Software and Computer Engineering

Our Institutions Transcend Ourselves

Can you build a reliable system from unreliable parts? Logic would dictate this is not the case: if each piece or component is unreliable, by just adding more pieces, how can we expect the aggregate to be reliable, right? But observations defy intuition.

For example, an organization is made up of people. Each individual may be subjected to something that makes then unavailable to work at a given moment: they might take the day off, be on vacation, or attending to some urgent personal matter. Still, the organization may still be reliably available to their customers at predictable times.

We can see that complex systems may exhibit overall properties or behaviors which are not inherent or attributable to any singular part. It stems from the combination.

Of course, no single person can be available all the time, be able to do their best work all the time, or be completely immune to personal hardships. That's what organizations are designed to solve. With an aggregate of imperfect people, processes and policies are designed and put in place to allow the whole to be more available than the parts, to provide a consistent level of service -- no matter who is the individual tasked with that at a given day --, and resilient to the inherent risks imposed to any particular member.

A fascinating aspect of this, to me, is that often our institutions transcend the people that make it up.

For example, there are plenty of western universities that were founded a few centuries ago and are still instructing new graduates to this day, generation after generation. Of course, the individual people changed over the years, and that the organization shaped the people that wen through it just as much as the the people shaped the organization.

Intuition is deceiving when reasoning about complex systems. Often, the properties of an aggregate may not locally follow from the properties of discrete piece. No single person lives for hundreds of years, but a collection of people, rallied under an idea, might just be able to.