The World as a System

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We can describe the world as a collection of interacting systems and analyse it by observing its traits and interactions.

Humans naturally observe things and understand the world without necessarily knowing its inner workings. The systemic approach views the world as a system of interacting subsystems.

the world as a system

The Black-Box View

The black box view of systems postulates that a system can be anything from a simple amoeba to the world financial system. We define the system boundary based on its inbound and outbound interactions.

The human body is a system which takes in water, food and produces waste and heat. The human consciousness is a more complex system. It takes in information and produces a myriad of things from art to science.

The ‘black box’ approach allows us to refer to entities without knowing their inner secrets. We can refer to a toaster or a radio without having to know how either work. The mind could not function if it had to know everything about a peanut before appreciating peanut butter.

Data systems are similar. A developer must know the inner workings of methods and properties. But we can use data in the real world without this knowledge.

One can thus refer to ‘things’ by their name without knowing their precise workings. We cite the ‘social security system’ without knowing its inner workings. The system will continue to output healthcare as long as we input funding and resources. Likewise, we have come to depend on the water distribution system without appreciating matters of ecology.

In business systems analysis, it may be sufficient for some to know that ‘the production system’ produces widgets. The analyst may want to delve into the detail and understand its inner workings.

Different levels of analysis

High-level view of the ‘energy system’. At this level of analysis, we give easy tags to what are highly complex systems energy production and distribution bringing energy to the door of the user. Behind the simple diagrams lie a world of complexity. And yet the requirements remain, demand and supply.

the energy system

Detailed view of the system

A more detailed view of the system may peer into its working one level down to identify actors and processes.

energy system

Our dependency on systems

We can observe the world as a system from any perspective. We can analyse its observable workings or its interactions with other systems. But unless we have priviledged access we cannot analyse the internal workings. We must therefore trust the operation of the system without knowledge of their workings.

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This can be the case for so many systems on which in fact we depend: the water distribution system, the energy and transport systems, the (French) social security system, information exchange networks, the food distribution network and so on.

dependency on systems
Society is dependent on systems

We shape ourselves to reflect what society expects of us and we evolve to what it allows us to become.

The World as a System

The systemic approach allows us to analyse ‘the world’ as a set of multiple overlapping interacting systems. Our analysis depends on our point of view and the objectives of the analysis.

The analysis of the world may observe large blocks of social function, the sole trader may see the workings of his business. The developer has detailed lines of code, the surgeon the inner workings of the human body. Each have a different angle, a different perspective on the world. Each may observe the same system from quite different angles.

The subject and degree of analysis depend on the position and role of the observer. A ‘casual’ observer or an actor of change will view the system differently.

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