Seeing Systems — Lessons from A Computer Novice

Much of the work that I’m involved in is to see systems. To learn, even relearn or remember, how to work with a broader level of connection. There are always the parts. Yup. And there is always the collection of the parts. Yup. Like most, I have spent a lot of time trying to work with more complex arrangements of parts.

There is something more, however, that is not just working with broader compilations of parts. It is, instead, working with the wholeness of the system that has “no parts.” This is quite a mind-teaser. The science of the last 300 years has taught us well, engrained in us really, the world view that to understand complexity, we must see those delightful, measurable parts. Any of us in western world live in this as a fundamental cultural medium. Yet, a growing practice is to let go of even seeing through the “lens of parts.” Seeing systems. “Seeing wholeness” is the invitation.

I noticed a simple way to see this recently. It became apparent as I worked through a crashed computer (fried motherboard) that then required me to work on a new laptop. Beyond the loss of some data and the frustration of reloading programs, searching for updated drivers, etc., I loved the sense of a “clean” laptop. It didn’t yet have too much junk loaded on it or defaulted onto it. It’s performance was as advertised. It felt faster than my old laptop — the boot process was one minute rather than 10. Feels good, right.

As I added programs, as well as some updated versions of programs, it didn’t take long to feel my new computer start to slow down and feel clunky. Granted, I’m not computer guy, so my attention and wisdom might be a little low here, but I found it incredibly frustrating to notice that many of the programs, the parts, that I wanted to add to my system, couldn’t seem to be in good communication with the other parts. All of them were indiviudally good. And I live with the assumptions that each of them, if the only program on my computer, would work swimmingly well. However, with each there was a background level of technical hocus pocus that didn’t seem to be in full communication with the whole of the system. Each seemed to have built into it defaults that place it in startup menu or that sometimes replaced existing defaults. The short of it is that my new system, with its great spiffy new components and programs, doesn’t work in such a spiffy way.

To get to the bottom of it through each of the parts is to hear repeated claims that amount to “our program works well; it must be one of your other programs.” Does that sound familiar? Departments that actually are telling the truth, yet not able to see the outcome of interaction with other departments and programs. It is the pattern that often results in great blame of the other for a characteristic that we just don’t see enough of — more of the system.

I’m grateful for a computer that works. Let’s be clear. I’m also greatful for what I assume is intense research and development into the next level of integration and seeing systems in computer world. Let’s be clear on that too. And I’m aware of the operating mode of our time that does fascinating things with parts. Cool. But oh how the invitation of our times is to see more of the system, and even come to see it as “no parts.” Well beyond the realtive insignificance of my computer, does this feel familiar in our major societal systems — health care (what a raging debate these days in the US), education, energy…? Feels like a huge invitation and challenge that many of us need to be in now.

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