Societies as communication systems

Some common definitions of society are

  • the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community,
  • the community of people living in a particular country or region and having shared customs, laws, and organizations,
  • people considered as a group, or a group of people who live together in a particular social system.

But in social systems theory, the word society refers not to people but to communication. Society is not an aggregate of human beings; it does not grow or shrink with births and deaths. Individual people are born and die, but as long as communication continues the society continues. A society does not have a size; it is measured in time rather than size. A society exists in time because communication happens in time, not space. From an outside observer’s perspective, societies have beginning and ends. However, from the perspective of the society (its self-observation), the beginning and end are unknown and inconceivable because the past and future are uncrossable horizons.

In earlier ages, a society would be a communication system limited to a particular geographical area; so we can speak of the Inca society, Aztec society, Maori society, etc. There would be little to no communication outside of such as society; it would likely be known or assumed that other societies existed, but there would be no communication with those other societies. But in the 21st century, a global society has emerged. This doesn’t mean there are not isolated societies living in remote locations, but global communication occurs around those societies. That is to say, a society isolated in a South American forest does not prevent global communication from happening all around it.

Society, in this view, is a comprehensive communication system. It has an inside and an outside. Even global society has an outside, and this is whatever cannot register or respond to a particular communication medium. Since society doesn’t mean the aggregate of human beings, there are almost and infinite variety of societies—ant societies, whale societies, bird societies, etc. An ant society is a particular network of ant communication.

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