Three intermingling thoughts; POSIWID

I have three intermingling background thoughts lately:

  1. The purpose of a system is what it does” (POSIWID)
  2. Humans seem to have three ways of sensing the world. Why?!
  3. How do I be?


I recently became aware of the phrase, “the purpose of a system is what it does,” primarily as a means of cutting out intention from excuses for systems cause harm. Systems of education, healthcare, and justice (speaking as a person in the US) all cause measurable amounts of harm, but apologists of these systems may try to excuse–intentionally or not–the systems themselves from their role in causing harm.

For the last year, I’ve worked as a contractor on explaining, maintaining, and deprecating legacy systems. It’s kind of a weird niche for a software developer: many of my peers loathe this kind of work. In other contexts, I have disliked it as well because it was often paired with political and social friction and demands from the business to focus on new growth instead of maintaining a decaying codebase. But with the right circumstances, I actually like looking at these systems.

There’s an interesting blunt truth expressed within the code. Every years-old bug tells a story about what was deemed an acceptable outcome within the system. The choices of data structures and libraries or algorithms reveal both an individual contributor’s mindset and their awareness of the needs of the system at the time a module was written. Source control reveals where lots of attention was paid and where it was not. When all these observations about the inner workings of a system are paired with business outcomes, fascinating details emerge. Profitable businesses are not the result of beautiful code or intentionally-functional systems: they’re the result of choices (and luck).

“Legacy” is a weird, loaded term when applied to software systems. It’s the word we use when a system suffers loss or decay: a person or team with intimate knowledge of the system moves on to something else, a decision is made to invest less time or resources into the system, etc. However, despite the loss, at least some of the outcomes of the system remain important to someone. Or both the costs and the outcomes of the system are imperceptible. (i.e., you either can’t get rid of it, or you forgot it existed.) In light of “the purpose of a system is what it does,” legacy systems are a weird thing, especially when decisions are made to stop investing in the system.

Only three senses?

I’ve been interested in the shift in understanding about human senses from there being five senses (sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell) to acknowledging additional equally-important senses like proprioception and equilibrium. But whenever you look closely at something, it only gets weirder and more nuanced. I’m not a scientist and could be missing something very obvious, but I think humans have three ways of observing the universe:

More often than I think I can articulate, I stare into the middle distance thinking about why we (and many other organisms) developed these senses. Especially light. Why do we perceive the spectrum that we do? Was infrared or ultraviolet perception not advantageous to our survival? Is there something about the rest of the environment that made matter reflect our spectrum to us. Gases mostly don’t reflect this spectrum–though they do refract and filter it sometimes. Our primary means of detecting gases is though our chemoreception (smell and taste), so detecting certain gases is important, I guess? And touch–touch is basically most every other sense. Some pressure applied to part of the body–maybe some vibrations–and we can derive our surroundings.

“The purpose of a system is what it does.” Detecting the particular spectrum of light that we do gives most of us enough sense of the world around us to survive. Detecting the particular molecules that we do gives most of us the sense to seek beneficial substances and avoid harmful ones. Detecting touch allows us to interact in a world of solid objects and understand our orientation and probably detect the loss or addition of heat energy. Each of these systems exist so that we stay “alive” as long as possible among all the other circumstances of existence.

It’s just weird and I think about it a lot.

How do I be?

For quite a bit of my adult life now, I have been seeking an elusive thing: to be part of and to tend to a community. For a long time, I thought that looked something like the idealized Christian church. A group of people who cared about the people around them and whose common bonds were shared beliefs that loving others was the paramount tangible directive second only to loving a common deity. After getting kicked out of two churches both ultimately on grounds of questioning exactly who deserves love and who apparently does not, I no longer hold the Christian church as a model or goal worth achieving.

But “community” is older than Jesus and is still something I hold to. I’m pretty sure that the only thing in human life that matters is other people. None of us came into being alone, and I do think that for the most part, a life shared with others is a desirable thing. I also feel like a big ol’ introvert who gets exhausted by being around people for too long. Hoo boy, there are two wolves inside me and they do not get along.

Especially over the last year, I’ve had to reevaluate where my community exists. I fell into the trap of relying on my workmates as the majority of my community, and when the leadership at that job made shitty decisions, it fractured my community. In time, it’s proven to survive through some effort to stay connected with one another. But it pointed out my reliance on an unstable environment that did not exist to serve or support community.

In the same span of time, I’ve also decided to change how I participate with social media. Despite is many, many flaws, Twitter was an important place of community for me. I found and maintained friendships through shared interest and shitposting. But, in a turn that mirrored my experience at my former employer, executives made shitty decisions that fractured my community. Some of my connections to people adapted to other media, but it has required work to plant new seeds of community elsewhere.

A community–I think–is a system of humans interacting with one another. And if the purpose of a system is what it does, the communities I’ve felt most satisfied with are the ones made up of people who know one another and care for and about others.