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Cybernetics & VSM

"To live efficiently is to live with 'appropriate information'." 
::  Norbert Wiener 




The very search for ordered knowledge which characterises the scientific tradition steadily encouraged what was to become a self-defeating specialisation that tended to prevent the broader view necessary to fully understand and work with Nature. The arrival of the systems approach to thinking, and the subsequent companion practice of multi-disciplinary working, provided a way out of this logical inconsistency. Unfortunately, however, imprinted protocols developed over the previous four and a half centuries had established barriers that would seriously impede the paradigm change.
 
The scientific approach to understanding is based on the pursuit of discrete knowledge based on discrete observation. This mindset has embedded within it the core elements of the systems approach to understanding which concentrates on broad knowledge based upon comprehensive observation. Conventional single-subject science reduces existing complexity to a conventional minimum before observing. Multi-disciplinary, generalist science maps the complexity and attempts to accomodate the systemic consequences.
 
Systems have certain special qualities which both evidence and help to define their intrinsic organised complexity. They consist of component parts (which may each be further explored in terms of sub-systems) which are inter-connected and inter-dependent. The system has an identifiable boundary which separates it from the surrounding environment. It will also have an aim. And it will therefore have direction. It will only be possible to change the system from without its boundary. Indeed, except for short periods, it will not be possible for a system to survive unless there is transfer of resources across its boundary. Closed systems, like closed minds, will decay; open systems may flourish.
 
Popper's material world 1 is the home of all tactile systems that spring to mind. A nation's telephone systems (now themselves inter-linked to form the global super-system known as the internet) provide one fine example. At the other extreme is the wrist watch (representative of a global system of time-keeping.) These systems only evidence autonomy through the active participation of the people within them.
 
At the highest level of technological 'progress' there are fully inanimate autonomous systems - the ballistic missiles that lurk in the distant silos of the mid-western US and Siberian steppes and which when launched are totally free of external control on their journey to their target. Systems also occur in Popper's world 3.
 
As intellectual systems they are intangible and less amenable to analysis or synthesis. They tend to be self-correcting and self-developing, deriving their autonomy from the cerebral system that is our brain. The systems approach provides an aid to thinking about the material world. It provides a practical basis by which to identify the root of any problem. It offers a basis for mapping the components that influence the generation of the problem and it leads us to identify the component processes which reside within the system and breed the component issues of the problem. Once identified they can be worked on and improvement attempted.
 
The power of the underlying concept itself is reflected in the fact that it helps reveal the instrument of its own power - the intrinsic processes that sustain and nourish the system and enable it to yield its goods or services. We can envisage the system as the home of the processes which in turn becomes parent to the added value products, these in turn being the source of all revenue and profit by which the system is itself sustained within its operating environment.
 
Suddenly the simple worldview of our forefathers which was sustained by action and reaction; command and control and hit and miss, is now transformed into a much more interactive, delegatory and targeted worldview based on systems and processes which emphasise the connectivities and dependencies that are the very sinews of progress.




Download Article on VSM approved by Stafford Beer