3.4 The Rule of Performance

My discussion of a regulative framework for systems begins with a rule that applies to system parts. Recall that a system is a set of parts that dissipates energy through participation of those parts in collective (organized) behavior.

Dissipating energy (decreasing the quantity of available useful energy) in the course of generating its collective behavior is taken as the basic function of a system because (i) coherent activity is necessary for recognition and description of the system, and (ii) dissipating energy is the sine qua non of maintaining that activity.

This is a generic statement about systems. For a given system, an apparent function can often be stated more narrowly. A customer of a factory might say that its function is to make toys. Another person, perhaps the factory owner, might argue that the factory’s function was to produce a profit. These latter two definitions are really opinions about specific system “functions” as seen from two different viewpoints. It may be possible to identify other specific functions as well: the factory might secretly make gas masks for the government.

If we have only limited knowledge about how a specific system works, or if there are many facets to its behavior, it remains the case that its basic function is to maintain collective behavior by dissipation of energy. This applies equally to the technosphere as to a factory, and it is in this sense that we refer to the “function” of the technosphere.

The rule of performance says that each part of a system works to support the system’s function. That is, the actions of a part contribute to the collective dissipation of energy by whose effects the system can be recognized.

For specific examples of the rule of performance, consider a student at a university. A university is a system whose parts include students, faculty members, plumbers, books, libraries, and pipes, among many other components. At the constitutive level the performance of a given part corresponds to the ways in which it helps to maintain collective behavior associated with the university. Thus, students take classes and play on sports teams; faculty members teach students and do research, plumbers work to maintain the flow of water through university buildings, books supply information to help faculty and students teach and learn, and pipes direct water to and from destinations such as cafeterias and sanitary facilities.

Aside: A system’s parts may be involved in activities not directly related to its performance for that system, for example by being simultaneously a part of two systems, as when a university student participates in a bowling league. The university and the league are two systems that happen to share a part. Whether student or bowler, in her role as a part she follows the regulative rule of performance with respect to each of her host systems. The constitutive (real world) expression of the rule, however, is not generic, but specific to each system: the student studies, attends class, and plays on a sports team in support of the university, while the league bowler bowls according to the regulations of the game, pays a membership fee, and displays camaraderie with her fellow bowlers, all in support of the league.

Returning to the university system, each of the constitutive activities of its parts illustrates a particular way in which a given part dissipates energy in support of university function. For example, its human parts burn food calories enabling them, if students, to come to class, to study, to take examinations, to play football, to teach, or to run laboratory equipment, or if staff, to counsel students, to administer financial aid, to empty trash, to repair leaks, or to paint walls. Non-human parts dissipate energy by activities such as illuminating offices (lights), maintaining comfortable working spaces (heating, cooling and ventilation equipment), cooking and preserving food (stoves, ovens, and refrigerators), or supplying water (pumps and pipes).

Systems are hierarchical. In hierarchical organization, and thus in systems in general, the rule of performance is transitive, with each element of the hierarchy transmitting the effects of the performance of lower level parts upwards toward the top-level system. (The notion of non-hierarchical systems is an oxymoron, given the definition of a system in terms of its parts—although hierarchies can be relatively shallow or flat, with only a few levels.).

The technosphere is organized as a deep hierarchy. Subsets of parts that act coherently to support the function of the host system can contain their own subsystems, these in turn being composed of smaller collectives, and so on. Hierarchical sets of parts need not be stacked like Russian dolls in a sequence of encapsulations. In a human, veins, arteries and capillaries are non-encapsulated parts of the body’s circulatory system, whereas red blood cells are among its encapsulated components. Delivery of oxygen by a red blood cell to a different cell located in the tissue of a kidney helps power that organ’s metabolism and thus its ability in turn to support the function of its host organism. Transmission of the effects of the activity of parts from lower to higher levels in the hierarchy is generic system behavior following from the rule of reciprocity, to be discussed in Chapter 4, Being a Part of a System.

Aside: The words “upwards”, “downwards”,”higher” and “lower” are meant to be suggestive, but if interpreted literally would conflict with other key regulative rules. This apparent conflict will be addressed in later posts.

Going back to the student, like a red blood cell in the body she is a tiny component of a much larger system, the global technosphere. Like the cell supporting the body, the student supports the technosphere. Her actions as a student work their way upwards, for example, from interaction with a professor in a tectonics class, through the professor’s interaction with the geology department, via the department’s interaction with the university, through the university’s role in an association of universities, continuing in a progression of interactions to global networks such as those of trade and information, and finally to the larger technosphere.

As this example suggests, the transmission of performance through a sequence of interactions starting with the student is not linear but ramifies into many branches as it affects other, often larger, systems. The ramifying tree of performance eventually produces branches that reach back toward the student. When she encounters the tips of these branches, her behavior can be affected, for example by the direct effect of receiving a prestigious scholarship in consequence of her academic work, or more indirectly through changes in visa regulations by a foreign country reacting to policies of the government of which she and her university are parts. Long and diverse chains of cause and effect radiating out and back from the actions of a part are often impossible to trace in detail, and except where relatively direct, cannot be analyzed by the rule of performance alone. The reflexive influence of a host system in response to the actions of a part is a systemic phenomenon captured by the “rule of provision”, the topic of the next section of this chapter.

Before ending the present section, I note that, at the regulative level, parts have been included in the definition of a system in such a way that they necessarily follow the rule of performance (i.e., a system is taken as a set of parts that dissipates energy through participation of those parts in collective behavior). If the apparently circular nature of this definition causes alarm, I will try to resolve the issue in the next chapter.

It is also worth commenting that, at the constitutive level, there may be some confusion over whether an entity is a part of a given system or not, i.e., whether or not it follows the rule of performance relative to that system. For example, is a flat spare tire on an automobile a part of the automobile? Is a coin lying on a beach part of the beach? Is a double agent a part of the intelligence service of his own country, or of the enemy’s, or both? Such questions will also be put off to the next chapter. Suffice it to say here that these concerns and questions are an indicator of the nearby presence of a boundary between a scientific and a humanistic approach to understanding how the world works and how humans fit into that world.

Further reading

Discussion of the rule of performance: “Humans and technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules”, Peter Haff (2014), in The Anthropocene Review, volume 1, pages 126-130.

Persistent citation for this post: P. K. Haff, 3.4 The rule of performance, in Being Human in the Anthropocene blog, 2018. https://perma.cc/WHD4-WFNN

Next up: 3.4 The Rule of Provision. A basic regulative rule for systems: that a system will act to ensure that its parts can and do follow the rule of performance.

2 thoughts on “3.4 The Rule of Performance

  1. I am wondering whether your ideas might relate to the earlier literature on general systems theory that was en vogue almost 50 years ago. Especially, I think that there was one contribution that may be directly relevant for analyzing the technosphere: This is James Grier Miller’s ‘Living Systems’ of 1978 (https://archive.org/details/LivingSystems/page/n0) . I used this in my PhD thesis of 1988, and was extremely lucky that my supervisor supported this, although it was far off anything that economists would normally refer to as a theory. What fascinated me was that Miller proposes a detailed conceptual structure that grasps various necessary functions that must be fulfilled in living systems, and that he applied this on all levels, also showing how functions are dispersed across levels. For example, my body needs functions to fight desease. This is not only my immune system. For example, bacteria in my intestinal tract support this function, hence another living system within my body. Or, I take a drug, which means that my body relies on widely dispersed technological systems that produce that drug. And so on. In other words, if you look at one single function, protection against desease, you end up with an extremely complex network of systems which is focused on your body, but includes a large number of entities different from your body. Eventually, there is a ratchet effect here: All these different systems can leverage up their performance (for example, more humans on Earth, more bacteria in their intestinal tracts, and so on), and if some of them fail, the entire system may fall back to less developed stages. That’s why there is a stronmg drive towards maintaining mutual support and interaction. After all, we eat Yogurt to keep our bacteria happy!
    I applied Miller’s framework on the Chinese economy of that time: As you see, clearly a ‘physical’ approach in your sense, right?

    1. I am not familiar with Miller’s work, but my own approach is of course related to the various efforts that have been made over the last century or so to establish a scientific picture of the workings of “systems”, for example Bertalanffy’s “general system theory” in mid-20th century. What is common to all such approaches is the necessity of somehow accounting for multiple cross-connections that bind every part of a system to every other part,directly or indirectly. See my comments after the following post 3.5 The Rule of Provision for follow-up remarks on this topic.

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