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Systemic Connections

This is a summary of the main theme of Barataria so far, written for the purpose of taking the discussion off to a new level.  If you need more explanation, just follow the links.  Thanks!

Pick a system that influences your life.  You might start with the obvious physical networks of technology like the internet, telephones or highways that make it possible for you to meet the world on a daily basis.  You might branch out to the systems that distribute food to grocery stores or electricity to every household.  These link up eventually to more “soft” systems of people and ideas, such as religion, politics or academics.  They are all systems that have their own purpose and daily grind that keeps it all keepin’ on.

All of these systems are part of a network of connections that make the world what it is.  Each can be considered separately for the purpose of specializing, reducing it to a straightforward skill or task on a daily basis.  That’s how institutions come together to put a name and an air of permanence on what is really a part of a dynamic system that changes to respond to changing needs.

The economic situation we are in right now is a Depression, not a Recession, in one important sense.  A Recession is an event where one or more key systems finds out that it has too much capacity because it either outgrew its demand or the demand fell – there’s just too much of it, and people lose their jobs.  A Depression happens when the money itself fails – there’s just not enough real money because people lost faith or credit collapsed – and nearly every system finds itself under a lot of stress.  Right now, nearly everything is feeling the pinch.  Historically, the result is rather dramatic change.

In these times, what matters less is how things are or how the systems of our lives are made into institutions, but how they are connected.

Whatever system you look at is made up of these connections.  Apply stress at one person or institution, and that stress moves along the connections to someone else. When these forces hit other people along the way, their response to the new stress may be very different than the place where it started as they move it along through their connections.  Soon, everything moves and shifts in ways that might seem unpredictable.

If you look at the connections of all these systems rather than what or where they are now, you can better predict how they will move as everything is stressed. Everything could change through economic restructuring as so much did from 1927 to 1937 to 1947, when a generation gradually passed into an entirely new world.  Where things started out became trivially unimportant by the end, but their connections were what saw everyone through the turmoil.

No matter what systems you find important in your life, each one came from somewhere.  There was an economic or social need, and people got together to fill it.  They brought with them their connections and made new ones to make it all happen.  Politics, technology, religion and even the economy ultimately all about the people whose talent and work made them happen.

Politics isn’t about zingers that give a temporary advantage, it’s about improving people’s lives.  It works precisely to the extent that it fills the spaces inbetween people, spaces that came out of the cultural and economic arrangements – it comes from somewhere.  The economy isn’t about spontaneously generating wealth, it’s about getting goods and services from someone that has them to someone that needs them.  Technology is applying knowledge to make a change that people want or need.  Without connections, none of them would matter.

Any system you might want to ponder is all about the connections to whatever made it useful in the first place.  Ultimately, that’s about people, but what made it all possible are the connections between people and the institutions they come to depend on.  All of this is under a lot more stress than before, and that stress is going to propagate through the networks of systems in weird ways.

If you want to get on top of it and understand what might happen to any system in these difficult times, you have to think about the connections that make it possible, not just the institutions or people that go through the daily grind.  It’s the connections that really make everything happen.  That’s where the forces of change are either concentrated or dispersed.

I’ll be writing more about this in the future, but for now I’d like to hear what you have to say.

25 thoughts on “Systemic Connections

  1. That is a great way of seeing the real big picture of the world. The dynamics that force or foster systemic change are always multi faceted. We also have the every increasing pace of information transfer. Information is power and can be a major factor in changes. The speed of which information is put out (without any vetting) makes decision making difficult. Rumor and half truths now in the short run can sway opinion quickly and taint any process of change.
    Thanks for keeping me thinking.

  2. Isn’t the internet as important as the depression because it makes new connections? Could the offset each other?

  3. Good start and as always I would like a bit more specificity. Three thoughts/observations.
    I could be totally wrong about this but with imroved i.t. technology and state/economic policy wasn’t the old business cycle of boom and bust oversupply supposed to be mitigated?. Well yes it probably has to some extent. And so in recent history (past 50 years) the cycles of recession have probably been less frequent and severe. Now the late 1970/early 80s we had inflation which was dimnished greatly and the task of the baby boomers and opec.
    Could we also say with some credibility that the nation was Hijacked? Yes Hijacked and I am not blaming Bush I am referring to the thousands of bright men who engaged in these doings of the past 20 years. Bills written of by and for wall street. I know I am going a bit overboard but companies can charge interest and fees that are truly like usary.
    On a positive note I got together with a high school friend over beer and fries and he is now in the daily wind and sun predicting business for turbines and panels. If one can handle obscure math, score high, program computers a lot of doors can open. This is probably the type of job that barely existed 20 years ago except for the airline or shipping industry.

  4. Brian: Thanks so much. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see someone as sharp as you reading regularly!

    Jan: To get all James Burke on you, historically communications advances do increase connection and that sparks all kinds of information. Perhaps this will all look like a small adjustment in the really long run!

    Dan: I’ll get more specific. I was thinking of making this into one of my small series, like the “Urban Core” or “Generations” runs – I haven’t done one in a while. I’ll get way more specific there if I do this, so consider this the opening Thesis.

    Also, Barataria is just whatever I’m thinking about. I hope you can see that this is about a year’s worth of ponderin’ crystallizing into something that makes sense of it all. I’ve been interested in the forces of change, the role of specialization and the maintenance of institutions for while now, so this is just an attempt to create a framework for understanding them all.

    I wanted your input before I went too much further, tho. Thanks for it!

  5. Looking forward to the series it is a great idea(s). You know you are quite unique in that category i.e. writing series. Also in the way you link related stuff altho minnpost does that some and needs to do it more. You know if one of your kids or a friend ever backlogged your stuff they could probably create 2-4 new/old series with a bit of editing. This internet/i.t. creates a whole new kind of archive. Good luck! And hey by the way you might like “julia and julie” it has a lot to do with ideas, time and the internet too.

  6. Erik: Great post. One of my favorite quote right now is “every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets”. This made me think of that again.

    I would love to learn more about “complex emergent systems” — if that’s even the right phrase. Because as the number of connections in everyone’s lives increases, I think some of the fundamental laws of social and political dynamics change as well.

    I think it’s not just that the systems are under stress, which they obviously are, but I think they respond differently now than they would have even a generation ago.


  7. Sean: We are indeed way past overload most of the time. As Scott Adams of “Dilbert” once said, the flow of information is like a firehose aimed a teacup. You’re right – that’s new, and a big change.

    I’ll try to wrap up what I think about all this in the conclusion of this on Monday.

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  10. Re-read this after you’ve been giving a lot of specific examples. You are right on. Looking at how people and ideas are connected really does say a lot more about what is happening and will happen than any of what you call ‘institutions’.

    Thank you. This is brilliant stuff, wish it got out more!

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  12. Thanks for this engaging post, Erik! I appreciated our conversation the other week and am reminded of some your comments via your blog posts.

    By default, we human beings operate initially in unintentional (to us) networks, shaped by the time, circumstances, family members, neighborhoods, politics, etc, that form the reality of our lives. If we don’t become cognizant of this, we’re likely to continue perpetuating the same social circles, accepted wisdom, and behaviors that have built and sustained these networks. It is by breaking rank, whether in large or small ways, and incorporating new thinking or people into our old traditions that ideas are refreshed, organizations grow, and communities change. Our challenge is to not be passive participants in our given social, political, economic networks, but to take control over creating diverse, thoughtful, and open-minded networks and to drive them towards strengthening community and the common good.

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  21. First of all, thank you for stating out loud that we are, in fact, in the middle of a Depression. The folks, i.e. the media, who continue to call it a Great Recession have either not learned their history or lack courage to say it out loud for fear of mass panic. Regardless we are all suffering, directly and indirectly because the systems we depend upon have failed us and worse.

    I predict, if I may, that the fall-out of our systems’ failure will be a new economy based on knowledge, not money. It will be what you know and what you can provide that will in exchange provide you with what you need and want. It’s a little lofty for some to get their heads around (especially the wealthy and greedy), but it’s happening already, in the terms of bartering. It
    will most like continue to grow to the point where we “bank” knowledge points.

    The one system that has not failed us is the Internet. The connections and exchanging of information between individuals makes it impossible for governments and institutions of power to control people any longer. I don’t recall who said it first, but knowledge, my friend, will set you free.

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