Systems, revisited


It seems to be a fact of modern life that people complain. They complain about the weather and each other, mostly, one which can’t be helped at all and the other one… well, I will not get into the inter-personal stuff right now. But there is something else that people complain about, and that sometimes can be missed because it is rarely put clearly. I am talking, of course, of systems.

For once the word is Greek in origin – those are interesting, really, their history even more complicated than the Latin words. The combination of words that leads to system is “with “ and “set up” which tends to describe the rules that stand at the bottom of any system worth its salt. And therein you shall find the reasons for the complaints.

Let me explain 🙂

Last time I wrote about systems I was tired and only mentioned the linear sequences that a system is based on – yep, those are the rules of the game. But, as any student before the exam will tell you, it is the feedback mechanism that makes a system operate properly, otherwise you have a simple calculator. The rules give it strength, the feedback gives it flexibility. That’s the theory, anyway.

The glitch, as I see it, is that systems are set up by people. Yep, the same people who thought you could identify a criminal by his facial features. The same people who thought only birds could fly. The same people who saw a ship appearing on the horizon mast first and still thought the Earth was flat. In short, imperfect, bound already by whatever rules their culture set up as laws. The big systems like the Universe, Earth, Life already have rules (gravity, anybody?) and sometimes even systems (oh, look how many aphids, said the ladybirds and their population exploded) but those are difficult to break and even destabilize. And they are too big, so people have made up smaller systems, trying to account for consequences, and yet those come mostly as surprises due to people’s strange idea that their concepts take precedence over everything, including the big systems. Take communism, for example, ignoring competition. Or take capitalism, for example, ignoring community.

But I digress.

One would think that we could give a nice big computer the task of setting up the systems, so that we can be sure we cover more unintended consequences that imperfect people could ever conceive. But that would just take a rectifiable error and compound it until it is enshrined in law.

You see, people talk about rules and set up incentives and deterrents around them to award or punish the obedience or rebellion. But just like systems, rules are made by people FOR the people, they have to SERVE the people, not just bind them. That is the role of the feedback system, and that is where most systems fail, begetting complaints from the people who trip and fall instead of being helped. Rules are lovely, feedback helps them stay that way, instead of just empty relics.

People’s systems are, by their nature, limited and imperfect, like their creators. And yet they are better, for those people, than anything that comes in second place. We just need to remember that feedback – the flexibility is just as important as the strength.


2 thoughts on “Systems, revisited

  1. I would love to read your musings on the intersections of capitalism and communism as you are better positioned than most to make some incisive and insightful analysis.


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