A Systems Engineer’s Diffraction Grating

We treat these systems as powerful as the forces of nature. As immutable as the laws of physics. That these algorithms sprung up out of nowhere. That trying to make gig labor suck less will put people out of jobs. That recycling doesn’t do much, but it’s better than nothing and that’s worth the greenwashing smug feeling as the smiling coffee cup gets tossed in the blue bin. That it’s impossible to untangle the web of supply chains and find out exactly which subsubsubsubcontractor is using the child labor.

But all of these systems started from somewhere. A hot or not website. A “just war”. A belief that demand will always meet supply. The concept of deserving.

With dedicated nurturing (though they’d never admit it), the ivy grew and grew until it gnarled around the tree, thick and inextricable from the tall branches. We cited tree law and argued about “fault”, letting the vine intertwine further, sucking ever more nutrients out of the tree, which was really only standing because it was so strong to begin with.

Yet, you can still cut the ivy at the root.


I was told once, that death ripples through a community. That my grief over a girl I barely met would still be with me 8 years later. That it wasn’t any less valid for me to ask after the boy who crushed after her, who knew her even less than I did.

As I’ve grown, I’ve found that it’s not just the big things that ripple outwards. Each decision you make moves out, reflecting against the pond boundaries, creating beautiful diffraction patterns as it goes through and around the obstacles in its path.

Why do I live in a world where the chairs hurt me? Where the air bags will kill me? Where someone could just kiss me, knowing I can’t fight the empire?


I used to study systems in the hopes that if I held the whole picture in my head, I’d find where the iffy bolt was. A quick tighten would fix that rattle!

“I don’t like to work on systems bigger than I can understand,” he told me, half-winkingly, “A car is already pushing it.”

But we can barely model what happens when our foot touches the earth. How our hair splays around us as the wind dances around us. How a tool gains our sense of touch.

“Closed linkages are too hard”, he told me, anxiously. “But what about the 4 bar linkage?” said I. Big shrugs all around

The notion of the black box became tempting. To restrict your domain to only what you definitively knew. But with that restriction goes your ability to be moved by the ineffable. To force water into pipes and to leave only the brightest stars.

“I like it when it hits the step and disperses!,” he told me, robustly.

I study systems now to understand my wake. To know how I move through the world, to ensure my interference mostly perturbs only the things I intend. To be accountable for the disruptions that I did not.

And when I pass from this system into the next, I hope my wake can help my vigil-keepers mourn and rebuild from the harms I’ve caused.

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