Opting Out

Systems and Time Management

Stephen Bau
Feb 10, 2017 · 9 min read

It has taken me years, decades to figure out a basic understanding of my own system and the various systems in which I operate.

I am using the mental model of a computer program or software as a metaphor for my identity in the world.

A few films come to mind as a way to process these models as narratives.

  • Tron
  • The Terminator
  • The Matrix

There is an odd story in the Bible about a prophet named Ezekiel. He had dreams and visions. When you see the word prophet, we may imagine someone who can predict future events. In our cultural context, I might say artist or poet. Then again, there are distinct differences, as prophets are known to speak for God. If prophets were found to have been telling lies, when their prophecies did not turn out to be true, they would be judged to be false prophets, a capital crime in ancient Israel.

I have heard it said that prophecy is less about foretelling as it is forthtelling. But forthtelling isn’t actually a word, at least not in the official dictionaries. It is part of the Christianese dialect of the Christian subculture.

We are told that God speaks to us today. I have never heard an audible voice that I would identify as God’s voice. I don’t expect to.

Ricky Gervais is an atheist. He had a conversation with Stephen Colbert about science and religion. He might ask me if I could prove that God exists. I would say, No. He would reply, Then I don’t believe you when you say he exists. God is just a story we tell ourselves to explain reality. Science, he says, is a repeatable test. Throw away all stories and knowledge and start over, and science would be the only thing that would come back the same, as knowledge that can be tested and proven as a consistent way to understand reality.

Gervais does not ask the question “Why?” He asks “How?” “How did the universe come to be?” rather than “Why does anything exist?”

When I consider questions of identity, “How?” doesn’t satisfy my curiosity. As we experience time, it is not repeatable. We have one opportunity to spend each moment of a finite physical existence on earth. Life will end. Death is a reality. We know this by experiencing loss and knowing something about history.

Only one person is said to have existed before space and time, before heaven and earth.

In the beginning God created. God said.

In the beginning was the Word. The Word became flesh.

History, story, narrative is what fascinates me. These stories represent a mental model of reality. Stories are collections of symbols, words that refer to subjects, objects and verbs. One thing causes another thing in a series of sequential events.

Programming uses the same process to define an experience. We break down the process of experience into parts. We create stories by imagining possible personas and scenarios. These stories are repeatable patterns of behaviour based on observable causes and effects in our environment. A program is a predefined system based on preconceived scenarios, that uses logic to respond to input with a process that returns the desired output. The input and output are data. The process is software, a program, a coded system that responds to events, receives input data and returns output data.

Life is a biological system that is able to respond to sensory stimuli in its environment.

Sentient life has self-consciousness. Humans are a higher form of conscious life that has agency, the ability to create mental models of reality, process possible scenarios, and make decisions to act in different ways, based on stimuli, events, and experience. Experience is the accumulation of knowledge about past events, whether personal or learned from another person’s experiences.

History and memory are important for making better decisions based on the available data. We analyze data, imagine scenarios, and decide actions based on internal logic.

Habits are the automatic responses built up over time based on repeated responses to data and events. We program ourselves to work within a system. We are a system within a system.

Peter Senge talks about learning organizations. This is systems thinking.

I have discovered that systems thinking is what I do well. I seem to be good at doing whatever I put my mind to doing. Through practice, I can develop habits.

However, the most frustrating thing for me is to decide what is best to do, given my current circumstances. I can conceive of different scenarios, but a have personal limitations, and I operate within other systems over which I have little or no control.

Communication is a key component of the interaction between the systems. Input, output, data, feedback, distortion, noise, interference, and verification are all factors in the reliability and effective functioning of the systems.

The human biological system has more parts than can be enumerated here. The sensory inputs are necessary for a fully functioning system. With all sensory inputs in good working order, the limitations are fewer than if one or more senses are not functioning properly. Yet, systems can adapt to limitations.

Overcoming Limitations

As a program within the system of reality, I have agency to write my own software to respond to the input data in the system.

When films like Tron or The Matrix imagine the system, they tend to consider the system to be hostile to individual programs. The authors, the screenplay writers, the conceptual artists who conceive of these worlds are creating metaphors for a reality that imposes structures, hierarchies and systems on individuals that tend to be hostile to individual programs, because they tend to be built to serve the priorities of the structures, hierarchies and systems.

When programs assert their own independence from the system, the system deletes them or assimilates them. These programs are unnecessary to, and may even threaten, the proper functioning of the system.

Somehow, we gravitate toward these narratives of good against evil where individuals and networks rise up against the oppression of the system, fighting for the survival of humanity, empathy, and goodness.

As individuals, we must recognize our own limitations. According to the functions and roles we have been assigned by the system, we tend to be powerless. However, as a rogue network, the individuals achieve the collective ability to rise up against the system and overcome the hierarchies.

The greatest of our limitations is the length of time we have to understand the system and our function within it as we find ourselves in the process of being programmed to assimilate. As programs who have individual identity and agency, we have the ability to be reprogrammed, to write our own software, to serve different priorities.

Dreams and Visions

Thinking back to the story of the prophet Ezekiel, we see dreams and visions that redefine the limitations of reality. A valley of dry bones is reanimated as flesh reforms over the bones. A trickle of water flowing from the altar of the temple grows to the width and depth of a great river, bringing fresh water to the Dead Sea, and creating the conditions for the flourishing of life within its waters and along the banks of the river.

Time

Ezekiel’s dreams and visions represent similar themes of degradation, corruption, and death, which are contrasted by the revitalization and reanimation of that which was once lifeless and dead.

Time is both a destroyer of individuals through entropy and death, but also a creator of new realities, by the introduction of new data into the system.

Whether or not one believes in the commonly held narrative of our origins from a scientific, materialistic perspective, or from a purely metaphysical perspective, the systemic perspective presents us with codes, data, and systems that reveal a reality that confounds our ability to explain their existence. This sense of mystery cannot easily be explained by natural laws or physical laws. These laws merely represent descriptions of reality, documentation of the operating system. They do not explain the existence of the system.

The System

What is the organizing principle of the system?

As individuals with agency within the system, we appear to have two choices as a means to explain our own existence. We exist either as the result of random chance or we are the result of the agency of an individual or a collective with the ability to code, program and design a complex system of complex systems.

If you are telling me that existence is the result of random chance, this assertion seems to be in conflict with the overwhelming evidence of a reality that is anything but random.

Systems Thinking

The unintended consequences of many modern systems of human organization match the narratives of the artists and storytellers of out time in the form of feature-length films. These narratives tend to be leading to the destruction of the creators of the systems. Humans are unintentionally suicidal, only when they are not intentionally suicidal. Recent human history is full of the many ways that we have invented both the reasons and the means for killing other human beings. We have reached a point where many of us are losing the will to live.

Surely, we can think of a better way to live our lives.

Why would I believe that the same sacred scriptures that have been used to justify great injustice also contain the seeds of hope for a different way of understanding reality that is both true to reality and redemptive in its ultimate vision of humanity? Because I have yet to find an alternative vision of reality that better explains the existence of something rather than nothing.

  • Quantum mechanics
  • Atomic systems
  • Gravitational systems
  • Solar systems
  • Living systems
  • Sensory systems
  • Cognitive systems
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Symbol systems
  • Language systems
  • Binary systems
  • Computational systems
  • Communications systems
  • Organizational systems
  • Artificial intelligence

Add the narrative of a creator entering into time and space to disrupt the human systems of organization that try to assume power over all of reality by inserting a self-replicating virus into the system, and I am fascinated by such a surprisingly creative solution to the problem of the human condition and the problem of entropy. I find this narrative to be far more compelling than any others I have encountered. I am willing to analyze the data from any other system of thought that would conflict with this mental model of reality, but until I find convincing evidence to explain the existence of a multitude of interacting systems of finely-tuned characteristics and relationships, I will continue to wonder about the mystery of existence and speculate that this ancient sacred text may be the most plausible answer.

Do I understand it? No. How can a finite being understand the infinite? I have to come to terms with my own limitations. I will never figure it all out.

But we have come to understand ways of understanding reality through the process of repeatable experiments, through trial and error. Some call this science. I call it life.

In science, there are only plausible hypotheses. These concepts and narratives are those ideas that have stood the test of time, that have yet to be proven false.

History and memory are an important part of this system of thinking. We need accurate records of reality over time to compare data. If we start manipulating data, if we can create our own alternate realities or “alternative facts,” the system of knowledge on which we base our most important decisions will break down, and all we will be left with are the unintended consequences of self-delusion.

According to the ancient narrative, the unintended consequence of a lie is death. It seems such a small thing, but it is a capital crime according to the laws of the spiritual reality. Death takes time, but entropy is inevitable. That is the consistent, unfalsifiable reality in which we live. Those who insist on releasing “alternate facts” into the system may soon be coming to terms with their own mortality. It’s only a matter of time.

In the meantime, I am opting out of their system.

Stephen Bau

Written by

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design. https://stephenbau.com

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