systems theory
Philosophy and General Reading

Systems, Functions and Technological Futures

By R.C. Smith

Recently, I explored the idea of a social function operation. It takes from the basic mathematical concept of a function, with its domain and range, and extrapolates, or, in the very least, draws an analogy with social system inputs.

In systems theory, a complex society such as the modern version can be treated as a complex system of interrelated and interdependent parts. Every system has its boundaries. In speaking of modern society as a system, it is no different. A key boundary, one might argue, relates to the global economy. It sets, or defines, restrictions on the output of whatever is inputed into the function. Or, if you will, is defines a certain set of parameters on how newly inputed data or information might be realised. This input can take the form of something like a new scientific concept or technological advancement. Thinking about complex modern society in this way can evoke many interesting thoughts, or help explain many common observations.

Think, for example, of AI, or things like automation. Here we have a clear concept, which, presently, very much represents a new tangible conceptual input. But how we realise, socially, this new technology, considering that technology is mediated to whatever degree in social terms – a large part of this has to do with parameters set with respect to the boundaries of its output.

I’ve studied a lot about AI and even things like automation, from engineering and its science to the varying social philosophies. I can say that, from my current vantage, I see both developments and possible futures as incredibly positive in potential. But the key word is potential. How we realise, in terms of social formation, development and imagination is a completely independent matter from the actual science and finally also technological concept. The science, or, in the case of automation, the brilliance of the original technological and engineering concept, is inputed into the social function – the current system with its parameters and boundaries, biases, influential forces and other such variables. The output? That is precisely what is up for debate.

In my latest book, I argued toward the immense positive and transformative potential, structurally speaking, of things like automation in relation to human health, labour, and overall civilisational development. I argued for it in relation to increasing democratisation as well as in accordance with the core enlightenment and humanist values that underpin almost everything that is positive and shared in the modern age. But things like automation can also be realised in a very different way, which, as some economists and philosophers warn about, should the right direction not be pursued and the right policies not be implemented. I am not speaking of the debates around the “lump of labour“, and whether this is real or fallacy. There appears to be no question that labour markets will be disrupted, news skills and jobs will be required. A modest view is that a complete transformation of human labour is forthcoming. What I am speaking of is how we ought to conceived of this structural transformation, and whether it will fall within an increasingly exploitative, dystopian model of the future with continued trends of economic inequality; social scoring systems that measure, in effect, social worthiness of citizens; mass surveillance; and so on. Or, will such a structural transformation be realised in terms of the increase in democratisation and according to universal humanistic values of egalitarianism, justice and equality (to name a few). If the measure of social progress, from an empirical historical perspective, is based primarily on the alleviation of needless social suffering, according to what future does our present technological potential project?

This is an incredibly intriguing and important question. One need not approach it with political bias or reactionary fervous or existential anxiety. Rather, it is there to be assessed objectively. And the answer, I would be inclined to suggest, is that the future direction of human civilisation remains more ambiguous than lucid, more unclear than concise in historical aim, and more disenfranchised from ideas of progress and economic democracy than grounded in such tangible values. This assessment may be completely wrong. In the way that science represents a form of knowledge that keeps unfolding, consideration of profoundly important philosophical questions, such as those explored here, must also align with a similar epistemology.

But if one were to be inclined to sway toward the side of the cynic, such contemporary examples of a possible corporate dystopian technological future in the form of a simple “vibrational nudge”, would surely represent a quickly cited example. But with every questionable realisation of technology, and of science for that matter, there are also many examples of positive realisations. The enlightenment philosophes realised that the future is not yet determined, which gives substance to the concept that progress and things like democratic transformation are possible – that a science-based society is possible just like the abandonment of prejudices is possible.

And so I return to the idea of the social function operation.


I came across an interesting set of notes in one of my old notebooks. The notes are dated from a time when I was heavily reading and studying systems theory, beginning with the likes of Uri Bronfenbrenner,  Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy and  Niklas Luhmann. What makes the set of notes interesting is that they contain the development of an idea, a methodological concept, however much it may be in its infancy, that I continue to find fascinating. The idea is part of a broader methodological frame within complex, systems analysis: it is the concept of resolving forces. What does this mean?

From my notebook, it is clear that the notion of resolving forces is taken directly from classical physics. Working and studying in physics, it is a practice that I am very familiar with. Whether it makes sense in a social scientific context relating to the study of social phenomena and objects, is completely and entirely up for question. But let’s think about it a little bit, even if only for the purpose of entertaining an idea.

In physics, the concept of resolving forces pertains to how any vector – think of a velocity vector, for example – can be broken into its component parts. In other words, a vector can be resolved into two components at right angles to each other. The purpose for doing this, in very simplistic terms, is how by considering component forces we can quickly find what is called ‘the resultant force’. A very common and simple mathematical description is as follows.

In considering the diagram above, F is some force. The magnitude of the force, F, is illustrated with components X and Y. From this it can be determined that F = Xi + Y j. Notice we also have a right-angled triangle. Thus,

Y = F sin θ and X = F cos θ.
∴ F = F cos θi + F sin θj.
Also F = √X2 + Y2

But what if we take this idea – the concept of resolving forces – and think of how it might be (if at all) applied in the context of the study of social forces within the context of the social function operation?

Admittedly, my notes are rather rushed and therefore vague. But the phrase is to ‘treat a complex social force’ in a similar way. It is not so much political science as it is simply mathematics, inspired, I supposed, by a bit of social philosophy, looking at the structure of a certain historical development and its component forces so as to better understand, in systems terms, some form of a negative feedback loop or perhaps some form of adaption (or whatever).

systems theory

Image by Dr. James J. Kirk:

To use an example, let’s think of a popular topic in much of contemporary social science, sociology and social philosophy: neoliberalism. It seems like almost every other book to emerge from contemporary social sciences contains a critique of neoliberalism. But, in the time when I found interest in understanding the issues for researchers in relation to this term, two things consistently struck me: 1) neoliberalism is almost unanimously considered as a negative and 2), very rarely did the research look into what its frame or structuring of policies might also do well or what positive policies it might also offer. Relating to 1) and  2), rarely did I find research on what drives neoliberalism, why it developed as a social philosophy or political ideology as a historical formation of contemporary organised society outside of the purely biased views that it is an absolutely negative development. For example, why did neoliberalism emerge and what did it offer to people that might have been received as positive? What is neoliberalism responding to, not just economically, but also in terms of a wider response among social actors. Not everyone among the public body is against neoliberal policies. Or some people may support certain particular policy interventions while being critical of others. This issues, or the study of such phenomena, are often much more complex and nuanced that ‘good versus bad’ narratives. In what ways did it impact society, the economic and its many interrelated and interdependent parts that people perceived in a positive way? Balancing the negative and the positive allows one to arrive at a more honest and comprehensive picture. If, as many researchers argue, neoliberalism is a negative socioeconomic and political force, what are its positives that people accept and why? Likewise, what do people find negative? Or, what are the negative consequences?

What I am signalling is an objective analysis from every possible conceivable angle when it comes to the study of this particular social phenomenon. What does the economics say? Psychology? Sociology? Anthropology? Geography? In other words, what does a systems analysis reveal that considers all of the interrelated and interdependent dynamic parts?

What if we were to take this approach to something like automation? The socioeconomic, political and cultural development of automation would surely be found to have several or more component forces. In considering the social function operation, the science and technological concept is inputed into the social function. (We’re assuming here that the science and technological concept are primarily free of bias). Within this social function – the current system with its parameters and boundaries, biases, influential forces and other such variables – we have the domain that is the complete set of possible values of the independent variable(s). There are different social values, economic values, philosophical values, and so on. Included here are also many component forces. Many researchers claim that economic bias is one such component force. It is complex mess. But then we also have the range the function, which, simply put, is the complete set of all possible resulting values or, in this case, possible resulting socioeconoic, cultural and historical realisations.

If we can break down a social force, or potential development, in to its many components, perhaps that offers a more clear (and non-biased) empirical supplement to a general systems view of the complex economics, behavior, psychology, engineering, and even epistemology of the future possibilities of something like automation. If it is to be realised in a negative way, why would this be the case? What forces are acting on the object, or, in this case, the technological potential of automation? What values dominated in the social function operation, what does a systems analysis reveal in terms of the broader trends of present historical development? Like, the same things could be asked with respect to its positive realisation – I would assume, positive and negative are themselves defined according to a set of normative philosophical and empirical criteria. For example, the increase in equality would be considered positive. The reduction of needless social suffering, war and violence would be considered positive. The lack of democratisation, or, the contrary of democratisation, would be considered negative.

systems theory

These, of course, are just rough if not vague ideas scribbled in an old notebook. But, in the very least, I think it is interesting to think logically and rationally in these ways.

When we look at a social phenomenon objectively from all possible and conceivable angles, then it is possible, I think, where we might reach a point where we can begin to resolve forces (in a manner of speaking) so as to better understand the nuances of a particular phenomenon and its net force: what drives it? Why did it develop in this historical moment? What are its antagonisms? How does it influence subjects, such as policies, administration of governance, regional and geographic affairs, or even culturally? Who does it benefit most? What are its biases and how does this affect the mesosystem functions? Is it a matter of homestasis and thus can it be determined that it is a product of negative feedback loops, or is it a positive, rational and constructive intervention? There are many, many questions that can and should be raised.

But most importantly, perhaps something can be taken from the mathematical and physical scientific tool of resolving forces in order to conceive of a unique social scientific methodological approach for the study of resultant social forces, functions, systems and their constituent parts?

Carl Sagan once wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, “Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge… It can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.” In a similar way to Bertrand Russel, who I discussed in my last book, and who once remarked, “without science, democracy is impossible,” Sagan expands in his unique way: “Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action”. Democracy is not perspective. I believe physicist Brian Cox is one of his books that it is best of all possible evils, which is similar to Winston Churchill’s great quote.

In some ways, I subscribe from a historical perspective that what makes democracy to superior to the alternatives is that it fundamentally exists in tension. This tension is the product of structurally different groups each pulling in their own direction.  In fact, it has long been a hypothesis of mine that we can view the whole of democratic society in this way – it evokes the image of a tensor, but the basic idea is that there are multiple forces pulling in multiple directions. Perhaps it could even be said that democracy operates according to a system of tensions, with groups pulling as they respond to their own complaints, needs or critical assessments. The difficultly is identifying some normative critical criteria according to which the legitimate and illegitimate force of complaint might be judged. Racist, reactionary forces exist contrary to democratic, egalitarian and humanistic values – basic enlightenment values – and thus they should be judged accordingly with respect to their lack of egalitarian content (should the idea of progress remain historically important).

We could apply the same approach to the different variations on the realisation of technologies.

Where things get incredibly convoluted is when one begins to consider the sheer magnitude of bias and the input of unrelenting bias into a democratic system that ought, for the purposes of its structural healthy, be predicated on rational, evidence-based and scientific deliberations. And perhaps this is where everything comes to a head: what we have now is a very human problem.

Thus, I close with the following thought: discerning the legitimate and illegitimate requires a clear sense of objectivity as well as an unbiased normative frame of critique. It is not political analysis, I have come to learn. It simple builds from the idea of knowledge and the project of learning – like in the natural sciences, which are about the open study of nature, the social sciences should be the open study of social phenomena.

And I guess the question is, can a model be constructed that helps us accurately analyse a system of fundamental forces? What might this reveal in terms of the broad study of micro and macrosystems? How might this also influence the study of history and our understanding anthropology?

Perhaps it is another misguided attempt at translating at a mathematical and physical concept into the area of study of social phenomena. To be sure, more rigorous treatment is required. But, at least to my mind, it raises an interesting line of thinking on how one might think of breaking down social forces and future potentialities in a systematic way.