Distilling "Systemantics"

"Our point, repeatedly stressed in this text, is that Systems operate according to Laws of Nature, and that Laws of Nature are not suspended to accommodate our human shortcomings."


Systemantics (a.k.a. The Systems Bible) was a fun read. Way more accessible than I expected, highly recommended. A bit distressing in its pessimism1, but engaging and (so far) perennially relevant.

First I'll devote some space to describing some of the features of the text, then I thought I'd take some cuts from the book that stood out to me and distill them here for the reader.

But before you read any of this, you should read the Wikipedia Page on Systemantics because it does a way better job of distilling this text than I ever could.


Great Features of Systemantics

In No Particular Order:

  1. Axioms. The book has a tremendous number of hilarious and damning axioms, e.g., "SYSTEMS IN GENERAL WORK POORLY OR NOT AT ALL." or "IF YOUR PROBLEM SEEMS UNSOLVABLE, CONSIDER THAT YOU MAY HAVE A META-PROBLEM.

  2. Animal Exemplars. The book has an entire appendix filled with animals that illustrate topics the author is trying to illuminate over the course of the book, e.g. The Self-actuating Laboratory Rat, which serves discussion around system-probing as a method of understanding and, potentially, though perhaps counter-intuitively, a damage mitigation strategy. In the example, researchers discover that laboratory rats, previously assumed to be operating under a trial-and-error model at best (coupled with a dangerous, unexplainable quickening of risky behavior), actually quicken their interaction with objects that give shocks so that they can better understand the operating characterstics of the system that they are in.
  3. Neatly Divided. The book starts with theory and some description of the problem space, then switches gears and introduces some practical strategies and defense mechanisms applied to a variety of real-world scenarios.
  4. All Of The Appendices. The book has seven appendices, followed by extensive endnotes.


The Taboo of Failure

The book argues critically that failure has an almost indefatigably strong negative connotation, so strong that, in fact, most people pretend failure doesn't exist2. This is wrong in the eyes of the author (and myself) because failure is an incredibly strong form of feedback in the system — perhaps evidence that the model is wrong, or maybe that the model is missing data — important components to the system that are not being properly accounted for.

Like Charles Darwin urged that observers of the world cherish exceptions to the received truths and understandings of the world in order to advance our understanding of the world, the author proposes that we cherish failure in order to come to an understanding of our systems.3


Le Chatelier's Principle, Human Intransigeance, and The Universe

Le Chatelier's Principle4 shows that systems in chemistry very clearly work to re-adjust themselves toward balance and equilibrium given changes in any of either concentration, temperature, volume, or pressure. The suggestion in Systemantics is that any reasonably complex (e.g. not-just-scalar) systems actively resist disruptive changes, and that Le Chetalier's Principle is a feature of systems in the universe.

Human Intransigeance5 is a defining feature of the human species. The author holds that our stubborness is simply incompatible with the real systems that we interact with. This might be true, but personally, I don't think it is. I think humans, at either far end of a normal distribution, are pretty excellent at, if not breaking out of systems entirely, then finding the limits of those systems so that we can understand them better.

"THE UNIVERSE IS NOT LIKE A MACHINE except in certain trivial ways. Rather: THE UNIVERSE IS LIKE A VERY LARGE SYSTEM."

Given an ability to find systems that exist in the ungraspably-vast universe-system, as humans, we have the ability to build our own systems that complement the ones that were already in place when we got here.

And maybe that's our mission6: either as a species trying to survive our own failings to understand and protect the environment that we were given, or as a species struck with wonder and curiosity, prodded by the double-edged sword of enterprise to get feedback that we've done something proveably useful (or at least, impactful). Or maybe both.


  1. Some of the pessimism is dolloped on a little heavier than it needs to be for the sake of humor, highly necessary given the severity of the topic.

  2. Reference phrases in the common-collective glossary such as "Failure is not an option". In the context of the 'systems' discussion, this fact itself is interesting - evidence, perhaps, that our rejection of failure as a notion integrable into a productive life, is itself a feature of one or more of our systems.

  3. And as a systems-thinker, I think this creates a lot of runway for understanding everything.

  4. Le Chatelier's Principle, Wikipedia

  5. 'Intransigeance' is basically stubbornness.

  6. Or, at least, it should be.


Share on: Hacker News Twitter
Home