Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2004 9
In sociology,systemstheory, associatedmainly with Niklas Luhmann(for an overview,seeNiklas Luhmann,
Die Gesellschaftder Gesellschaft
[Frankfurt,1997]) representsthe rathercontroversialand very complex attemptto researchsocietystartingfrom communicationrather than from people or the objectsof the world. Objects of sociologicalanalysisare thenﬁrst of all the ways and formsof communication,from which follow not only the conﬁgurationand the complexityof the conceptsused to considerthe world but also what, for a given socialformation,is the world: not an independentexternal datum but the external reference of communication.In this way, scienceand law, economicsand politics,religion,formalorganizations,love, and much else have been examined.For such an approach,the study of media is clearly central,even if at the moment there is no ﬁnished treatmentof this topic.Media, however, cannot appearas external instruments(typewriter,telephone, or televisionset) but as modalitiesthat conﬁgureand organizecommunication,ﬁrst of all as its internalarticulations,which will then use these instruments.
diaphragm diﬀusing denotations and connotations with the least possibleinterference; the medium intervenes, inﬂuences, constructs,ordistortsthemessage(dependingontheviewofthestudent).Butingeneralitisthoughtthat the central point is the spreading of communication beyond the im-mediate perceptual context (as in writing) or beyond the personalizedsphereofthepeopleandthingsoneknowsorcouldknow(aswiththeprint-ing press). This feature of the medium should then explain its cognitiveeﬀects, like the ability to abstract or to modalize, with their respectiveconsequences for the general organization of semantics. One starts fromtransmission and eventually returns to the recording and organizationof information.In section 1 I will propose an alternative conception, the one of socio-logical systems theory, which starts not from a concept of the medium as aunity but from the diﬀerence between medium and form.
As we will seein section 2, this leads to considerationofthefamiliartechnologiesofcom-munication from the point of view of their capacity to loosen and recom-bine the elements of the consolidated forms. Transmission, that is, thecapacity to reach more receivers and in diﬀerent ways, would then be only one of the aspects of this general reassessment of the relationship of thenecessary and the contingent, of the stable andthemutable,ofredundancy andvariety.Insection3thisapproachwillbetestedinthecasesofthemediaof writing and the printing press. In section 4 I will try to sketch the con-sequencesofthisapproachforthestillopenﬁeldofcomputersasamedium,speciﬁcally with regard to their communicative uses.
In the sociological view the problem of media is not primarily thestudy ofthefeaturesofsomeobjects,thatis,ofparticularinstrumentswithcertainpresuppositions and certain consequences. There is also this problem, of course, but prior to it there is the much more radical, self-referentialques-