Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Meta Level

I was introduced to the idea of looking at things from a meta level a long time ago by Douglas R. Hofstadter in his brilliant book "Gödel, Escher, Bach". He was referring to the ability to rise, mentally, to a sufficiently high level of both perspective and insight that one can begin to discern similarities in seemingly disparate things (such as the work of Escher and Bach) and even in apparently different systems (for example, different self-contained systems of higher mathematics).

Meta level thinking is critically important when designing systems. Meta level thinking is hard, even for very smart people.

The Founding Fathers, the Soviet System and Alan Greenspan.

Good examples of meta level thinkers engaged in system design are the Founding Fathers.

Contrary examples are legion. Two from recent history come to mind: the designers of the Soviet political and economic system and Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve. (What meta level thoughts, you ask, could possibly connect these two examples from the extreme ends of the spectrum on economic system design: top down vs. bottom up; collective vs. individual; capitalism vs. communism, etc.? Well, both failed to take into account something that the Founding Fathers did take into account, namely, human nature.)

The designers of the Soviet system were not just involved in a power grab (although they were certainly doing that), they were implementing a new system which was intended to eliminate the obvious problems of 19th century capitalism, in terms of exploitation of workers etc. And those societal problems were significant.

However, their system failed to take into account that the same human nature that produced the vilified behavior of the captains of industry was embedded in the down-trodden masses: a tendency to act in one's own self interest to the extent that one has an opportunity to do so. (This point is rather nicely made in a fairly obscure Peter Sellers movie "Heavens Above".) The Soviet system would only function well if a great majority of people in the system chose to subordinate their own self interest to the interests of the collective, as identified by the leaders. (I am not suggesting that the Soviet system did not also have other significant defects; those other defects are another topic.)

Speaking about the current financial meltdown, Greenspan said, in effect, that he was surprised that bankers allowed their greed for higher profits to overwhelm their prudence (i.e. sound risk management). That's like Capt. Renault saying, in Rick's Cafe Americain, "I am shocked, shocked to find that there is gambling going on here!"