Taking things apart – to what end?

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Fortnight #2 of Australian National University’s 3AI Master of Applied Cybernetics Questions Course focused on ‘taking things apart’.

To be honest, I struggled conceptually with this topic at first. We explored taking things apart from multiple angles. We engaged in taking a cyberphysical system apart and transforming it into a poster that raised questions for its audience. AND we also discussed the issues with a Reductionist approach when engaging in systems at scale. For me there was a tension there. I wrestled with this question – how do you ‘take things apart’ without falling into reductionist traps of thinking?

Reductionism, philosophically, is an approach based on the tenet that complex systems can be understood by breaking them into parts and that the system is the sum of its parts. This is in direct contrast to other approaches such as ‘Emergence’ which claims that the system has properties that the parts on their own do not have, or ‘Holism’ which claims that complex systems are inherently irreducible (see here for some basics on this). After being immersed so deeply and so often in emergent ways of thinking and doing from my experiences in adaptive leadership as an Acumen Global Fellow as well as in implementing collective impact approaches, I was a bit perplexed…

It seemed as though what we were exploring this fortnight was breaking things into parts and at the same time knowing that the system could not be understood as a sum of its parts.
If that’s the case, then what’s goal of breaking things into parts in the first place?
Why choose this approach?
What value does this bring?

These were some of the questions floating in the back of my mind…

As the fortnight wore on, we immersed ourselves in all sorts of fascinating resources that were taking things apart in very different ways:

  • Todd McLellan‘s photographic book Things Come Apart (2013) – where he literally takes objects apart and photographs them in intriguing ways.
  • Grace Hopper taking apart what a nanosecond means in the 1980s (she’s nearly 80 years old in these clips!!). She represents a nanosecond as the maximum distance electricity can travel in a billionth of a second with physical wire. See the video below to find out how far it is!! And if you want to hear the whole lecture from phenomenal Admiral Grace Hopper – one of the first computer programmers of the Harvard Mark I, and developer of the first compiler for a computer programming language – you can find it here.
Admiral Grace Hopper taking a nanosecond apart (1983)
  • Kate Crawford & Vladan Joler (2018) Anatomy of an AI system – an artwork that deconstructs an Amazon Echo’s supply chain and by doing so, makes a range of implicit or hidden elements explicit. The Anatomical diagram is read either left to right (story begins and ends with Earth – from mining of ore to deposition of material in an electronic waste dump) or top to bottom (story begins and ends with humans). It’s accompanied by text that talks of humanity’s relationship with earth, with inequality and with human exploitation in the creation of technology.

The vanishing few at the top of the fractal pyramid of value extraction live in extraordinary wealth and comfort. But the majority of the pyramids are made from the dark tunnels of mines, radioactive waste lakes, discarded shipping containers, and corporate factory dormitories … At every level, contemporary technology is deeply rooted in and running on the exploitation of human bodies.

Kate Crawford & Vladan Joler (2018) Anatomy of an AI system

  • Doug Engelbart’s “Mother of all demos” (1968) – the first ‘demo’ of a computer system as we know it today. You can see an excerpt of the demo in the short video below where he takes apart the main components of the system’s capability.

    What was also fascinating about this resource was that there have been numerous ‘anniversaries’ of the demo since (all on this website). In one of the anniversary panel discussions, Paul Saffo (a futurist whose workshops I have been in when I was at Singularity University), leads a discussion with a panel of men who were part of the demo including Doug Engelbart. In the act of taking that demo day apart through the discussion, a range of new things emerged, most interestingly (to me at least) how Engelbart’s work was not considered ‘computer science’ at the time and how one of the ultimate goals of his work was to improve collective capability to solve complex issues and problems – the collective collaboration part he believes has still not been fully realised as people became focused on workplace efficiency gains.

“The prevailing paradigms in society affect what types of exploratory pursuits will even be considered… One of the really challenging social situations now is that the technology is just exploding. So the rate at which really new capabilities of a startling nature and achievable price are available on society is much greater and yet the rate at which we change our paradigms about what’s possible, what’s probable, what’s feasible..isn’t increasing fast enough. This is a real social hazard…”

(Doug Engelbart (1998), 30th Anniversary Panel discussion – at around 37 minutes here).
Doug Engelbart (1968) The mother of all Demos trailer
  • And a range of other resources including:
    • An 1889 railway disaster newspaper article that tries to attribute blame for the accident and in doing so shows there are so many interconnected people and processes;
    • A fascinating Ford Foundation report on the nature of unseen labour creating, developing and maintaining our digital infrastructure;
    • A 2013 HP video advertisement featuring Tony Prophet (then VP of operations, now Chief Equality Officer at Salesforce) outlining HP’s supply chain efforts across supplier codes of conduct, audits, intern and student labour standards, supplier transparency and prevention of use of conflict minerals;
    • A US Patent by Brendan Traw & David Aucsmith on content protection for transmission systems. (We also were able to meet and spend time with Brendan at 3AI this fortnight!); and
    • A 1999 paper that explores the nature of women as computers at the time of the ENIAC computer in wartimes and beyond.

What emerged for me is that the act of taking things apart that we’ve been practising this fortnight is done with a goal in mind that is not reductionist at all. Taking things apart is done to uncover things, to make implicit knowledge more explicit by shedding light on these parts. It doesn’t necessarily result in explainability of the system as a whole per se, as these examined parts are overtly recognised as only part of the story.

The best way I could describe it is that taking things apart is a method to surface more / different questions than would be possible from looking at it as a whole.

And through those questions, further exploration occurs, further questions are raised and the cycle repeats, with a gradual moving towards an understanding of the system.

For further insights into the 3AI Master of Applied Cybernetics course, take a look at the Institute’s Medium article here.