The Music of Systems

As I continue to mull over possible connection between ethical experience and music, I came across a passage suggesting that systems have a kind of music to them.

I provided students in my environmental ethics class with a few excerpts from Donella M. Meadows’ very useful book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer. The last chapter, “Living In a World of Systems,” provides insights from general systems theory as to how best to go about working to change systems of all kinds.

One section in particular caught my eye:

Getting the Beat of the System

Meadows doesn’t draw out the musical metaphor very far beyond the heading, but here’s how she opens the section:

Before you disturb a system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened (pp.170-1).

She emphasizes the point because it helps people avoid wrong turns:

It’s amazing how many misconceptions there can be. People will swear that rainfall is decreasing, say, but when you look at the data, you find that what is really happening is that variability is increasing – the droughts are deeper, but the floods are greater too. I have been told with great authority that the price of milk was going up when it was going down, that real interest rates are falling when they were rising, that the deficit was a higher fraction of the GNP than ever before when it wasn’t (p.171).

To extend the metaphor farther than she did, to misperceive the system in those ways it so miss the beat of them, to fail to catch the tune, to be attempting a waltz when the system is playing a jig.

I sometimes wonder if a kind of tone-deafness for systems is the default in our species, and the kind of perception for which Meadows advocates can be acquired only with special effort.

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