A Starting Point for Systems Language

By Matt Johnson

One thing I haven’t done very well on this blog is talk about systems and the language of systems. This is important because it provides a common language for those who come from different backgrounds and political affiliations. It is no secret that there is a political divide in this country and it has existed for sometime now.

Liberals view the world one way and conservatives view the world another way. This in turn influences policy decisions and applications. But systems are neither liberal or conservative. Systems do not care if you like Star Wars or if you like Star Trek (you’re writer likes both). Systems do not care if you like chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream. The point is that systems have no persona and no agenda. Systems are self-differentiating, complex entities. And very few people understand systems in general.

Why is a common language important? It’s important because it helps to clarify what is meant by “system,” “structure,” and “environment.” We often hear terms like “systemic oppression,” “systemic racism,” and “the patriarchy,” which is another way of saying, “It’s the system.” These terms, when used and maybe for the best of intentions, really just muddy the waters. There is no corollary or definition behind them. They can mean anything. They are ambiguous.

But it makes sense that the current systems language in everyday use is ambiguous. This is because everyday citizens have been forced to adapt and improve in their language. They see something and it’s complex. How does one explain something that seems to possess an absurd amount of variables (or things going on)? So people have to improvise. They have to make sense of it somehow.

Another reason why systems language is ambiguous is because the scientific version of it just doesn’t exist, at least not at the level of physics, chemistry, or biology. Those sciences have been around for so long that the lexicon of those sciences has had time to migrate out to the populace. For example, people use infinity, quantum, calculus, derivatives, atoms, electrons, planets, comets, black holes, gravity, psychoanalysis, and the list goes on and on. These things make at least some sense because there have been scientific practitioners to help aid in the dissemination and understanding of such scientific language, for instance, Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But systems science has not had this relationship with the general public, nor has it had its Michio Kaku or Bill Nye.

The science of systems is young. It’s origins can be traced back to Ludwig Von Bertalanffy and his book General Systems Theory (see the Mark Twain page for the link) in the middle of the 20th century. Compared to physics and mathematics, this is an extremely young science. But that’s one of the reasons why this blog exists.

It’s here to provide corollary (a proposition established from truth) and definition to the conversation of systems science. It’s here to explain what a system is and what it does. It’s here to explain the difference between what a system is, what a structure is, and what an environment is. And it’s here to explain why the vast majority of systems discussed on Urban Dynamics are probabilistic systems and not causal. It’s here to provide access to an otherwise esoteric field of science.

I will do my best to make sense of these ideas I have shared with you. But it will take time for these ideas to make sense. and I won’t promise that it will happen over night. Habits will need to be broken and some knowledge will need to be accumulated on the part of the reader. But in the end, it will payoff because I will have provided you with a new way to look at the world and a language to describe it. 






2 thoughts on “A Starting Point for Systems Language”

    1. Thanks for posting, Tom!

      In regards to dependence and independence, yes I am. That’s a part of my mathematical training. Mathematicians, statisticians, and mathematical scientists (yours truly) learn about those types of ideas early on in one’s mathematical education.

      With respect to the theory of constraints, I am familiar with the idea of constraints in engineering and areas of science and systems science, but not this theory itself. I did however look it up. It does allude to some things I’ve learned in my field. I think I know where it comes from. Let me do a little bit of reading and I’ll reply in a bit more detail.

      In the mean time, why do you ask?


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