Clay Shirky offers up a precis of Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse Of Complex Societies, as the staging for an argument about media disruption:
Clay Shirky, The Collapse of Complex Business Models
In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.
The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.
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.
The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. 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.
Shirky wanders off in business models — a reasonably interesting topic — but I am entranced by the thought that much of the social revolution so far has led to enormous growth for Facebook, and this might be the staging of Facebook’s eventual collapse.
Instead of a detailed and orderly disquisition, consider that Facebook has become that level of bureaucracy that demands that ‘one tribute too much’, the paramount player in the growing social pantheon, and one that many other companies have integrated their social strategies into.
We are at too early a stage in the social revolution for Facebook to remain the innovator in all areas: gaming, photos, search, deals, etc. But like AOL, another company that made the web bureaucratic, Facebook will fail as innovations by smaller upstarts and restructuring of the operating systems we all use by platform companies — Apple, Google, and Microsoft — will make Facebook’s complexity and richness a liability. And ultimately, a liability that they won’t be able to sidestep.