"The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does"
Recently, several interesting Twitter controversies ran together and I felt it might be useful to do a write-up on SubStack.
The initial thread concerned the concept of “POSIWID” or, put fully, “The purpose of a system is what it does". This is an engineering principle that has found new interest on the dissident side of Twitter, and which has generated a lot of popular interest.
As an industrial engineer by trade, I naturally jump at a chance to explain a soft technical concept that I learned decades ago in my 101 classes. Relative to the other “laws of engineering”, I notice that POSIWID does get an unusual amount of pushback, largely from people with backgrounds in law or philosophy who naturally assume that the aphorism blurs the lines around human agency. And I admit, on the surface, the concept does sound insane from a psychological point of view. But POSIWID isn't a principle concerning metaphysical teleology or ethics and remains an important way of thinking about business or engineering problems in the context of high-complexity systems. Altogether, the idea forces one to take responsibility for what is actually going on in complicated situations and prevents deceptive linguistic excuses that reframe the problem (e.g. "60% of the time it works every time").
Perhaps a thought experiment might clarify the idea.
Suppose you are in charge of an ice cream distribution system, making the frozen confection in large refrigerated containers and then shipping it to customers who want to eat it cold. The purpose of your system is to deliver high-quality ice cream. Fair enough. But then you notice a problem. While the ice cream sent to most locations arrives fine, the shipments sent to Hawaii arrive melted and spoiled, certainly NOT the purpose of your system. Subsequently, when doing a follow-up investigation, you discover that the spoilage was due to a design flaw in the packaging that comes apart in humid climates and that fixing this design flaw is beyond your technical capabilities with the resources available. It looks as if, like it or not, this problem will be a persistent, unfixable feature of your system. Yet orders from Honolulu for ice cream keep coming in and you keep sending it out.
At this point, the purpose of the system is what it does. Knowing what the reality is, you can no longer retreat into ignorance and excuses. No repeating that common song and dance of people trying to pass the buck that sounds something like the following.
“Aw gee, Aw shucks guys, the ice cream we sent you was spoiled? Man, that’s so unfortunate. Well, it can’t be our fault. We didn’t intend to send you ruined ice cream. We sent it out the same way we sent it to everyone else, frozen. Maybe you left the package out too long? Maybe it’s a problem with the delivery service? But our system still works.”
This excuse is bullshit. Once more, the purpose of the system is what it does. Your system sends frozen high-quality ice cream to New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, and sends spoiled melted ice cream to Hawaii.
Of course, there could be caveats. Maybe the Hawaiians like melted ice cream. Maybe ordering ice cream is part of a strange Hawaiian religious ritual and the state of the product doesn’t matter. But if so, there needs to be a different conversation. The reality of what your system really delivers needs to be communicated, not simply what you want it to deliver. Furthermore, in that discussion, you can’t scapegoat bad circumstances or flawed human nature, because those flaws are part of your system. You have to own the consequences.
It is probably not surprising that POSIWID is becoming a prominent part of political discourse on the right. Really, I think the phenomenon might be a broader Millennial fixation, as the popularity of the meme on both the left and right would indicate.
When talking about politics to the older generations (Boomers in particular), younger people always encounter endless platitudes about “the rules” or how things are “supposed to be”. But how relevant are these observations? In the words of Anton Chigurgh’s version of POSIWID, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”.
Whether it’s the results of "Our Democracy", our proxy wars in Eastern Europe, the consequences of sexual liberty, or the existence of free speech online, there is a general failure to look at things critically from a system level. No one is asking earnestly, “What does this all accomplish?”, they simply appeal to the fact that they were following the rules and had good intentions. But a system can't hide the effects of failure when it happens again and again and again. To fix the problem, we need to take ownership of how the system behaves. And, to take ownership of real outcomes, we must assume that the purpose of a system is what it does.
Strangely enough, POSIWID became relevant to an entirely different controversy online in the early days of January 2024, inside the ongoing meltdown of the liberal community on Twitter. I frequently get into debates with these liberal-centrist types, but somehow I still never really understand how the ideas of thinkers like James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Wokal Distance bear on the relevant issues of the 21st century. Case in point, while in theory most of the differences between liberals and the general dissident right come down to disagreements concerning the salience of certain 18th-century political principles, our arguments never concern the contentions between the philosophies of Joseph DeMaistre and John Stuart Mill.
Instead, our argument returns to issues surrounding strong Civil Rights and the possible existence of functionally unalterable group differences, what some people refer to as “Human Bio-Diversity” or “HBD”. Whatever their other commitments to the ideas from the incredibly racist and sexist Enlightenment, liberals like Wokal Distance and James Lindsay remain committed to the ideals of Civil Rights, its later lapse into affirmative action and disparate impact notwithstanding.
As these modern liberals maintain, society must be committed to colorblindness, promote total individualism, and pursue complete integration everywhere, regardless of what people choose in their ordinary lives. Furthermore, if any scary right-winger tries to disrupt this dream by mentioning the problems imposed by the realities of cultural, religious, and racial differences they are most likely some kind of crypto-Nazi itching to bring back the horrors of anti-miscegenation laws and segregated water fountains.
I would have an easier time refuting this modern liberal position if I understood how it fit together in the minds of men like James Lindsay and Wokal Distance. Why is public discussion of possible group differences anathema when this was explicitly the belief of virtually all of the 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers the liberals idolize? How is classical liberalism, which very prominently endorses freedom of association, compatible with Civil Rights legislation that directly abolished that liberty? And how is color-blindness going to deliver the completely integrated society that the Civil Rights regime promises, when it manifestly doesn’t?
And the problems only get worse. Because, as many now have realized, values-neutral liberalism combined with the promises of Civil Rights, and the powers of the modern Welfare State will always generate the woke tyranny that men like James Lindsay so detest. And it’s not hard to see how.
Once egalitarianism and liberty are broadly taught throughout the academy as the last best values for the modern world, once the goals of Civil Rights are held as sacred, a new woke professional managerial class will inevitably come to the fore. These circumstances paired with the legal exceptions granted to protected classes and disparate impact law will give this group the power to reconstruct the world in their preferred image, from the top down. This process has already been detailed in multiple books, not that many right-wingers haven’t explained it to these liberals at length, that is until they blocked us for questioning the sacred cows of the 20th century.
Perhaps this is the end of the conversation?
Perhaps not. Several days ago, rather strangely, the latest salvo in the right-wing/liberalist war was fired off with Wokal distance posting an inversion of the POSIWID meme trying to dunk on Auro MacIntryre’s skepticism concerning the post-woke world order.
Again, I am not sure how Wokal expects a right-winger to respond. Maybe with the “Chad yes” meme? Perhaps by repeating Covfefe Anon’s adage“The Woke are more correct than the mainstream”? But I can see this post confused a lot of people, so maybe we can work the problem explicitly.
As the situation requires, I will be blunt. If you manage a business that employs a standard of competence that correlates with IQ tests, then you are discriminating against the ethnic groups who perform poorly on IQ tests. You are discriminating just as surely as the ice cream vendor in our previous example was sending melted ice cream to Hawaii, even though he didn’t intend for it to be spoiled. The purpose of your system is what it does. And the purpose of competence measuring based on an IQ proxy is to discriminate against groups of people with lower IQs. Otherwise, why have the standard at all?
Now the standard might indeed be necessary. You might be justified in using such a metric for evaluating competence in your business. And it would certainly be unjust to hold you legally liable under some provisional law against individual bigotry. Still, your standard discriminates. That's not an opinion. That's a fact. Furthermore, feigning blindness, and myopically pretending like you can’t see what’s going on insults the intelligence of everyone involved, and doesn’t address the real political problems in play.
And it’s not that I don’t understand what people like Wokal Distance and James Lindsay want. I too lived through the 1990s and I remember what was promised: a completely meritocratic system based on achievement and hard work that somehow magically delivered the Civil Rights dream of all races equally sharing middle-class American wealth. But is this possible?
At this stage, the problem is that we've tried it all. It's been 50 years since the establishment of strong Civil Rights regulations in the early 70s with things like Affirmative Action. We have had half a century, and billions (more likely trillions) of dollars poured into the effort to get comparable racial outcomes. And NOTHING has worked.
At this stage, short of some grand conspiracy of white people “to keep the black man down” (the Woke explanation) the cause of group disparities must come down to some combination of the following sources:
- Genetic group differences stemming from human bio-diversity, as attested to by a growing mountain of evidence,
- Deep historically situated cultural differences that are almost impossible to change,
- Recently developed behavioral differences that cannot be modified with tools we consider "liberal" and acceptable in the modern world.
Frankly, it doesn't matter which cause, or combination of causes, is ultimately driving the racial achievement gap because the only relevant fact in this political moment is that, short of a cultural revolution or a black swan event), large noticeable differences in the outcomes between racial groups are here to stay.
On paper, and when I talk to them personally, many of the liberal-centrist types tell me they understand this problem. They have read Steven Pinker, they have read the Bell Curve, and they know the issues with Affirmative Action and disparate impact in the context of persistent group differences. Their eyes are open. They've got this one.
So what is their solution? More individualism and objective standards for achievement. We need to go back to color blindness, the legal fiction of equality, and judging everyone like a blank slate even though they are not. We can just call that a "meritocracy" as we did in the 1990s. Let the chips fall where they may, and be done with the matter once and for all.
Perhaps this is a great “debate club idea”, but who is going to own the consequences if indeed we were to tear down all disparate impact regulations, equal opportunity programs, and affirmative action? I don’t think an appeal to "meritocracy" would cut it.
When our elite universities admit applications strictly by the numbers, when the African American presence dwindles to less than 1 percent of the student population of the Ivy League, and when people complain about a generation of black professionals disappearing, would Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Peter Broghosian happily appear in public to explain that the reason why all this is happening is that Africans just don’t have enough merit? After all, it does seem to me that these liberal-centrists are just itching to chastise Black Americans for their shortcomings.
I can hear it now. "Hello fellow Black individualists, we liberals are here to tell you why your economic and academic shortcomings are due to your moral inadequacy. After all, we wouldn't want to rob you of your agency!". A likely response?
That furious tapping sound is me not being able to “press X to doubt” fast enough.
In reality, everyone knows what we would hear from these liberal-centrists when they were confronted with the outcomes of the “meritocracy” they advocate for in theory. No doubt they would slink away from the problem, try to pass the buck, and we would hear some explanation similar to that of our irresponsible ice cream vendor from the previous example.
“Aw gee, Aw shucks guys, the black student body at Harvard just disappeared? Man, that’s so unfortunate. Well, it can’t be our fault. We certainly didn’t intend to destroy the Black professional class. After all, we sent them the same test, just like everyone else. Maybe this is a problem on their end. Bad parenting? Bad schools? Bad neighborhoods? But our meritocratic system still works.”
No one buys an answer like this, or should. It is so transparently disingenuous. They knew the results of the system they proposed in advance. They promoted it anyway. Now the authors are trying to pass off the system’s predictable outcome like it’s some kind of unforeseeable accident. In fact, I am convinced that the utter pusillanimous mendacity of responses like this plays no small part in young people’s preference for woke explanations over those provided by conservatives.
Yet still, our liberal-centrist friends persist in their position. What's the problem? Where is the disconnect? Why can't the moderate liberals see the issue?
I think the main issue, for those still sincerely on the Lindsay/Wokal/Pluckrose camp is a misunderstanding of human anthropology and history and how it corresponds to certain autistic legal fixtures maintained as holdovers from the 19th century.
Let's start with a basic observation about reality. Most humans don't care about autistic linguistic legal fiction. And while everyone wants to pursue merit and excellence, our evolved human brains are primed to react to the movement of power, especially when that power comes along with visible group differences. We want to know that people who have our back are in charge and prominent relative to other human groups that are out there. This is probably why, as J. Burden has recently noticed, political patronage inside chaotic social systems is not simply economic but social and emotional; it exists to assure people they are valid and belong to the ruling coalition.
Suddenly finding yourself as the outgroup to a ruling oligarchy can have deadly consequences. As such, all real politics is collective, and the perception of group power dynamics is always primary in the human mind. That's the way homo sapiens function, possibly as a holdover from our existence as hunter and gatherers, but more so because our brains are smarter than we are, and tune in to the actual reality of Machiavellian group dynamics which has a very high probability of getting us killed if we ignore it, even in the modern era.
Perhaps some in the liberal camp would concede this reality in the abstract. But such general truths play badly with our broader memory of the Anti-Colonial and Civil Rights movements of the mid-20th century. Regardless of what you might understand from your favorite Morgan Freeman movie, the chief complaints that the Civil Rights movement tried to address were not fundamentally individual, but collective.
The African American community of the late 1950s and early 1960s felt, with justification, that they were a humiliated underclass inside America, and not accorded the dignity of other citizens in the world’s most prosperous nation. These concerns were made even more urgent inside legacy African American communities where skyrocketing crime, drug use, and family collapse were in the process of destroying the old Black professional business class. Altogether the solution seemed simple at the time. Civil Rights would provide “equality” and with it would come a new set of opportunities for African Americans to match the opportunities lost to social decline and rising inner-city chaos.
However, to provide real opportunities to the Black community, the “equality” promised by the new Civil Rights regime had to be an equality of outcome, not just an equality of consideration. Because, without actual money, actual employment, and actual political power, the core concerns of the African American community would not be addressed, and they would continue to be a DeFacto underclass, living inside increasingly squalid and dangerous conditions that no other peoples wanted to share.
Really, the individualistic interpretation of “equal opportunity” is laughable when you stop and think about it from a community perspective. If you were a Black leader, would you somehow feel uplifted by moving from a system where Harvard admits only one African American a year because of a racial quota to a system where Harvard admits only one African American a year because “blacks just don’t test well”? And the irony only cuts deeper when, during the same time, the thriving black neighborhoods of the early 20th century were transformed into violent drug-infested ghettoes.
Yet somehow this is the reality modern liberals expect everyone to happily swallow with platitudinous references to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and excuses about what this all was “meant to achieve”.
Wait, here’s a crazy idea. What if the only way to make the system better is talking about what it actually does, not what we would want it to do? What if we stopped promising things that we couldn’t deliver? What if we addressed the core issues concerning race relations in terms of dignity, uplift, and freedom of association rather than continuously trying to achieve some kind of spontaneous form of equity that obviously isn’t happening?
Despite the noted pessimism of the right, there aren’t any shortages of political solutions to the issues surrounding race relations and group differences in the modern world. To start, Western countries would need to stabilize their ethnic compositions, increasing the native birthrate and locking down any future political opportunities based on demographic change through immigration. To confront existing racial tension among citizens, perhaps, reservations and power-sharing arrangements could be explored, as seen in other heavily multi-ethnic nations. Likely, a refocus on intentional community building and freedom of association might altogether de-escalate ethnic tensions by removing racial politics at the local level. Whereas subsidies for job creation programs could, in the long-term, provide an economic way of moving communities away from drug and welfare dependence and towards some measure of self-sufficiency.
Maybe you agree with these ideas, maybe you don’t. But I would offer that these underdeveloped sketches still provide a better answer to our political crisis than pouring gasoline on grievance politics, or worse, making futile gestures to “meritocracy” while ignoring what is occurring in society more broadly. And really, the only barrier to making some broader incremental improvements along these lines is the existence of the modern liberal worldview which insists that any deviation from the ideal of total integration is anathema, regardless of the ill effects that the post-Civil Rights regime produces.
Here, I would maintain, that whatever our preferences are, the first step must be honesty. We have to describe humans as they truly are, understand groups as they truly differ, interact with politics as it truly plays out, and judge a system by what it truly produces. It’s 2024, the world is changing, so please keep your eyes on the ball and remember, always, that the purpose of a system is what it does.