Complexity, its burdens and its risks

November 17, 2010 – 16:49

 

I read a good article on the radical re-making of the advertising market today: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/151/mayhem-on-madison-avenue.html

The article referenced a classic post by Clay Shirky that I’d read before, but was worth revisiting: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collapse-of-complex-business-models/

Clay, in turn, referenced a book by Joseph Tainter,  The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Tainter makes many compelling observations, as summarized by Shirky:

“Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. 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. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

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.”

Although Shirky was using Tainter’s work to illustrate a point about the revolution in media and content production, specifically video, and it is perfectly applicable to the collapse of the old business models in advertising, it is also worth considering in Tainter’s original context: societies as a whole.

I’ve long had an essay simmering in my head regarding the brittle nature of the United States, as a pure reflection of that word: brittle, meaning very strong in compression but lacking the ability to resist stresses across its internal structure. For instance, if you put a brittle pane of glass on a flat surface, it will easily support a very large amount of weight placed upon it. However, if you support each end of that pane of glass and place even a small weight on the center, it will crack and shatter. The pane of glass, like the U.S. and most nation states, is capable of resisting huge amounts of external force when those forces are perceived as being placed uniformly against the entire structure of the nation. However, if those forces are applied unevenly, in a way that stresses the internal bonds of the structure, disunity results.

A similar situation is at work in China, where its recurring cycle of tension between the rich trading provinces along the coast and the still-mired-in-poverty interior provinces is placing stress on its internal bonds. China uses two primary means to maintain its internal coherence: rising economic prosperity and stoking nationalism via the boogey men of Japan, the West and the U.S., not necessarily in that order. When economic prosperity falters, there are coincidental, and certainly convenient, international incidents with Japan or other neighboring countries, often accompanied by a revisiting of Japanese WWII atrocities inflicted on China. If local conflict isn’t enough to incite unifying nationalism, then a few rounds of anti-West or anti-U.S. rhetoric or parallel international incidents usually does the trick.

You may or may not notice a similar pattern, with a reversed set of roles and leading villains, in the U.S. In geopolitics, stoking nationalism to increase internal cohesion and cement the political power of the ruling class is typically the first official act in the face of dis-unifying challenges. The U.S. is no exception to that rule.

I perceive a potential unhappy confluence of forces in the near- to mid-term in this regard.

It wouldn’t take much of Tainter’s reduction in circumstances to produce enough internal stresses to shatter a brittle U.S.

The only thing that could hold it together would be the same basic tools that China (and everybody else) uses: economic prosperity or supposed external threats to fuel cohesive nationalism. Excess economic prosperity sufficient to offset reduction in circumstances does not look to be likely in the U.S. in the foreseeable future. Lacking economic prosperity, there’s only one typical, basic, blunt tool remaining: artificially induced and inflated nationalism.

Since the rise of the nation state, inflated nationalism coupled with the perception of external threats has a direct correlation with negative outcomes.

Stay tuned.

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