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.