4.6 billion years ago a giant cloud of gas and dust floating through the vast expanse of space collapsed in on itself under the force of gravity. From this collapse a star was born and around it formed a disk of more dust, gas and tiny molecules.
Over millions of years bits of debris that orbited the baby star clumped together and collided to eventually become the planets that make up our Solar System. This system of planets would continue to orbit that star for billions of years, forever feeling the tug of its immense gravitational pull.
Some planets are unimaginably cold and composed entirely of gas while others are hellish toxic landscapes, constantly bombarded by the full force of our sun’s tremendous heat. Moons orbit these planets just like the planets themselves orbit the sun. All of these celestial bodies are connected through gravity and all influence each others destinies in some way.
This is a system. An interdependent group of entities that together form a whole.
Within this system are many more sub-systems. The fourth planet from the sun, Earth, is engaged in a cosmic waltz with Luna, our moon. Earth’s gravity pulls it towards us, while it’s gravitational pull causes our tides to come and go. This dance contribute to the many systems that help shape our very existence. Like the weather systems that create vibrant rain forests, coral reefs, barren deserts and tropical paradises. Or the complex interactions between warm and cold air that produce hurricanes and tornadoes.
We have our own personal systems too. A nervous system that allows us to feel droplets of rain as they hit our skin, or the sunbeams that warm our faces. We have circulatory systems that pump blood through our musculoskeletal systems, allowing us to move and seek shelter from harsh weather, or bask in the sunshine when it comes.
Not only do we exist as collection of interdependent systems, but we build systems in which to live. Giant cities made up of buildings, connected by streets and roads. We have systems that pump water through our cities and power them with electricity.
There are social systems that dictate what we can and cannot do and economic systems that provide work and income in order for us to live within this giant socio-technical system that we have constructed.
There are many examples of man made systems that forever changed the destiny of our species, but none so recent and perhaps profound as that of the computer. In recent times we as a society have become reliant on computers for almost everything that we would deem essential for our survival. They control the production and distribution of food and medicine. Our money is for the most part just a number on a computer somewhere. They fly our airplanes and will soon drive our cars. We’ve even handed off the management of our social interactions to computers.
Despite their ubiquity however, the general public has very little in the way of understanding of how they actually work. This is not unique to computers. As a society grows and evolves its people understand less about the things that they rely on. How many of us would be able to grow our own food or butcher an animal for meat? How many of the people that drive, and indeed rely on, a car would be able to fix that car if something went wrong? We live longer and suffer less as a result of modern medicine, but how many people actually understand how this medicine works or how to create it?
This is called specialization and it is a natural part of our evolution. As we develop more and more complex systems to enhance our daily lives we couldn’t possibly be experts in in all of them.
What I find interesting about computers is that the engineers that create them are constantly building, testing and managing systems. Every time you use a computer you are using hundreds of systems all working together in unison.
Designing and building these systems teaches us a lot about systems in general. When it comes to computer systems we can build new ones relatively quickly and we can replace old ones without major disruption. If we were to change or try to replace our health care systems or education systems there would be a huge upheaval, and likely deaths, as a result. The systems that we have built around ourselves are hugely resistant to change, but computer systems are less so. This means that we have been able to evolve the way in which we think about systems at an incredible pace. We can also take some of this thinking and apply it to non technical systems.
For example, a website crashing due to millions of people trying to access it is fundamentally the same as road that is blocked by traffic or a hospital that has no more room for patients. These are all just systems that are at capacity. In each case we can also present the same solution: add more capacity. A new lane for the road, an extra building for the hospital and more servers for the website.
Look around and have think about some of the systems, physical or otherwise, that surround you. Then maybe have a think about some of the things that they all have in common. But beware, once you start thinking in systems it's very hard to stop.
You will have taken the red pill…