Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Problem Is Not an Increasingly Complex Society, But Decreasingly Complex Members of Society

Yves has kicked off an interesting discussion here regarding Joseph Tainter's theory of collapsing societies.

According to Yves:

His argument is straightforward:

1. Human societies are problem solving organizations

2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance

3. Increasing complexity carries with it increased cost per capita

4. Investment in sociopolitical complexity often reaches a point of declining marginal returns
My response:

Society is no more complex today than it was two hundred years ago, not in real terms.

What has changed is not the complexity of our society, but the amount of specialization within it. Specialization yields experptise within a very narrow area while fostering ignorance of everything beyond that area. Worse still is the degradation of language as different specialists assign different meanings to the same terms without realizing it. When the same person was an economist, a lawyer and a philosopher (e.g., Adam Smith, the Buckaroo Banzai of his era), he used terms consistently and carefully.

The ultimate result of specialization is that people from different disciplines communicate with each other and believe they have agreement when they really don’t. As the differences compound and create real, practical problems, eventually, people wake up to the fact that the world is nothing like they thought it was, and their brain chemistry flips the panic switch.

Another way to consider what I’m saying is to view increasing specialization as adding layers of abstraction. Each layer of abstraction simplifies the problem space presented by abstracting away details that are presumed to be irrelevant to it. The problem is that as the total problem space is cut into thinner and thinner slices, it becomes harder and harder to integrate the output of those individual slices into an accurate solution for the total problem space because hidden discontinuities arise due to differences in the details that have been assumed away as exogneous to each slice.

Now, one could view slicing the problem space into thinner and thinner specialties as increasing complexity, but the fact is that the problem space– that is, the problems that society faces and must solve on an ongoing basis– never changes, only our individual understanding of it does. The only reason society seems more complex is because every individual within society has been made more simple because of increasing specialization.
As an addendum, the entire concept of "declining marginal returns," obviously borrowed from neoclassical microeconomics, is fallacious for the reasons Piero Sraffa pointed out a very long time ago. 

That being said, I'll accept it as truth in this one instance because I want to focus on an important question: how does one measure the marginal returns of increasing investment in sociopolitical complexity?  Cui bono?  Society as a whole, or particular members of that society?

While society clearly suffers when its constituent members are dumbed down, certain members of that society-- the predators-- clearly benefit greatly.  A basic tenet of neoliberalism is that there is no society.  Do you think they pushed increasing specialization within society and across geographic regions because they were focused on increasing marginial returns to society as a whole, or on increasing marginal returns to themselves?  Societal collapse is a feature of the "complexity" fostered by neoliberalism, not a bug.