The Systems View

If you’ve paid a visit to the National Mall in Washington DC this October you may have noticed some puzzling patterns covering a large area between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. At ground level the markings were discernible as patterns but they lacked any overall coherence. They were composed of dirt and sand and covered 6 acres of ground south of the reflecting pool midway between the WWII and Lincoln Memorials.

It is only when you flew over the Mall or climbed to the top of the 555 ft. Washington Monument that the patterns began to make sense. From a low-flying aircraft or the top of the Monument- or even from space- the sand and dirt patterns resolved into a 6 acre composite portrait of “the American male.” From a high enough vantage point the work of Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada took a coherent and meaningful form. Titled “From Many, One” (the English translation of our national motto “E Pluribus Unum”) the portrait was the result of the artist’s compositing of dozens of photographs taken in Washington D.C. The composite was then constructed on the ground in dirt and sand patterns. Because of its scale and construction, the only way to view the work as intended was from above- way above.

This reminds us of the systems view which requires a high-level perspective to develop an understanding of the system design. Too often we are tempted to “stand” in the midst of some aspect of the design (e.g.- requirements or components) looking in detail at what is immediately at hand. We are encouraged in this tendency by our “modern” philosophical bent to deconstruction and specialization.

We too quickly become lost in some narrow stovepipe within the design. We are “requirements” engineers or “components” engineers. We become mired in wires, or code, or tests. All this is important to be sure but we have a tendency to sever it from the broader systems view.

A quick demonstration with any digital photo viewing software will show the fallacy of the low-level, highly detailed approach. Open a picture and zoom in until it “pixelates” (individual pixels become discernible). While it is true that at this zoomed in level you can gather information about the image you cannot see the picture. For example you can ascertain the color and density of individual pixels. This can be important information about the image. But it is only when those pixels are viewed in relationship to others that you can begin to see a picture. Only then do they “make sense” in the context of an image.

Systems and systems designs are like that. The system derives its essential characteristics from the relationships among the entities that make it up. Just as the color of an individual pixel is important in the broader context of the picture the characteristics of an individual component are important as well. But it is impossible to understand a system by even a detailed examination of its components just as it is impossible to see a picture by looking at one pixel at a time.

The effect of Rodríguez-Gerada’s art is stunning, but only when it is viewed as a whole. On the ground it is a novelty that invites speculation about its origin and purpose. It is the appreciation of how all the patterns and colors come together to form an integrated portrait that gives his work its power. That is obtainable only from a perspective sufficient to encompass the entire work. Rodríguez-Gerada and his National Portrait Gallery sponsors have provided us with an object lesson on the systems perspective and the importance of adopting a point-of-view sufficient for understanding our work.

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