To change a deterministic,badly behaving (evil) System, you need to act from outside the system

Professor Peter Ludlow of Northwestern University wrore a brilliant piece in NYT’s Opinion pages on the moral and ethics of whistleblowing, examplified by e.g. Manning and Snowden.

A lot of people have argued that by blowing their whistles, Manning and others acted morally, ethically as well as legally wrong when they broke the laws of their “System”, that they should have used the mechanisms available inside the System, such as reporting upwards in the System‘s chain-of-command,  to get changes the System‘s behavior. Well, turns out that at least Manning did, and was not only ignored, but told to drop it and just “obey orders” (that does sound awfully much like 3d Reich, doesn’t it…?) .

Professor Ludlow argues the opposite, the basis of his argument being that if you are a Component of a System that in itself behaves immorally (or otherwise badly) , it would be immoral not to act, not to be a whistleblower – in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s words:  “if you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud”. 

Not only do I agree with Professor Ludlow’s reasoning, but futhermore his text is interesting also when seen from a Systems Theory point of view: most large organizations, and perhaps particularly heavily bureaucratic government organizations, tend to be constructed and organized from a perspective of Reductionism, Mechanism, and Determinism, with massive amount of stringent processes , procedures, rules and regulations,  aiming at minimizing all randomness, variability and spontaneous, non-deterministic behaviour. In essence, such organizations are constructed to operate as a Newtonian orrery, where the “System”, once put to motion, will flawlessly and deterministically   execute acording to its governing laws towards a fully predictable future state.  No intrinsic events – except component malfunctions – can change the path of these types of systems.

Well, if the government and it’s subsystems (NSA etc) are constructed with this reductionistic and mechanistic mindset, then it will indeed be totally impossible to change the behavior of the System, and the outcomes of that System, from the inside: in order to change the operation of these types of systems, you need to step outside of the System, and implement the changes from there. And that’s exactly what the wistleblowers did: by blowing their whistles, they stepped outside of the System within which they normally operate, and by doing so, gave the System an external chock (public outcry),resulting in a change of future direction of the system.  It’s like an astroid hitting a planet.

It still remains to see whether the chock also will result in any substantial  and necessary changes to the configuration of the System, but the point I want to make here, to connect my musings to those of Professor Ludlow, is that without these whistleblowers, who detected the evil and immoral behaviours of  the surveillance system, the system would not, indeed could not,  have changed.

For systems to change from intrinsic factors, they need to allow for some randomness and variability in their operation and structure, or they need to be constructed from a complex systems theory point of view, allowing for variability, feedback loops and emergent behaviors.

About swdevperestroika

High tech industry veteran, avid hacker reluctantly transformed to mgmt consultant.
This entry was posted in Big Data, Big Government, Complex Systems, Leadership, Management, Organization, Systems and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to To change a deterministic,badly behaving (evil) System, you need to act from outside the system

  1. Bernard says:

    Or, to take a metaphor from Newtonian physics:

    First law: An object either is at rest or moves at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.

    Second law: The acceleration of a body is directly proportional to, and in the same direction as, the net force acting on the body, and inversely proportional to its mass.

    Third law: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.

    Translating this to whistleblowing:

    Change has to come from outside

    The larger and/or more set in its ways the organisation, the greater the force required to change it

    The entity trying to bring about change will find that the organisation will react in proportion to the size of the change being attempted.

    It’s not rocket science. Oh, sorry, yes it is. But it’s not hard to understand.

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