Informal systems

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The JC’s amateur guide to systems theory
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There is much talk in these pages of models, narrative, complexity, systems theory, and “high modernism” as the all-encompassing modern management dogma that knits all of these things together.

Our fascination with algorithms, big data, artificial intelligence and exponentially accelerating technologisation leads us to believe we can reduce the world’s organisation, and therefore its problems, down to predictable, rationalisable, atomised units that operate according to deterministic rules, which can be managed by code.

There is some irony that this blind faith in the model mistakes the map for the territory. Over-reliance on the model causes over-reliance on a model.

But a model only models what it can model.

In Seeing Like A State, James C. Scott calls this the problem of legibility — because a simplistic model can’t adequately react to the nuances of an autonomous organic network, political administrations oblige their populations to organise themselves to best fit the model rather than having the model fit them.

The model itself, by its existence, queers the pitch, skews incentives. People optimise for the model, often undermining the model’s original goals — tax planning, right? They fill in windows, leave their chimneys unfinished to avoid paying taxes calculated on the number of windows, or payable upon completion of structures. Bad apples exploit zero-day flaws in the system. They gravitate to where the formal system is weakest.

Thus, a model is not just an inadequate representation of how a system behaves; it is a politically-enforced model that corrupts the behaviour of the system in itself. Jane Jacobs makes the same observation about the modernist city planners of the 1940s and 1950s.

But there are all kinds of invisible forces at play. The formal rules, such as they are, are built on top of them, and work by dint of them. This is true of any complex organic system: not just a city. Consciousness, a computer network, a club, a tribt, a profession, a workplace. These informal systems grow over time, take root and flourish from the bottom up; make it work; you weaken them (by prioritising imposed rules) at the peril of the whole system. This, we submit, is the folly of private equity Investors, change managers, administrators and reformers.

Informal, unstated, implicit factors condition how individuals behave. Family bonds, friendships, relationships, cartels, protection rackets, understandings, reputations, cultural practices, shared community attitudes. These all shape the daily conduct of commerce more profoundly that regulation. Even in the city.

We can, and high-modernists do, build meta-models of societies which ignore these informal networks. Regulation proactively weakens them: superimposes written codes of conduct over unspoken relationships of mutual trust and social indebtedness. You can build a plausible model of a high-modernist regulation in London, with its systematised, regulated, centrally controlled operation. It is harder to see in, say, the medina in the Moroccan port of Essaouira (from where I am currently writing). It is not that there are no systems of control or immutable rules of conduct: indeed, the market is highly organised and runs according to strict sequences and behavioural norms. It is just that they are implicit. They depend on trust, not monitoring and enforcement. There are complex interpersonal networks that manage the lettings, labour and supply chains in the medina, but they would not to show up on any administrator’s map. Interpersonal relationships seemed markedly tighter. There is a real sense of community. But unlike London one cannot understand how this economy works without paying attention to these informal networks

Also pitted against the reductionists and the high modernists are the systems theorists and complexity people, two of whom are featured in the video in the panel. Joe Norman[1] makes an interesting assertion that, in any system, informality — arrangements outside the model or that the model cannot see and therefore treats as non-existent — are fundamental to its operation. Indeed, the “formal” parts of a system are just small islands in a sea of informal relations.

See also