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:


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.


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.)


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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