The Human Condition:

System Architecture, System Culture – August 26, 2012

When I was a boy, I liked to build plastic models: airplanes, ships, cars. They were objects of the imagination, and I bought the model based on the picture on the box, attracted by its design, function, and purpose. Being fascinated by technology at a young age, I liked the sense of mechanism and favored models with exposed engines and landing gear, complicated standing and running rigging, wire wheels and suspensions. I was attracted to the model as a machine as much as by the fluid shape of wings, hull, or fenders. But for me, at the time, the models and the real planes and ships they represented were still objects, things, forms in isolation.

Tellingly, most of these models were designed without the corresponding people to operate them. An airplane might have the small figure of a pilot for the cockpit, although you could also build it with just the empty seat. But the sailing ships never came with sailor figures or the cars with drivers and passengers. People were secondary to the model as machine.

At about the same time, I also started reading C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and later in life picked up Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of seagoing adventures.1 One thing you quickly understand about a warship in the Napoleonic era is that, without a crew to set the sails and constantly adjust them to changing wind conditions, the ship is just a hulk and its rigging is just so many miles of stretched rope. The crew is what makes this contraption of wood and hemp and canvas come alive.

As you read more of these books, you also realize that the old warships were virtually immortal. Storms would carry away sails and spars. Battle would smash woodwork, shatter masts, and punch holes in the hull. But in addition to the sailors, the ship carried a complement of artificers like sail makers and carpenters, as well as stores of replacement canvas, rope, timber, and paint. Unless the hull was crushed or the ship sank, they could rebuild her after every engagement. They were also necessary to perform the continuous maintenance like mending sails, replacing rigging, and scraping and painting the hull necessary to keep the ship in operational trim.

The old sailing ships, I realized after reading enough of these sea stories, were not simply objects. They and the people who crewed them were a system. The crew members were not idle strangers who happened to stand on the deck and sometimes climb the rigging. They were a team, in which each member had a function and fulfilled a need, responding to the orders from officers who decided where the ship would go and when it would fight. In many cases, though, the sailors and artificers did not need to be told their duties—or not more than once—but were expected to “turn to” for the good of the ship.

It wasn’t just the 19th-century sailing ships that needed crews. A warship of the First or Second World War, though powered by steam and carrying electrical systems for signaling, internal communication, fire control, and such, still needed its crew to operate the engines, manipulate and respond to those circuits, operate the weapons, and repair damage. And some future warship, where a captain and executive officer might be able to run the entire ship just by pushing buttons, will still require the cybernetic and mechanical equivalent of a crew to make things happen once the button is pushed.

If you read stories about air combat—or even about airline operations—you quickly understand that an airplane, while it has its purpose in the air, is largely a creature of the ground. The pilot is essential to operating the controls in flight and guiding the plane to its destination. But it is on the ground that people swarm about to fuel it, perform checks, and maintain the engines. An airplane is a frighteningly fragile mechanism, requiring continuous servicing and monitoring of complex systems for the engine, instruments and control surfaces, communications, and navigation. An airplane without a competent ground crew falls right out of the sky.

As a fan of elegant motorcycles,2 I take the necessity for a “ground crew” seriously. If anything goes ker-sproing! on a motorcycle at 60 miles an hour, you’re in as much trouble as in a failing airplane. I’m attracted to many motorcycle makes and models for their style and function, but a big part of the purchase equation for me is a good shop full of competent mechanics within easy travel distance. More than that, I look for a marque that has a history of supplying long-lived machines with a parts catalogue that will stretch back at least a dozen years on each model. The motorcycle is not simply an object, but a system—first, for how it responds to my inputs as a rider and provides feedback as to its internal functions and road conditions; second, for the kind of “ground support” available to keep it running in perfect condition.3 Like an old-time sailing ship, a motorcycle is virtually immortal: unless the frame is horribly bent, there isn’t a part—including the engine itself—that can’t be repaired, replaced, or repainted to keep the bike in perfect order. That’s one of the reasons I find them so attractive.

This notion of “system” extends to the biological world, too. When I worked at the biotechnology company and we began to broaden our interests into what we called “cell biology,” one of the leaders of this effort told me that cell biology is really a form of “systems biology.” That is, a cell is more than a collection of parts. You can study the nucleus, the mitochondria, the membrane, and the other parts in isolation, but you don’t really know what’s going on until you study how they work together. How the nucleus feeds out messenger-RNA that the ribosomes can catalyze into proteins. How the mitochondria convert incoming nutrients into energy-rich adenosine triphosphate that supports this process. Cell biology is as much about inputs, outputs, and feedback mechanisms as it is about organelles and molecules.

In the same way, you can’t think about the Earth’s environment as just an assembly of animals and plants. A single antelope is a lovely creature. So is a single lion. But seeing a specimen in a paddock or a cage is to miss the point. Antelopes are part of a herd structure. They also need grass to survive and thrive. A lion is part of a family structure and needs to chase and kill antelopes to survive. Taken out of context, outside of the relationships—the systems—that support them, these animals are incomprehensible. This means that you might be able to “save” some rare, endangered animal by putting it in a zoo or cryogenically freezing some cells, but without the environment for which is was genetically adapted, it’s as meaningless as a butterfly pinned in a box. Pretty, but meaningless.

In the same way, an ecology is a massive system. A whole branch of biology studies the interaction of animals and plants, water resources, free sunlight, and other factors as a system rather than a collection of parts. And, as I’ve written elsewhere,4 a market economy is a type of ecology, driven by human imagination and effort as surely as sunlight drives the life of the Amazon rain forest.

One of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution—with its focusing of the human mind on mechanisms and the interplay of gears and levers, cause and effect—has been the growth of our understanding of this mysterious property, the system relating various things into a working whole. To the antique mind, things stood alone: the horse in the field, the grass under its hooves, the clouds in the sky above. It takes a modern mind to see the clouds as bringers of rain, which makes the grass grow long, which supports the horse, whose droppings enrich the grass. The elements were there for an ancient mind to notice, but the systemic relationships—the inputs, outputs, and feedback mechanisms—were not conventionally remarked.

You can see this kind of antique thinking in the Biblical story of Genesis. God calls forth each animal in isolation, and Adam names it: “horse” over here, “cow” over there. To the eye of even the most primitive Biblical writer, the similarities of these animals in terms of basics like nutritional requirements, herd nature, and—if he or she ever visited a butcher shop—physical structure would have been apparent. To anyone who examined bones, the similarities in skeletal structure among horses, dogs, and humans should be immediately apparent. And yet the ancient mind conceived of these as wholly separate beings. It took the inventive mind of a 19th-century scientist—Darwin, of course, but also other scientists who were writing at the time—to suspect the familial ties between these separate animals through the vast systemic enterprise we call evolution.5

As I grew up from seeing a model ship as an isolated object and began to understand it as a human-mechanical system, so our machine culture has advanced from seeing objects and elements, such as individuals, companies, societies, and nations, in their splendid isolation and moved toward understanding, describing, and beginning to preserve and even manipulate the invisible forces—the inputs, outputs, and feedback mechanisms—that bind them into a working world.

We are no longer, in our technology and thinking, dealing primarily with things but with relationships.

1. If you don’t know this author, go to W. W. Norton’s Patrick O’Brian site immediately. Someone once called him “Jane Austen at sea,” and his knowledge of early 19th-century naval life is voluminous as well as entertaining.

2. See my website page The Iron Stable.

3. Unlike many motorcyclists, I’m not a “shade tree mechanic.” I will check tire pressures, add oil when indicated, make minor adjustments, and clean and polish with a fervor. But anything mechanical or safety related, I want to have handled by a competent mechanic. Besides, just changing the oil—which means disposing of or recycling the old oil and filter—has become a major environmental hassle best left to licensed practitioners.

4. See The Economy as an Ecology from November 14, 2011.

5. Even Plato and Aristotle, reputedly the brightest minds among the Greeks, tended to see animals as static objects arising from preconceived, ideal forms—the perfect “Horse” somewhere up beyond the sky—rather than as the developmental projects of a natural world evolving in response to changing environmental conditions.