Complexity and collapse

Joseph Tainter

As you know, The Hannibal Blog is fascinated by the issue of complexity in modern society.

That is, “fascinated” as you might be in a horror movie: simultaneously freaked out and intrigued.

If I had to give a working hypothesis in my evolving thinking, it would sound a bit like the answer by that character in The Sun Also Rises:

How does complexity enslave us? First gradually, then suddenly.

In other words, complexity can increase slowly for a while but then suddenly becomes catastrophic. This view seems to be in the Zeitgeist. Here, for instance, is just a tiny sample of intellectuals I’ve recently come across who seem to be exploring versions of it:

I

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky, a new-media visionary whom you’ve met here before, takes another look at the fascinating work of Joseph Tainter (above), an anthropologist at Utah State University. (Somewhat surprisingly, he then tries to apply that to … business models in the television industry!)

Tainter’s 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies looked at the abrupt implosions of ancient Rome, the Mayas et cetera.

As Shirky summarizes it, Tainter’s thesis is that societies become more complex because

early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

… Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. …

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

II

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Harvard, argues in a piece called “C0mplexity and Collapse” in Foreign Affairs that the great powers don’t rise and fall gradually (as everybody from Herodotus to Paul Kennedy has assumed) but disintegrate abruptly:

Empires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline, and fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of imperial dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple overdetermining causes. Rather, empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse.

(I was somewhat surprised not to see a reference to Tainter’s work in Ferguson’s article, but there you go.)

III

David Segal in the New York Times takes that impetus and applies it to our strategy in Afghanistan, the financial crisis and much else.

***

It seems to me that there is an opportunity in this topic of complexity to find something original (and simple) to say, a new “theory of complexity”, as it were. I’m going to start looking for it.

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Breaking news: broken news

And an update on yesterday’s post: Yes, this really is quite a “week in the drama of the printed word” (and I write this on Wednesday!). Several heavyweights of the blogosophere have now weighed in on the debate over micropayments and the future of newspapers.

If this interests you, you can stay abreast of it by reading just a few blog posts:

  • Clay Shirky (arguing against micro-payments, previously featured here)
  • Nick Carr (predicting a horrifying bout of blood-letting and creative destruction as the “over-supply” in the news industry corrects itself)
  • Matthew Gertner (rebutting Clay, and starting with a blood-curdling 😉 anecdote about how and why he has just dropped his subscription to …. The Economist!)

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Time: you might have sooo much of it

Clay Shirky

Both in my “day job” at The Economist and in my new role as aspiring author, I spend a lot of time thinking about people’s … time. Do people who might read my book when it comes out even have the time to do so? Would they volunteer to spend it reading?

Somebody who makes good sense on the topic is Clay Shirky. He is an NYU professor and consultant and a new-media thinker.

Why do I find his perspective refreshing? First, because he takes a loooong historical perspective to understand our current situation, which is exactly what I do in my book, even though it happens to be about a different topic. So Shirky starts with the “information overload” problem posed by the Library of Alexandria, exacerbated by Gutenberg’s printing press and (wait for the surprise) soon to be solved in our own time.

More to the point: In the talk at the bottom of this post, which I attended, he exposes, with an ironic anecdote, the flaw in the widespread hypothesis that we have too little time to deal with our alleged information overload. He is talking to an American TV producer, who asks him what cool things on the internet he has seen lately. He begins to talk about the fascinating evolution of the Wikipedia page on the planet Pluto. She says nothing, then pops the question:  “Where do people find the time?”

And Clay loses it:  “I just snapped. And I said, No one who works in TV gets to ask that question.” That’s because that time that people find comes in large part out of the “cognitive surplus” you [ie, the TV industry] have been masking for the past forty years!

A short calculation to illustrate his point:

1) All of the articles in all languages of Wikipedia, by Clay’s estimate, took 100 million hours of human thought to compose.

2) Americans watch 200 billion hours of TV a year. They spend 100 million hours a weekend just watching the ads on TV!

So there is actually a huge surplus of thought and creativity, and we are only just discovering how to use it.

A Renaissance of reading?

His thinking extends fluidly to the context that I care more about, book-reading. Shirky is mildly bemused by the widespread fear about the alleged “end” of literary reading.

First, the medium to blame, if any, is not the internet but TV, forty years ago. See above. “What the Internet has actually done,” he says in this interview,

is not decimate literary reading; that was really a done deal by 1970. What it has done, instead, is brought back reading and writing as a normal activity for a huge group of people. Many, many more people are reading and writing now as part of their daily experience. But, because the reading and writing has come back without bringing Tolstoy along with it, the enormity of the historical loss to the literary landscape caused by television is now becoming manifested to everybody.

And so, in twists and turns, you get a lot of the current hysteria about the internet, which emanates not from twenty-somethings on Facebook, who are a lot savvier than their parents ever were, but from those parents who now hold down jobs in, say, the TV industry. They are the new Luddites, like that woman who interviewed Clay. Luddism, he says, “is specifically a demand that the people who benefited from the old system be consulted before any technology is allowed to disrupt it.”

Long story short: Turn off–better: throw away–your TV set; then read my book as soon as it’s published. 😉