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Software Leverage Points

Places to intervene in a software system

Software systems of virtual worlds are emerging to match the traditional systems in their magnitude and extent of influence. Using Twelve Leverage Points proposed by Donella H. Meadows, software creators and system organizers can identify leverage points — where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything — in software systems as well. The prevalence of open-source governance and fast-changing nature of software may yield different leverage points than those in economic growth systems that are more closed and slow to adapt. There were still very interesting parallels that could inspire more software creators and consumers to clearly recognize where and how they could intervene in the increasingly ambiguous and scary AI and automation world of black-box algorithms.

While all twelve leverage points are relevant, I wanted to look closer into the most effective few. The fourth that Meadows put forward is “the power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.” She highlights the importance of adaptability and the open-mindedness of any system to survive in a highly volatile environment. To aid the development of such resilience then requires “level rules for self-organization.” I thought this relates well to the internet protocols and Open Source Development Guidelines that are ultimately these “rules for self-organization” that are essential for functioning self-organization that is very effective in intervening in a system. The fast evolution cycle of most open-source programs through systematic version control and easy public contribution helps these systems avoid “insistence on a single culture [that] shuts down learning.”

The goals of systems and the mindset out of which the system arose also reflect an interesting dichotomy between initial purpose and gradual evolution of many software applications, especially within for-profit and private companies. Meadows makes a clear distinction between profit-making and goal of a system; making profit is necessary condition to stay in the game, whereas the goal is “to grow, to increase market share, to bring the world more and more under the control of the corporation so that its operations become ever more shielded from uncertainty.” Proliferating public relations effort of most companies has allowed users of software systems to directly believe in the initial paradigm of the company’s creation to be the goal, like Facebook and its recent mission statement to ‘bring the world closer together.’ The incredible user base size of Facebook, now in billions, is one of many indicators of Facebook’s success in this most fundamental goal: to grow, both in numbers and in control. For a growing portion of its user base that feels less control over their software use, perhaps the most crucial first step is to correctly identify and discern the software company’s most fundamental goal, then to leverage this knowledge for an effective leverage point that will produce big changes.