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.
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.