This idea of humanism cannot continue. Who would seriously and deliberately want to maintain that society could be formed on the model of a human being, that is, with a head at the top and so on? Niklas Luhman
You can’t understand an ant colony by looking at a single ant any more than staring at a Euro coin helps you understand the economy. Knowing how the gears on a bike work doesn’t explain the Tour de France; and human consciousness is not reducible to mere synapses snapping in the soft-machine of the brain. Each of these are complex entities that are better described when considered as systems. Systems thinking and systems theories see the world through the prism of systems. Systems are understood through the combinations of their component parts, operations and behaviour. Their whole is greater than the sum of their parts, as the old cliché runs. Systems thinking is a way of thinking about the world in terms of these wholes, rather than their constituent parts. It considers outputs and behaviours and emergent properties.
Systems reduce the complexity of their environments and by doing so become, somewhat, distinct from them. The ant colony, just like the bike race, is not reducible to its surroundings. They each have separate identities even if the physical borders are hard to discern. Likewise an economic system reduces all of the messy complication of the world into the abstractions of financial transactions. To understand a system means to understand what it does. Systems have functions which are particular to themselves. The trick is in working out what, exactly, those functions might be. But underlying everything else, systems have a primary function: all systems operate in order to survive. Councils are also systems. They are comprised of multiple elements: buildings, people, equipment and so on. They perform various functions. And they will also operate in order to survive.
A common use of the word “technology” is as a technique, methodology or knowledge. If so then systems are a type of technology. They are a way of taking the world, thinking about it, manipulating it and doing things in it. It has been common throughout history for humans to understand who and what they are in relation to prevailing technology. In early Greek and Christian societies humans were clay infused with spirit. In the 3rd Century BCE humans related themselves to hydraulic engineering; now the human was understood as the site of canals and pipes for liquids such as the four “humours.” In the 16th Century humans became machines; that is, automata of cogs, gears and springs whilst in the following centuries metaphors of chemistry, steam power and then electricity were used. The model of the human as a computer subsequently emerged as the dominant metaphor for cognition and behaviour with the establishment of the so-called Von Neumann architecture which provides the conceptual model of more or less all existing computers. This understands the body as a piece of organic hardware that processes information about the world. Thought, then, is a sort of software that decodes or represents the world through its own processes of simulation. Each of these technologies and metaphors for humanity come with their own potentials and restrictions. They each place humans within a particular worldview with a particular horizon. Each world will have its own limit.
Systems give us another technique for thinking about who we are. This requires understanding that our individuality is positioned within a complex set of environmental coordinates. Humanity is positioned within systems such as history, culture, language, architecture, economics, chemistry, physics and so on. The human body is just one, biological, system amongst many others. Some of these are necessary for our existence; others are oblivious.
In an interview with Women’s Own magazine in 1987 Margaret Thatcher made one of her most contentious and notorious claims:
“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
I think she couldn’t be more wrong. All people are is their relations. All of us get our identities from the systems we inhabit. And this is no cause for alarm; but rather a thrilling opportunity to rethink who, what and why we are.