I am going to talk about two very different examples of how complex systems age and then draw some lessons for our disability community advocacy efforts. First, I’ll talk about system aging as a general process.
Introduction to System Aging
If you think of a system as a bunch of connections between islands of activity, system aging is the way the connections between the islands grow and change over time, as well as the way the islands of activity change because of those connections.
The general rule is that making a new connection will be driven by your immediate needs and opportunities. Maybe you forge a connection with a farmer so you can have a regular supply of vegetables. Once the connection is forged, it gradually becomes a constraint. If you decide you don’t like the farmer anymore because of her politics, or the farmer dies, it isn’t easy to break the existing connection and make a new one with someone else who can provide you with vegetables.
You make new connections because there is a match between your needs and some opportunity, a fast process. But changing those connections once they are there is a slower, more resource-intensive process, and may not be possible at all.
Over time, aging systems accumulate constraints that are very hard or dangerous to eliminate. In early growth, there always seem to be ways to get around these self-imposed constraints. Over time, the sheer number of constraints makes it harder and eventually impossible to reverse or efficiently alter a connection. The constraints also become so complex that you can’t predict what will happen if you change just one, much less the whole system. This is the reason behind “unintended consequences”.
Large numbers of hard-to-change constraints are what I mean when I describe a system as brittle. When a brittle system is disturbed (say by advocacy), it is hard to tell how the system will change. Because of this, the specific breakdown of a system is always unpredictable, even though we know that all complex systems will break down eventually.
Aging of the Car System
Cars have changed a lot since the end of the 19th century, and there are endless lessons about how complex systems age in the large very complex car system (vehicles, manufacturing, unions, corporations, roads, fossil fuel, and other power systems, financing, government regulation, automation, safety, culture-driven choices, music, art, etc.).
For example, we are caught in a never-ending process of maintenance and repair of the roads over which we drive. I suspect it would be much easier and cheaper to “fix” our interstate road system if we could just get the entire road system to disappear all at once so that we could start over from scratch. Because such a change isn’t possible, we have to put up with the constant and unpredictable aspects of maintaining the roads in a permanently less usable state than they were when the system was originally built. Short-term amazing, long-term permanent pain-in-the-ass.
Today our cars are as complex as they have ever been. There are many ways to look at how our cars got here, but I think of it as the “car system” trying to change all the pain points of using cars over time without getting rid of the fundamental “driver” of the car system, the internal combustion engine that uses fossil fuels.
We are now closer to having commonly available transportation that doesn’t require that engine (electric cars). Once the cost of a basic electric car drops toward $20,000, the simplicity and ease of maintenance of this future car model ( estimated to last one million miles) will drive the old internal combustion version out of existence except for collectors. This collapse of every aspect of our current car system will happen at least as fast as the one that replaced animals with engines (mostly in one generation). The impact will be vast and largely unpredictable in detail, even though we know it’s coming.
Aging of the Legal System
When I was a full-time disability rights advocate, I came to understand how our legal system grows more complex over time. It is an important question to ask how such a manifestly over-complex system could be simplified, and the answer, unfortunately, is that it can’t.
Because the parts of the very complex legal system (say for example lawyers) make continual personal connections with the law during their training and in their practice, it becomes increasingly difficult for those parts (lawyers) to change those connections even if it would be a good idea for them to do so. Only laws that no one uses or supports can be eliminated. If there is any significant group of legal system members that don’t want a law to go away, it is just about impossible to get rid of it. Instead, old laws are replaced by ones that are almost inevitably more complex (have more connections) than what they are replacing. The trend is both clear and apparently uncontrollable.
I think that in many areas, the law has already become so complex that the best practitioners in those areas largely ignore the actual complexity in their day-to-day work unless there is some opportunity for short term profit (not just money). In other words, large chunks of the law are simply deprecated or excluded from use over time, and the complexity of legal specialization is always increasing. See plea bargaining for a clear example.
Currently, unlike the car system, there is not a legal system replacement, though there are some seeds of a replacement. The legal system will become less and less functional and more and more incapable over time, just like the freeway system, as each part seeks its own profit in the short-term without thought to any meaningful simplification. Not unlike the progression of dementia when there is no effective treatment.
Advocacy in an Aging System
One of the hardest lessons I have learned as an advocate and activist in the disability community over almost half a century is that every victory in our cause eventually becomes a constraint on the realization of our most cherished values. Our progress in disability rights is not a series of single achievements building on one another, but a set of gradually aging cycles, where each cycle actively interferes with the creation and realization of the next.
Although our victories don’t seem to become real very quickly to us, they do in comparison with the slower process that makes the victories more complex and increasingly time and resource intensive to use. Special Education, as a system of rights, is a great example of this process from its creation in the mid-70’s to its almost mummy-like status now. This trend of requiring increasing resources (time, money, training, people, spirit) to get something useful out of what was once a genuine victory is the heart of why we must come to grips with the reality of system aging.
If we keep doing what we have been doing, we will get less and less of what we are already getting. Eventually, we will get nothing meaningful from what was once a victory.
We need something new to guide our advocacy for the future. We need a strategy.