Thinking in Systems

Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows (1941-2001) is an enthusiastic introduction to system dynamics — sources, sinks, stocks, flows, delays, and all the other elements that make up causal feedback loops both positive and negative. The book is also a labor of love by friends who pulled it together after her untimely death. It's impossible to summarize, but a list from Chapter 6 ("Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System") gives some of the flavor, a summary of where to think productively at the systems level:

12. Numbers—Constants and parameters such as subsidies, taxes, standards
11. Buffers—The sizes of stabilizing stocks relative to their flows
10. Stock-and-Flow Structures—Physical systems and their nodes of intersection
9. Delays—The lengths of time relative to the rates of system changes
8. Balancing Feedback Loops—The strength of the feedbacks relative to the impacts they are trying to correct
7. Reinforcing Feedback Loops—The strength of the gain of driving loops
6. Information Flows—The structure of who does and does not have access to information
5. Rules—Incentives, punishments, constraints
4. Self-Organization—The power to add, change, or evolve system structure
3. Goals—The purpose or function of the system
2. Paradigms—The mind-set out of which the system–its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters–arises
1. Transcending Paradigms

That last (or first?!) one is especially important and powerful and meta — and worth pondering. In more detail:

There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is "true," that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension. It is to "get," at a gut level, the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into not-knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment.

People who cling to paradigms (which means just about all of us) take one look at the spacious possibility that everything they think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, no understanding, not even a reason for being, much less acting, embodied in the notion that there is no certainty in any worldview. But, in fact, everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it to be the basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose whatever one will help to achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe.

It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and make impacts that last for millennia.

In a metacognitive box:

... to "get," at a gut level,
the paradigm that there are paradigms,
and to see that that itself is a paradigm,
and to regard that whole realization
        as devastatingly funny.
It is to let go into not-knowing ...

Yes, and ...

(cf. Transient Behavior (1999-05-11), Mean Meaners (1999-07-03), Complexity from Simplicity (1999-08-05), In Stability (1999-08-20), Multiplier Fallacies (2000-03-21), Epistemological Enginerooms (2000-08-10), Fifth Disciplinarians (2000-09-10), Invisible Instabilities (2001-02-24), OptiMizers (2001-04-01), Ceteris Paribus (2003-09-14), Feed or Feedback (2004-09-06), Feedback Loops and Delay Lines (2010-11-10), Control Theory of Taiji (2014-07-23), Forecasting Lessons from Systems Dynamics (2017-07-05), Systems Dynamics Advice (2017-07-12), ...) - ^z - 2017-11-03