Simple system

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The JC’s amateur guide to systems theory

Simple systems: simple systems are situations where essentially inanimate objects interact with each other in ways that are fully understood. Lego is a simple system. So is a cake recipe, or a bungee jump. The components of a simple system don’t fight back. Simple systems are therefore predictable. They can only go wrong if components fail or you don’t follow instructions. In either case they fail in predictable ways. As such, simple systems are suitable for checklists,[1] recipes etc, where algorithms can overcome the hubris that will surely rain down on the heads of those who treat simple processes as trivial. Disinfecting your instruments before performing heart surgery, for example, is a simple step to take, but not a trivial one.

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In the pantheon of controlled systems, simple systems are the easiest. They are deterministic: fully scoped out, “solved” systems where objects may interact with each other, but do so according to settled rules, and even component failures can be anticipated and pre-solved. Other than when components fail (for example, a snapped bungee rope, or stale yeast that doesn’t rise) the components interact in linear, binary ways.

Managing a simple system involves no greater skill than competently following a comprehensive set of instructions in time to accommodate any actions or reactions in the system. There is usually limited “if/then” conditionality (except where a component fails). No operator has to react “depending on what the system does”, and so skill, experience and expertise are of limited additional value, beyond bringing greater speed and efficiency to operation of the process.

That said, when he is tired, JC does struggle with inanimate object when they conspire to frustrate, injure or disobey him. Sellotape does this. And Bluetooth keyboards.

Simple systems can still be extremely ornate, elaborate things. Conway’s Game of Life is a simple system, despite reductionists (winsomely) believing it could be the model for life on earth.

Simple systems can form part of or interact with complicated and complex systems. It is here where the fun begins.

See also