The particulars of a comprehensive entity

Speaking more generally, the belief that, since particulars are more tangible, their knowledge offers a true conception of things is fundamentally mistaken.

—Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension


This is a problem we get ourselves into in systems engineering. The allure of specifying all of the ins and outs of a system to design is irresistible. Just one more requirement—that’s all we need to complete the specification. Just one more, just one more. Just one more.

Just one more.

There are never enough requirements. Yet often there are too many. That’s what this line, and the larger passage, from The Tacit Dimension reminded me of. Systems engineers sometimes go off on these quixotic searches for the perfect set of requirements. We all know it doesn’t exist, but the drive to find it is still there. Somewhere on the journey, though, we pass some threshold where each requirement becomes better—perhaps more correct individually, or more precise—but the set of requirements becomes worse. The individual components of the design specification are beautiful, but the integrated whole is ugly.

When I’m in a good mood and I want to describe what I like about systems engineering, that’s how I describe it: the individual pieces can be brilliant works of technical art, but if we can’t make them work together then they’re no good.

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