Hacking Massively Complicated Systems


As most of my readers know, I’m in the process of retiring, and reorienting my life towards three sets of practices, illustrated above and inspired by the work of Joanna Macy. These three sets of practices are:

  1. Competency and capacity-building (personal and collective)
  2. New model creation (developing working models of better ways to live and make a living)
  3. Activism (work to undermine industrial systems so that they collapse and make room for the new models)

One aspect of this third set of practices that I’m hoping to focus on is what might be called ‘hacking massively complicated systems’.

Just to explain what I mean by ‘massively complicated’: while social and ecological systems are inherently complex — evolutionary, effective (but inefficient), and resilient — most of the political, economic and corporate systems that are driving our civilization off the edge of a cliff are, by contrast, complicated systems – efficient but dysfunctional, centralized, inflexible, and massive (mostly global).

Complicated systems are mostly man-made and somewhat mechanistic. They are built like a car engine (lots of parts, but a finite number, such that you can see cause and effect and can predict the results of an intervention). As a result, they are inherently fragile: they break down easily, and constantly, and they’re vulnerable to sabotage.

By contrast, complex systems, like ecosystems and communities, have an infinite number of variables, and it is virtually impossible to discern cause from effect, or to predict what the result of an intervention will be. As a result, complex systems are much harder to hack.

I have written before about how we might use Donella Meadows’ 12 Ways to Intervene in a System to hack massive complicated systems such as the Alberta Tar Sands, or the Industrial Agriculture system. By hacking, I mean disruptive intervention. I’m impatient with the tried-and-true methods of trying to confront The Man, which in my experience are mostly negative, ineffectual, blunt, directly confrontational, and oriented to try to change public opinion rather than directly disrupt what these systems are doing. Worse, they play to the advantages of the system we’re trying to undermine.

Why can’t we use the same ingenuity to hack these systems and reduce the damage they do, that was used by the architects to create these systems in the first place? For example, in fighting the Tar Sands, how might we hack the financial and reputational systems of Big Oil to undermine the credibility of their financial and assay data, to the point lenders would stop lending them the vast amounts of money they need for their horrific ‘development’?

I was fortunate to have the opportunity yesterday in California to speak to a very smart group (including some experienced and wily hackers) about this challenge – how do we hack these destructive systems to undermine them, to exploit their centralization and vulnerabilities, to bring them down? Here is what some of the group (besides reminding me about the value of Donella Meadows’ systems approach) told me:

  • Be careful about the assumptions we make in any change movement. If we’re going to brainstorm ways to hack industrial growth systems, we’d better be confident that we’re fighting the right enemy and not precipitating something that might be even worse.
  • We may be more effective (both directly and in terms of the stickiness and transmissibility of our message) if we use more of the Yes Men type of approach – galvanizing people through wit, humour and play rather than anger.
  • Part of the set of approaches we use to hack these systems should be Carrot-Mob actions that reward sustainable behaviour as well as punishing destructive behaviour.
  • We should be looking at the area of Emotional Design for inspiration for ideas on effective hacking of these systems.
  • We should consider constructing “Ethical Mosquitoes” – organizations that mimic all of the processes and behaviours of the dysfunctional organizations that are part of these destructive systems, but differ sharply and positively in the few ways that these organizations are most destructive. This focuses attention on what is wrong with these organizations and processes and provides a clear ‘migration path’ to less destructive and more sustainable behaviour.
  • We should expect that the more adversarial we are to the organizations and systems we want to undermine, the more we will invite responses – propaganda, greenwashing, legal and political opposition to what we’re doing. We need to be clever to appear less adversarial than we really are. But on the other hand, there is power in bringing to bear social disgust against the more repugnant aspects of these systems.
  • We need to have moles working inside these organizations and systems who will help us undermine and topple them from the inside while we’re working to undermine and topple them from the outside. There are good people still trying to fix the system from within, that we need to tap into.
  • It’s better to suggest and show people a better solution than to simply criticize what’s wrong with the existing systems.
  • Be aware that, beneath the merely massively complicated economic and political systems we’ve erected, that are behind so much of the damage, there are people in social systems in these organizations, and these social systems are complex, not complicated.
  • It was suggested that we look at the book Influence, the work of the “world’s greatest hacker” Pablos Holman, and the book Power vs. Force
  • We should look at how and why the music industry was undermined and destroyed, as a model for how to undermine some of these other systems.
  • A small segment of the group took the position that all of the above ideas are politically naïve, and that nothing less than a violent, revolutionary confrontation, a war against civilization, can possibly work.

What became very clear to me from this discussion was the need for those of us who want to make the world a better place to get a much sounder basic understanding of complexity theory and the challenges of bringing about change in complex versus complicated systems. As much as I love my friend Dave Snowden’s work in this area, it’s pretty dense reading, and something more basic and accessible is needed. One of the people in the group I was speaking with has written a book on complexity that I’m looking forward to reading.

So when I hold my Open Space sessions on hacking the Tar Sands and hacking Industrial Agriculture this Spring, I’ll need to ensure that participants have a grounding in social complexity theory before we start. And I’ll have to include some of this august group, who I thank for the opportunity for a first airing of my third set of intended practices.

The ultimate objective is to evolve a methodology that can can be used to hack any destructive complicated system.

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6 Responses to Hacking Massively Complicated Systems

  1. vera says:

    Every time I come to this site, or try to post a comment, I am plagued with a box that says Authorization required, enter username and password for Socialtext at socialtext.net — this is really annoying and I don’t know what to do. Is it a phishing thing? Been going on for a couple of days.

  2. Chaitanya says:

    Hi Dave, i greatly respect your work, intelligence and dedication, but all my intuition tells me that this kind of response is not the wise response to the problems of the world today. It appears too “intellectual” and along the same lines of the “confrontation” mentality of industrial culture. I seriously doubt world can be made a better place through more dose of complexity theory or hacking. Isn’t Industrial civilization itself based on principle of “hacking” Nature to make it “better”.

    This quotation from Jack kornfield book “A path with Heart” comes to my mind:

    “Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself and yourself alone one question. This question is one that only a very old man asks. My benefactor told me about it once when i was young and my blood was too
    vigorous for me to understand it. Now i do understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart ? If it does, the path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use.”

    >> Activism (work to undermine industrial systems so that they collapse and make room for the new models)

    Is it possible to create new models of living right here in the midst of industrial civilization, so that people **voluntarily** choose the new model , and discard the old ? Surely there’s enough place and freedom in the world to allow for experimentation on new models.

    I know i have not offered a “logical” backing of my response. Its just a gut feeling. for what its worth.


  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks. I think I have fixed the authorization problem.

    Chaitanya, yes there is room for sustainable models to be created in the midst of industrial society. But if we want to minimize the damage of industrial society, we also need to chip away at it so it collapses earlier than it otherwise would. Hacking is, I think, a safe and viable way to do so.

  4. Barry says:


    I commend Human Systems Dynamics & Glenda Eoyang to you.


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