I’ve just been reading Harish Jose’s latest post A Constructivist’s View of POSIWID. POSIWID stands for the maxim (THE) Purpose Of (A) System Is What It Does, which was coined by Stafford Beer.
Harish points out that there are many different systems with many different purposes, and the choice depends on the observer. His version of constructivism therefore goes from the observer to the system, and from the system to its purpose. The observer is king or queen, the system is a mental construct of the observer, and the purpose depends on what the observer perceives the system to be doing. This could be called Second-Order Cybernetics.
There is a more radical version of constructivism in which the observer (or perhaps the observation process) is also constructed. This could be called Third-Order Cybernetics.
When a thinker offers a critique of conventional thinking together with an alternative framework, I often find the critique more convincing than the framework. For me, POSIWID works really well as a way of challenging the espoused purpose of an official system. So I use POSIWID in reverse: If the system isn’t doing this, then it’s probably not its real purpose.
Another way of using POSIWID in reverse is to start from what is observed, and try to work out what system might have that as its purpose. If this seems to be the purpose of something, what is the system whose purpose it is?
This then also leads to insights on leverage points. If we can identify a system whose purpose is to maintain a given state, what are the options for changing this state?
As I’ve said before, POSIWID principle is a good heuristic for finding alternative ways of understanding what is going on as well as seeing why certain classes of intervention are likely to fail. However, the moment you start to think of POSIWID as providing some kind of Truth about systems, you are on a slippery slope to producing conspiracy theories and all sorts of other rubbish.
Philip Boxer and Vincent Kenny, The Economy of Discourses: A Third-Order Cybernetics (Human Systems Management, 1990)
Harish Jose, A Constructivist’s View of POSIWID (17 April 2022)
Related blog: POSIWID: Exploring the Purpose of Things