The Invention of Systems

What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

William ShakespeareRomeo & Juliet


GWENDOLEN
[…] my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.

JACK
You really love me, Gwendolen?

GWENDOLEN
Passionately!

JACK
Darling! You don’t know how happy you’ve made me.

GWENDOLEN
My own Ernest!

JACK
But you don’t really mean to say that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Ernest?

GWENDOLEN
But your name is Ernest.

JACK
Yes, I know it is. But supposing it was something else? Do you mean to say you couldn’t love me then?

GWENDOLEN (Glibly.)
Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.

Oscar WildeThe Importance of Being Earnest

The Dangers of Metaphysical Ticket-Buying

What would happen if one were to take the argument that the world is one big, intricate network a little too seriously? How would such a person talk about things?

Imagine you went to a movie theater and asked an old-style bearded ticket seller where you could sit. The name tag on his chest says “Zack”.

“Hello valued customer, we have some room in the Universal Network,” says Zack.

“Uh, I mean, which seats are available?” you reply.

“Uh, in the Network.”

“The numbers. What row and number of seats can we get? I’d like them near the center.”

“Valued customer, I don’t understand what you mean. There are no ‘seats’, only a continuous network of connections linking everything that exists in this vast reality.”

“What.”

“You and I are part of it too, of course. The movie experience is connected with us already in a myriad ways!”

“Listen. There is a screen, and there is a bunch of chairs, right? And some of those chairs are taken and some are still free, I hope. Just tell me which chairs are free and I’ll choose one to sit on.”

“There is no such a thing as a ‘chair’,” says the young man, his eyes twinkling. “Why would there be a separate thing called ‘chair’ that you can single out from all the other parts of the network?”

“A chair is a chair! I don’t want to sit on the floor or stand in a corner, I need a chair to sit on!”

“I’ve heard this before. You’re one of those folks who believes that there are separate things. You’re gonna tell me that there is something called ‘chair’ (air quotes) and something called ‘floor’ (air quotes) and that they’re separate and independent.”

“But they are separate! A chair is specifically made for sitting, a floor for walking.”

“Why do you think they’re separate?”

“Well, you can move a chair around, and its stays a chair. It doesn’t turn into something different. It has the identity of a chair, and it’s independent from the floor.”

“Can’t you move a part of this ‘chair’ thing around separately from the other parts too?”

“Well… I guess that if you pulled strongly enough you could pull pieces of the chair apart. But that doesn’t change it being a chair.”

“You need to use a certain strength to pull this ‘chair’ away from the floor, too. Is it just a matter of how strongly you have to pull? Do you have a strength limit beyond which you start calling two things separate?”

“No… I don’t think strength is the point.”

Zack bends forward over the counter and politely grabs your neck with one hand and your right shoulder with the other. “Shall we see how strongly I have to pull to detach these two parts here? Then we’ll know if, by any chance, they are actually independent?”

“I’ll… I’ll take a ticket for a place in the Universal Network, please.”

Naming Things 1.0

The “natural” way to talk about this tangled mass of interconnections that we call Universe should be as a continuum, not as a collection of separate, independent objects. Zack is right: there is no essential separation between chairs and floors, nor between chair parts among themselves. Everything is connected in one way or the other.

Yet, reflecting this truth in the way we talk would make our language effectively useless. That is why (I imagine) our pre-historic ancestors came up with a genius technology to make this mess a bit more amenable: naming things.

Names make it practical to talk about the things that matter to us. The chair and the floor may not be really separate parts of the Universe, but calling some of those parts “chair” and the flat thing down below “floor” sure makes it easier to achieve many of our goals, like buying movie tickets. Names are shortcuts—inaccurate but useful approximations.

When a baby is born, what her parents are really dealing with is a bunch of atoms coming from all over the Solar System, organs connected to each other by molecular bonds, limbs that interact bi-directionally with the Earth’s and the Sun’s and Aldebaran’s gravitational fields, lungs that continuously transform the composition of air, and a gazillion other relationships with the Universe. But the parents don’t treat the baby as all those gazillion things. They give her a name, and treat her as a single, whole, independent being: they call her “Hellen”, or “Petal Blossom Rainbow”, or something like that.

Naming something means deciding where its boundaries are. In the case of the parents, the essence of what they’re doing is saying “we’ll refer to the part of the Universal Network going from here to here with the sound ‘Hellen’, and we won’t use that sound for any other part of the Network”.

If you're a parent, you get to choose what to name the plot of network inside the dashed line.

Naming things is a human technology invented to achieve human goals.

We Homo Sapiens decide where to put boundaries around patches of the network that are helpful in our communication, and stock up hundreds of thousands of shortcuts to do the things we do in life like raising babies and buying tickets. It may be the most successful technology in the history of humanity. (Whether naming things was “invented” by evolution, by a brilliant cave-woman, or something else isn’t really that important here.) It is the secret sauce of language, and without language humans are hardly better off than chimps at making sense of the world. It’s a “divide and conquer” strategy embedded in everything we say.

We thrive thanks to this technique, and our continued existence depends on it. That is to say, until it stops working.

Boundaries Are in the Eye of the Beholder

The problems begin when we forget that names are practical shortcuts, not absolute truths. The boundary that a name assigns to a patch in the network is arbitrary, and it could be set differently without making it more or less “true”.

In fact, we do set different and contradicting boundaries all the time already. A chairmaker will not care so much for the word “chair” as they do for words like “cross-stretchers” and “back” and “armrests”, because those are the things that they need to work with daily. For the chairmaker, those parts are what needs to be bounded and treated separately in order to get to the end product that people simplistically call “chair”.

Another way to put it is that boundaries are in the eye of the beholder (abbreviated BAEB, pronounced “babe”). We name things based on what our goals are when using those names. If our goals change, or if another person’s goals take precedence, we change boundaries and word definitions.

That’s all nice and good, but often boundaries set by words simply don’t—can’t—fit the world in a coherent, stable way. Then things can get confusing.

If words were enough to describe reality in unambiguous ways, we wouldn’t need supreme courts. All judges could be substituted by non-AI computers, blindly selecting outcomes based on simple yes/no algorithms using dictionaries for databases. Instead we do have judges and supreme courts, and sometimes the Universal Network is so tangled and dynamic that they have to say things like this (emphasis mine):

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [=“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

Justice Potter Stuart's statement about a supposedly obscene movieJacobellis v. Ohio Ruling (1964)

Similar problems crop up everywhere:

[…] What is this thing country? What does country mean? […] I spoke with others who said country meant Home, but who added the caveat that Home resided in people rather than places—a kind of portable Country… I tried to tease out some ways in which non-Indigenous people have understood country. I made categories: Country as Economy. Country as Geography. Country as Society. Country as Myth. Country as History. For all that I walked, slept, breathed and dreamed Country, the language still would not come.

Melissa Lucashenko (Aboriginal Australian writer)Unsettlement (2005)

The way you define a country can make the difference between citizenship, deportation, and slavery for minorities. It can lead people to healthy companionship and bitter violence. All because boundaries are in the eye of the beholder and, by definition, most beholders ar part of the majority.

When a name is too static a label to capture the dynamism and connected-ness of reality, each person gets to interpret it—redraw the boundary—to fit their own goals. Whether the others agree to play along with that re-drawing is a different matter.

Scientists and philosophers have been wracking their brains trying to define exactly what words like life and species “should mean”. Is a virus alive? And a 15-day fetus? At exactly what step, four billion years ago, did a bunch of molecules become a living creature? What is consciousness? How do you tell if two birds that look and behave almost, but not exactly, the same, are the same species or not? (Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to the frustrations of biologists on this matter.)

Three herring gulls conniving with (gasp!) a British lesser black-backed gull, which is a whole different species. (Photo by Andreas Trepte)

You’d expect such fundamental questions to be among the most researched and thought-over, and they probably are. Some of the best minds have worked on them in the past couple of millennia. That no undisputed answer has ever come out of those attempts is because it is more than just difficult to find such answers. It’s not that we need to try for another millennium or two and then our Naming Things technology will finally click with full clarity.

No answer has come out because that technology is just not up to the task. Looking for universally true word definitions is like trying to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with a pots and pans set.

We Homo sapiens hate this kind of vagueness. We want our words to be categorical and our boundaries to be crisp. English speakers will plead you to “call a spade a spade”, Italian speakers to “say bread to bread and wine to wine,” and Chinese speakers will lament that you are “calling a deer a horse.” Confucianism has a whole doctrine called “the rectification of names,” declaring that a good leader must periodically “reset” the names of things to their “true” meaning, because they inevitably drift into falsehood and lead to political disaster.

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant;

if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone;

if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate;

if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion.

Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said.

This matters above everything.

Confucius

On the surface, the problem is that “the people” misunderstand and greedily misuse words to their own advantage. If you’re a monarch or dictator—the “superior man”, to use Confucius’ words—you should try to “set things straight” and force everyone to talk properly.

But that won’t cut it for most societies, BAEB. The root problem is that words and expressions depend on their user’s goals, and of course different people have different goals, so they must draw different boundaries.

On top of that, even the goals of a single person will change over time, leading to a periodic redrawing of boundaries. If tomorrow you join a pilot school, you get the new goal of flying in airplanes without crashing into mountainsides. This means that you’ll need to employ a host of new words to distinguish different kinds of aircraft and instruments and phenomena related to aircraft. The word “airplane” will become nearly useless for you in that context.

Alba Needs a System

Suppose your architect friend Alba is the arch-enemy of Zack, the movie ticket guy. Alba rejects all that nonsense about networks, chairs connected to distant stars, yadda yadda. Let’s call things by their names and get down to the damn business!, she says as she designs your new house in an hour. A few months later, the house is built. It has a roof that looks like a roof, four walls, a door, some windows, and even a chimney. Alba definitely knows what a house is, you think to yourself.

Then you move in, and you begin to notice a few anomalies. Yes, there’s a chimney on the roof, but no fireplace, and the heating system consists of a single electric heater in the basement. The bathroom door will only open halfway because it’s obstructed by the toilet seat. There’s plenty of kitchen surface, but no room for a refrigerator. Worst of all, the house has the same inclination as the slope of the hill it rests on, so that all the furniture slides downhill and ends up resting against one corner of the room.

The house example feels so contrived... ah, thank you Internet.

When you complain to Alba, she responds that you wanted a “house”, and she designed you a “house”. She does have a point there. The thing does look like a house, and it has all the parts that one expects to see in a house. Yet she seems to be missing something important. It’s like she’s drawing the name-boundary for what “house” means in all the wrong places. Her naming tech is failing her, and you, in a bad way.

Most architects can do better than Alba, and so can most (some?) people whose job is to design, create or understand things that actually work in the real world. They do this by employing a newer technology: the concept of system.

Naming Things 2.0

Stated plainly, a system is a group of things that interact among themselves. The interactions between the parts are just as important for a system as the parts themselves. A system can also interact with other systems around it, and the parts that are inside it are systems, too. A chair is a system; a house is a system; a person, a team, a society is a system. The solar, limbic, and eco-systems are some of the more in-your-face examples.

Any “thing” can be called a system and part of a system, and this is the subtle bit: whatever you call a system, you might also call an object. “Objects”—the things we’ve been giving names to all these millennia—and “systems” are alike in that both define arbitrary BAEB boundaries that don’t exist in reality, but they are unlike in that they make us think about their subjects differently. While objects are about themselves and nothing else, systems are about what happens inside and outside of them, and are explicit about the fact that their boundaries are not set in stone.

In other words, the idea of a system goes quite well with the ideas of a Universal Network and of the propagation of differences. Systems are the new “language tech” on the block. They’re Naming Things 2.0.

Object System
Static: an object “is”. Dynamic: a system “interacts” and “transforms”.
Has properties: color, weight, etc. Has structure and behavior: stocks, flows, phases.
Makes you ask: “What is it like?” Makes you ask: “What happens when those parts are together?”
Can be referred to on its own. Needs mention of its exchanges with the surroundings.
Usually has a crisp and easy name. Often has descriptions/qualifiers rather than a simple name.

For a non-terrible architect/interior designer/furniture maker, a “house system” comprises not only its walls and fixtures, but all the things that come in and out of it, all the things that move and interact and unfold inside it.

The inhabitants of the house are part of its system. The shape and structure of the house affect the patterns of behavior of its human inhabitants: for a human, a bathroom next to the bedroom is much more convenient than one two floors away. Some inhabitants (e.g. spiders, kids) may build whole new structures from scratch (spiderwebs, Lego castles) that become part of the system and interact with other systems (flies, brooms, the soles of parents’ feet). And people usually dislike living in places with inclined floors.

The house system also has relationships with what goes on around it: flows of clean air and water, photons from the Sun (possibly obstructed by nearby buildings), heat, food, electricity, garbage, sewage, and so on. Cut off any of these interactions with the outside and the house isn’t a house any more.

Architects and engineers don’t just tick off boxes from a checklist, but design something different every time, case by case. They are not satisfied with calling things by static names. Instead, they describe their creations in terms of interaction diagrams, dynamic demonstrations, and specifications of interfaces between the human systems and the engineered ones.

Scientists, too, treat their subjects of study—atomic lattices, cells, organisms, forests—as systems changing and interacting all the time, inside and out.

Now, every technology has its limits. For one thing, some questions are so complex that even a systemic view will struggle to capture them. A system may be a more realistic approximation of reality than a name, but it’s still just an approximation.

And the definition and re-definition of systems takes time and energy that we may not always be willing to expend. The “system” idea gives us the thoroughness and flexibility we need when working on many complex, fuzzy tasks, but it is overkill with the simpler ones. You want people to have callable names, and to call those things you sit on “chairs”.

When you order sushi, you don’t need to define all of the thermal and chemical interactions it has with the environment, the origin and proliferation of bacteria inside the tuna, and the way its reaching your table fits in with the global production chain. You just say “sushi, please” and that’ll be enough to get your delicious dinner. There’s a lot in a name. But when you’re considering your health risks, or trying to solve the global overfishing problem or climate change, the only way to do it that has a chance of success is by looking at all the interactions in systemic terms—blurring the boundaries.

Objects are to systems what walking shoes are to motor vehicles. Whenever you want to go somewhere, you have to choose which technology to rely on, considering their costs and benefits of the day. Whatever you behold, you’ll need to know what it is that you’re going to draw. 🥦

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  • Top image: Denise Jans.
  • More here on the Confucian Rectification of Names.
  • A bit more about defining life. To be fair, it’s not like scientists are clueless about it. Many powerful definitions of life, species, consciousness, etc. are available, and most of them work well for some purpose. What’s forever missing is a single definition that works well in all contexts and for all purposes.
  • The word system didn’t always have this connotation of “way to see things as made of interactions”. It used to be only about procedures and organization of thoughts, philosophical systems. It was Galileo and the early modern scientists who began honing the modern concept of a system, but the word itself wasn’t widely used to talk about physical things until the 1950s. Even today, it is used more in certain fields than in others, but as a concept it pervades pretty much every area of human knowledge.
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