John G Bell
Systemic Thinking
Spring '04 - Geist

Systemic Description Exercise

In “Debating the Digital Divide” there are several systems. The one which I will focus on is the way that the actual digital divide functions in relation to the level of government spending and minority group use of digital access. The actual digital divide provides pressure on the levels of government spending. When the actual digital divide increases, the level of government spending increases. When government spending on digital access and literacy projects increases, the level of minority group use of those digital tools increases. When minority group use increases, the actual digital divide decreases. This is a balancing loop that appears to attempt a median level of the actual digital divide. As the digital divide decreases, so does the pressure for spending on those programs.

Another element discussed is the way in which the Bush administration's view of the growth of minority group use of digital tools and access creates an apparent inequality when looking at the relative growths of minority group use when compared to non-minority group use. The article points out that this is merely a perceived gap because the marginal increase of minority use is large, but the actual relative gap is still significant. Further, the article points out that the marginal increase is large specifically because the gap is large, and so the fact that the relative growth rates has flip-flopped is a sign that the original intent of the system was functioning as intended. The perceived digital gap, as opposed to the actual gap, creates an opportunity to apply pressure to decrease government spending in the original loop. The original loop was the primary systemic function until the new loop took effect. The outcome is that government spending will decrease at increased rates. If the actual gap decreases, then the need for government spending is weakened. If the perceived gap increases because the actual gap is decreasing, then the pressure is to reduce spending. At any time that the original loop is decreasing the actual gap, the pressure will be to reduce government spending. If the original loop does not increase government funding, then the secondary loop does not really come into play. Therefore the overall outcome is reduced government spending in all cases.

[Diagram 1]

The context in which this system takes place includes the way in which the digital divide appears to be in relationship to the available workforce and the skills sets available to the workforce. This in turn has a relationship to the economy and economic growth. When the actual divide is high, the availability of suitable skilled workers is low. When the availability of suitable skilled workers is low, economic growth is low. The balancing loop between the actual divide and the workforce feeds a re-enforcing loop that drives the economy down.

[Diagram 2]

There are some interesting dynamics in this contextual system. The first is that economic growth may drive down the level of suitable workforce because employment levels will be higher. In the current economic growth period this is not the case because the economic recovery shared by labor is a smaller fraction of the total growth of any other period of post recession recovery. The cause of this is the way in which the recovery is happening within the investment economy. In general, one would expect that economic growth will cause employment to rise. This rise in employment would tend to balance economic growth by increasing the cost of suitable labor in a scarce supply.

[Diagram 3]

It is especially important when talking about political processes to keep in mind that the stated reasons and goals of any actor is not necessarily the real motivation. The effects of a functioning system or of leverage may be desired, but it's always important to keep an eye on the other systemic effects or else one will certainly miss significant clues to the reason leverage is being applied to a local system. For example, the republican administration is likely to be working to limit corporate spending and the disable the franchise of the democrats. On the other hand, the democrats are likely motivated by the additional votes they would likely get from an enfranchised and increasingly informed demographic of previously marginalized citizens. The effort being applied to the question of the digital divide cannot be taken as the whole story.

Another important element to the context is that of sustainability. A focus on the digital divide is a focus on the symptom of much larger questions of economic justice and structural inequality. While access to the tools of digital literacy can be very transformative, the root causes of both the divide itself and the attitudes of the various actors must also be addressed or the system will likely reassert itself over time. In other words, there is an overall balancing loop that achieves disparity and economic injustice that must be addressed or any effort toward alleviating the digital divide will likely be temporary.

The callout in the article suggests using stock and flow diagrams in conjunction with causal loops to examine unintended effects of policy decisions. I didn't use stock and flow diagramming in my response. I wonder if anyone else will.

It seems that whether a loop is balancing or re-enforcing is a choice made by the person doing the diagram. For example, instead of saying “employment” one could say “unemployment” for a node which would reverse the effect. I wonder how this might be misused in complex examinations to change impressions or possibly skew the view of the system.

I really should have started by finding all the simple relationships in the article and then trying to find relationships between them. Instead I worked on one that stood out for me and just followed with and examination of that one. I think I could have been more insightful if I had gone through the process differently.

I find myself resistant to the focus on small systems as an exercise to develop better diagramming tools. I need to let go of having done this in the past and get back to beginner's mind on these projects.