Humans are magic because we are components of many systems at once. We don’t just build into systems one level higher, we participate in systems many levels higher and everywhere in between.
In code, a method while is part of a class which is part of a library which is part of a service which is part of a distributed system — there is a hierarchy, and each piece fits where it does.
An atom is part of one molecule, which combines into one protein which functions in one cell in one tissue in one organ, if it’s lucky to be part of something exciting like a person.
But as a person, I am an individual and a mother and a team member and an employee and a citizen (of town, state, country) and a human animal. I am myself, and I participate in systems from relationship to family to community to culture. We function at all these levels, and often they load us with conflicting goals.
Gregory Bateson (PDF) describes native Bali culture: each full citizen participates in the village council. Outside of village council meetings, they speak for themselves. In the council, the speak in the interests of I Desa (literally, Mr. Village).
Stewart Brand lists these levels of pace and size in a civilization:
- Fashion/art (changes fastest, most experimental)
- Nature (changes slowest, moderates everything else)
Each of these work at different timescales. Each of us participates in each of them.
We each look out for our own interests (what is the fashionable coding platform of the day) and our family and company’s economic interest (what can we deliver and charge for this quarter) and infrastructure (what will let us keep operating and delivering long-term) and so on.
Often these are in conflict. The interests of commerce can conflict with the interests of nature. My personal finances conflict with the city building infrastructure. My nation might be in opposition to the needs of the human race. Yet, my nation can’t continue to exist without the stability of our natural world. My job won’t exist without an economic system, which depends on stable governance.
If we were Java classes, we’d implement twenty different interfaces, none of them perfectly, all of them evolving at different rates, and we’re single-threaded with very long GC pauses.
Tough stuff, being human.