Tag Archives: Systems

What Makes Stuff Rot?

Here is a deep and important theory question: What determines when familiar systems and other structures decay and become less functional, versus when they remain stable or improve in functionality with time? I call this a theory question because we basically know the physics of all the familiar systems around us, so this question is in principle answerable with careful enough theory analysis.

Yes, thermodynamics says that all structures will eventually decay down to a small set consistent with max entropy. But what about long before then?

In biology, most all individual cells and organisms at first grow and become more capable, but then later decay and die. Even whole species typically decay, though the extreme rare tail of species that improve eventually have far more descendant species, so that whole biospheres improve over time.

Small human organizations like clubs and firms often grow when small, but then consistently ossify and decay when old; few last for centuries. Even whole human civilizations and empires seem to follow a similar pattern, over a several century timescale. And yet our entire human civilization has consistently become more capable over time.

In software engineering, we find that most all computer systems become gradually more fragile and harder to usefully modify over time, and eventually are replaced wholesale. “Refactoring” can delay this, but only for a while and at substantial cost.

All of this might be summarized as saying that whole competitive fields often improve over time, while each competing item tends to rise and then fall. Life grows, but living things die.

But this summary just isn’t good enough to address a big important question: what will happen as we introduce more and more “global” (i.e., civilization-wide) structures? Such as global governance bodies, global professional associations, global integration of academic disciplines, global trading networks, or global conversation communities. Are these structures more like entire biospheres that improve or more like individual organisms that eventually die and must be replaced?

The question is important because such global structures face much weaker threats from outside competition. So pressures to improve may have to mainly come from inside them. And if they effectively repress internal dissent, they may persist for a very long time, even if they greatly decay and rot. The weight of such decay on overall progress and growth might eventually outweigh other sources of improvement, to permanently hinder our civilization’s overall growth and limit our long term potential.

So we must decide how wary to be of allowing global structures to repress internal dissent and efforts to end or replace them wholesale. And to inform those key choices, it would help to better understand: what makes stuff rot?

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When Wholes Become Parts

Here’s a nice simple general principle to describe many kinds of systems. When once self-sufficient wholes join together to become parts of a new whole, the parts get simpler and also more different from one another:

The emergence of a higher level entity with functional capabilities is ordinary accompanied by the loss of part types within the lower-level organisms that constitute it. Thus … cells in multicellular organisms will have fewer part types than fee-living protists. … The lower-level organisms are transformed into differentiated parts within the higher-level entity. Along with this, as size increases, parts emerge at an intermediate scale, between the lower level organisms and the higher-level entity. …

In the evolution of multicellularity, cells are transformed from organisms into different tailed parts. Then, as the size of the multicellular entity increased, cells combined to form larger parts, intermediate in scale between as cell and the multicellular organism as a whole. … Cells in metazoans and land plants have fewer part types on average than free-living protists. … found a power law relationship between size and number of cell types in multicellular organisms. Also, the degree of morphological, physiological, and/or behavioral differentiation – in insect societies increases with colony size.

From: Daniel McShea and Carl Anderson. (2005) “The Remodularization of the Organism”, in Werner Callebaut and Diego Rasskin-Gutman, eds., Modularity: Understanding the Development and Evolution of Natural Complex Systems, pp. 185-206, MIT Press, May.

That is, while each cell might in essence need legs, eyes, a mouth, and a stomach, when cells join together they can each live without such things, and they may specialist in order to become part of a leg, eye, etc. for the new organism.

This has an obvious implication for our future. As we humans join together into larger more complex social organizations, our descendants will likely also become simpler and more differentiated. Of course there are limits on how fast these things can change today. Also, the cells in each organism now have a great many parts, and remain similar to each other in a great many ways. Change would likely become much faster if ems become possible.

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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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