The Laws of Complex Systems Applied To Real Life
A system is a bundle of "things" that work together to produce a result. So, for example, you car is a system -- a set of parts that function to provide the benefits (when the system works) or failures (when the system doesn't work). You have the body, the tires, the steering wheel, the gas, seats, engine and it's parts, and so on, and those all make up the "car system". The limits of a system are defined somewhat arbitrarily. That is, a system can be broken down into sub-systems, or you can think of the system in a broader way. So, for a car, the "drive train" is a sub-system. Or, you can broaden the "car system to include the gas vendors, the roads, and so on. Theoretically one defines a system in terms of it's function, but there's no one way to draw the line between one system and another. A complex system is one that has many many parts to it, where the parts not only combine to provide a function, but interact with each other so that one part actually modifies the function of all the other parts. The more parts, the more they affect each other, the more complex.
Complex Systems and Real LifeComplex systems are not just something theoretical. They have profound effects on almost everything. For example, our economy is a hugely complex system, as is the Google search engine, as is our feed chain. So, understanding complex systems helps us understand why so many things go wrong, or don't function as we want on a consistent basis. So, to help us understand complex systems, I've formulated a few laws of complex systems that can be applied to the real life situations we will be talking about in this series of articles.
Laws of Complex Systems
- Systems naturally evolve into complex systems, and in rarer cases into "super complex systems" over time. For example, most things, like how we get our food, or how the price of gas gets set, or our computers, have gone from simple (ie. the Commodore 64 to our Windows based systems), to the much more complex. Some systems, like the Google search engine have gone from simple to complex to super-complex.
- As a system gets more complex the ability of individual people to understand every aspect of the system gets diminished until, particularly with super-complex systems, nobody understands the system, nobody can control it, and nobody can predict how any one change in one part of the system will affect how well the system works.
- As a system gets more and more complex, and fewer people understand the system or can control or predict what it will do, it becomes less stable, less efficient, and more error prone. For example, ever notice that using your computer on the Internet will yield countless small errors on web pages, links that don't work, ecommerce systems that work most of the time but not all of the time, or web pages that will work in one browser but not another? That's complexity.
- Physical systems (your car, the space shuttle) can be complex, but because they are not dynamic (they don't change on their own), it's possible to understand them sufficiently to operate them, or fix them. When humans are involved, it changes the game entirely. Human systems (e.g. the stock market, economy, relationships, etc) ARE dynamic, because people change and they act inconsistently. A car can be fixed if it breaks, but if you define the "personal transportation system" as a car + driver, all of a sudden we can't predict what will happen on an individual basis. So, if you want to reduce accidents by looking at this personal transportation system, it becomes hugely difficult because the driver sometimes does this, and sometimes does that. The car tends to do that same thing under the same conditions, but the human doesn't.
- Complex systems are affected by the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is simply that when you fiddle with one part of a complex system, no matter how small, it may yield the results you want, and it will have unintended consequences that you do NOT want. Make a car go faster, sure, but then you use more gas.
- As complex systems get more complex, they require more work to build, run and fix, and because of that become hugely inefficient.
- Technology increases the complexity of systems, which explains why automation and use of computers rarely make things better, particularly when they address human interactions. For example, has customer service gotten better now that we have social media, phone trees and call centers, and all manner of other things to help us get "better" customer service. The research says, "No".
So What? Who Cares About Complex SystemsWell, you do, if you want to understand why you spend more and more time maintaining your "stuff" and more and more time getting frustrated when things don't work properly, and even why our democracies seem to get crazier and crazier. In other additions to this series, we'll explain why people often appear "stupid", why customer service has gotten worse, and look at the application of these laws of complex systems to our lives, on an everyday basis.