Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cultural fragments on systems thinking

"A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory: hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad."

~J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace, p. 98 (Booker Prize Winner, 01999)

I was struck by this passage when I read Coetzee's novel at the recommendation of my legal theory professor at the University of Glasgow in 02002.

It seems to me that to be able to alternate between the "schematic", systemic, relational view of aggregates and interchanges on the one hand, and the personal, historical, flesh-and-blood view of individuals' particular perspectives on the other -- that's a key challenge. Because, as the quote suggests, the schematic view alone is bereft of certain crucial, human details. But without it, there are many problems we couldn't begin to grasp.

Even rather complex notions can sometimes be stated so simply it's hard to believe. A pop culture take on the same idea:

Only when we get to see
The aerial view
Will the pattern show
We'll know what to do

~Nada Surf, "Inside of Love" (Let Go, 02002)

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