Writing About Systems and Human Social Complexity

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

I’ve been writing about systems and complexity for many years now. Most efforts started as essays attempting to organize my thoughts coherently, and many grew into book-long explanations as initial ideas expanded into several layers of interrelated and interconnected arguments, and greater complexity.

More recently, I decided to try my hand at blog-length contributions, going the opposite direction; reducing the coherent wholes into bite-sized reductions, which creates several problems and contradictions for both writer and reader.

To begin with, systems thinking is not a well circumscribed discipline like physics, mathematics, linguistics, etc., and lacks a coherent shared philosophical basis as they do. Ontologically, it shares a mechanistic perspective of reality with the hard sciences, with everything flowing from that, which surfaces in the various systems methodologies and approaches. Amongst practitioners of the art, there is only vague agreement about what a system is, and what it means.

The working description I use is: a system is an entity of interest, consisting of components that interact by exchanging matter, energy, or information, and from the interactions properties emerge that are more than the sum of the parts, for as long as the components and interactions remain relatively stable. From a reductive mechanistic perspective, it means one may reduce a system into its components, their interactions, emergent properties, and what Vickers called a regulator involved in maintaining a search for stability, or what Bowler called equilibration.

What such a description implies is systems look and operate like complex phenomena, for example, in some ways resemble the models of complex adaptive systems. If that is so, it creates a dilemma. On the one hand you are working from an implied mechanistic perspective, on the other what you are working with is complex, and complex phenomena follow different rules and laws than mechanistic ones.

If what you work with is complex, it also creates a boundary problem, which means looking at something from the perspective of a system becomes a design choice. Outside of taking a mechanistic perspective with its clear boundaries, in a complex interconnected world, systems don’t exist. In other words, looking at something as if it is a system, is a way that can surface useful information for approaching situations we face, not a representation of reality. What you decide to include or exclude in what you call a system is a choice and perspective, and matters a lot.

From a mechanistic perspective, one can analyze and manipulate systems at arm’s length, and intervene in them, but from a complexity perspective, the theory and practice of thinking about systems takes place within the human realm, and cannot be separated from it, hence one cannot think about systems without including the complex human and social dynamics at play as well. Like quantum mechanics, you can’t separate the observer from what is observed, since it impacts on it. Humans are part of all systems and must be included in any discussion about it, which changes the dynamics and complexity of the system. Systems thinking, in general, and systems methodologies specifically, don’t cope well with that.

The notion of complexity suffers a similar dilemma, and there is no agreed-on universal definition of complexity. On the one hand much of what we know about complexity and the behavior of complex phenomena is based on taking a mechanistic perspective, and is geared towards classifying phenomena, finding laws governing their behavior, and bringing them under our control.

On the other hand, one may look at complexity not as a mechanistic phenomenon, but a perspective; the more components and interactions you choose to include in what interests you, the more complex what you deal with becomes, and the more you leave out, the simpler it appears. In other words, how complex or simple something appears depends on how far you slide the scale one way or the other. You can only create a definition of complexity if you take a mechanistic perspective. If you don’t, complexity cannot be defined. As Ashby said, if you can define complexity, what you are talking about is no longer complex. What you are left with, is when you notice certain behavior patterns and conditions in a phenomenon, you are likely dealing with something complex.

Writing about complexity and systems from a complex perspective means including more components and interactions, which become longer, more interconnected complex arguments. Simplifying writing into Instagram, TikTok, or FaceBook-worthy posts means, as the laws of complexity suggest, you lose context and interconnections, and therefore the properties you wish to write about, which creates a problem for the writer and reader. You must either write about, or read a whole thread and connect the pieces, which, for the reader, is time consuming and takes effort, or dip into pieces of interest, and lose the interconnected richness and complexity.

Although the theme and thread throughout my posts is systems and complexity, I take the risk of making it difficult for readers to connect the dots, at the cost of trivializing what I write. On the other hand, experience taught me, reading through long difficult arguments nowadays is a pastime of the passionate few; what readers look for is small bites of the elephant in the room. Most books are not published for their content anymore, but for their ability to be profitable. Rewritten MBA dissertations with a simple message is more likely to become a bestseller than something more serious and important. Without the interest and marketing clout of large publishing houses, few books become more than special interest projects. I can’t imagine Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason being accepted for publication, and becoming a bestseller today.

Writing the blog is, again, and sometimes painfully, a lesson in human social complexity for me. Some writings, for no discernible reason, take off without warning, or planning, others sink without a trace. There is no connection to the importance I personally attach to a piece, or how well I think I argued a point. One simply can’t predict what will interest people and what not.

There likely is a network effect in play. We talk a lot about networks, implying social connections, but it is much more complex than that. Mine is a small network with few influencers, which, as can be predicted, means a small reader circle. Influencers have denser connections, and if something piques their interest, the readership circle can expand and ripple further and quicker than anticipated, which is maybe what happens on occasion. I reached more readers than I originally anticipated, and this is the only good explanation I have for that.

We are all born into and indoctrinated into a mechanistic perspective of reality, which becomes the familiar and default. As Kuhn pointed out, we hold on to a perspective until a shift is inevitable, and the reasons we hold out is in the very personal mental and social complexity we don’t and won’t consider. I find there is some interest in thinking in terms of systems and social complexity, but the numbers are dwarfed by adherents of the mechanistic perspective, which cuts down a circle of potential readers significantly as well. If you want many hits and lots of likes, write from a mechanistic perspective.

No industry more needs to embrace systems and human complexity than healthcare, and no industry resist these ideas more than healthcare. Opinion leaders in healthcare told me what I talk about is esoteric and arcane, and no-one understands it, which is an excuse for not considering alternatives to their predicaments. They are addicted to easy sounding mechanistic solutions. Another reason is, no industry is as dominated by internal and external politics, for which you need an understanding of human social complexity to dig yourself out of your self-created mess. The fact I utterly failed to have any impact on the industry I spent a lifetime in, from a human social complexity perspective, should be no surprise.

On a personal level, we act and do things for many reasons. What initially motivated me was making my thoughts more accessible to others who may find it interesting and useful, and stimulate dialogue about it. But, as most things in my life, and life in general, there were unintended and unanticipated consequences.

I had no expectation that readers would see and interpret what I wrote the same way I do, but thought the inherent variation of a shared idea could be the basis for a conversation. The dialogue I hoped for didn’t materialize, which is a disappointment. It would have greatly contributed to and stimulated my learning, if nothing else. As things stand, other than a small handful of comments for which I’m grateful, I haven’t a clue what others think of my thoughts and work. Again, the reasons this happens are locked up in human and social complexity, which is my subject matter. Knowing that, and why, somewhat sugar-coats the disappointment.

Taking a reductive path forced me to look more carefully at the components of the thought system, if you want, I created, its interactions, and dynamics. Doing so became an immense learning opportunity. Inasmuch as a learning journey never ends, it accelerated my personal learning and understanding of the material I work with and the human world I live in in ways I could not anticipate. Others may not share my insights and passion, but my personal and intellectual worlds grew at warp speed.

I’m thankful to those who find the time to read what I write. Perhaps it triggers something of interest for you, or contribute to your learning, like it does for me, and that, for me, as flawed and complex as the process is, makes the journey worthwhile.