Tag Archives: Systems

Entrenchit Happens

Most artificial systems, made by humans, slowly degrade over time until they become dysfunctional, and are replaced. Such systems rarely change or improve over time, and so are sometimes replaced while still functional, with new improved competitors.

Many systems, such as organisms and some kinds of firms, try to adapt to changing external conditions. But internal damage accumulates and eventually limits their ability to adapt quickly or well enough, and so they lose out to competitors. Empires may also decline due to internal damage.

Some larger systems, like species, nations, languages, and many kinds of firms, face many similar competitors, and rise and fall in ways that seem so random that it is hard to tell if they suffer much from internal damage, including in their ability to adapt to context.

In contrast, other larger systems face no competitors, at least for a long time, even as they are drawn from large spaces of possible systems. Consider, for example, that the community of mathematicians has created a total system of math that hangs together and is stable in many ways, and yet is drawn from a vastly larger space of possibilities. The space of possible math axioms is astronomical, but mathematicians consistently reuse the same tiny set of axioms. One could say that those axioms have become “entrenced” in math practice.

Many other kinds of widely shared systems have few competitors, and yet entrench a set of specific practices drawn from a much larger space of possibilities. Consider, for example, the DNA code, the basic architectures of cells, and standard methods of making multi-cellular organisms. Or consider the shared features of most human languages, legal systems, financial systems, economic systems, and firm organization. Or even of computer languages and computer architectures. In each of these cases most of the world has long shared the same common set of interrelated practices, even though a vastly larger space of possibilities is known to exist and to have been little explored.

Such shared practices plausibly persist because they are just too much trouble to change. As I wrote last year:

When an architecture is well enough matched to a stable problem, systems build on it can last long, and grow large, because it is too much trouble to start a competing system from scratch. But when different approaches or environments need different architectures, then after a system grows large enough, one is mostly forced to start over from scratch to use a different enough approach, or to function in a different enough environment.

In sum, entrenchment (or “entrenchit”) happens. I mention this to suggest that, as per my last post, known styles of software really could continue to dominate for long into the future. Many seem confident that very different styles will arise relatively soon on a civilizational time scale, and then mostly displace familiar styles. But who thinks we will soon see domination by new very different kinds of math axioms, human languages, legal systems, or world economic systems? Why expect more radical change in software than in most other things?

Yes, sometimes new systems really do arise to displace old ones. But you can’t help but notice that while small systems are often replaced, revolutions to replace interlocking sets of common worldwide practices much rarer. And for such systems there are far more proposed and attempted revolutions than successful ones.

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Social Design Debt

Technical debt .. reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution. (more)

In the design of complex systems, we have long observed a robust phenomenon: when people only consider local costs and benefits when making design changes, they miss the many costs that changes impose elsewhere. Such costs accumulate, and reducing them requires periodic redesign that considers larger scales of interactions. These sort of costs are naturally limited when systems frequently die to be replaced to other systems started recently from scratch. But long lasting complex systems can accumulate large costs of this sort.

For example, in contrast to most nations, apparently the US has *two federal agencies responsible for collecting economic data. Their authorizing legislation has been interpreted to mean that they can’t share details of this data with each other. A more accurate and consistent picture could be drawn about the economy from the data if such integration were allowed, but its not. Everyone in these agencies knows about this problem, but no one has bothered to try to change the authorizing legislation for a more rational outcome. New nations know to avoid this problem, but in old nations like the U.S. such problems just accumulate.

This seems to me an important and neglected issue for our longest lived social systems, such as in law and governance. In The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), Mancur Olson famously argued that nations tend to decline via accumulating organized interest groups who lobby for changes in their local interest, and veto larger changes to more efficient arrangements. This seems a closely related point, but not quite the same point.

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Security Has Costs

Technical systems are often insecure, in that they allow unauthorized access and control. While strong security is usually feasible if designed in carefully from the start, such systems are usually made fast on the cheap. So they usually ignore security at first, and then later address it as an afterthought, which as a result becomes a crude ongoing struggle to patch holes as fast as holes are made or discovered.

The more complex a system is, the more different other systems it is adapted to, the more different organizations that share a system, and the more that such systems are pushed to the edge of technical or financial feasibility, the more likely that related security is full of holes.

A dramatic example of this is cell phone security. Most anyone in the world can use your cell phone to find out where your phone is, and hence where you are. And there’s not much anyone is going to do about this anytime soon. From today’s Post: Continue reading "Security Has Costs" »

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