Okay, so machines are simple, largely linear, and predictable, and systems are complex, adaptive and ‘dispositional’… but look a bit closer and the distinction gets blurry.
Most systems (individual people, markets, forests to name three) are combinations of sub-systems that are, at the end of the day, made up of simple units. And our machines – especially digital ones – are increasingly complex and interconnected. Even our simplest machines don’t really stand alone – they’re outgrowths of human activity, the product of networks of ideas, activities and resources that allow them to develop, grow, and – if they’re not maintained – fall into obsolescence and decay.
Kevin Kelly calls this the techium*, and describes it brilliantly in What Technology Wants:
Once [19th century economist Johann] Beckmann lowered the mask [of technology, by uniting various arts and sciences under the term technologie], our art and artifacts could be seen as an interdependent components woven into a coherent impersonal unity.
Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels. There is no metabolism of factories without the circulation of vehicles. No hammers without saws to cut the handles; no blades without hammers to pound the saw blades. This global-scale, circular interconnected network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, codes, calculators, sensors, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators – this whole grand contraption of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a single system.
When scientists began to investigate how this system functioned, they soon noticed something unusual: large systems of technology often behave like a very primitive organism. Networks, especially electronic networks, exhibit near-biological behaviour.Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants (amazon)
In our organisations, this way of seeing helps us to think about the machines we buy buy of the networks of activity and supply that are necessary to maintain them and run them well – a way of thinking that’s probably automatic in the manufacturing and computer industries, but comes far less naturally in the social sector.
Something as simple as buying a new computer or printer isn’t just that simple. It’s introducing a new organism into an ecosystem, and will require our teams to do the work of acclimatising and adapting to make it really useful. The more complicated or relational a technology is – social media being a prime example – the further the adaptation and unintended consequences go.
*as distinct from specific technologies