Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 105! On Systems: Whose Systems? How Implicit Atomism Makes Systems in Its Image...
Good morning, multiscalar beings and becomings,
It is week two of our series on systems. Last week, we explored the ethics of a system/process approach. We laid out an “argument” showing that for us, the benefits of a systems approach are not to be found via some measure of its instrumental effectiveness – rather, its importance is in how it participates in an ethical shift towards process based non-anthropocentric ontologies. It is our strong sense that we need to move towards ontologies that believe in the world.
This week, the scientific journal Science published an article, “Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries,” – that makes a very compelling argument that “Earth is now well outside of the safe operating space for humanity.” We highly recommend that you read this article if you have not already read it – and share it widely (thanks to members of our community sharing it with us).
The article also highlights the ethical and experimental importance of moving towards a process based ontology – an ontology that can come to terms with the surprising non-linear emergent effects of anthropogenic environmental change:
“Currently, anthropogenic perturbations of the global environment are primarily addressed as if they were separate issues, e.g., climate change, biodiversity loss, or pollution. This approach, however, ignores these perturbations’ nonlinear interactions and resulting aggregate effects on the overall state of the Earth system. Planetary boundaries bring a scientific understanding of anthropogenic global environmental impacts into a framework that calls for considering the state of Earth system as a whole”.
This week, we are interested in investigating our vernacular understanding of the concept of systems. The goal of this is to daylight some implicit habitual misunderstandings of systems that give rise to the type of problems that the authors of the above article point out. The urgent question is – why are we still getting systems so wrong?
Often, in discussions that we have around the edges of our workshops and when working with companies, we find that even when our participants are talking at a very theoretical level about systems of all sorts – complex systems and complex adaptive systems etc. they have imported into these discussions a series of foundational assumptions that come from an implicit atomistic approach. This atomistic logic is so prevalent that we even find it both implicitly demonstrated and explicitly articulated by many systems advocates.
An atomistic approach assumes that every property of the whole comes from and is dependent upon the essential properties of the most basic components that go on to make up the whole.
What does this look like in a systems context? While we are going to unpack this in more detail as we get into the thick of this newsletter. Here is a clear contemporary example:
This is a systems diagram that seeks to explain how we come to experience the world around us. First, it is important to notice that the structure of this diagram is atomistic – the whole breaks apart into ever more fundamental constituent components. If we carefully follow these down the diagram reading from the top to get to the base level – what do we find? “Values…that underpin how the system is …organized…”
If systems are dynamic, non-linear, relational, and emergent – how can it be that we can trace down this diagram a linear path to the base level where we find our atomistic source?
For us, this is an exemplary case of how Iceberg models, pyramid models, onion models, and substance models all claim to be systems oriented approaches while still being fundamentally atomistic and radically antithetical to a processual systems ontology.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves…
For us, much of this confused state of affairs has to do with how we organize the environments, habits, practices, and tools of our daily lives.
But, we need to build up an argument for this. Let’s start really simply: How do we use the word “systems” in daily speech? We use the word to talk about how things – whatever they may be are organized. In this regard, system is often a synonym for Structure, Organization, Order, Arrangement, and Network.
Systems, in this sense, point to the astonishing fact that our lives are intrinsically organized – and they are the outcomes of how things are organized, ordered, and arranged – there is a pattern to life.
Our everyday lives feature this level of systematic organization – something we see clearly in mundane but truly astonishing activities like breastfeeding or conversation.
“To be alive is to be organized, and insofar as we are not only organisms but are also persons, we find ourselves organized, or integrated, in a still larger range of ways that tie us to the environment, each other, and our social worlds”
– is how Alva Noe puts it in the opening section of a wonderful book, “Strange Tools.”
We can go further – it is not just that we as humans are always already part and parcel of organized worlds – matter is organized. The environment of rocks, minerals, plate-tectonics, ocean currents, trees, plants, and microbes – it is equally intrinsically organized. Really self-organized.
What is critical at this stage to understand is that there is no thing that ever shows up alone – there is nothing that is not part of some inter or intra-action. Things just don’t show up alone…
With this in mind, we can say provisionally: The basic unit of reality is a system. It is not discreet, atomistic stuff. It is not discreet things.
We – like everything else – always find ourselves in the middle of an organized world – we are born into it.
Despite this, it is hard to shake the logic of an atomistic, discreet thing model of reality. And this is where the environment, practices, concepts, and tools of our everyday lives comes in: Consider our toys: Perhaps you played in an atomistic thing- based manner as a child with lego? A world where discreet things were built up piece by piece – a car, then a house, then people – and only then they were put into relation and systematic action.
This Lego world enacts a model that uncannily mirrors the Old Testament god conceiving the material world one being at a time, then making each, and then put them one by one into a world assembled in the same piece by discreet piece manner – and finally, they are all set into motion…
But this atomistic approach to systems is not just in foundational narratives and childhood toys. The way we cook, organize our fridges, and furnish our rooms equally produces and reinforces an atomistic linear approach.
Systems thinking offers a succinct definition of a system that, in light of these examples, is not that different:
“A system is a set of things, interconnected such that it produces its own behaviors.”
But, this is a false additive logic: it is not that there is a world of independent things drifting around with their own internal purpose and logic that then come together by chance or purpose – And thus, the world of systems emerges. This temporal sequence is what is wrong – systems are originary.
What drives a system?
One common understanding is that the logic of the system is something hidden elsewhere – operating in a totally different manner – as we saw in our first example of the atomistic systems diagram (see above). Here, it is claimed that what drives the system are:
“values, beliefs, and cultural assumptions… underpin how the system is conceptualized, organized, and ultimately experienced. Human systems are never neutral, they are constructed from particular cultural, social and economic values.”
The values are the author and agent behind the system. Values are positioned as ultimately preceding the system and constructing it. But, contrary to the atomistic position that claims things proceed relations– everything has and is always intrinsically part of some set of relations. But not only are things always already organized, but agency – even intentionality itself emerges from how it is organized (we will get to this claim next).
The god-lego-fridge-furniture atomistic linear model puts agency outside the system with a maker who both precedes and exceeds their making of things and their systems.
But is this really the case?
The pervasive logic or “value” that is in and of a system does not precede the system. Systems have contextual and emergent propensities.
The system is creative. How?
Systems can become emergent – a dynamic where the additive process becomes indirect, non-proportional, and that a novel relational whole emerges that is “more than the sum of its parts.” Our brains, behaviors, and ecosystems are all examples of this.
The second unique feature of such non-linear systems is that the emergent whole — the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts — has a “downward” effect, shaping and transforming its parts. This is why it is incorrect to speak of things preceding the system. The parts that come together and that lead in some nonlinear manner to the emergence of an irreducible whole turn around and transformatively shape their parts.
These processes are conventionally termed “bottom-up” and “top-down.” But, this atomistic language of imposition is a flawed one — it is still the language and logic of linear causality. Framing systems processes as “top-down” or “bottom-up” causal situations (as well as the use of the language of “constraints,” “governing,” and even “more-than-a-sum-of-its-parts”) are also continuations from a linear perspective.
In the paper “Consciousness, Free Action, and the Brain”, the philosopher John Searle makes a number of powerful observations and arguments about the assumptions built into this language of top-down and bottom-up.
“At this point it seems to me we have to examine critically the assumptions built into our diagrammatic representations with its metaphors of “bottom-up” and “top-down”…”
He goes on to say that the problem is that whatever the higher level or emergent “more-than” feature is, this metaphor paints a picture of it as resting on the outer surface or distinct from whatever it has emerged from in a “bottom up” manner. As he puts it in an apt metaphor, “like paint on a table.”
“All of this is wrong,” he goes on to say — Emergent qualities are “no more on the surface of [things] than liquidity is on the surface of water”.
An emergent quality or feature is rather, a feature of the whole system “and is present — literally — at all of the relevant places of the system in the same way that the water in the glass is liquid throughout… the whole system moves in a way that is causal.”
“The right way to think about this is not so much “top down” but as system causation. The system, as a system, has causal effects on each element, even though the system is made up of elements”.
This brings us to how we speak of emergent causality as bringing some “thing” that is “more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts” into being.
On the face of it, this is correct — when processes come together in a relation dominant manner, they become something that is qualitatively different from if each discrete “part” was simply gathered in one place. But what emerges is, as Searle goes to great lengths to make clear — is not some “extra” thing in the system — it is the state of system — “in the same way that the solidity of the wheel is not an extra element of the wheel in addition to the molecules. It is just a state the molecules are in.”
System causation and the state of the system that emerges is not something extra but is the system itself — it is what it has become, and this is fully immanent in the system. What is true of Searle’s example is that consciousness is true of all emergent qualities. We can abstractly define them and name them “values,” “capitalism,” “patriarchy,” “consciousness,” “dispositif,” “the health system,” “thought” — but these are not distinct entities — they are fully and wholly immanent.
All of this brings us to the critical question:
What is being organized?
This can seem like an obvious or even inconsequential question. And Donella Meadows, in her definition of a system, begins in this manner: “A system is a set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever…” She quickly moves on, adding “...interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time”
But what do we mean when we say “things”? Things, people, cells – these phenomena are all processes.
“There is a notable lack of substance… out there in the domain of the living… There is no thing in biology. Things are abstractions from an ever changing reality. Reality consists of a hierarchy of intertwined processes. If life is change, then the activities driving this change are what we must explain. Yet we lack concepts and experimental approaches for the study of the dynamic aspects of living systems. This severely limits the range of questions we ask, most of the time even without our realizing. The problem is so obvious it is rarely ever talked about. There are very few explicitly processual theories in biology today. As a practicing biologist, I’ve always found this utterly baffling and disappointing. We remain strangely fixated on explanations in terms of static and unchanging entities.” J. Jaeger
And we, as researchers of innovation and creative process, are equally frustrated, disappointed, and motivated by how fixated systems approaches to creative practices are fixated on static and unchanging entities.
In last week's newsletter, we summarized a processual approach and ontology as well as given links to our eight newsletter series on processes. So, this week, we are not dwelling at any length on this topic.
For us, to speak of systems and creative processes is always part of a process approach to reality. Everything flows and is in dynamic relation. It is an approach that actively refutes the atomistic and reductive outlook that assumes that reality is composed of things. And that things are themselves composed of more basic particulars (more things) that are then brought into a systemic relation to each other governed by immutable laws.
From a process approach, things like us ,for example, are processes containing processes intra-dependant on other processes. What individuates us and gives us an identity is that we have a type of process continuity. Our existence is a set of dynamic processes developing within a field of mutually co-constructing processes. Processes are intrinsically relational. We live in and as patterns, organizations, networks, configurations.
But, such a process's approach to creativity can seem esoteric, too philosophical & without a direct simple way to enact practical use.
Our sense is the opposite. Here is a simple example: the jeans that you might be wearing or have in your closet – what are they?
If you approach them as a “thing,” we might talk about materials in the fabric, the dies, the zippers, & the sub materials down to the atomic level and beyond.
But if you approach them as process: “these jeans are not a thing but a process” – suddenly we are talking about the dynamics of healthy soils, the historical practices of cotton growing & developing new, more equitable practices, processes of spinning, weaving, sewing, dying, transporting, water systems, new economies, processes of use & repair, embodiment.
And this would be just the beginning – we can probe the networks, co-shape feedforward cycles, co-emerge with novel fields & processes into new configurations working in a distributed multiscalar, multimodal, heterogeneous relational processual manner. A process approach opens up vast dynamic spaces for experimentation.
There is at least one more major atomistic logic that haunts systems approaches, and that is how to understand connections – relations.
Let's start with Donella Meadows:
“A system is a set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time”
We know that definition misses many critical aspects of how the complex systems approach defines a system – but, what is useful as a starting place is that it tracks pretty closely to vernacular understanding of a system. We might not be as pithy or precise as Donella Meadows, but the general understanding of a system equals a set of things, their relationship, and the patterns of outcomes they produce.
Systems are usually slightly more involved than this simple equation – there are many things coming together to produce a patterned outcome:
But is this what happens when a group of individual agents come together in a specific relation? This linear equation does not reflect how outcomes happen that are irreducible to any one agent. We see this with the behavior of crowds, the decision making around the family dinner table or the flight of a bird – outcomes happen – behaviors happen that cannot be traced back to any one participant.
This changes our equation:
The system is leading to outcomes that come from things + relations but are not equal to them. Systems require us to consider nonlinear causality: e.g. the fact that we cannot trace a clear path between any one agent and the outcome. And systems require us to consider emergence.
Yes, rethinking causality and emergence are critical – but what about the relation? Quite often, relations are framed as the relation between two agents originates in one or both of them. This assumes that the relation is first some thing inside each of the participants. How we talk about love is a good example: we discover in meeting someone a love inside of ourselves for them and eventually we have a chance to externalize it into a relationship.
In this logic, the relation has no existence separate from the agent. But our previous example of system causation would suggest otherwise: The relation is external to what it relates.
If we are to reconsider the role of relations in systems we need to first interrogate the visual language used in so many systems diagrams.
The standard language is one of many circles connected by many lines. This visual language can be very misleading — the circles and the lines give off a clear sense of “this does that’.
The first change to make is that the circle represents a process. It is not a thing.
And the line which looks very linear and causal is termed a “relation,” but the relation in emergent systems is non-linear – so what is this “relation”? A better term is: ‘enabling relation.’
A relation that has nothing to do with direct causality. Enabling relations are more than influences and less than causes. They act as constructive constraints and can be quite complex and extended across time. Enabling relations means that no component is independent or self-standing. Each process works thanks to other processes. And each process dynamically varies in intensity across time.
So, the circles are not discreet things but more processes, and the lines are not showing linear causality — even though it really does look this way!
This visual language is so common to systems thinking – It is very confusing and reinforces exactly what is trying to be refuted (that it is not about atomistic things and linear causality).
To get at why rethinking the relation also matters, let's dig into an example that we used in Volume 50:
Bird flight: For a bird to fly you need a network of things to work together (a system). The bird and its wings and feathers, as well as air and its varying densities, currents, and other movements, as well as land in all its diversity. We can draw this as a system diagram (super simplified):
Now each of these circles is a process — the bird is a metabolic process — eating, breathing, pooping, etc. and it is within an ongoing life process (being conceived, born, growing, etc.). Each part of it, such as the wing or the feather, is also a process and on and on. Air and ground are further processes.
But that things are processes is not where things get both really interesting and most confusing. What of these lines that are not linear? Understanding what is meant by this line that represents an enabling ‘relation’ is what is both critical and often perplexing. But it goes beyond this:
Where is flight in the relations shown in this system's diagram?
Where ‘is’ flight when we see a bird in flight? We can see the bird flying — so it must be ‘in’ there somewhere! But no matter how hard you look — it is not in the wings, nor is it in the feathers — no matter where you look in the component parts/processes, you will not find flight.
And because of this, we can also confidently say that it is not ‘in’ any of our diagram’s circles. But is it in any one of the lines? Is it in the relation between the bird and the air?
It is also not in any one line or relation.
Part of the confusion about where flight might be located comes from the atomistic subject-predicate structure of our language, where things (subjects) are always connected to an action (predicate). When we say “that bird is flying” — our grammar can lead us to imagine that flying is a property of the bird. But the whole thing needs to be flipped on its head — the bird is a property of flight. Flight is the subject…
What does this mean? If we come back to our diagram: “Flight” is not a property found in a specific component of the system. Flight emerges from and is a property of the relational whole.
To function properly, the systems diagram needs to show how system properties emerge from the middle of a network – it can never be an iceberg, nor can it come from any one source. Flight is not a property of any one part of the system — any one circle, but nor is it the property of any line (relation). It is a property of the whole.
This is, for us, really the beginning of understanding processes and moving away from the “thing + relation = system”. It all begins in the middle — in the dynamic middle that is also the whole.
The circles and the lines connecting them are important, but they are nothing without seeing what they are part of — the property that emerges in a non-linear manner from the dynamic relational state of the whole (and in turn makes each of the “parts” – the sub-processes).
To understand flight as a process, we begin in the middle and stay in the middle.
What does it mean to ‘stay in the middle’? This takes us back to the discussion of system causality – it means that we do not ascribe flight to any one thing. We sense the whole, and we can even define the parts — but we do not confuse their necessity with cause or source. Flight is not ‘in’ any thing… just as “liquidity is not simply on the surface of water…”
They are all system properties of dynamic processes. But this still does not go far enough. When a system property emerges (such as flight), it does not simply emerge and exist, and that is the end of the story. The emergent property has agency.
What do we mean by agency? It has the ability to affect and be affected by things. The critical question is, “what does it affect and transform?” Of course, flight has the ability to do things like fly — now the bird has agency to go to new places and do things in a new manner. This is one form (the standard form) of agency. But events, as processes, have another form of agency – remember – Emergent events have the agency to shape their parts.
The relational event of flight is the “author” that is shaping its component parts. Flight made the bird.
This understanding of systems, processes, relations, emergence, and events – beyond the atomistic logic allows us to approach agency, authorship, and creativity from a radically different perspective. The process philosopher Brian Massumi puts it this way: “Invention is less about cause than it is about the self-conditioning of emergence.”
This self-conditioning of emergence is how the event is taking hold of the parts (the system) and transforming them/it from the novel perspective of what is emerging. Sometimes, we talk about this as ‘co-shaping’ or even ‘circular causality’ because the parts make the whole, and then the whole makes the parts. But from a big picture perspective, this gives too much agency to the parts (we are falling back into an atomistic perspective), and what is really driving the whole process is the emergent event. Thus, as Massumi suggests, it is more relevant to focus on the “self-conditioning of emergence”.
This approach to processes and systems poses a radical challenge to the atomistic approach to systems, origins, and creativity. From an atomistic and linear systems perspective, we talk about immediate causes, authors, and sources. And we talk about how an inventor ‘did’ this or that – that led to a creative outcome. And while it is true that an innovator will have initiated certain actions — but to focus on this would be to miss the systemic nature of the self conditioning of emergence – which works as the “action of the future on the present.” (Massumi).
This ‘action of the future’ is the creative process — where the future is the emergent possible agency of what is emerging. The question is “what is doing the inventing?” — and it is not ‘the inventor’. The ‘inventor’, much like our bird, is the outcome of the process/system. Massumi explains the relation between the inventive logic of the system and the innovator this way: Invention is the bringing to bear on the present of an emergent operation that potentializes the possibility of a qualitatively distinct future. And this novel emergent system’s causal logic potentializes the present for a leap into the new:
“A technical invention does not have a historical cause… Invention is less about cause than it is about self-conditioning emergence… The [novel] object is finally dependent… on the autonomous taking-effect of the relation… The designer is a helpmate of emergence.”
The designer is a helpmate of emergence from in the midst of the process. They are not ‘The’ author or “The” source. We, as active agents probing and experimenting, are one of many enabling relations in a system. And at the same time as we are that, we are also being transformed by the event we assisted into becoming. The “inventor” is always the outcome and not the source…
Systems are originary.
Context is always decisive.
The first is always the last.
The bottom is always the middle.
The relation is always the cause of what it relates.
And the end is always the whole…
Well, thank you for sticking with us – this was a long one!
We hope that this exploration can help you “get systems right” in your own experimental manner beyond the legacy of our linear and atomistic history– as we collectively experiment toward alternative futures.
Have a flourishing week!
🧨 P.S.: We facilitate workshops and the accolades are overwhelming.
❤️ P.P.S.: Love this newsletter? We'd be grateful if you heap a bit of praise in the comments
🏆: P.P.P.S: Find the newsletter valuable? Please share it with your network
🙈 P.P.P.P.S: Hit reply - feedback of any kind is welcome
🏞 P.P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution
📚 P.P.P.P.P.P.S.: Go deeper - Check out our book which is getting great feedback like this: