Category Archives: Systems thinking

Hostility system

I think the big difference between me and many people I know is that I see war as caused by general cultural conditions, rather than by any particular faction.

The cultural conditions leading to war produce mutually-antagonistic factions, which naturally regard one another with suspicion.

Each faction’s partly-understood, mostly-imagined reaction to the other provokes a counter-reaction. That counter-reaction, partly-understood and mostly-imagined by the other, provokes another counter-reaction. Back-and-forth it goes, like a two-stroke engine, fueled by contempt, lubricated with slippery-slope grease. Provocation drives provocation. Antipathy feeds antipathy. Paranoia justifies paranoia.

Each side is goaded into acting the villainous part the other casts. Eventually act becomes actual. Each faction’s darkest imaginings become prescient: they knew it all along.


Only by viewing the situation from the outside — from outside the perspectives of culture’s hostility system itself — can the absurdity of the system be seen. From either of the hostility system’s perspectives, though, the struggle is clearly one of good and evil.

If we implicitly identify with one of the factions within the system — one of the only possible “sides” one can reasonably take, given the threat the other poses — we are possessed — not only by that faction — not only by the hostility — but most of all by the self-destructive absurdity.


Susan believes in reincarnation. She thinks in a past life I was traumatized by war.

I also believe in past lives, except those past lives are those of authors I have read, who experienced the before, during and after of war. They accepted my hospitality and joined my soul, and now they live in me. It is from their vantage that I can see this hostility system from the outside, at least partially, at least some of the time.


Yes, this is simplistic.

Yes, it is far more complicated than this.

But reality is always more complicated than truth.

Well-designed truths make smart trade-offs that cut through complication to give us clean access to what matters most.

One-siderists accuse me of being a both-siderist. But that is the furthest thing from the truth. I’m rejecting the whole hostility system and all its idiotic parts and fluids. I reject its “sides”, its constricted perspectives, its brainless passions, its ideological self-deceptions, its dark prophesies. I refuse to become a standardized interchangeable part of the system — an identity, or a bolted together identity intersectional subsystem.

I’m a neither-siderest, as all decent, self-possessed souls should be right now.

I would be ashamed to cooperate with this nonsense, and I am ashamed of the identical nobodies who have given over to it and have adopted system-compliant linguistic habits, behaviors and attitudes.

Eventually, these nobodies — (Are you one of those?) — will try to pretend they were not really part of this. But nobody ever really is. That is what cooperating is, essentially: wholehearted unrealness.

Divine ecology

I have been looking for a “way in” into environmentalism. Intellectually, I know it matters tremendously, but I haven’t felt its importance on a tacit moral “why” level that makes its importance immediate and self-evident. I know this is a philosophical failure — something in my worldview (what Judaism would call levavkha, heart) is preventing a reality from being as real to me as it ought to be (“hardness of heart” toward toward the Earth, and physical reality, in general) — so I have been poking around looking for new angles for conceiving and perceiving our situation.

This passage from Gregory Bateson speaks to me:

Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa—individual, family line, subspecies, species, etc.—as units of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units—gene-in-organism, organism-in-environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology, in the widest sense, turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (i.e., differences, complexes of differences, etc.) in circuits.

Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and “Let’s build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbors.” There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess. When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise “What interests me is me, or my organization, or my species,” you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system—and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.

You and I are so deeply acculturated to the idea of “self” and organization and species that it is hard to believe that man might view his relations with the environment in any other way than the way which I have rather unfairly blamed upon the nineteenth-century evolutionists. So I must say a few words about the history of all this.

Anthropologically, it would seem from what we know of the early material, that man in society took clues from the natural world around him and applied those clues in a sort of metaphoric way to the society in which he lived. That is, he identified with or empathized with the natural world around him and took that empathy as a guide for his own social organization and his own theories of his own psychology. This was what is called “totemism.”

In a way, it was all nonsense, but it made more sense than most of what we do today, because the natural world around us really has this general systemic structure and therefore is an appropriate source of metaphor to enable man to understand himself in his social organization.

The next step, seemingly, was to reverse the process and to take clues from himself and apply these to the natural world around him. This was “animism,” extending the notion of personality or mind to mountains, rivers, forests, and such things. This was still not a bad idea in many ways. But the next step was to separate the notion of mind from the natural world, and then you get the notion of gods.

But when you separate mind from the structure in which it is immanent, such as human relationship, the human society, or the ecosystem, you thereby embark, I believe, on fundamental error, which in the end will surely hurt you.

Struggle may be good for your soul up to the moment when to win the battle is easy. When you have an effective enough technology so that you can really act upon your epistemological errors and can create havoc in the world in which you live, then the error is lethal. Epistemological error is all right, it’s fine, up to the point at which you create around yourself a universe in which that error becomes immanent in monstrous changes of the universe that you have created and now try to live in.

Reading this, I am understanding that I have morally deemphasized and neglected one of the dimensions of the threefold present, the present “here”. As with present I (in spirit) and present now (in eternity), present here (in apeiron) is a dimension of reality that is us, while infinitely exceeds us (which, I’ve been told is a theological concept called “panentheism“) within which we are responsible participants.

I’m fresh off this insight, so only time will tell what it does to me and my sense of the world. It feels like a breakthrough.


“Escape from Flatland”

Continuing from earlier, it might even make sense to push the dimensionalizing further…

Touch-point design is the kind of design done by specialized design in a particular medium such as graphics, ID, interaction, architecture, etc.

Touch-line = single-channel experience strategy — shaping a series of experiences within a single channel and defining the design problem for one or several touch-points within that one channel path. This is the work a user experience strategist typically does.

Touch-plane = the same thing, but defining the experience across every channel path. This is the work omnichannel experience strategy does.

(There’s a fair amount of fluidity between UX and omnichannel, and of course UX designers often do UX strategy to define their single touch-point designs.)

Touch-space = service design. Now we have intersecting actors, each with experiences and free-will all intersecting in the delivery of a service, creating in these intersections many experiences for many actors. Service design has developed and continues to develop tools able to aid understanding and shaping of these intersecting, interacting experiences.

Now service design is no longer one more scale of “zoom-out” to encompass more of one experience but a way to handle the fact that experiences are the result of experiences, and that all experiences, whether at the official front-stage (the customer) or at the back stage (always front-stage for someone!) — all these experiences matter and they all affect one another as a system.

I suppose I could use the story of Flatland as a structuring metaphor.

Touch-points, touch-lines, touch-planes

If I were giving my talk on the differences between design researching service design problems versus UX problems today, this would be my talk:


A confession: not long ago I thought of service design as just one variety of experience strategy, specifically an experience strategy that defines the experience of a process, a connected series of events experienced specifically as a series of events, perceived as a story.

I no longer believe this. Service design is a form of design strategy, that includes experience strategy and relies on it heavily, but service design is not reducible to experience strategy. I will explain why shortly.

It will all come back to a somewhat peculiar definition of design I subscribe to: that design shapes hybrid systems comprising people and things — people being understood as free-willed actors, and things as algorithmic, rule-based actors. In design, free-willed, experiencing people are part of the design and we try to give people good reasons to freely choose to cooperate with our designs. An implication of this definition is that a design only kicks into action and becomes what it is when a person interacts with it, producing an experience.

(Engineering, in contrast defines its systems to carefully exclude the people-elements, or if people are an unavoidable element in a system to treat them as predictable rules-following elements, either by imposing rules through policy, logic, commonsense or written instructions, or governed by peculiar psychological rules that can be discovered and used, or just to be irrational noise which is someone else’s problem.)

(I’ll remove this from the talk, but here’s my own inflammatory editorial: This is why only hacks claim to design when the people component is present in the process only as an imagined “The User”, or a trail of past behaviors synthesized into some sort of abstract behavior-producing entity to game into compliance with one’s own schemes. This sort of thing makes me super-angry, especially when I suffer from it as a user. One of the more catastrophic conceits of the 20th Century was the equating of rigor and being sociopathic, that is, attempting, on principle, to cleanse every “scientific” question of subjectivity, in pursuit of objectivity. Much of this stunted philosophy is still with us today, and it seems to be enjoying a sort of renaissance.)

Before looking at the crucial difference between designing experiences and designing services, let’s take a minute to clarify the relationship between time and experience:

Though all experiences take place in time, the “object” of the experience is not always a process where time is foregrounded.

The experience may be of having or using a physical artifact, or a digital artifact. It may be of being inside an environment.

The experience may also be of some user-directed activity with its own object, where the designed artifact is as inconspicuous as possible within the experience. This is how the design of tools ought to be approached.

(By the way, if you are into philosophy, and this line of thought captures your imagination a school has developed around our relationships with things, which is directly relevant to design: Postphenomenology.)

And yes, in service design, a crucial element of the design will be a customers, patient’s, employee’s experience of a connected series of events, and the flow of time is a big part of the perception of the experience. This is why we are always gathering, analyzing and documenting experiences in the form of stories and journeys.

And obviously, our overarching experience with many objects — say, a car — is a mixture of nearly every kind of design we mentioned, a physical thing we look at and enjoy, an environment, a tool that might disappear into our driving, and, sometimes, unfortunately services to help us buy, fuel, maintain, modify and eventually sell the vehicle. Looking at the car in a long line of touch-points from start to finish is good experience design, and until recently, I would have said this was service design.

Notice, I differentiate touch-points, which are relatively short spans of time and lines of touch-points. If you’ll forgive the coinage, I propose we call these connected touch-points touch-lines, at least for the purposes of the big point I want to make.

The big point is this: service design conceives a service as a mesh of intersecting experiences — of woven-together touch-lines. Let’s call this a touch-plane. When we look at a service through a service design lens, we see the delivery of the service, not as a mere means to one actor’s experience, but a matrix of intersecting experiences, most of which are processes experienced by a person — all of which must be designed properly if the service is to function as intended. A customer’s journey criss-crosses multiple employee’s journeys, which cross-cross manager’s, vendor’s, regulator’s, etc. journeys.

Obviously, we cannot design every single touchpoint for every single actor in a service, but when designing services we do not automatically choose and prioritize one actor’s or user’s experience as the end and relegate everything else as a means. We do what designers always do and make the smartest-possible tradeoffs across all parts of the experience plane.

So it should not be hard to figure out how this long roundabout discussion comes back around to the key question: what makes service design research different from UX research? If research for experience strategy clarifies what one actor’s/user’s end-to-end experience is, and requires deep knowledge of that user’s context, in order to define the design problem in one or multiple touch-points, service design requires study of multiple actor’s/user’s experiences and understanding how these experiences intersect and interact across a touch-plane and looking for opportunities to improve the experience for everyone involved in and experiencing the delivery of the service.

Seven capacities

The capacity to describe a situation in all its factual, practical and meaningful dimensions, doing justice to the full experience of the situation is one thing.

The capacity to explain the situation by modeling it as a dynamic with particular causes and effects, inputs and outputs is a second thing.

The capacity to assert an ethic, an meaningful (or emotional) stance toward the situation, which permits evaluation of the situation and its constituent elements, and which orients oneself to the situation is a third thing.

The capacity to envisage an ethic that is not merely a response to a situation, but an independent ideal capable of serving as a positive goal for overcoming an undesirable situation is a fourth thing.

The capacity to discern an ethical vision from an idealized, emotionally-satisfying situational image is a fifth thing.

The capacity to apply an ethical ideal in concrete situations in a way that can, in concrete reality, actually change the facts, dynamics and meanings of the situation from an undesired state to a desired one is a sixth thing.

Finally, the capacity to keep the faith — to cultivate and adhere to a positive ethic — while navigating undesirable situations which compel negative ethical responses which conflict with and threaten to distort or obscure one’s positive ideal is a seventh thing.


Unfortunately, people do not distinguish these abilities, and the consequences are often disastrous.

Exercise of the first capacity, the ability to empathize, makes people feel understood, and gives them a sense of solidarity with those who share their experience. Exercise of the second capacity, the ability to produce an explanation, makes people feel clear. Exercise of the third capacity, the ability to give someone a feeling of moral orientation toward a problem, makes people feel resolve.

By this point, people stop paying attention to consequences, and begin to simply act for the pleasure of acting with a feeling of solidarity, clarity, and resolve they lacked before. And the action produces all the ideals and images — and eventually, fabricated facts and derivative explanations — to justify, perpetuate and intensify its action.

Every ideology proceeds along this path, winning generic credibility, lower capacities one to create an impression of higher capacities. It all works because all who believe, are invested with the qualities they believe in, and in the belief that these capacities are not only sufficient, but comprehensive.


This line of thought is similar to the one behind my criticism of the Peter Principle.

To put it simply: We tend to flatten qualitative difference into quantitative degree.

This tendency reduces greatness into double-plus goodness, genius into double-plus smartness, leadership into double-plus administrative competence, etc.

Real difference means we actually need each other’s strengths in order to develop our own and to apply them to greatest effect.

Geertz on irony

Geertz: (From his essay “Thinking as a Moral Act”):

“Irony rests, of course, on a perception of the way in which reality derides merely human views of it, reduces grand attitudes and large hopes to self-mockery. The common forms of it are familiar enough. In dramatic irony, deflation results from the contrast between what the character perceives the situation to be and what the audience knows it to be; in historical irony, from the inconsistency between the intentions of sovereign personages and the natural outcomes of actions proceeding from those intentions. Literary irony rests on a momentary conspiracy of author and reader against the stupidities and self-deceptions of the everyday world; Socratic, or pedagogical, irony rests on intellectual dissembling in order to parody intellectual pretension.”

It seems to me that systems thinking — at least thinking about systems in which the thinker is a participant — might require a certain degree of irony. Our experience of being caught up in a system is one thing, but what is required to adjust or change the system is another — and the connection is rarely obvious. That experience is an intrinsic part of the workings of many systems, particularly management systems.