A fable on the decline of human systems


Imagine an institution – say, a university (but it can be a company, a government, a military unit, a social club) – in which every person is perfectly suited to his function.  The system is optimal.  There is zero waste.  In an imperfect world, this isn’t really possible – but it can be imagined.

The lean, mean teaching machine will vastly outperform its competitors.  Success will breed an irresistible demand for growth.  But the system is already optimal.  Any addition can only subtract.

Inevitably, the system will grow.  Voices within the institution will assert, “We manage perfectly a narrow signal, but there is an infinite amount of noise in the world.”  Functions will be introduced which are irrelevant, redundant, or even contrary to the original mission.  Administration will be increased at the expense of teaching and research, and regulations will multiply to keep the administrators happy in their work.  Imposing new buildings designed by famous architects will be erected on campus, filled with ever more students who pay ever more money to be taught by an ever growing number of sub-optimal lecturers.

The bloated institution will lumber onward for a time, propelled by inertia – until a leaner, meaner alternative outperforms and outcompetes it.  Our university will then invent moral imperatives for the state to subsidize its operations at current levels or higher.  If this expedient fails, it will borrow until credit runs out, shuffle the organizational furniture, attempt reformations and rebirths.  At length, it will begin to shrivel – a process that has ever been difficult to reverse.

This is the mystery and paradox of the decline of human systems.  Once functionality is attained – once the institution achieves its purpose at peak efficiency – success becomes both inevitable and fatal.

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