Mysteries of Small Systems

I’ve been on a bit of a complexity kick lately—been getting really into books dealing with information theory, emergence and self-organization, networks, and the like. As I’ve been digesting these topics in the substrate of my mind (usually while in the shower) there’s one topic that’s come to mind several times and that I find particularly intriguing: the idea of small systems. What I’m thinking of here are the mysterious microcosms of our daily routines, methods or techniques or patterns that are simple but at the same time opaque, because they tend to be very personal and infrequently shared with others. In fact, they often exist at that fuzzy liminal zone wherein we might not even be wholly cognizant of their existence; they perplex even us, their very inventors and masters, if we’re aware of them at all. Here are a couple illustrative examples to give an idea of what I’m talking about:

By what methodologies, techniques, or maelstroms of confusion and chaos do different people organize their computers? Think—this is the most complex device most people own, but we’re rarely given any best practices regarding how to use it. Instead, we gradually adapt habits, digital tics and unconsciously evolving patterns of doing things, that passively align with our typical modes of thought and procession of common tasks, yet for all we know there are better ways to do almost everything we actually use a computer for. It seems a highly personal process for an individual to figure out optimal methods (developed or organically habituated) by which to structure their file system, organize their emails, arrange their application windows and allocate the space on their hard drive. For both personal and professional reasons, I spend a plurality of my waking hours as a MBP power user, and I’m still discovering workflow improvements and keyboard shortcuts and obscure-but-useful applications all the time. I can only imagine that a cross-sectional view of computer users’ tendencies—not a panoramic demography but a granular, individualized inquiry—would make a fascinating anthropological case study!

There are many common routines that I find similarly interesting. One category might be that of our ritualized and internalized daily processes, such as waking, showering, mealtimes, and going to sleep. Even something as simple as showering is a rich process with many components and variables to be managed—duration, thoroughness, order-of-parts-washed, brand choices, attendant mental habits and more. Another category might be things that we do regularly but not everyday, like shopping for groceries—also with many levels of complexity, including the listmaking process, patterns of store navigation, regularity of shopping trips, and our preferred level of structure vs. spontaneity in meal-planning, to name a few.

Finally, we might consider the systems or patterns we create that we don’t necessarily actively engage in but that accompany our daily activities on a latent level—such things as the ways we organize our wallets, purses, or backpacks. As an example of how people differ widely in this regard, let me contrast my wallet organization with that of my dear father: my dad’s wallet is a behemoth—packed to the brim with all manner of cards, receipts, and other paper paraphernalia. It’s a struggle to fold that thing flat; from all appearances I reckon it must be hard to find anything in it but I trust my dad has some intuitive, if esoteric, method of organizing its contents. My wallet by contrast is thin, with only cash, ID, and a few cards (credit, debit, subway, and insurance)—I’m clearly far more minimalist in this respect, and favor my approach pretty strongly, but though I sense I’ve “got it right” I have no way of knowing that in any objective sense.

It could be that if I saw several other ways people do such a seemingly inconsequential thing, I’d discover a few small improvements that would make my way even better. It’s also likely that many of these systems and habits would confound my sensibilities and baffle my intellect, their logic and inner workings transparent only to those who have lived with them for years. This is a big part of what interests me, though—what can these small systems tell us not only about the efficiency or “correctness” of the patterns/habits themselves, but about the individual proclivities and personality quirks—even the larger socio-cultural contexts—of their creators and implementors?

Related to the systems themselves are an entangled web of mysteries that may coincide with them (however vaguely—but even if the connections are tenuous, it’s always fun to speculate). One example here, which is silly but (I must posit!) still phenomenologically valid: My last two cavities were both on my bottom molars, one on each side; and I only recently realized that when brushing my teeth I always start at the top, brushing the bottom teeth last without fail (from left to right along each row). Caveat emptor re: unscientific speculation, but for the sake of out-of-the-box inquiry—how much correlation might there be between brushing patterns (and/or chewing patterns, though I can’t say I’ve observed which molars I favor too closely) and the places we get cavities? Does the fact that I always start brushing from the top perhaps dilute my toothpaste’s cleansing powers upon reaching the second half of my mouth, or are cavity locations really just mostly dictated by chance? This is honestly a question that’s run through my mind mid-shampoo on more than one occasion—so why can’t I remember my dentist ever explaining this sort of thing?

More generally, I think that we often don’t pay much attention to how patterns, habits, routines, and systems at the small scale interact with one another and combine in unexpected ways to actually have a large impact on our lives. Just as emergent intelligence can arise from the routines of individual ants to form impressive behaviors at the collective level of the colony, so do our most basic patterns of thought and action have the potential for great effects at scale; the sum of many small preferences, routines, and choices is what differentiates cultures and iteratively gives rise to new technologies.

I think it would be quite useful if there were some kind of public repository where people could go to discover how others go about doing the sorts of basic things discussed above. It would be fascinating to compare your own habitual tendencies and the unique (or unexpectedly common) systems you’ve inadvertently mastered (or consciously honed) over years or decades. I’d love to see how other people do the regular things that taken together comprise our live—and I’m interested in comparing my own habits both to those who are similar to me (to refine my current tendencies and make them more effective) and those who think and act totally differently from me (for the worldview-expanding educational benefits). I imagine it might even be fun to allow people to comment and vote on others’ submissions, allowing the most strange and brilliant hacks or manipulations to rise to the top and become more widely adopted. I can see this actually tangibly improving people’s lives in small, but potentially compounding, ways.

So, if you’ve read this far—what are some “small systems” you recognize that dictate the patterns of your own life? What further questions does this recognition provoke? If you have any feedback on the topic or anecdotal evidence to share, please get in touch.