The Bikecast Episode #13: The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does

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In the swirl of intention, motivation, side effects and unintended consequences, the discussion of a “purpose” for a sufficiently complicated system can be difficult. Noted cyberneticist and all around crazy person, Anthony Stafford Beer, proposed that, “the purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment or sheer ignorance of circumstances.”

A friend of mine, with whom I recently had a discussion about the topic, summed it up thusly:

Put simply: if you’re trying to explain a complicated system (say, health care),ignore what the interested parties say the purpose is and focus on the demonstrated outcomes.

The purpose of the system is what it does. It comes in handy so frequently, it has an acronym: POSIWID.
IOZ, brought POSIWID to mind in a recent post rebutting a claim that the current war on drugs is based on “broken” policies:

Calling “current policies” “badly broken” implies that they functioned in some other manner from whose effective heights they have declined through use, or abuse . . . you know, the usual wear and tear. Except, obviously these policies are designed to cause immense suffering, to be hugely and disproportiately punitive, and to be monstrously racially unjust so as to maintain a persistent, racially segregated, socially inferior underclass. You think it’s a coincidence that the creation of the DEA and the passage of the Rockefeller drug regime and its imitators came right on the heels of the Civil Rights era, you fatuous stooge?
The prohibition regime isn’t broken. It functions exactly as it is supposed to function. Iniquity is its purpose . . . well, that and secondarily the preservation of market share for the legal tobacco and alcohol industries. The fact that powerful people can talk openly on the teevee and in their hackjob memoirs about smokin’ doobs and blowing a few lines without consequence isn’t evidence that we need to address the unequal application of laws and statutes but rather evidence that inequality is the fundamental principle underlying the practical application of these policies.

A perfect analysis. POSIWID: the purpose of US drug policy is to incarcerate 100K’s of poor, mostly black and hispanic, people. Its purpose is to provide a huge military budget for godawful central and south american Juntas to murder and imprison their respective subjects. Its purpose is to artificially support the patented drugs of pharmaceutical mega-corporations. Its purpose is to increase the budget of the police state. That’s what it does, thus, that is the purpose.

Wouldn’t you know it, when I was already in a POSIWID state of mind, bam, IOZ points me to a new find (blogwise): ladypoverty’s J.R. Boyd. He was talking about Greek “debt restructuring.” As it turns out, I totally missed the point of the article, which is that currency inflation is *no longer* a tool of euro-zone countries. Luckily, it doesn’t matter too much because I ended up blabbing about the “world financial system” meaning the IMF, World Bank, and the major world economic powers and the purpose of having such a system instead of delving much into the Greek economy in particular.

What’s the purpose of the world financial system? What does it do? It allows thugs internationally recognized as state leaders to get loans in exchange for mineral rights, access to labor (read: peasants), and the promise of business friendly policing. Invariably, the loans are used to build ridiculous palaces and other luxury items for the rulers and an army/security apparatus to defend the ruling class from their impoverished countrypeople. When one group of thugs is overthrown, assassinated, or, occasionally, voted out of office, the debt remains and must be serviced by the new government. To do so, they typically require further assistance from the global financial system which imposes harsh budget restrictions and extracts further guarantees about the inviolability of western interest’s land and labor holdings in the country.

The purpose of the world financial system, then, is to take the riches and labor of the poorest 99% of the planet’s population and deliver it to the corporate and ruling classes. They, in turn, make tremendous profit in the sale of manufactured goods created by and from the labor and materials or the poor and working classes.

As I recorded the podcast, I thought I might be overly enamored of what is simply a rhetorical flourish. Then I thought, “Nahhh.” I like POSIWID because it turns attention and analysis to effects of a system, laying them bare. Once the purpose of the drug war is posited to be the continued oppression of minorities, a clear line is drawn in the discussion between people that are for human progress, and people who should be ignored.

    • marc
    • May 26th, 2010

    With POSIWID, how can you tell if something’s broke (and how to fix it)? If your bike has a flat tire, what the tire *does* is it makes steering difficult and causes the wheel rim to bend. I wouldn’t say that that’s the purpose of the tire though.

  1. Good question. I think a reasonable argument could be made that the purpose of a flat tire is to make steering difficult. That might be the intention (if I let the air out of your tire), or it might be accidental. Without a moral agent having been involved–in the case of an accidental deflation–speaking of purpose is odd.

    That doesn’t really address your question. But, as I think of it, perhaps POSIWID is meant to side-step such questions. One can always claim that something produced a bad outcome because it was ‘broken.’ This is often argued in conjunction with political communism, for example. POSIWID is a tool to incise such arguments by asking what does a system does instead of what is the system ‘supposed’ or ‘intended’ to do if it were ‘fixed.’

    • Aljmiller87
    • May 29th, 2010

    Hey Jad,

    I think this is a very well put together piece as it takes away emphasis from the rhetoric, propaganda, and prejudices onto the actual effect. I think it’s very true that it is not intentions that matter, but rather, only what happens and how it affects you. This can also solve the “problem” with the flat tire: it’s intent to be able let you ride your bike effectively, but it doesn’t. Therefore, by taking into consideration only what it does- similar to POSIWID- we can ignore the intent or rhetoric of the system…. or the stupid tire.

    Gooooood job.

    • Aljmiller87
    • May 29th, 2010

    Oooooo! just thought of this:

    Another justification for POSIWID:
    the nature of our reality is that we live by natural laws of cause and effect. For example, if you jump of a cliff, you will fall, if you only eat candy, you will get diabetes, if you design an aircraft based on the principle 2+2=5, that aircraft will fail, etc

    If someone is genuine in their intention, the will change their behavior (system) to more effectively achieve their goals where they previously did not succeed. They will adapt their diet to obtain health; they will alter their base premises to attempt to fly, etc.

    If someone professes some noble, virtuous, or scientific intention, but then does not change their behavior (system) when they continually and totally miss their objectives, then it becomes obvious that their real intent/purpose is what is defined by their actions, not their intent. Thus, POSIWID.


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