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Systemantics 71

Posted by timothy
from the and-to-all-a-good-day dept.
daltonlp writes with the review below of John Gall's 1977 work Systemantics, writing "Most of the systems described by the author are societal or economic systems (governments, corporations, universities). Computer programs are mentioned, but they aren't the primary focus. But Systemantics doesn't distinguish between types of systems. In fact, its theories and arguments seem especially applicable to computer systems." (Read more below.)
Systemantics
author John Gall
pages 111
publisher Quadrangle / The New York Times Book Company (1977)
rating Insightful +5
reviewer Lloyd Dalton
ISBN 0812906748
summary "A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works." Years ago, I saw this quote and committed it to memory. I've finally had the pleasure of reading the book it comes from. I was amazed that Systemantics was written in 1977. It's far more relevant today than it was then, because more people write more software today.

That means theories like
Systems in general work poorly or not at all.

Some might question whether this is really true for computer systems built with modern technology. After all, for a computer to function, millions of microscopic parts must act in perfect synchronicity at superhuman speed.

But in reality, computers fail much more frequently than we notice. A large chunk of their innards are dedicated to failing gracefully. There's ecc in just about every piece of hardware. Without it, computer hardware would fail too often to be usable. Software is no different--it can fail sooner or later, gracefully or catastrophically, but it's going to fail. Overall, computers work poorly, but they work.

Complex systems usually operate in failure mode.

In other words, something's always broken at any point in time. The measure of a complex system's quality is how drastically a particular failure impacts the rest of the system.

Loose systems last longer and work better.

Most Slashdot readers probably read the above and think either "Hallelujah!" or "Duh." But it's a small example of something I liked a lot about Systemantics. Buried under several layers of satire and pessimism is a genuine desire to help the reader avoid the mistakes of past systems designers and managers. There's more to this book than just pessimism.

What's Bad:

Systemantics suffers a little from being a quarter-century old. Several references to Watergate and a few other cultural nods may be a bit lost on anyone under 40.

But the book's only real flaw is the author's occasional condescending tone. Every dozen pages or so, Gall takes the opportunity to criticize a real-world example. Some of these anecdotes serve as supporting evidence for an argument. Others are genuinely entertaining (the section on Job Goals and and Objectives is outstanding). But the author sometimes tries too hard to be satirical, and comes across as flat or patronizing, or departs on tangents unrelated to the book's central ideas.

Summary:

Despite small imperfections, there's a wealth of real knowledge in this small volume. The author helpfully outlines the main points at the book's end (some of which I've bulleted above). The book's overall message couldn't be more clear if it summarized itself. Which it nicely does:

It is hardly necessary to state that the very first principle of Systems design is a negative one: Do it without a system if you can.
Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a system, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the system itself.
  • New problems are created by its very presence.
  • Once set up, it won't go away, it grows and encroaches.
  • It begins to do strange and wonderful things.
  • It breaks down in ways you never thought possible.
  • It kicks back, gets in the way, and opposes its own proper function.
  • Your own perspective becomes distorted by being in the system.
  • You become anxious and push on it to make it work.
Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is what you really wanted all the time. You are now a Systems-person.


You can find used copies of Systemantics from bn.com and other online sources, though good-condition copies fetch high prices. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to submit a review for consideration, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Systemantics

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  • by tcopeland (32225) * <tom.thomasleecopeland@com> on Wednesday December 24, 2003 @12:46PM (#7803094) Homepage
    ...was apparently WRITTEN with a KEYBOARD that HAD a STICKY caps lock KEY [generalsystemantics.com].
  • Hmmmm... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    ..sounds *really* boring.

    Why should I read it? That's the point of a review, right?
  • Antic Systems (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jefu (53450) on Wednesday December 24, 2003 @12:49PM (#7803111) Homepage Journal
    While Systemantics isn't perfect, as the review says, in places it is dated and the author goes a bit overboard, it should be considered required reading for anyone in, building, or interacting with human organizations.

    In sort, everyone.

    Even more, it should be required regular reading for managers and other bureaucrats - say every six months or so.

    • six months?!?! That's how long it takes a manager to read a book! they'd never do anything else. Wait... That would probably be good.
  • by JohnGrahamCumming (684871) * <slashdot.jgc@org> on Wednesday December 24, 2003 @12:56PM (#7803151) Homepage Journal
    It's only $27.95 from here [generalsystemantics.com].

    John.
  • How is this news? The book was published in 1977.
    • "News for Nerds... How is this news? The book was published in 1977."

      RTFA. It also says 'Stuff that Matters'.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    ...start this trend of making up stupid-sounding words to sell their ideas. This might be a work of genius, but the 'systemantics' part makes it sound like another bullshit buzzword work.
    • But it's a bullshit buzzword from 1977! That's a year where most of the current bullshitbuzzworders weren't even born yet! Or if they were, they were still sucking their mom's teats (or wish they could. Hmmmm.)

      See. Even the past isn't safe from buzzwordisms.

      Mad.
  • by Raindance (680694) * <johnsonmx.gmail@com> on Wednesday December 24, 2003 @01:14PM (#7803245) Homepage Journal
    "Systemantics" is a work in the context/field of General Systems Theory, pioneered by the philosopher Ervin Laszlo.

    General Systems Theory says that "invariances of organization" exist; that some things allow complex organization and will be found throughout organized systems, and we can meaningfully study systems through studying these invariances. Also by creating analogies between systems (i.e. such as an ant colony and a communist society). We must also look at parts of a system in a holistic setting- i.e. examine not only parts of a system and their properties, but also their relationships to other parts. Etc. It's good. Check out The Systems View of the World [amazon.com] if you're interested.

    Systemantics seems to be a work aimed at discovering and exploring these "invariances of organization".

    RD
  • Such asmall world. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by BoBG (9969) on Wednesday December 24, 2003 @01:19PM (#7803263) Homepage
    I found a copy of the first edition of this book in a used book store almost 10 years ago for a dollar. I read it, and despite agreeing with the (fair) criticisms in the review, learned a new perspective from which to view my job, and the systems I encounter in daily life.

    I had given up on the idea that this book had been read by (almost) anyone else, as nobody I had ever spoken with seems to have read it, but anyone who borrowed it from me enjoyed it thoroughly. Most also tried to keep it (bastards), and only a few failed to see the genius behind the pessimism the review (rightly, imnsho) criticized.
  • The name General Systemantics [generalsystemantics.com] sounds an awful lot like General-Semantics [general-semantics.org], a theory of language and meaning that influenced Gregory Bateson, a cyberneticist and systems theorist. Is there any relation?
  • Here is my take on the book. It is in general excellent and this is one of those books that should have become required reading, but possibly because it is too thought provoking, never became prominent. A great pity. It is as entertaining as Parkinson's works on his famous laws, and to me personally it has proven a good deal more valuable in practice. (Parkinson himself reviewed it and liked it!) It is a pity it is out of print. I hope that its follow-up (which I have not yet read) is as good. Though jocul
  • Without a system? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pavon (30274) on Wednesday December 24, 2003 @02:03PM (#7803493)
    It is hardly necessary to state that the very first principle of Systems design is a negative one: Do it without a system if you can.

    And how do you do that? Even anarchism is a system in which the majority is commited to opposing any conglomeration of power by a minority.
    • And how do you do that? Even anarchism is a system in which the majority is commited to opposing any conglomeration of power by a minority.

      By doing it alone.
    • I think he means in terms of highly organised vs. loosely organised. in a highly structured system everything is efficient and well designed but adding things disrupts its structure. In the long term any system that has to change shouldn't be highly structured. In a loosely organised system(think open source development) the system is less efficient to start out with but it is adaptable because there is no rigid structure. In a highly structured system, you often have to work around existing structures to a
  • by drlock (210002) on Wednesday December 24, 2003 @02:16PM (#7803567) Homepage
    For those who want to know more about the book, I found the following list over at ERN [interbiznet.com] (These are actually from Systemantics: The Underground Text of Systems Lore which I guess is an expanded version of the book reviewed) Gall's Basic Systems Principles:
    • Systems in general work poorly or not at all.
    • New systems generate new problems.
    • Systems operate by redistributing energy into different forms and into accumulations of different sizes.
    • Systems tend to grow, and as they grow, they encroach.
    • Complex systems exhibit unpredictable behavior.
    • Complex systems tend to oppose their own proper function.
    • People in systems do not do what the system says they are doing.
    • A function performed by a larger system is not operationally identical to the function of the same name performed by a smaller system.
    • The real world is whatever is reported to the system.
    • Systems attract systems people.
    • The bigger the system, the narrower and more specialized the interface with individuals.
    • A complex system cannot be "made" to work; it either works or it doesn't.
    • A simple system may or may not work.
    • If a system is working, leave it alone.
    • 15. A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works.
    • Complex systems designed from scratch never work and cannot be patched to make them work; you have to start over, beginning with a working simple system. In complex systems, malfunction and even total nonfunction may not be detectable for long periods, if ever.
    • Large complex systems are beyond human capacity to evaluate.
    • A system that performs a certain way will continue to operate in that way regardless of the need or of changed conditions.
    • Systems develop goals of their own the instant they come into being.
    • Intrasystem goals come first.
    • Complex systems usually operate in failure mode.
    • A complex system can fail in an infinite number of ways.
    • The mode of failure of a complex system cannot ordinarily be predicted.
    • The crucial variables are discovered by accident.
    • The larger the system, the greater the possibility of unexpected failure.
    • "Success" or "function" in any system may be failure in the larger or smaller systems to which it is connected.
    • When a fail-safe system fails, it fails by failing to fail safe.
    • Complex systems tend to produce complex responses (not solutions) to problems.
    • Great advances are not produced by systems designed to produce great advances.
    • Systems aligned with human motivational vectors will sometimes work; systems opposing such vectors work poorly or not at all.
    • Loose systems last longer and work better.
    • Only a small and untalented mind could come up with a pessimistic list like that. Only a man who has never made a working system in his life can hold beliefs like these. Beliefs that are self-perpetuating, contagious (though only to other small minds), and just plain wrong. Let me elaborate:

      # Systems in general work poorly or not at all.

      Only if the designer is a talentless slob or a commitee, which is all too often the case in the modern world. If your mind is clean and ordered, so will its products be. I
  • by 87C751 (205250) <(sdot) (at) (rant-central.com)> on Wednesday December 24, 2003 @02:23PM (#7803600) Homepage
    I first read it in 1978, having gotten it from some book'o'the-month club. That was pretty early in my programming career, and I've kept the book's axioms in the forefront of my mind ever since. My favorite (from pg. 65 of the Second Edition) is
    A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works.
    If that's not software engineering in a nutshell, I don't know what is.
  • Just read the review and was highly amused... Back in the day the guy was my Pediatrician, and on one of my last few visits, he told me about it, and I got an autographed copy for my 18th birthday. (You know, when you stop seeing a pediatrician.) Anyway, reading the book was very weird, because the writing style and points of view expressed in the book are quite different than things he would normally say. I was, however, intrigued by many of the concepts he discussed. I've actually tried to make refere
  • lo... behold:

    New problems are created by its very presence.
    Once set up, it won't go away, it grows and encroaches.
    It begins to do strange and wonderful things.
    It breaks down in ways you never thought possible.
    It kicks back, gets in the way, and opposes its own proper function.
    Your own perspective becomes distorted by being in the system.
    You become anxious and push on it to make it work.

    Cheers,

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