paper translated by Stan Jones and Anja Welle.
  2. ChairofSociology,UniversityofWitten/Herdecke,Germany.Internet:

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