Systems Vertigo

I think science fiction has made me a better designer. (Well, I should say I hope science fiction is making me a better designer.) I used to pass on science fiction because I had this sort of arrogant view that with so many real people and real stories to be read, fantasy just didn’t seem that interesting. Yah, so, that was stupid. About a year ago, I tripped into some old space fiction and I was really inspired by the depth of thought that had gone into creating these new worlds.

In all this, I realized that most of the classic science fiction writers were actually futurists who were trying to figure out how the world might work one day. I sort of reasoned that if I was trying to figure out how the world might work one day (albeit, in a shorter timeframe, with fewer rocket ships). I probably could learn a thing or two from them.

This all brings me to one of my current obsessions; space elevators. I happened upon a talk by Matt Jones from Berg about around 18 months ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. (You should definitely watch the talk.)

Jones frames his whole talk around the idea of systems & vertigo. He makes a really good point that because our worlds have become so complex, sometimes instead of evolving the systems we get caught up gawking at how complex and interrelated things can be.

He quotes his partner Matt Webb and shares this story about a space elevator, a futuristic construct that carries people between earth and space. The system is held aloft by the earth’s geo stationary orbit. Jones goes on to describe the scale of the elevator like this…

If you’re standing close enough to see it, you can’t see the other end. Yet if you’re standing far enough away to see the see the both ends of the space elevator, it’s going to be completely invisible; it’s going to be too thin to see. And that’s kind of where we are; we’re in it and yet we can’t see it.

I think about this a lot. It’s really helpful when working through business, system, and cultural problems. How do you move between understanding the system and designing the pieces that will evolve the system. It’s easy to lose perspective, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the system’s complexity. 

There’s probably a lot of engineering metaphors that can guide us in systems design; the practice of looking for tensions, isolating subsystems, etc. But we’re still very early at taking a swing at this. It’s sexy, but I think most of that’s because we fall in love with complexity. (It’s sort of an ego stroke to tackle/understand really gnarly concepts.)

It’s very hard to redesign a system the same way you redesign a product or service. It’s also really hard to get a sizable system moving, (much less shut it off and switch to a new version) as you would with products/services. To have any impact at this scale, you have to work with existing forces within the system, and create interventions to nudge things. I guess in a way to affect the very large, you have to start very small.

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