Axioms of Systemantics#

2024 Jan 25

Systemantics is a silly little book by John Gall with some interesting ideas about how systems (barely) work and why they fail. Below is a summary of the book’s axioms.

(The sentences in bold are mostly verbatim from the book; I edited a few. Sentences in quotes are also from the book. Everything else is my own.)

Systems In General Work Poorly Or Not At All. There is no single, hidden defect that’s preventing your complex system from working; failure to function as expected is an intrinsic feature of complex systems. In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

New Systems Mean New Problems. Back when I was content lead for I set up an automated form to take in new content proposals. The automation itself would break. Some teammates were unhappy with the new bureaucracy. When I left that role ownership of the automated form didn’t transfer correctly. Etc.

The Total Amount Of Anergy In The Universe Is Constant. Gall defines anergy as the negative of energy. See also clonal anergy. “The sum total of problems facing the community has not changed. They have merely changed their form and relative importance.” I’ve heard The Macro Tourist talk about risk in similar terms.

Systems Tend To Grow And Encroach. “A striking example is the “do-it-yourself” movement, instigated by managers of mass production in the world to make the consumer do some of the work the system is supposed to do. The consumer is encouraged to do the work of assembling the parts of the product he has bought on the bizarre grounds that it “saves so much work and expense”. Several hours later, the exasperated purchaser may recall that the system of mass production was set up in the first place because such functions can be more cheaply and rapidly done under factory conditions.”

Complicated Systems Produce Unexpected Outcomes. DDT was introduced to improve crop yield and control disease and ended up dangerously thinning out the shells of Bald Eagles.

Complex Systems Tend To Oppose Their Own Proper Function. My favorite axiom. Your city has a problem with trash building up on the streets so it sets up a waste management company. The company starts out by collecting trash daily, but then they shift to a Tuesday-only schedule. Next, you get a notice saying that the company will no longer service your building unless you buy their standardized garbage cans (to ensure that the robotic arms on their trucks can pick them up). Eventually, the waste management union goes on strike and the trash starts piling up on the street again anyways.

People In Systems Do Not Do What The System Says They Are Doing. The stated purpose of a king is to rule a country, but in reality they spend a lot of time fighting off usurpers.

The System Itself Does Not Do What It Says It Is Doing. “Example 1. Doesn’t the auto industry supply us with millions of new cars each year, even tailoring them to our changing tastes in style and performance? Answer. The reason we think the auto industry is meeting our needs is that we have almost completely forgotten what we originally wanted, namely, a means of going from one place to another that would be cheap, easy, convenient, safe, and fast.”

The Real World Is Whatever Is Reported To The System. “People in systems are never dealing with the real world that the rest of us have to live in but with a filtered, distorted, and censored version which is all that can get past the sensory organs of the system itself.”

For Every Human System, There Is A Type Of Person Adapted To Thrive On It. There are some attributes that are probably necessary for survival in any system, but each system has some uniqueness in the sense that it attracts different traits. It’s hard to tell what traits any given system attracts. The traits do not necessarily align with successful operation of the system itself e.g. the qualities for being elected president don’t necessarily align with the ability to run the country effectively. Systems not only attract people who will succeed within the system but also people with parasitic traits that thrive at the expense of the system. “Efforts to remove parasitic Systems-people by means of screening committees, review boards, and competency examinations merely generate new job categories for such people to occupy.”

The Bigger The System, The Narrower And More Specialized The Interface With Individuals. To the US tax system, the concept of “social security number” is (probably) more important than the concept of “person”.

A Complex System Cannot Be “Made” To Work. Attempting “a good swift kick” may improve functioning for a moment but usually results in total nonfunctioning.

A Simple System, Designed From Scratch, Sometimes Works.

Some Complex Systems Actually Work.

A Complex System That Works Is Invariably Found To Have Evolved From A Simple System That Works. “The mechanism by which the transition from working simple system to working complex system takes place is not known. Few areas offer greater potential reward for truly first-rate research.”

A Complex System Designed From Scratch Never Works. The League Of Nations.

In Complex Systems, Malfunction And Total Nonfunction May Not Be Detectable For Long Periods, If Ever. “It would seem reasonable to suppose that… governments in which all power is concentrated in the will of one man would require as a minimum for the adequate functioning of those governments, that the will of the despot be intact. Nevertheless, the list of absolute monarchs who were hopelessly incompotent, even insane, is surprisingly long. They ruled with utter caprice… for decades on end, and the net result to their countries was—undetectably different from the rule of the wisest kings.”

Large Complex Systems Are Beyond Human Capacity To Evaluate. It’s difficult to know what a large, complex system is doing, and therefore it’s difficult to judge it as a success or failure.

A System Continues To Do Its Thing, Regardless Of Need. The Selective Service System continues to require all 18-year-old male US citizens to register for the draft, even though the US hasn’t had a draft in 51 years.

Systems Develop Goals Of Their Own.

Intrasystem Goals Come First.

Complex Systems Usually Operate In Failure Mode. Poke around any complex system and will you find sub-systems that seem to solve a particular problem but on closer investigation are found to not actually be working.

The Mode Of Failure From A Complex System Cannot Ordinarily Be Predicted From Its Structure. When you go back and trace the actual financial mechanisms that failed in the 2008 and 2020 financial crises… it gets pretty weird.

The Crucial Variables Are Discovered By Accident.

The Larger The System, The Greater The Probability Of Unexpected Failure.

“Success” Or “Failure” In Any System May Be Failure In The Larger Or Smaller Systems To Which The System Is Connected.

When A Fail-Safe System Fails, It Fails By Failing To Fail Safe.

Complex Systems Tend To Produce Complex Responses (Not Solutions) To Problems.

Great Advances Are Not Produced By Systems Designed To Produce Great Advances. “A system that is sufficiently large, complex, and ambitious can reduce output far below “random” levels. Thus, a federal Program to conquer cancer may tie up all the competent researchers in the field, leaving the problem to be solved by someone else, typically a graduate student from the University of Tasmania doing a little recreational entomology on his vacation. Solutions usually come from people who see in the problem only an interesting puzzle, and whose qualifications would never satisfy a select committee.

Systems Opposing Human Motivation Work Poorly Or Not At All.

Loose Systems Last Longer And Work Better.