Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Stuff: The Big Picture

One of the biggest shifts in consciousness in the back half of the last century was an increase in systems thinking. Where earlier generations saw things mechanistically, in pieces and parts, somewhere in the 1960s the brighter lights among us began to realize that what really mattered wasn't the parts (which, face it, are pretty useless on their own), but rather the relationships between them -- the systems by which they interact to produce something.

By the 1970s, this had become a serious engineering discipline, with its own lab at MIT and conferences and consultants and everything. One of the most exciting aspects of systems theory was its ability to make complex ideas simple. Another was the realization that all systems -- mechanical, biological, economic, and social -- operated according to similar principles and were prone to break down in much the same ways. Feedback loops are feedback loops, whether it's housing prices, food supplies, or a furnace thermostat. They can balance out, maintaining stability; or they can spiral out in a reinforcing loop that eventually leads to overload. Likewise: there are archetypal behaviors that recur in all types of systems; and understanding those can make solving very complex problems comparatively easy.

One of the best introductions to systems thinking for non-engineers is a delightfully whimsical set of 28 rules cobbled together by early systems teacher Draper Kauffman. (I did a four-part series on these early last year; you can read the posts here, here, here, and here.)

And why am I on about this this morning?

Well, I found this video:

It's worth 20 minutes of your time -- not just because she does such a thorough and elegant job of explaining life, the universe, and American consumerism in less time than you'd spend reading your e-mail; but also because the simplicity of the explanation is such a fantastic example of the power of systems thinking to make globally complex problems obvious and easy to understand.

Our children are growing up in a world where this kind of thinking comes far more intuitively than it did to those of us who came of age before computers, social networks, and the environmental movement taught us all to think in cycles rather than straight lines. It's a shift in consciousness that's going to play an important role as we begin to grapple with the enormous and interconnected problems of this century -- and this video shows exactly why that's so.

In the meantime: What are you doing in your life to change your relationship to the cycle of consumption? It's something I'm thinking about a lot these days....