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The Importance of Systems

Jay Willoughby

2001-01-01 00:00:00

Systems are integral to human life. We see so many in nature: cycles of birlh and death. seasonal changes, the food chain, evaporation and photosynthesis, and so on. Over time, as small groups of people settled down, they began to develop political, economic, social, and many other systems to ensure the community's well-being.

They did this within their own families as well, developing parent-child relationships, child rearing, values and beliefs, and other systems. If a society cannot develop one or more socially acceptable systems by which to raise its young people, its continued existence is called into question.

Like everything else, systems are dynamic and evolving. A major ingredient for a successful system-wide change is sufficient time to adapt. We hear of animal species dying out and indigenous peoples losing their culture because they could nol adapt fast enough. However, some people are impatient with the pace of change. They want to speed it up, by force if necessary. One man enforced rapid national change through decree and enforced it with raw power: Pol Pot, leader of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. The results, nol surprisingly, were beyond belief.

Other Utopians, among them Plato and Sir Thomas More, confined their utopias to books. Ironically, a close reading of their texts or those of the self-proclaimed utopian societies that have emerged probably would encourage people to flee from them. Why? Because they are grounded in suppressing individuality in the name of pursuing "Ihe greater good"-usually at any cost. But what else is a man or a woman if not an individual? To insist upon being an individual under the Khmer Rouge literally meant instant death. We can only speculate how the inhabitants of Plato's or Sir Thomas More's ideal societies would deal with non-conformists.

In the scientific realm, scientists are devising artificial systems to improve our quality of life. One example is the electronic nose, which can be used to detect spoiled food and air quality, assist doctors and nurses in medical diagnoses, and help the military clear land mines. Another example is that of superconductivity. Using various combinations of elements, wires, and temperatures, scientists erect elaborate structures that result in supercomputers, mag-lev trains, SQUIDS (used to study the brain), particle accelerators, and other devices

One artificial system that has spread like wildfire in many countries is e-mail. Once the preserve of the American government and military, it is now an established part of many people's and businesses' daily routine. Although far from perfect, the current system seems to function rather well.

And then there are the more abstract systems that shape a culture: religion, one's conception of how and why the universe functions, why things were created, what being civilized means, and how one can live a moral life. Some civilizations define themselves and are defined by-their religion. During the Middle Ages, Christian Europe applied this standard to the Muslim world. The resulting stereotypes and misunderstandings, despite calls for mutual understanding and acceptance, are alive today and color all relations between these two civilizations.

We hope that you enjoy this issue and, as always, look forward to your comments.

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