4.1 What is a part?

An inquiry into the nature of parts, begun here, will lead to several new regulative rules that are useful in technosphere analysis. The discussion is abstract, as is usually the case when working at the regulative level, but has the ultimate practical goal of identifying guidelines for addressing technospheric challenges to human well-being

The question “What is a part?”, is answered implicitly by the definition of a system: A system is a set of entities that dissipate energy by their collective action in a way that tends to maintain the collective behavior over time, i.e., that enables the system to persist over many internal time cycles. Those entities are the system’s parts. For example, the wheels, windshield, power train, electrical circuits, and coatings of paint are recognized  by their collective action as parts of a given automobile.

The definition of a part as an entity that participates in collective system activity contains similar information to the rule of performance, according to which each part works to support system metabolism. Because the rule of performance is almost a restatement of the definition of a part, we might consider defining a part of a system as an entity that follows the rule of performance with respect to that system. But this definition is possible only at the regulative level, where a system may be defined a priori, in the abstract, without having to go through the step of identifying (at the constitutive level) a real-world system.

Water drops do not imply either rain or puddle. Rain and puddle imply water drops as parts and induce in them the property of conformance.

At the constitutive level, application of the rule of performance requires first that an actual system be recognized through the presence of coordinated patterns of activity. The parts of the system are the entities that comprise these patterns. Once a part is identified, the rule of performance may be applied to it. For example, an automobile system may be recognized through coordinated actions of wheels, windshield and other entities, which are then taken to represent parts of the automobile, and expected to follow the rule of performance with respect to it. 

We can extend the observation that identifying a part requires prior identification of the system to which it belongs, to the claim that being a part requires the existence of a system that contains it. An entity is not a part of a system, according to our definition, unless it participates in coordinated activity that helps define the system. This leads to the distinction between intrinsic and induced properties.

An intrinsic property of an entity is one that exists independently of its environment. For example, mass, density, and electrical conductivity are intrinsic properties of a piece of copper wire. These properties exist whether the wire sits alone on a table or is a component of a household electrical circuit. In contrast, to qualify as a part, an entity need only fill a certain generic role within a system. Whatever its intrinsic properties, an entity is a part if it cooperates with other parts to help sustain their host system. In effect the system induces a generic property of conformance in certain entities, which we then call parts, where ‘conformance’ means tendency to conform to the rule of performance. As discussed earlier, conformance is induced by the system via the rule of provision.

One consequence of the difference between induced and intrinsic properties of parts is that constitutive analysis of a system cannot begin by a deductive procedure based on the intrinsic properties of its (assumed) parts, but must start instead with empirical identification of the system through observation of collective modes, participation in which makes the part a part. 

Thus the individual “parts” of an automobile, like wheels, lug nuts, and water pump, do not by themselves imply an automobile. For example the “parts” might be assembled into an abstract design, becoming (true) parts of a museum of modern art, or perhaps swept up in a flood to be deposited as parts of a sediment layer on a stream bed. The implication for the present study is that we cannot expect to understand how the technosphere works, or the ways in which its future may unfold, by basing our analysis on the intrinsic properties of its parts, e.g., the basic knowledge, skills, and wants of human beings or the design of technological artifacts. Instead, the key property to focus on initially is that of human and artifactual conformance to the demands of the technosphere. The intrinsic properties of humans and artifacts, in turn, effectively define the type and scope of their compliance with the requirements of conformance.

The next post in this chapter focuses on certain difficulties encountered in trying to define parts, and what those difficulties can teach us.

2 thoughts on “4.1 What is a part?

  1. Thanks for the latest instalment, Peter! A few thoughts.

    1) I don’t know if you have looked at the literature about emergence. You might like the work of physicist and philosopher Mario Bunge (Bunge, Mario (2003) Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge, Toronto: University of Toronto Press) – because compared with many other theorists of emergence he is closer to natural science in his thinking, and emphasises the importance of part-whole relations, and that the world (and systems within the world) can be analysed into levels.

    Here’s an (edited) summary of Bunge’s view from Wan, Poe Yu-ze (2011) Reframing the Social: Emergentist Systemism and Social Theory, Farnham: Ashgate.

    1 The world can be construed as a level structure. (That is, things group into levels of organization.) Every real (material) existent belongs to at least one level of that structure. At least five qualitatively different levels of entity may be distinguished: physical, chemical, biological, social and technical. Every level may in turn be subdivided into as many sublevels as needed. For example, the biological level may be split into at least seven sublevels: cell, organ, organ system, multicellular organism, biopopulation, ecosystem, and biosphere.
    2. A level is a collection of things sharing a cluster of properties and relations among one another. …
    3. Every concrete thing (system) on any given level is composed of lower-level things (systems), and is characterized by emergent properties absent from these components.
    4. The systems on every level have emerged in the course of some process of assembly of lower-level entities.
    5. All processes of assembly are accompanied by the emergence of novel properties and the submergence of others. For example. The social level is composed of humans but is not an organism itself.
    6. The process of assembly … is one of self-organization if and only if the resulting system is composed of subsystems that are not in existence before the very process (e.g. the formation of an embryo’s organs).
    7. Every level (both of the world and of science) has autonomy and stability to some degree.

    Bunge developed a schema known as ‘CESM’ for analysing systems – here’s a summary also by Wan

    1. C(s) = Composition = Collection of all the parts of s;
    2. E(s) = Environment = Collection of items, other than those in s, that act on
    or are acted upon by some or all components of s;
    3. S(s) = Structure = Collection of relations, in particular bonds, among components of s (endostructure), or among these and things in its environment (exostructure);
    4. M(s) = Mechanism = Collection of processes that makes it behave the way it does or allow it to perform its specific functions.

    2) Your cartoon makes me wonder if regions of fluid can have parts in the same way as solid entities. We might say that the raindrops ‘formed’ a puddle, but once they have done so they can no longer be identified as separate drops. Of course, non-equilibrium fluids like the atmosphere and ocean might form structures within themselves, with boundaries defined not by gaps but by rapid transitions in velocity, pressure, or chemical composition (eg the salinity of the thermohaline circulation), which can be seen as ‘parts’ in a way. But they are unlikely to have clear boundaries (at least all the way round them, so are more like limbs than parts), and also they are even more so than your car example dynamically produced by the system itself, rather than pre-existing it (see item 6 in Wan’s list above).

    3) Another thought or two, not solely about parts and wholes but prompted by your post. One reason why I am drawn to Maturana and Varela’s notion of ‘autopoietic’ (self-producing) systems is the way it made me think about the way that an autopoietic system defines its own parts, boundaries and purposes – and that these might be at odds with the definitions that we produce. It was that thought that led me and Andy Jarvis to try to come up with an alternative figure for the mass of the technosphere to the one you came up with Jan Zalasiewicz et al (https://doi.org/10.1177/2053019616677743) – by looking at what the technosphere’s system dynamics (energy and mass flows etc) implies about its overall mass. The difference between our two figures (ours is smaller) gives you the mass of that bit of what YOU thought was part of the technosphere but the technosphere doesn’t seem to consider part of itself.

    Another thought on that – Barabasi et al’s analysis of the art world as a self-organising system displaying self-similar networks and power laws (http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aau7224) presumably shows that it is an optimised system. But what is it optimising? Presumably not good art – for a start, the curve for rewards for art (recognition, money etc) follow a power law when artistic ability (like other human abilities) presumably follows a normal curve, so the rewards are hugely disproportionate to ability. So maybe the art world is being optimised for something else – eg the need of finance capital for sound investments. So systems including the technosphere might be doing something other than we think they are. Of course, that’s what you’ve been saying all along. But it just made me think that we need to be a bit cautious about thinking we can specify a system, what it is doing, and what it’s made of, in advance of analysing its actual dynamics.

  2. This post starts to elaborate what it really means to analyze the technosphere, so it is very welcome! Last week, Axel Kleindon and I organized a workshop at Erfurt on the technosphere, where the friends from Lancaster who organized the earlier one also participated: The discourse continues. For me, three insights of that workshop are relevant for your post.
    The first is the question of terminology. For example, you use terms like ‘role’, whereas I would clearly say ‘function’. From the workshop debates, I lerned that terminological fixes matter much. The term ‘function’ is ambivalent, on the one hand it helps to clarify things, because there is a huge analytical literature on it that can be mobilized (avoid inventing the wheel anew), but on the other hand there are huge drawbacks, because the term is used in different ways in different disciplines, and often incites direct rejection. But I think its is necessary to take position here.
    The second is that the notion of ‘technosphere’ attracts much skepticism if combined with the notion of ‘system’. This relates to the previous point. Is the technosphere really ‘a system’, meaning one integrated and comprehensive entity, a ‘totality’? Again, that attracts much criticism. And I agree: I think that the the term ‘sphere’ does not necessarily imply systemicity as ‘totality’. We can think of the technosphere as a loose network of technosphere ‘modules’ that interact, but not necessarily in a coordinated way. Especially, I think that identifying parts is only possible with reference to such modules. For example, the global financial system might be a module, and we can identify parts, such as computers or human traders, all fulfilling a function in its workings. But that is only loosely connected, say, to an Indian farmer employing traditional technology in agriculture.
    Therefore, the third insight is for me (and reinforcing earlier comments) that the concept of ‘mechanism’ is the core notion in empirical research on the technosphere. This is now a well-established concept in philosophy of science, and there is a large literature discussing issues such as what are boundaries of mechanisms, what are parts of them, what are levels of organization and so on. I think one can directly apply that literature on the issues that you start to discuss here. One implication is that one would refrain from developing general theories of the technosphere, but that one would begin with theorizing about specific mechanisms. My workhorse is rebound effects, for example. These mechanisms may be seen in the context of a larger picture, which, however, would be on a much more abstract level, such as an evolutionary conception of technosphere.
    Anyway, I am keen to read more about how to identify ‘parts’ and how they operate!

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