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The Siren Songs of Systems Engineering

by zscott

The Siren, Edward Armitage, 1888

First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again . . . There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around . . . Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear . . . 

Homer, The Odyssey, Book XII

Zane Scott, Vitech Vice President of Professional Services

Most of us are familiar with Homer’s epic work, The Odyssey.  It tells the story of Odysseus’ 10-year journey home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. Along the way, he encounters many adventures and at one point is warned by the sorceress, Circe, of an impending danger – the song of the Sirens. Circe tells Odysseus of the Sirens whose beauty, musical talent, and songs lead sailors to their death along the rocky shores of their islands. She advises him to fill the ears of his men with beeswax so that they will not be tempted off course by the singing.

Odysseus does as instructed but lashes himself to the mast so that he can hear their song while remaining powerless to turn his ships toward it. This highlights an often overlooked but important point – both for Homer’s plot and our appropriation of it as an illustration. Even those who know the story generally operate with the assumption that the Sirens’ charms turns on the beauty of their countenances and/or their melody.

But a closer reading of Homer reveals otherwise. In Homer’s narrative, the Sirens sing to Odysseus “no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips; then goes on, well-pleased, knowing more than ever he did; for we know everything . . .” The lure of their song is not its beauty (or theirs) but its promise to impart exceptional wisdom.

This is the sense in which the postmodern-day Odysseus, the systems engineer, encounters the siren songs of our world. It is not the beauty of the Sirens or their songs that threaten the journey, but rather it is the emptiness of their promises of knowledge.

As we attempt to help systems engineering teams in both public and private sectors, we see them too often fall to the siren songs promising knowledge and truth from impossibly rocky shores. Two of these songs stand out with their Siren-like promises of wisdom hiding destructive results obscured by the songs.  More...

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