parallax background

Trivial machines

A festive gathering
24th December 2014
Manifesto 15
18th January 2015

My day job is consulting in the field of organisational systems. One of the greatest of the previous generation who invented this field of study is a guy called Heinz von Foerster. I came across a speech he wrote as a birthday present for another outstanding systems scholar, Niklas Luhmann. You can find the full speech at

Part of the story covers the concept of trivial machines. A trivial machine is one where if you give it the same instruction, you get the same result time after time and even after you have left the machine for a long time. He uses a car as an example where you rely on it doing the same thing given the same driving and if it does not, you take it to a trivialiser (garage) to be fixed.

As a teaching example he used a machine that takes the first four letters of the alphabet and “codes” them the way a child would to make a message that could not be read by his parents. It is a trivial machine that always replaces a letter by another letter with the same mapping. There are exactly 24 such possible mappings. A seemingly trivial change to the trivial machine makes it non-trivial. If we allow the mapping to depend on the previous result, suddenly there are more mappings than we could ever find (apparently 6.3*1057).

Now the fact that there is not time in the life of the universe to find the mapping does not stop students staying up all night looking for the answer. And to give a real world example, the controller of Paddington station in London thinks that they test all the possible combinations of point settings on the railways lines: but there are 264 of those.

What on earth has this to do with Wild Routes? Well one of the jokes in the speech is that that our brains are certainly non-trivial machines with feedback as described. Here is von Foerster: “ It goes so far with our love of trivial machines that our children, who are usually very unpredictable and completely surprising fellow creatures, are sent to trivialisation institutions, so that when I ask “How much is 2 times 3?” the answer is not “green” or “I am that old” but “6” is the confident reply. Thus they will be reliable members of our society”.

For me this captures at a technical level some of the wonder and richness that we deliberately lose. Why do we do that?

Aidan Ward
Aidan Ward
Aidan Ward is a freelance consultant, social entrepreneur and educator. He is a great cook and baker, a kitchen gardener and enthusiast for wild food. His key interest is in how childhood development happens when it is nurtured in the right environment.

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