Primer: Systems Don’t Work

At topical moments in time, I have been comparing my views on things to those around me. This serves to hold up a mirror to the way I think about things, compared to the way others think about things. In most cases I used to think the way other people do, but now, somehow, I think something different. The Primer category is an attempt to catalogue these changes/differences and show my current thoughts on things.

This first attempt happened to have points that all related to systems. Its topical inspiration was yet another UK general election, the third nation-wide vote to be called in as many years, and the response to said election from my peers.

Systems don’t work

Lots of humans don’t really think systematically

My pet favourite theory of cognitive development holds that there is a certain type of making sense of the word that involves being able to imagine large, abstract systems within which human beings engage tasks for some bigger outcome. These tasks can be arduous and many relationships with other humans inside this system are unfair and asymmetrical. One is motivated by the rules of the system, rather than by love for the people in it. This type of making sense of the world is different from making sense of the world through one’s role within a personal relationship network, or being motivated by care for others. An example of such an abstract system is a corporation, or any employer/business. Another example is a nation.

Recently,  I’ve asked people to imagine a “bigger picture” abstract system and frequently they can only answer by making reference to their personal relationship network.

It’s an open question as to whether the possibility of systemic thinking is not cognitively available or whether it is simply not actively chosen, but if it were the latter, I would expect systems to be deployed more often and not receive quite so many personal slurs when I deploy them.

Example. My question: “is it possible that Facebook’s “mark yourself safe” feature has wider, systemic implications for how people perceive the world that are negative?” Their answer: “I don’t see why helping my family feel less worried about me is a bad thing”.

Systems don’t do what they say on the tin

Systems attempt to be rational structures, IE based on reason. There is a reason for all of the rules that make up the system. For example: “we have a six month probationary period because assessing performance on the job allows us to hire the best employees.”

The thing is, despite appearances, systems are not rational and are not based on reason. Systems tend to have a few founding assumptions, like “humans will always act in their own best interest” which are not founded on reason, they are founded on guesses, or nothing at all. They sound right, but they are basically arbitrary, based on what people want to be true, or on what would be fun if it were true. Like the direction that one must travel on a Monopoly board, someone made it up and that’s kind of just the way it is, for no good reason.

So, the outcomes of that system can run acropper when the founding assumptions aren’t always achieved.

Modern democratic voting doesn’t work very well because certain assumptions fail to match reality:

etc etc etc

Humans in systems

Systems don’t have to work the way they say they work because they have people inside of them. Even though a system is “officially” going to have an outcome, it’s possible that it absolutely won’t, because people as individuals are weird and people as groups are weirder, and most systems rely on people to do their jobs to make things happen. Humans in job roles can actively work against things they don’t like, disrupting things “accidentally” and causing interminable delays.

Example: an unpopular proposal by a government. Friends seem to get extremely emotionally upset by this, but don’t seem to realise that systems can be subverted by their human agents and if something is really unpopular, it can be foot-dragged into oblivion. If they did realise, they could take comfort from it.

I got this concept at least in part from Gene Sharp – his book is ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’. It is also mentioned in SlateStarCodex’s recent book review.

You can always cheat

Systems, with their rules, are made up by humans to achieve something or for fun. At the same moment that a system with rules is made and people begin to play, another set of people find it fun to subvert the rules and begin to cheat. I have said in another post on cheating that cheaters are an inevitable part of systems and trying to eradicate them will do more harm than the cheaters themselves create.

Anyway, humans sometimes make systems do strange things because they’ve found really novel ways to cheat them.

We figured this out ages ago

We realised systems have these flaws long ago. It started in about the 1890s and was really well fleshed out by the 1980s – this time period and style of thought was labelled “post-modernism”. Postmodernism was a critique of the Modern age/mode of thought that mainly held that rational systems are awesome, perfect and being rational will fix everything. Postmodernism points out that being rational really, really won’t fix everything and in fact doesn’t work at all. Here’s an amusing book review of ‘Seeing Like A State’ to illustrate the point. Or why not check out Meaningness for good discussions on the evolution of Systems and their breakdown.

As yet we are still dithering around with what the fuck to do about it. We have yet to usher in a new age and give it a name. Meaningness refers to a possible future of fluidity and Nadia Rodinskaya calls it Constructivism although we should probably not use that name due to possible confusion with the modern art movement.


So, systems like democracy are: run or supported by people who don’t think systematically, are founded on false assumptions, can be subverted by human agents working within it and cheated relentlessly by those within and without. They don’t really work at all, and probably never have.

Everything is going to be alright

Systems are not what we thought. Modern democracy, for example, does not work. This is uncontroversial, at least academically. I find it pretty annoying when people get really preachy about voting or anything else, creating in-group/out-group weaponized sanctity about a system that is obviously and long-term broken.

But, this is no cause for despair. The broken systems rumble on, and kind of do work because humans are great at ignoring annoying inconsistencies and wapping great lies because of a desire to do things and play together. The charade of systems is holding for now (although recent elections are really throwing light on the cracks, haha!) We have also been released from mandatory adhesion to boring systems, which is good.

If you like, you could join the speculation about how to live more fluidly, it’s fun and rewarding. And in the end, everything is going to be alright.



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