The information turn in modelling people and society: early German work

Chris Bissell, The Open University, UK

In a recent (2011) paper on Hermann Schmidt, a German contributor to cybernetics in the 1940s and 1950s, I referred to forerunners in the field along the following lines. 

The notion that living organisms can be considered in some respects as machines has a long history, dating at least as far back as Descarte’s De Homine (1643). Nearly two centuries later (1827) Charles Bell drew analogies between the biology of bones and internal organs on the one hand, and engineered structures and systems such as buildings, pumps and pipes on the other. Herbert Spencer (1860s) considered the way organisms maintain dynamic equilibrium, drawing direct comparison with the steam engine, and also extended such ideas to the equilibrium of non-living systems in the natural world. At this point, although not made explicit, notions about information emerged. In Germany, Eduard Pflüger (1877) addressed the importance of feedback, using the example of the control of the dilation of the pupil, in a paper whose very title, ‘Teleological mechanics of living nature’ anticipated the classic ‘Behaviour, purpose and teleology’ of Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow (1943). 

In a lecture published in 1879 Felix Lincke analysed mechanical regulation in general terms, and then applied his ideas to the human body. Lincke distinguished between the indicator (specifying the value of the parameter to be controlled), the modifier (valve, etc), the transmission system (between indicator and modifier), and the motor (to supply power for the actuation). In the human body these functions were carried out by the eye, muscles and nervous system, for example. Information flow was thus a key factor, as was feedback. 

By the 1920s a number of German zoologists and physiologists had taken up the study of biological control processes. Jacob von Uexküll (1864-1944) and Richard Wagner (1893-1970) both considered the rôle of feedback. Uexküll used what we would now term signal flow diagrams to represent both internal feedback loops and the relationship of the organism with its environment, while Wagner explicitly discussed biological feedback. Both authors also applied biological ideas to society. Wagner was the anonymous author of a short 1932 publication entitled Unemployment and deflation in the body economic from the point of view of biological laws, in which he proposed solutions to the economic crisis based on biological metaphors including feedback. 

This paper will look in more detail at the contributions of early German thinkers in this area.