Highlight: Systems

“Highlights” is a series of posts I’m going to be using to discuss and expand upon major components of the Interlock Project.  Each post will be on a particular topic, pointing to a page or set of pages with the intent of taking the reader on a tour through the Interlock.  While the Interlock is and always will be nonlinear, taking it one step at a time should hopefully help make it a bit more readable.

As the first post in the series, there was a temptation to introduce the Interlock all over again, reposting the introductory pages here in all their wordy glory.  I feel like I should at least point readers to them (Welcome to the Interlock Project! – What is the Interlock Project? – The Interlock) just for anyone who is new to the site, but… rehashing what the site is seems excessive, considering just how long those pages are.

Instead, this week I’m going to highlight a brief little note that’s stuck at the very end of the Interlock page:

A note on systems
Complex systems are often hard to understand, but it is possible to figure out how they work, with a little effort.  Communicating an understanding of a system in a clear manner to others – even others who have spent as much time studying that system as you – is trickier.  Academics who have made their careers out of studying the interactions within complex systems (and who come from specialties as varied as ecology, sociology, economics, and engineering) have come up with various ways of modeling them, in order to better communicate the most important moving parts of each system.  The most primitive form that these models take, the causal loop diagram (CLD), is what I’ve used to illustrate the Interlock:
Interlock colored 10-29-13
A causal loop diagram is not a computational model of a system.  It’s a purely conceptual illustration of what’s going on inside the system – there are no numbers involved, no “proof” that it’s true, and most importantly, no indication of the speed of interaction or the amount of delay involved in each interaction; it’s just a way of illustrating a person’s or organization’s view of which parts of a complex system interact significantly with which other parts.  When I use one to describe the Interlock, I’m describing my view of it – right, wrong, or somewhere in between.

I felt that this was an important point to make – that while CLDs are useful for communicating concepts, there is no actual proof that this model of the Interlock is “true.”  It’s possible to model really complex systems and derive some reasonably scientific results, but making sure that those models are accurate is… difficult.  Economists still find it impossible to accurately model the US economy, so any attempt to form a model of the economy and all of the other domains I’ve used to describe the Interlock is bound to produce results that are fuzzy, at best.

Beyond the question of “proof,” though, systems theory and a systems perspective underlie the whole concept of the Interlock – the idea that it’s important to look at our policy problems as systems of problems, rather than as a collection of individual issues to be dealt with one by one.  This is the critical point that I wanted to make when I started working on the Interlock Project.

I’ve purposefully avoided going into much greater depth on this subject in the website and articles because a lengthy discussion of systems theory or how to make systems models wouldn’t really further the Interlock’s main purpose of illustrating the policy problems that the US is dealing with, and there are others who have done the job much better than I could.  If you want to learn more, I’ll be pointing to some resources in the upcoming “Further Reading” post on the subject.

And, as always, if you’re interested in improving the Interlock Project, leave a comment or see the Participate page for other ways to contribute!

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