System 3 is a Boundary Object

Michael Anton Dila
3 min readDec 22, 2022
Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

System 3 is, I think, a good example of boundary object: “both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites…They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.”

Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer introduced this concept in 1989 as a way of describing an emergent and fluid idea that might serve different disciplinary communities in different, though related ways, and that we needn’t worry about having or aiming for coherence in such concepts.

I think that System 3 shows up in several discourses, some disciplinary, like cognitive psychology, organizational psychology, anthropology, as well as in more practical discourses like design thinking.

My project is not an academic one and I have no investment in intellectual turf battles. That said, I am interested in the ways, places and contexts in which the subject of System 3 thinking (albeit not using that label) seems to have currency or contention or both. For example, I think that various conversations about distributed cognition and the “externalized mind” as well as the discourse about psychological safety and the psychology of teams, are part of diverse efforts to understand both the phenomenon and efforts to support or promote this kind of thinking.

There are really two objectives I have in describing System 3 as a boundary object. One is to highlight that it is far from a settled concept. In fact, the very reason for my embarking on this project has been to invite others to engage in and add to the effort, not to focus on defining System 3, but to explore the range and scope of the phenomenon and better understand it’s dynamics and uses. The other is to provide a flexible architecture for bringing into closer contact the exploration of System 3 thinking across or outside of disciplinary boundaries. System 3, then, is antidisciplinary in it’s intent.

The intent of the System 3 project is deeply consistent with Joi Ito’s gloss on the concept of antidisciplinarity: “An antidisciplinary project isn’t a sum of a bunch of disciplines but something entirely new — the word defies easy definition. But what it means to me is someone or something that doesn’t fit within traditional academic discipline­­­-a field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods.”

I put this out there as an invitation.

System 3 is a boundary object in the sense that it does not belong to one discipline or discourse and may arise in and serve several or many. This is a feature, not a bug, and while I am interested in learning about linkages, I do not care about resolving or eliminating tensions between various uses of this thinking, but am instead interested to learn from them.

System 3 is an antidisciplinary project in the sense that it is trying to make something new from existing and diverse thinking and practice. I am not interested in serving disciplinary or academic agendas, but want to offer a way in for those who stand outside such communities. So, not only is there an antidisciplinary intent, but also a democratizing one, in the sense that I want to create greater access and participation in the development of ideas that I think might be useful for those who are trying to navigate the complexity of phenomena like climate change and systemic racism from a practical rather than theoretical stance.

Again, I’ll return to the words of Karl Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Thx to Joi Ito for his Antidisciplinary and his Design and Science posts. This post also owes a debt to Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer for thier article, “`Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology,” to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method and Artificial Life II (SANTA FE INSTITUTE STUDIES IN THE SCIENCES OF COMPLEXITY PROCEEDINGS) edited by Christopher G. Langton et al.

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Michael Anton Dila

Michael is a Design Insurgent and Chief Unhappiness Officer