If a system is defined by the collective actions of its parts, one may still ask why the parts should cooperate to create collective effects? And, especially if there are very many parts in the system, how is it possible for each part to keep track of what other parts are doing so each can coordinate their activities with the whole?
Collective action characteristic of the system evidently resides in the system, and not in any given part. So it is the system itself that provides to its parts the guidance they require to maintain their contribution to collective behavior. In other words, the system must create the conditions that allow and ensure that its parts act in a way that defines that system. This is true even for a designed system, i.e., a system constructed to act in a certain way. The system has an overall design, but physically it is not the design, but the system’s collective behavior, that ensures participation of its parts in the designed behavior.
The necessary effect of the collective actions of the system on each of its parts is captured by the “Rule of Provision”, namely, that a system must provide an environment for its parts that enables them to follow the rule of performance and at the same time ensures that they do so. It does this through the application to its parts of forces and constraints and, in the case where the parts are human, through provision of incentives.
Two examples help illustrate the rule of provision. One involves a university, which is a dynamical system that provisions its student parts. The other example concerns a student’s shirt, a dynamical system that provisions its button parts.
As discussed in an earlier post, the student follows the rule of performance with respect to the university by going to class, doing homework, playing on a sports team, paying fees, exchanging ideas with classmates, among many other activities that in their small way contribute to university functionality. The student behaves this way because there is something attractive about being a member of the university community, even when some of the actions required for attendance, such as paying fees or taking examinations, are usually not pleasant. The student wants to be a part of the university because of what it offers him, for example, the chance to become better educated and thus to improve his prospects for future well-being. He does those things that are required even when they themselves are not attractive—like paying fees and taking examinations—because the university requires (forces) him to do so to remain a student in good standing.
For sufficiently egregious violations of the rule of performance, for example not taking required examinations, a student part may be removed from the system, a not uncommon consequence for a part of any system that displays chronic disregard for the rule of performance. These are particular examples for a university of the twin strategies of incentive and force that every system uses to coopt or compel their human components to follow the rule of performance. Whether a clerk in a store, a soldier in the army, a member of a family, in each case, in order to help maintain a human part in “good standing”, the system incentivizes the part to follow the rule of performance (e.g., via a salary, the fraternity of a band of brothers, or bonds of familial affection and duty) and/or tries to compel performance by force or threat (e.g., via loss of employment, military discipline, or fear of social disapproval).
The second example of the rule of provision is for a technological system—the student’s shirt. The shirt is a dynamic system that contains parts such as threads, sleeves, collars, and buttons. We focus first on a given button. The button performs the task of helping hold the shirt together when the student is wearing it. The button may seem like an inert object that doesn’t really “perform” a task. But the button is a dynamic system that exerts forces on the shirt via elastic deformation in response to the pull of the fabric. It helps the shirt to function by aiding the critical task of following the motion of the student’s body–the energy source for the shirt.
In order to ensure that the button actually is able do the work necessary to hold the shirt together, the shirt offers a suitable environment, for example a buttonhole of proper dimensions—not so small that the button cannot fit through it, and not so large that it would slip out in response to normal tugging of the fabric.
The shirt also employs strong threading to bind the button in place against the pull of the fabric, and to ensure that the button does not pop off and become lost to the system. With these measures in place, as per the rule of provision, the shirt makes it likely that the button will follow the rule of performance.
However, if the button should by some chance fail the rule of performance, then, as with the nonperforming student, provision by the system can be expected to cease. If a button made of brittle material should crack and fall off the shirt, it would be unable to hold the shirt together. Its secure position and accustomed task provided by being a part of the shirt now replaced by the uncertain environment of the trashcan. Of course one might argue that the cracked button is now a part of a trashcan system—an argument that raises interesting questions about the role of waste (is waste a “part”?)—but for present purposes the lesson is, if a part doesn’t follow the rule of performance vis-à-vis a given system, then that system cannot be expected to follow the rule of provision vis-à-vis that part.
The general relation between (i) performance by parts and (ii) provision by a system is that parts perform “upward” in support of their host system whereas the system provides “downward” to enable its parts. Thus the student acts to support the university by engaging in approved activities, and the university provides rewards and incentives for the student that act to encourage or compel him to continue to do so. Likewise the button supports the function of the shirt by applying appropriate forces “upward” to help keep the shirt in place (on the student), and the shirt acts downward” on the button to provide a suitably matched local environment in which shirt-forces are able to hold the button in that favorable location.
The dyad of performance and provision thus takes the general form of a feedback loop, with the system helping the part perform in a way that supports the function of the system, and vice versa. This is a basic feature of the technosphere, whose dyadic relation with its human parts is one of the main topics of inquiry in this blog. In a later chapter (tentatively, 6.0 Being Purposeful in the Anthropocene) the performance-provision feedback relation, together with the transitive nature of the rule of performance, is used to develop a general picture of agency applicable to any system. This development will subsequently be essential to our discussion of the possibilities for human “intervention” in the behavior of the technosphere.
This is the end of chapter 4.0 Being a System
Discussion of the rule of provision: “Humans and technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules”, Peter Haff (2014), in The Anthropocene Review, volume 1, pages 134-135.
Persistent citation for this post: P. K. Haff, 3.5 The rule of provision, in Being Human in the Anthropocene blog, 2018. https://perma.cc/P8JG-GS24
Next up: New chapter 4.0 Being a Part of a System, in which I look at the definition of a part, the role of hierarchy, and several new regulative rules that directly affect or limit the behavior of parts, including human parts of the technosphere.