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Observing Networks: A Note on Asymmetrical Social Forms

Cybernetics & Human Knowing 19, no. 4 (2012) 9-25

21 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2011 Last revised: 25 Jan 2013

Dirk Baecker

Witten/Herdecke University

Date Written: December 20, 2011


If modern society, based on the introduction of the printing press, has believed in reason and was sorely tried as a result, a next society, emerging with the introduction of computers, believes in ecology and is similarly finding little resolve in this belief. This paper looks at a combination of systems theory, cybernetics, and sociological theory in search of a tool for inquiring into contemporary social forms. The idea of observing networks, drawing on Heinz von Foerster's notion of observing systems and Harrison C. White's network calculus of identity and control, is outlined to enable basic sociological intuitions about social forms to be integrated with an understanding of both complexity and recursivity organizing our perspective on the human condition in a precarious world. Social forms are shown to gain robustness not from substantial identity but from relational ambiguity. Observing networks, or so the hypothesis goes, combine bodies, minds, society, and – soon perhaps – intelligent machines. The paper looks at how an understanding of complexity, recursivity, system, form, and network may help flesh out the calculus of our human condition.

Keywords: network, system, social form, observer

Suggested Citation

Baecker, Dirk, Observing Networks: A Note on Asymmetrical Social Forms (December 20, 2011). Cybernetics & Human Knowing 19, no. 4 (2012) 9-25. Available at SSRN: or

Dirk Baecker (Contact Author)

Witten/Herdecke University ( email )



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