Chautauquas

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Is systemic thinking enough to explain networks?

Weltanschauung is the word Germans use to refer to 'our concept of the nature of reality'. That's only one of the many interesting things I picked up from this interesting essay on systemic thinking by Russell Ackoff. (Thanks to Nivi for posting a link to this essay) I highly recommend that you read the essay and not go with the my little summary of it.

Like a true philosopher, Ackoff draws on the evolution of scientific thinking since Renaissance to build an understanding of why we think the way we think or in his words why we hold a particular "world view", "a concept of the nature of the world" or "theory of reality". The essay makes for interesting reading as a whole, though at moments I thought that he had indeed taken certain liberties in terms of development of his arguments.

To quickly sum up the essay: in the "machine age", our thinking was categorized by three fundamental beliefs: first, complete understanding of universe was possible; second, in order to understand the universe, one had to understand the elements it was composed of and it was possible to break up the entire universe into an aggregation of fundamental elements - and breaking the whole into its parts is called analysis; third, once the elements have been understood, the way they relate together to form the whole needs to be understood, and all relationships can be broken into the fundamental relationship of cause and effect. Newtonian mechanics is a result of this age.

In the age of systems, these three beliefs changed due to various reasons. From Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which first challenged the first belief to Norbert Weiner's Cybernetics and Von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory that finally marked the onset of the systems age, Ackoff presents a series of dilemmas that led to our migration to the age of systems. In the systems age then, the three beliefs changed: first, a complete and total understandng of the universe was not possible, it was an ideal, but not possible; second, the means of understanding changed from analysis to synthesis; third mere cause-and-effect changed into "producer-product" (credited to Arthur Singer Jr.) relationship.

Using systemic thinking, he goes on to describe that the current age is based on automation - automating three key things - observation, communication and thought - the functions of the mind, while the machine age was about mechanization - mechanizing the muscle.

Ackoff wrote this wonderful piece in 1994. However, things have changed since then, and here's some changes - the three parts of this system that Ackoff identified - instruments for observation (measurement instruments), instruments for communicating (telephone, telegraph etc.) and instruments for thought (computer) are competing for survival. The computer is beginning to compete with the phone for resources - something that is not explained in Ackoff's world view. Even if one takes his "organism" argument, "organisms" were a part of a system, and while they had the power to help or harm the whole system, they did not compete with each other for survival in a Darwinian sense because each part of the system performed a specific function that other parts could not. So, while parts could indeed have a "purpose", their "functions" were still mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

However, what happens to the system when its parts compete for survival? Using Aristotle's logic, the above question in itself is incorrect for systems, because by definition, parts of a system don't compete with each other. Are these then not the parts of the system? Or, is this a dilemma for the age of systemic thinking? Are we entering a new age, one of networks, where the beliefs of the system age don't hold?

3 Comments:

Anonymous Russell Ackoff said...

Of course parts of a system — e.g. departments of a coporation — can compete with each other. The reason for redesign is to eliminate such competition and have all parts collaborating. Competition between parts is evidence of bad design.

A network is not a system. The telephone network is not a system but AT&T is. A network, unlike a system, has no essential parts. If a link breaks down — say Phila. to NYC — then one can go through Tranton or Newark, Etc.i

Russ Ackoff

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Russell Ackoff said...

Of course parts of a system — e.g. departments of a coporation — can compete with each other. The reason for redesign is to eliminate such competition and have all parts collaborating. Competition between parts is evidence of bad design.

A network is not a system. The telephone network is not a system but AT&T is. A network, unlike a system, has no essential parts. If a link breaks down — say Phila. to NYC — then one can go through Tranton or Newark, Etc.

Russ Ackoff

2:13 PM  
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