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POSIWID - the purpose of a system is what it does

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uses approach critique

Purpose of Complexity

Purpose of Stress

The POSIWID principle applies a kind of backwards logic to systems thinking. (This backwards logic is possibly a form of Peirce's abduction, but I haven't checked this properly.) 

If a complex system produces a given outcome, or if a given outcome emerges from a complex system, then we may assume some purpose linked to this outcome.

This is a useful guide for investigation and interpretation. Ignore the official purpose of the system, ignore what the designers and custodians of a system say, and concentrate on its actual behaviour.

Conversely, if there is some unexplained pattern of behaviour, look for a system whose purpose this pattern reveals. (We often can't see the system directly, but we infer its hidden presence because this helps to make sense of some observed pattern of behaviour.) 

Simple use of the POSIWID principle can lead to gross error.

Many users of the POSIWID principle seem to assume that system scope and behaviour is unproblematic - that outcomes can be unambiguously attributed to some system or other.

A complex system apparently produces a diverse set of outcomes. According to the POSIWID principle, all these outcomes may be identified as purposes. A complex system typically contains many conflicting or contradictory purposes.

Many of the purposes of a system cannot be observed in its normal behaviour because they are contingent purposes - the behaviours may only appear in extreme circumstances.

Furthermore, some behaviours are generated by the interference between many systems. It is of course possible to frame the interference within a larger system, whose purpose is presumably to generate this interference and its effects, but this framing is not generally a useful one.

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This page last updated on September 1st, 2004
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