Watching the news about Egypt and the debate as to whether Twitter, Facebook, etc.. are inherently pro-democracy, I’m struck by a connection to Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies.
Tainter speculates that societies ultimately face two problems. One, the marginal return on their investments drops over time. Each new unit of energy or currency or labor they expend nets them less and less benefit than the last. Two, societies continually create additional internal complexity to solve problems they’ve run into. Those additional layers of complexity consume resources without giving back. Ultimately with growth slowing and the cost of complexity rising, societies collapse under the weight of the new social structures they’ve created. For a while, the added complexity allows societies to accomplish more, but eventually the diminishing returns cause the complexity to become a negative to the society, and then it collapses.
Tainter’s theory is relevant to understanding the future of every society on Earth. It’s been used to predict that collapse of US society and the collapse of industrialized society at large.
I think Tainter’s point is interesting, but that he likely confuses the term “complexity” with parasitism. His two primary examples, the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, are both cases where the ruling classes (the upper “layers” of society, if you will) used political and military power to control the lower classes and (in the case of Rome) to conquer neighbors and extract plunder and tax revenues from them.
The weight that eventually caused the collapse of both the Maya and the Roman Empire wasn’t just any sort of complexity, it was an upper layer of society that was largely parasitic, consuming more and more of the resources of society without producing much value.
I’m struck by this in the case of Egypt. The protests in Egypt are fueled by the frustration of lack of opportunity and the anger of lack of ability to change the system or even speak out against it. The lack of opportunity has two causes:
1. Egypt has a state-dominated economy which has historically been mismanaged. (It has improved significantly in the last 10 years, but that may be a case of too little, too late.)
2. Egypt is incredibly corrupt, and that corruption comes from the top in the form of crony capitalism. For instance, Egypt scored a 3.1 on a recent index of corruption, with a 1 meaning the most corruption, and a 10 meaning no corruption. The corruption comes in the form of bribes to government officials to receive licenses, get contracts, find housing, or almost anything else in public life. One prominent rumor in 2000 was that Egypt postponed approval of Viagra for local sale because Pfizer had yet to offer a large enough bribe to the Minister of Health. More broadly, developers wishing to do business in Egypt have frequently been advised to offer subcontracts to firms owned by Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak’s son.
Neither state control of the economy nor rampant corruption that lines the pockets of ministers and high officials is truly a form of additional ‘complexity’. It’s parasitism.
By contrast, services like Twitter and Facebook or more basic telecommunication via cell phones, SMS, and email do increase the societal complexity of a country. They increase the number of voices being heard. They add density to the social graph.
Yet that complexity does not belong to the old world of Hosni Mubarak’s government or its elite friends. It belongs to the younger generation on the street. Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, email, and SMS add complexity, but it’s a peer-to-peer complexity that empowers those who use those tools. That peer-to-peer complexity may cause a collapse, but not of the side that uses it.
One of the limits of The Collapse of Complex Societies is that it doesn’t consider any societies where the complexity is largely peer-to-peer rather than hierarchical. Arguably, such social structures barely existed until the invention of the Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press. Yet it’s interesting to consider the impact the movable-type press had on society. It accelerated the Renaissance and helped usher in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Clearly, the additional complexity of information flow between people that increased literacy and easier printing brought didn’t lead to collapse. At the same time, it also empowered Martin Luther to challenge the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and start the Protestant Reformation. The printing press undermined the hierarchical authority of the Church. It didn’t lead to the collapse of the Catholic Church, but it led to its schism and the formation of Protestant churches that had less hierarchy.
Electronic communication media, and especially the many-to-many media of blogs, tweets, and Facebook, are having a similar effect. They’re building peer-to-peer density, which is undermining the most hierarchical and parasitic layers of society.
I’m optimistic about the future of both Egypt and of modern society as a whole. The new complexity we build in our societies seems less and less about stacking additional layers of hierarchy, and more about building additional tools to connect people in an ever denser network graph. That strikes me as fundamentally less parasitic and more empowering than the hierarchical layers of complexity that Tainter organized.
We should expect the collapse of parasitic and top-down societies and institutions, and the emergence of more and more network-centric institutions and societies.