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As the hierarchy becomes more complex, those at the top begin to deprioritize, ignore, or act against the wishes and best interests of average individuals and most small groups.
A congressperson stops caring about their constituents, prioritizing instead the concerns of lobbyists, donors, colleagues, social acquaintances, etc. Simply put, the people at the top no longer need to care about those at the bottom to have a successful career.
Their day-to-day contacts will help them stay in office, and if necessary, get them a sinecure after that.
In some way overcomplexity of modern society is connected with over abundance of hydrocarbons as too complex society requires spending considerable portion of energy on communication (think Google with its energy footprint).
Or maybe we are indeed just not smarter as a collective than rats on an island or yeast in a petri-dish in overshoot; that our so-called intelligence, alone, will not be enough to transcend some fundamental law of nature; a parasitic elite; or this planet, to continue to flourish elsewhere.
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Aug 21, 2015 | naked capitalism
Lambert found a short article by Richard Cook that I've embedded at the end of the post. I strongly urge you to read it in full. It discusses how complex systems are prone to catastrophic failure, how that possibility is held at bay through a combination of redundancies and ongoing vigilance, but how, due to the impractical cost of keeping all possible points of failure fully (and even identifying them all) protected, complex systems "always run in degraded mode". Think of the human body. No one is in perfect health. At a minimum, people are growing cancers all the time, virtually all of which recede for reasons not well understood.
The article contends that failures therefore are not the result of single causes. As Clive points out:
This is really a profound observation – things rarely fail in an out-the-blue, unimaginable, catastrophic way. Very often just such as in the MIT article the fault or faults in the system are tolerated. But if they get incrementally worse, then the ad-hoc fixes become the risk (i.e. the real risk isn't the original fault condition, but the application of the fixes). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windscale_fire#Wigner_energy documents how a problem of core instability was a snag, but the disaster was caused by what was done to try to fix it. The plant operators kept applying the fix in ever more extreme does until the bloody thing blew up.
But I wonder about the validity of one of the hidden assumptions of this article. There is a lack of agency in terms of who is responsible for the care and feeding of complex systems (the article eventually identifies "practitioners" but even then, that's comfortably vague). The assumption is that the parties who have influence and responsibility want to preserve the system, and have incentives to do at least an adequate job of that.
There are reasons to doubt that now. Economics has promoted ways of looking at commercial entities that encourage "practitioners" to compromise on safety measures. Mainstream economics has as a core belief that economies have a propensity to equilibrium, and that equilibrium is at full employment. That assumption has served as a wide-spread justification for encouraging businesses and governments to curtail or end pro-stability measures like regulation as unnecessary costs.
To put it more simply, the drift of both economic and business thinking has been to optimize activity for efficiency. But highly efficient systems are fragile. Formula One cars are optimized for speed and can only run one race.
Highly efficient systems also are more likely to suffer from what Richard Bookstaber called "tight coupling." A tightly coupled system in one in which events occur in a sequence that cannot be interrupted. A way to re-characterize a tightly coupled system is a complex system that has been in part re-optimized for efficiency, maybe by accident, maybe at a local level. That strips out some of the redundancies that serve as safeties to prevent positive feedback loops from having things spin out of control.
To use Bookstaber's nomenclature, as opposed to this paper's, in a tightly coupled system, measures to reduce risk directly make things worse. You need to reduce the tight coupling first.
A second way that the economic thinking has arguably increased the propensity of complex systems of all sorts to fail is by encouraging people to see themselves as atomized agents operating in markets. And that's not just an ideology; it's reflected in low attachment to institutions of all sorts, ranging from local communities to employers (yes, employers may insist on all sorts of extreme shows of fealty, but they are ready to throw anyone in the dust bin at a moment's notice). The reality of weak institutional attachments and the societal inculcation of selfish viewpoints means that more and more people regard complex systems as vehicles for personal advancement. And if they see those relationships as short-term or unstable, they don't have much reason to invest in helping to preserving the soundness of that entity. Hence the attitude called "IBY/YBG" ("I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone") appears to be becoming more widespread.
I've left comments open because I'd very much enjoy getting reader reactions to this article. Thanks!
James Levy August 21, 2015 at 6:35 am
So many ideas . Mike Davis argues that in the case of Los Angeles, the key to understanding the city's dysfunction is in the idea of sunk capital – every major investment leads to further investments (no matter how dumb or large) to protect the value of past investments.
Tainter argues that the energy cost (defined broadly) of maintaining the dysfunction eventually overwhelms the ability of the system to generate surpluses to meet the rising needs of maintenance.
Goldsworthy has argued powerfully and persuasively that the Roman Empire in the West was done in by a combination of shrinking revenue base and the subordination of all systemic needs to the needs of individual emperors to stay in power and therefore stay alive. Their answer was endlessly subdividing power and authority below them and using massive bribes to the bureaucrats and the military to try to keep them loyal.
In each case, some elite individual or grouping sees throwing good money after bad as necessary to keeping their power and their positions. Our current sclerotic system seems to fit this description nicely.
Jim August 21, 2015 at 8:15 amxxx August 22, 2015 at 4:39 am
I immediately thought of Tainter's "The Complex of Complex Cultures" when I starting reading this. One point that Tainter made is that collapse is not all bad. He presents evidence that the average well being of people in Italy was probably higher in the sixth century than in the fifth century as the Western Roman Empire died. Somewhat like death being necessary for biological evolution collapse may be the only solution to the problem of excessive complexity.Praedor August 21, 2015 at 9:19 am
Tainter insists culture has nothing to do with collapse, and therefore refuses to consider it, but he then acknowledges that the elites in some societies were able to pull them out of a collapse trajectory. And from the inside, it sure as hell looks like culture, as in a big decay in what is considered to be acceptable conduct by our leaders, and what interests they should be serving (historically, at least the appearance of the greater good, now unabashedly their own ends) sure looks to be playing a big, and arguably the defining role, in the rapid rise of open corruption and related social and political dysfunction.jgordon August 21, 2015 at 7:44 am
That also sounds like the EU and even Greece's extreme actions to stay in the EU.nowhere August 21, 2015 at 12:10 pm
Then I'll add my two cents: you've left out that when systems scale linearly, the amount of complexity, and points for failure, and therefore instability, that they contain scale exponentially–that is according to the analysis of James Rickards, and supported by the work of people like Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond.
Ever complex problem that arises in a complex system is fixed with an even more complex "solution" which requires ever more energy to maintain, and eventually the inevitably growing complexity of the system causes the complex system to collapse in on itself. This process requires no malignant agency by humans, only time.jgordon August 21, 2015 at 2:04 pm
Sounds a lot like JMG and catabolic collapse.Synoia August 21, 2015 at 1:26 pm
Well, he got his stuff from somewhere too.Jim August 21, 2015 at 2:26 pm
There are no linear systems. They are all non-linear because the include a random, non-linear element – people.Ormond Otvos August 21, 2015 at 4:37 pm
Long before there were people the Earth's eco-system was highly complex and highly unstable.JTMcPhee August 21, 2015 at 4:44 pm
The presumption that fixes increase complexity may be incorrect.
Fixes should include awareness of complexity.
That was the beauty of Freedom Club by Kaczinsky, T.
Maybe call the larger entity "meta-stable?" Astro and geo inputs seem to have been big perturbers. Lots of genera were around a very long time before naked apes set off on their romp. But then folks, even these hot, increasingly dry days, brag on their ability to anticipate, and profit from, and even cause, with enough leverage, de- stability. Good thing the macrocosms of our frail, violent, kindly, destructive bodies are blessed with the mechanisms of homeostasis.
Too bad our "higher" functions are not similarly gifted But that's what we get to chat about, here and in similar meta-spaces
MikeW August 21, 2015 at 7:52 am
Agree, positive density of ideas, thoughts and implications.
I wonder if the reason that humans don't appreciate the failure of complex systems is that (a) complex systems are constantly trying to correct, or cure as in your cancer example, themselves all the time until they can't at which point they collapse, (b) that things, like cancer leading to death, are not commonly viewed as a complex system failure when in fact that is what it is. Thus, while on a certain scale we do experience complex system failure on one level on a daily basis because we don't interpret it as such, and given that we are hardwired for pattern recognition, we don't address complex systems in the right ways.
This, to my mind, has to be extended to the environment and the likely disaster we are currently trying to instigate. While the system is collapsing at one level, massive species extinctions, while we have experienced record temperatures, while the experts keep warning us, etc., most people to date have experienced climate change as an inconvenience - not the early stages of systemwide failure.
Civilization collapses have been regular, albeit spaced out, occurrences. We seem to think we are immune to them happening again. Yet, it isn't hard to list the near catastrophic system failures that have occurred or are currently occurring (famines, financial markets, genocides, etc.).
And, in most systems that relate to humans with an emphasis on short term gain how does one address system failures?
Brooklin Bridge August 21, 2015 at 9:21 am
would be a GREAT category heading though it's perhaps a little close to "Imperial Collapse"
Whine Country August 21, 2015 at 9:52 am
To paraphrase President Bill Clinton, who I would argue was one of the major inputs that caused the catastrophic failure of our banking system (through the repeal of Glass-Steagall), it all depends on what the definition of WE is.
jrs August 21, 2015 at 10:12 pm
And all that just a 21st century version of "apres moi le deluge", which sounds very likely to be the case.
Oregoncharles August 21, 2015 at 3:55 pm
JT – just go to the Archdruid site. They link it regularly, I suppose for this purpose.
Jim August 21, 2015 at 8:42 am
Civilizational collapse is extremely common in history when one takes a long term view. I'm not sure though that I would describe it as having that much "regularity" and while internal factors are no doubt often important external factors like the Mongol Onslaught are also important. It's usually very hard to know exactly what happened since historical documentation tends to disappear in periods of collapse. In the case of Mycenae the archaeological evidence indicates a near total population decline of 99% in less than a hundred years together with an enormous cultural decline but we don't know what caused it.
As for long term considerations the further one tries to project into the future the more uncertain such projections become so that long term planning far into the future is not likely to be evolutionarily stable. Because much more information is available about present conditions than future conditions organisms are probably selected much more to optimize for the short term rather than for the largely unpredicatble long term.
Gio Bruno August 21, 2015 at 1:51 pm
it's not in question. Evolution is about responding to the immediate environment. Producing survivable offspring (which requires finding a niche). If the environment changes (Climate?) faster than the production of survivable offspring then extinction (for that specie) ensues.
Now, Homo sapien is supposedly "different" in some respects, but I don't think so.
Jim August 21, 2015 at 2:14 pm
I agree. There's nothing uniquely special about our species. Of course species can often respond to gradual change by migration. The really dangerous things are global catastrophes such as the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous or whatever happened at the Permian-Triassic boundary (gamma ray burst maybe?).
Ormond Otvos August 21, 2015 at 4:46 pm
Interesting that you sit there and type on a world-spanning network batting around ideas from five thousand years ago, or yesterday, and then use your fingers to type that the human species isn't special.
Do you really think humans are unable to think about the future, like a bear hibernating, or perhaps the human mind, and its offspring, human culture and history, can't see ahead?
Why is "Learn the past, or repeat it!" such a popular saying, then?
diptherio August 21, 2015 at 9:24 am
The Iron Law of Institutions (agents act in ways that benefit themselves in the context of the institution [system], regardless of the effect those actions have on the larger system) would seem to mitigate against any attempts to correct our many, quickly failing complex social and technological systems.
jgordon August 21, 2015 at 10:40 am
This would tend to imply that attempts to organize large scale social structures is temporary at best, and largely futile. I agree. The real key is to embrace and ride the wave as it crests and callapses so its possible to manage the fall–not to try to stand against so you get knocked down and drowned. Focus your efforts on something useful instead of wasting them on a hopeless, and worthless, cause.
Jim August 21, 2015 at 2:21 pm
Civilization is obviously highly unstabe. However it should remembered that even Neolithic cultures are almost all less than 10,000 years old. So there has been little time for evolutionary adaptations to living in complex cultures (although there is evidence that the last 10,000 years has seen very rapid genetic changes in human populations). If civilization can continue indefinitely which of course is not very clear then it would be expected that evolutionary selection would produce humans much better adapted to living in complex cultures so they might become more stable in the distant future. At present mean time to collapse is probably a few hundred years.
Ormond Otvos August 21, 2015 at 4:50 pm
But perhaps you're not contemplating that too much individual freedom can destabilize society. Is that a part of your vast psychohistorical equation?
washunate August 21, 2015 at 10:34 am
Well said, but something I find intriguing is that the author isn't talking so much about civilizational collapse. The focus is more on various subsystems of civilization (transportation, energy, healthcare, etc.).
These individual components are not inherently particularly dangerous (at a systemic/civilizational level). They have been made that way by purposeful public policy choices, from allowing enormous compensation packages in healthcare to dismantling our passenger rail system to subsidizing fossil fuel energy over wind and solar to creating tax incentives that distort community development. These things are not done for efficiency. They are done to promote inequality, to allow connected insiders and technocratic gatekeepers to expropriate the productive wealth of society. Complexity isn't a byproduct; it is the mechanism of the looting. If MDs in hospital management made similar wages as home health aides, then how would they get rich off the labor of others? And if they couldn't get rich, what would be the point of managing the hospital in the first place? They're not actually trying to provide quality, affordable healthcare to all Americans.
It is that cumulative concentration of wealth and power over time which is ultimately destabilizing, producing accepted social norms and customs that lead to fragility in the face of both expected and unexpected shocks. This fragility comes from all sorts of specific consequences of that inequality, from secrecy to group think to brain drain to two-tiered justice to ignoring incompetence and negligence to protecting incumbents necessary to maintain such an unnatural order.
Linus Huber August 21, 2015 at 7:05 pm
I tend to agree with your point of view.
The problem arises with any societal order over time in that corrosive elements in the form of corruptive behavior (not principle based) by decision makers are institutionalized. I may not like Trump as a person but the fact that he seems to unravel and shake the present arrangement and serves as an indicator that the people begin to realize what game is being played, makes me like him in that specific function. There may be some truth in Thomas Jefferson's quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Those presently benefiting greatly from the present arrangement are fighting with all means to retain their position, whether successfully or not, we will see.
animalogic August 22, 2015 at 2:18 am
Well said, washunate. I think an argument could be run that outside economic areas, the has been a drive to de-complexity.
Non economic institutions, bodies which exist for non market/profit reasons are or have been either hollowed out, or co-opted to market purposes. Charities as vast engines of self enrichment for a chain of insiders. Community groups, defunded, or shriveled to an appendix by "market forces". The list goes on and on.
Reducing the "not-market" to the status of sliced-white-bread makes us all the more dependant on the machinated complexities of "the market" .god help us .
Jay Jay August 21, 2015 at 8:00 am
Joseph Tainter's thesis, set out in "The Collapse of Complex Societies" is simple: as a civilization ages its use of energy becomes less efficient and more costly, until the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in, generates its own momentum and the system grinds to a halt. Perhaps this article describes a late stage of that process. However, it is worth noting that, for the societies Tainter studied, the process was ineluctable. Not so for our society: we have the ability -- and the opportunity -- to switch energy sources.
Moneta August 21, 2015 at 5:48 pm
In my grandmother's youth, they did not burn wood for nothing. Splitting wood was hard work that required calories.
Today, we heat up our patios at night with gas heaters The amount of economic activity based on burning energy not related to survival is astounding.
A huge percentage of our GDP is based on economies of scale and economic efficiencies but are completely disconnected from environmental efficiencies.
This total loss is control between nature and our lifestyles will be our waterloo .
TG August 21, 2015 at 8:20 am
An interesting article as usual, but here is another take.
Indeed, sometimes complex systems can collapse under the weight of their own complexity (Think: credit default swaps). But sometimes there is a single simple thing that is crushing the system, and the complexity is a desperate attempt to patch things up that is eventually destroyed by brute force.
Consider a forced population explosion: the people are multiplied exponentially. This reduces per capita physical resources, tends to reduce per-capita capital, and limits the amount of time available to adapt: a rapidly growing population puts an economy on a treadmill that gets faster and faster and steeper and steeper until it takes superhuman effort just to maintain the status quo. There is a reason why, for societies without an open frontier, essentially no nation has ever become prosperous with out first moderating the fertility rate.
However, you can adapt. New technologies can be developed. New regulations written to coordinate an ever more complex system. Instead of just pumping water from a reservoir, you need networks of desalinization plants – with their own vast networks of power plants and maintenance supply chains – and recycling plans, and monitors and laws governing water use, and more efficient appliances, etc.etc.
As an extreme, consider how much effort and complexity it takes to keep a single person alive in the space station.
That's why in California cars need to be emissions tested, but in Alabama they don't – and the air is cleaner in Alabama. More people needs more controls and more exotic technology and more rules.
Eventually the whole thing starts to fall apart. But to blame complexity itself, is possibly missing the point.
Steve H. August 21, 2015 at 8:30 am
No system is ever 'the'.
Jim Haygood August 21, 2015 at 11:28 am
Two words, Steve: Soviet Union.
It's gone now. But we're rebuilding it, bigger and better.
Ormond Otvos August 21, 2015 at 4:54 pm
If, of course, bigger is better.
Facts not in evidence.
Ulysses August 21, 2015 at 8:40 am
"But because system operations are never trouble free, human practitioner adaptations to changing conditions actually create safety from moment to moment. These adaptations often amount to just the selection of a well-rehearsed routine from a store of available responses; sometimes, however, the adaptations are novel combinations or de novo creations of new approaches."
This may just be a rationalization, on my part, for having devoted so much time to historical studies– but it seems to me that historians help civilizations prevent collapse, by preserving for them the largest possible "store of available responses."
aronj August 21, 2015 at 8:41 am
Thanks for posting this very interesting piece! As you know, I am a fan Bookstaber's concept of tight coupling. Interestingly, Bookstaber (2007) does not reference Cook's significant work on complex systems.
Before reading this article, I considered the most preventable accidents involve a sequence of events uninterrupted by human intelligence. This needs to be modified by Cook's points 8, 9. 10 and 12.
In using the aircraft landing in the New York river as an example of interrupting a sequence of events, the inevitable accident occurred but no lives were lost. Thus the human intervention was made possible by the unknowable probability of coupling the cause with a possible alternative landing site. A number of aircraft accidents involve failed attempts to find a possible landing site, even though Cook's point #12 was in play.
Thanks for the post!!!!!
Brooklin Bridge August 21, 2015 at 8:47 am
A possible issue with or a misunderstanding of #7. Catastrophic failure can be made up of small failures that tend to follow a critical path or multiple critical paths. While a single point of origin for catastrophic failure may rarely if ever occur in a complex system, it is possible and likely in such a system to have collections of small failures that occur or tend to occur in specific sequences of order. Population explosion (as TG points out) would be a good example of a failure in a complex social system that is part of a critical path to catastrophic failure.
Such sequences, characterized by orders of precedence, are more likely in tightly coupled systems (which as Yves points out can be any system pushed to the max). The point is, they can be identified and isolated at least in situations where a complex system is not being misused or pushed to it's limits or created due to human corruption where such sequences of likelihood may be viewed or baked into the system (such as by propaganda->ideology) as features and not bugs.
Spring Texan August 21, 2015 at 8:53 am
I agree completely that maximum efficiency comes with horrible costs. When hospitals are staffed so that people are normally busy every minute, patients routinely suffer more as often no one has time to treat them like a human being, and when things deviate from the routine, people have injuries and deaths. Same is true in other contexts.
washunate August 21, 2015 at 10:40 am
Agreed, but that's not caused by efficiency. That's caused by inequality. Healthcare has huge dispariaties in wages and working conditions. The point of keeping things tightly staffed is to allow big bucks for the top doctors and administrators.
susan the other August 21, 2015 at 2:55 pm
Yes. When one efficiency conflicts with and destroys another efficiency. Eq. Your mother juggled a job and a family and ran around in turbo mode but she dropped everything when her kids were in trouble. That is an example of an efficiency that can juggle contradictions and still not fail.
JTMcPhee August 21, 2015 at 11:38 am
Might this nurse observe that in hospitals, there isn't and can't be a "routine" to deviate from, no matter how fondly "managers" wish to try to make it and how happy they may be to take advantage of the decent, empathic impulses of many nurses and/or the need to work to eat of those that are just doing a job. Hence the kindly (sic) practice of "calling nurses off" or sending them home if "the census is down," which always runs aground against a sudden influx of billable bodies or medical crises that the residual staff is expected to just somehow cope with caring for or at least processing, until the idiot frictions in the staffing machinery add a few more person-hours of labor to the mix. The larger the institution, the greater the magnitude and impact (pain, and dead or sicker patients and staff too) of the "excursions from the norm."
It's all about the ruling decisions on what are deemed (as valued by where the money goes) appropriate outcomes of the micro-political economy In the absence of an organizing principle that values decency and stability and sustainability rather than upward wealth transfer.
Will August 21, 2015 at 8:54 am
I'll join the choir recommending Tainter as a critical source for anybody interested in this stuff.
IBG/YBG is a new concept for me, with at least one famous antecedent. "Après moi, le déluge."
diptherio August 21, 2015 at 9:17 am
The author presents the best-case scenario for complex systems: one in which the practitioners involved are actually concerned with maintaining system integrity. However, as Yves points out, that is far from being case in many of our most complex systems.
For instance, the Silvertip pipeline spill near Billings, MT a few years ago may indeed have been a case of multiple causes leading to unforeseen/unforeseeable failure of an oil pipeline as it crossed the Yellowstone river. However, the failure was made immeasurably worse due to the fact that Exxon had failed to supply that pump-station with a safety manual, so when the alarms started going off the guy in the station had to call around to a bunch of people to figure out what was going on. So while it's possible that the failure would have occurred no matter what, the failure of the management to implement even the most basic of safety procedures made the failure much worse than it otherwise would have been.
And this is a point that the oil company apologists are all too keen to obscure. The argument gets trotted out with some regularity that because these oil/gas transmission systems are so complex, some accidents and mishaps are bound to occur. This is true–but it is also true that the incentives of the capitalist system ensure that there will be more and worse accidents than necessary, as the agents involved in maintaining the system pursue their own personal interests which often conflict with the interests of system stability and safety.
Complex systems have their own built-in instabilities, as the author points out; but we've added a system of un-accountability and irresponsibility on top of our complex systems which ensures that failures will occur more often and with greater fall-out than the best-case scenario imagined by the author.
Brooklin Bridge August 21, 2015 at 9:42 am
As Yves pointed out, there is a lack of agency in the article. A corrupt society will tend to generate corrupt systems just as it tends to generate corrupt technology and corrupt ideology. For instance, we get lots of little cars driving themselves about, profitably to the ideology of consumption, but also with an invisible thumb of control, rather than a useful system of public transportation. We get "abstenence only" population explosion because "groath" rather than any rational assessment of obvious future catastrophe.
washunate August 21, 2015 at 10:06 am
Right on. The primary issue of our time is a failure of management. Complexity is an excuse more often than an explanatory variable.
abynormal August 21, 2015 at 3:28 pm
August 21, 2015 at 2:46 pm
Am I the only hearing 9″Nails, March of the Pigs
Aug. 21, 2015 1:54 a.m. ET
A Carlyle Group LP hedge fund that anticipated a sudden currency-policy shift in China gained roughly $100 million in two days last week, a sign of how some bearish bets on the world's second-largest economy are starting to pay off.
oink oink is the sound of system fail
Oregoncharles August 21, 2015 at 3:40 pm
A very important principle:
All systems have a failure rate, including people. We don't get to live in a world where we don't need to lock our doors and banks don't need vaults. (If you find it, be sure to radio back.)
The article is about how we deal with that failure rate. Pointing out that there are failures misses the point.
cnchal August 21, 2015 at 5:05 pm
. . .but it is also true that the incentives of the capitalist system ensure that there will be more and worse accidents than necessary, as the agents involved in maintaining the system pursue their own personal interests which often conflict with the interests of system stability and safety.
How true. A Chinese city exploded. Talk about a black swan. I wonder what the next disaster will be?
hemeantwell August 21, 2015 at 9:32 am
After a skimmy read of the post and reading James' lead-off comment re emperors (Brooklin Bridge comment re misuse is somewhat resonant) it seems to me that a distinguishing feature of systems is not being addressed and therefore being treated as though it's irrelevant.
What about the mandate for a system to have an overarching, empowered regulatory agent, one that could presumably learn from the reflections contained in this post? In much of what is posted here at NC writers give due emphasis to the absence/failure of a range of regulatory functions relevant to this stage of capitalism. These run from SEC corruption to the uncontrolled movement of massive amount of questionably valuable value in off the books transactions between banks, hedge funds etc. This system intentionally has a deliberately weakened control/monitoring function, ideologically rationalized as freedom but practically justified as maximizing accumulation possibilities for the powerful. It is self-lobotomizing, a condition exacerbated by national economic territories (to some degree). I'm not going to now jump up with 3 cheers for socialism as capable of resolving problems posed by capitalism. But, to stay closer to the level of abstraction of the article, doesn't the distinction between distributed opacity + unregulated concentrations of power vs. transparency + some kind of central governing authority matter? Maybe my Enlightenment hubris is riding high after the morning coffee, but this is a kind of self-awareness that assumes its range is limited, even as it posits that limit. Hegel was all over this, which isn't to say he resolved the conundrum, but it's not even identified here.
Ormond Otvos August 21, 2015 at 5:06 pm
Think of Trump as the pimple finally coming to a head: he's making the greed so obvious, and pissing off so many people that some useful regulation might occur.
Another thought about world social collapse: if such a thing is likely, (and I'm sure the PTB know if it is, judging from the reports from the Pentagon about how Global Warming being a national security concern) wouldn't it be a good idea to have a huge ability to overpower the rest of the world?
We might be the only nation that survives as a nation, and we might actually have an Empire of the World, previously unattainable. Maybe SkyNet is really USANet. It wouldn't require any real change in the national majority of creepy grabby people.
Jim August 21, 2015 at 9:43 am
Government bureaucrats and politicians pursue their own interests just as businessmen do. Pollution was much worst in the non-capitalist Soviet Union, East Germany and Eastern Europe than it was in the Capitalist West. Chernobyl happened under socialism not capitalism. The present system in China, although not exactly "socialism", certainly involves a massively powerful govenment but a glance at the current news shows that massive governmental power does not necessarily prevent accidents. The agency problem is not unique to or worse in capitalism than in other systems.
Holly August 21, 2015 at 9:51 am
I'd throw in the theory of cognitive dissonance as an integral part of the failure of complex systems. (Example Tarvis and Aronon's recent book: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by me))
We are more apt to justify bad decisions, with bizarre stories, than to accept our own errors (or mistakes of people important to us). It explains (but doesn't make it easier to accept) the complete disconnect between accepted facts and fanciful justifications people use to support their ideas/organization/behavior.
craazymann August 21, 2015 at 10:03 am
I think this one suffers "Metaphysical Foo Foo Syndrome" MFFS. That means use of words to reference realities that are inherently ill-defined and often unobservable leading to untestable theories and deeply personal approaches to epistemological reasoning.
just what is a 'complex system"? A system implies a boundary - there are things part of the system and things outside the system. That's a hard concept to identify - just where the system ends and something else begins. So when 'the system' breaks down, it's hard to tell with any degree of testable objectivity whether the breakdown resulted from "the system" or from something outside the system and the rest was just "an accident that could have happened to anybody'"
maybe the idea is; '"if something breaks down at the worst possible time and in a way that fkks everything up, then it must have been a complex system". But it could also have been a simple system that ran into bad luck. Consider your toilet. Maybe you put too much toilet paper in it, and it clogged. Then it overflowed and ran out into your hallway with your shit everywhere. Then you realized you had an expensive Chinese rug on the floor. oh no! That was bad. you were gonna put tthat rug away as soon as you had a chance to admire it unrolled. Why did you do that? Big fckk up. But it wasn't a complex system. It was just one of those things.
susan the other August 21, 2015 at 12:14 pm
thanks for that, I think
Gio Bruno August 21, 2015 at 2:27 pm
Actually, it was a system too complex for this individual. S(He) became convinced the plumbing would work as it had previously. But doo to poor maintenance, too much paper, or a stiff BM the "system" didn't work properly. There must have been opportunity to notice something anomalous, but appropriate oversight wasn't applied.
Oregoncharles August 21, 2015 at 3:29 pm
You mean the BM was too tightly coupled?
craazyman August 21, 2015 at 4:22 pm
It coould happen to anybody after enough pizza and red wine
people weren't meant to be efficient. paper towels and duct tape can somettmes help
This ocurred to me: The entire 1960s music revolution would't have happened if anybody had to be efficient about hanging out and jamming. You really have to lay around and do nothing if you want to achieve great things. You need many opportunities to fail and learn before the genius flies. That's why tightly coupled systems are self-defeating. Because they wipe too many people out before they've had a chance to figure out the universe.
JustAnObserver August 21, 2015 at 3:01 pm
Excellent example of tight coupling: Toilet -> Floor -> Hallway -> $$$ Rug
Fix: Apply Break coupling procedure #1: Shut toilet door.
Then: Procedure #2 Jam inexpensive old towels in gap at the bottom.
As with all such measures this buys the most important thing of all – time. In this case to get the $$$Rug out of the way.
IIRC one of Bookstaber's points was that that, in the extreme, tight coupling allows problems to propagate through the system so fast and so widely that we have no chance to mitigate before they escalate to disaster.
washunate August 21, 2015 at 10:03 am
To put it more simply, the drift of both economic and business thinking has been to optimize activity for efficiency.
I think that's an interesting framework. I would say effeciency is achieving the goal in the most effective manner possible. Perhaps that's measured in energy, perhaps labor, perhaps currency units, but whatever the unit of measure, you are minimizing that input cost.
What our economics and business thinking (and most importantly, political thinking) has primarily been doing, I would say, is not optimizing for efficiency. Rather, they are changing the goal being optimized. The will to power has replaced efficiency as the actual outcome.
Unchecked theft, looting, predation, is not efficient. Complexity and its associated secrecy is used to hide the inefficiency, to justify and promote that which would not otherwise stand scrutiny in the light of day.
BigEd August 21, 2015 at 10:11 am
What nonsense. All around us 'complex systems' (airliners, pipelines, coal mines, space stations, etc.) have become steadily LESS prone to failure/disaster over the decades. We are near the stage where the only remaining danger in air travel is human error. We will soon see driverless cars & trucks, and you can be sure accident rates will decline as the human element is taken out of their operation.
tegnost August 21, 2015 at 12:23 pm
see fukushima, lithium batteries spontaneously catching fire, financial engineering leading to collapse unless vast energy is invested in them to re stabilize Driverless cars and trucks are not that soon, tech buddies say ten years I say malarkey based on several points made in the article, while as brooklyn bridge points out public transit languishes, and washunate points out that trains and other more efficient means of locomotion are starved while more complex methods have more energy thrown at them which could be better applied elsewhere. I think you're missing the point by saying look at all our complex systems, they work fine and then you ramble off a list of things with high failure potential and say look they haven't broken yet, while things that have broken and don't support your view are left out. By this mechanism safety protocols are eroded (that accident you keep avoiding hasn't happened, which means you're being too cautious so your efficiency can be enhanced by not worrying about it until it happens then you can fix it but as pointed out above tightly coupled systems can't react fast enough at which point we all have to hear the whocoodanode justification )
susan the other August 21, 2015 at 12:34 pm
And the new points of failure will be what?
susan the other August 21, 2015 at 3:00 pm
So here's a question. What is the failure heirarchy. And why don't those crucial nodes of failsafe protect the system. Could it be that we don't know what they are?
Moneta August 22, 2015 at 8:09 am
While 90% of people were producing food a few decades ago, I think a large percentage will be producing energy in a few decades right now we are still propping up our golf courses and avoiding investing in pipelines and refineries. We are still exploiting the assets of the 50s and 60s to live our hyper material lives. Those investments are what gave us a few decades of consumerism.
Now everyone wants government to spend on infra without even knowing what needs to go and what needs to stay. Maybe half of Californians need to get out of there and forget about building more infra there just a thought.
America still has a frontier ethos how in the world can the right investments in infra be made with a collection of such values?
We're going to get city after city imploding. More workers producing energy and less leisure over the next few decades. That's what breakdown is going to look like.
Moneta August 22, 2015 at 8:22 am
Flying might get safer and safer while we get more and more cities imploding.
Just like statues on Easter Island were getting increasingly elaborate as trees were disappearing.
ian August 21, 2015 at 4:02 pm
What you say is true, but only if you have a sufficient number of failures to learn from. A lot of planes had to crash for air travel to be as safe as it is today.
wm.annis August 21, 2015 at 10:19 am
I am surprised to see no reference to John Gall's General Systematics in this discussion, an entire study of systems and how they misbehave. I tend to read it from the standpoint of managing a complex IT infrastructure, but his work starts from human systems (organizations).
The work is organized around aphorisms - Systems tend to oppose their own proper function - The real world is what it is reported to the system - but one or two from this paper should be added to that repertoire. Point 7 seems especially important. From Gall, I have come to especially appreciate the Fail-Safe Theorem: "when a Fail-Safe system fails, it fails by failing to fail safe."
flora August 21, 2015 at 10:32 am
Instead of writing something long and rambling about complex systems being aggregates of smaller, discrete systems, each depending on a functioning and accurate information processing/feedback (not IT) system to maintain its coherence; and upon equally well functioning feedback systems between the parts and the whole - instead of that I'll quote a poem.
" Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; "
-Yates, "The Second Coming"
flora August 21, 2015 at 10:46 am
erm make that "Yeats", as in W.B.
Steve H. August 21, 2015 at 11:03 am
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
LifelongLib August 21, 2015 at 7:38 pm
IIRC in Robert A. Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters" there's a different version:
Big fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas
And so, ad infinitum.
Since the story is about humans being parasitized and controlled by alien "slugs" that sit on their backs, and the slugs in turn being destroyed by an epidemic disease started by the surviving humans, the verse has a macabre appropriateness.
LifelongLib August 21, 2015 at 10:14 pm
Original reply got eaten, so I hope not double post. Robert A. Heinlein's (and others?) version:
Big fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite 'em
And little fleas have lesser fleas
And so ad infinitum!
Lambert Strether August 21, 2015 at 10:26 pm
The order Siphonoptera .
Oregoncharles August 21, 2015 at 10:59 pm
"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?"
I can't leave that poem without its ending – especially as it becomes ever more relevant.
Oldeguy August 21, 2015 at 11:02 am
Terrific post- just the sort of thing that has made me a NC fan for years.
I'm a bit surprised that the commentators ( thus far ) have not referred to the Financial Crisis of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession as being an excellent example of Cook's failure analysis.
Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera's
All The Devils Are Here www.amazon.com/All-Devils-Are-Here-Financial/dp/159184438X/
describes beautifully how the erosion of the protective mechanisms in the U.S. financial system, no single one of which would have of itself been deadly in its absence ( Cook's Point 3 ) combined to produce the Perfect Storm.
It brought to mind Garett Hardin's The Tragedy Of The Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons . While the explosive growth of debt ( and therefore risk ) obviously jeopardized the entire system, it was very much within the narrow self interest of individual players to keep the growth ( and therefore the danger ) increasing.
Ormond Otvos August 21, 2015 at 5:14 pm
Bingo. Failure of the culture to properly train its members. Not so much a lack of morality as a failure to point out that when the temple falls, it falls on Samson.
The next big fix is to use the US military to wall off our entire country, maybe include Canada (language is important in alliances) during the Interregnum.
Why is no one mentioning the Foundation Trilogy and Hari Seldon here?
Deloss August 21, 2015 at 11:29 am
My only personal experience with the crash of a complex, tightly-coupled system was the crash of the trading floor of a very big stock exchange in the early part of this century. The developers were in the computer room, telling the operators NOT to roll back to the previous release, and the operators ignored them and did so anyway. Crash!
In Claus Jensen's fascinating account of the Challenger disaster, NO DOWNLINK, he describes how the managers overrode the engineers' warnings not to fly under existing weather conditions. We all know the result.
Human error was the final cause in both cases.
Now we are undergoing the terrible phenomenon of global warming, which everybody but Republicans, candidates and elected, seems to understand is real and catastrophic. The Republicans have a majority in Congress, and refuse–for ideological and monetary reasons–to admit that the problem exists. I think this is another unfolding disaster that we can ascribe to human error.
Ormond Otvos August 21, 2015 at 5:17 pm
"Human error" needs unpacking here. In this discussion, it's become a Deus ex Humanitas. Humans do what they do because their cultural experiences impel them to do so. Human plus culture is not the same as human. That's why capitalism doesn't work in a selfish society.
Oldeguy August 21, 2015 at 5:52 pm
" capitalism doesn't work in a selfish society "
Very true, not nearly so widely realized as it should be, and the Irony of Ironies .
BayesianGame August 21, 2015 at 11:48 am
But highly efficient systems are fragile. Formula One cars are optimized for speed and can only run one race.
Another problem with obsessing about (productive or technical) efficiency is that it usually means a narrow focus on the most measured or measurable inputs and outputs, to the detriment of less measurable but no less important aspects. Wages are easier to measure than the costs of turnover, including changes in morale, loss of knowledge and skill, and regard for the organization vs. regard for the individual. You want low cost fish? Well, it might be caught by slaves. Squeeze the measurable margins, and the hidden margins will move.
Donw August 21, 2015 at 3:18 pm
You hint at a couple fallacies.
1) Measuring what is easy instead of what is important.
2) Measuring many things and then optimizing all of them optimizes the whole.
Then, have some linear thinker try to optimize those in a complex system (like any organization involving humans) with multiple hidden and delayed feedback loops, and the result will certainly be unexpected. Whether for good or ill is going to be fairly unpredictable unless someone has actually looked for the feedback loops.
IsabelPS August 21, 2015 at 1:02 pm
It's nice to see well spelled out a couple of intuitions I've had for a long time. For example, that we are going in the wrong direction when we try to streamline instead of following the path of biology: redundancies, "dirtiness" and, of course, the king of mechanisms, negative feedback (am I wrong in thinking that the main failure of finance, as opposed to economy, is that it has inbuilt positive feedback instead of negative?). And yes, my professional experience has taught me that when things go really wrong it was never just one mistake, it is a cluster of those.
downunderer August 22, 2015 at 3:52 am
Yes, as you hint here, and I would make forcefully explicit: COMPLEX vs NOT-COMPLEX is a false dichotomy that is misleading from the start.
We ourselves, and all the organisms we must interact with in order to stay alive, are individually among the most complex systems that we know of. And the interactions of all of us that add up to Gaia are yet more complex. And still it moves.
Natural selection built the necessary stability features into our bodily complexity. We even have a word for it: homeostasis. Based on negative feedback loops that can keep the balancing act going. And our bodies are vastly more complex than our societies.
Society's problem right now is not complexity per se, but the exploitation of complexity by system components that want to hog the resources and to hell with the whole, quite exactly parallel to the behavior of cancer cells in our bodies when regulatory systems fail.
In our society's case, it is the intelligent teamwork of the stupidly selfish that has destroyed the regulatory systems. Instead of negative feedback keeping deviations from optimum within tolerable limits, we now have positive feedback so obvious it is trite: the rich get richer.
We not only don't need to de-complexify, we don't dare to. We really need to foster the intelligent teamwork that our society is capable of, or we will fail to survive challenges like climate change and the need to sensibly control the population. The alternative is to let natural selection do the job for us, using the old reliable four horsemen.
We are unlikely to change our own evolved selfishness, and probably shouldn't. But we need to control the monsters that we have created within our society. These monsters have all the selfishness of a human at his worst, plus several natural large advantages, including size, longevity, and the ability to metamorphose and regenerate. And as powerful as they already were, they have recently been granted all the legal rights of human citizens, without appropriate negative feedback controls. Everyone here will already know what I'm talking about, so I'll stop.
Peter Pan August 21, 2015 at 1:18 pm
Formula One cars are optimized for speed and can only run one race.
Actually I believe F1 has rules regarding the number of changes that can be made to a car during the season. This is typically four or five changes (replacements or rebuilds), so a F1 car has to be able to run more than one race or otherwise face penalties.
jo6pac August 21, 2015 at 1:41 pm
Yes, F-1 allows four power planets per-season it has been up dated lately to 5. There isn't anything in the air or ground as complex as a F-1 car power planet. The cars are feeding 30 or more engineers at the track and back home normal in England millions of bit of info per second and no micro-soft is not used but very complex programs watching every system in the car. A pit stop in F-1 is 2.7 seconds anything above 3.5 and your not trying hard enough.
Honda who pride themselves in Engineering has struggled in power planet design this year and admit they have but have put more engineers on the case. The beginning of this Tech engine design the big teams hired over 100 more engineers to solve the problems. Ferrari throw out the first design and did a total rebuild and it working.
This is how the world of F-1 has moved into other designs, long but a fun read.
I'm sure those in F-1 system designs would look at stories like this and would come to the conclusion that these nice people are the gate keepers and not the future. Yes, I'm a long time fan of F-1. Then again what do I know.
The sad thing in F-1 the gate keepers are the owners CVC.
Brooklin Bridge August 21, 2015 at 3:25 pm
Interesting comment! One has to wonder why every complex system can't be treated as the be-all. Damn the torpedos. Spare no expense! Maybe if we just admitted we are all doing absolutely nothing but going around in a big circle at an ever increasing speed, we could get a near perfect complex system to help us along.
Ormond Otvos August 21, 2015 at 5:21 pm
If the human race were as important as auto racing, maybe. But we know that's not true ;->
jo6pac August 21, 2015 at 5:51 pm
In the link it's the humans of McLaren that make all the decisions on the car and the race on hand. The link is about humans working together either in real race time or designing out problems created by others.
Marsha August 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm
Globalization factors in maximizing the impact of Murphy's Law:
- Meltdown potential of a globalized 'too big to fail' financial system associated with trade imbalances and international capital flows, and boom and bust impact of volatile "hot money".
- Environmental damage associated with inefficiency of excessive long long supply chains seeking cheap commodities and dirty polluting manufacturing zones.
- Military vulnerability of same long tightly coupled 'just in time" supply chains across vast oceans, war zones, choke points that are very easy to attack and nearly impossible to defend.
- Consumer product safety threat of manufacturing somewhere offshore out of sight out of mind outside the jurisdiction of the domestic regulatory system.
- Geographic concentration and contagion of risk of all kinds – fragile pattern of horizontal integration – manufacturing in China, finance in New York and London, industrialized mono culture agriculture lacking biodiversity (Iowa feeds the world). If all the bulbs on the Christmas tree are wired in series, it takes only one to fail and they all go out.
Globalization is not a weather event, not a thermodynamic process of atoms and molecules, not a principle of Newtonian physics, not water running downhill, but a hyper aggressive top down policy agenda by power hungry politicians and reckless bean counter economists. An agenda hell bent on creating a tightly coupled globally integrated unstable house of cards with a proven capacity for catastrophic (trade) imbalance, global financial meltdown, contagion of bad debt, susceptibility to physical threats of all kinds.
Synoia August 21, 2015 at 1:23 pm
Any complex system contains non-linear feedback. Management presumes it is their skill that keeps the system working over some limited range, where the behavior approximates linear. Outside those limits, the system can fail catastrophically. What is perceived as operating or management skill is either because the system is kept in "safe" limits, or just happenstance. See chaos theory.
Operators or engineers controlling or modifying the system are providing feedback. Feedback can push the system past "safe" limits. Once past safe limits, the system can fail catastrophically Such failure happen very quickly, and are always "a surprise".
Synoia August 21, 2015 at 1:43 pm
All complex system contain non-linear feedback, and all appear manageable over a small rage of operation, under specific conditions.
These are the systems' safe working limits, and sometimes the limits are known, but in many case the safe working limits are unknown (See Stock Markets).
All systems with non-linear feedback can and will fail, catastrophically.
All predicted by Chaos Theory. Best mathematical filed applicable to the real world of systems.
So I'll repeat. All complex system will fail when operating outside safe limits, change in the system, management induced and stimulus induced, can and will redefine those limits, with spectacular results.
We hope and pray system will remain within safe limits, but greed and complacency lead us humans to test those limits (loosen the controls), or enable greater levels of feedback (increase volumes of transactions). See Crash of 2007, following repeal of Glass-Stegal, etc.
Brooklin Bridge August 21, 2015 at 4:05 pm
It's Ronnie Ray Gun. He redefined it as, "Safe for me but not for thee." Who says you can't isolate the root?
Synoia August 21, 2015 at 5:25 pm
Ronnie Ray Gun was the classic example of a Manager.
Where one can only say: "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do"
Oregoncharles August 21, 2015 at 2:54 pm
Three quite different thoughts:
First, I don't think the use of "practitioner" is an evasion of agency. Instead, it reflects the very high level of generality inherent in systems theory. The pitfall is that generality is very close to vagueness. However, the piece does contain an argument against the importance of agency; it argues that the system is more important than the individual practitioners, that since catastrophic failures have multiple causes, individual agency is unimportant. That might not apply to practitioners with overall responsibility or who intentionally wrecked the system; there's a naive assumption that everyone's doing their best. I think the author would argue that control fraud is also a system failure, that there are supposed to be safeguards against malicious operators. Bill Black would probably agree. (Note that I dropped off the high level of generality to a particular example.)
Second, this appears to defy the truism from ecology that more complex systems are more stable. I think that's because ecologies generally are not tightly coupled. There are not only many parts but many pathways (and no "practitioners"). So "coupling" is a key concept not much dealt with in the article. It's about HUMAN systems, even though the concept should apply more widely than that.
Third, Yves mentioned the economists' use of "equilibrium." This keeps coming up; the way the word is used seems to me to badly need definition. It comes from chemistry, where it's used to calculate the production from a reaction. The ideal case is a closed system: for instance, the production of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen in a closed pressure chamber. You can calculate the proportion of ammonia produced from the temperature and pressure of the vessel. It's a fairly fast reaction, so time isn't a big factor.
The Earth is not a closed system, nor are economies. Life is driven by the flow of energy from the Sun (and various other factors, like the steady rain of material from space). In open systems, "equilibrium" is a constantly moving target. In principle, you could calculate the results at any given condition , given long enough for the many reactions to finish. It's as if the potential equilibrium drives the process (actually, the inputs do).
Not only is the target moving, but the whole system is chaotic in the sense that it's highly dependent on variables we can't really measure, like people, so the outcomes aren't actually predictable. That doesn't really mean you can't use the concept of equilibrium, but it has to be used very carefully. Unfortunately, most economists are pretty ignorant of physical science, so ignorant they insistently defy the laws of thermodynamics ("groaf"), so there's a lot of magical thinking going on. It's really ideology, so the misuse of "equilibrium" is just one aspect of the system failure.
Synoia August 21, 2015 at 5:34 pm
"equilibrium from chemistry, where it's used to calculate the production from a reaction"
That is certainly a definition in one scientific field.
There is another definition from physics.
When all the forces that act upon an object are balanced, then the object is said to be in a state of equilibrium.
However objects on a table are considered in equilibrium, until one considers an earthquake.
The condition for an equilibrium need to be carefully defined, and there are few cases, if any, of equilibrium "under all conditions."
nat scientist August 21, 2015 at 7:42 pm
Equilibrium ceases when Chemistry breaks out, dear Physicist.
Synoia August 21, 2015 at 10:19 pm
Equilibrium ceases when Chemistry breaks out
This is only a subset.
Oregoncharles August 21, 2015 at 10:56 pm
I avoided physics, being not so very mathematical, so learned the chemistry version – but I do think it's the one the economists are thinking of.
What I neglected to say: it's an analogy, hence potentially useful but never literally true – especially since there's no actual stopping point, like your table.
John Merryman August 21, 2015 at 3:09 pm
There is much simpler way to look at it, in terms of natural cycles, because the alternative is that at the other extreme, a happy medium is also a flatline on the big heart monitor. So the bigger it builds, the more tension and pressure accumulates. The issue then becomes as to how to leverage the consequences. As they say, a crisis should never be wasted. At its heart, there are two issues, economic overuse of resources and a financial medium in which the rent extraction has overwhelmed its benefits. These actually serve as some sort of balance, in that we are in the process of an economic heart attack, due to the clogging of this monetary circulation system, that will seriously slow economic momentum.
The need then is to reformulate how these relationships function, in order to direct and locate our economic activities within the planetary resources. One idea to take into consideration being that money functions as a social contract, though we treat it as a commodity. So recognizing it is not property to be collected, rather contracts exchanged, then there wouldn't be the logic of basing the entire economy around the creation and accumulation of notational value, to the detriment of actual value. Treating money as a public utility seems like socialism, but it is just an understanding of how it functions. Like a voucher system, simply creating excess notes to keep everyone happy is really, really stupid, big picture wise.
Obviously some parts of the system need more than others, but not simply for ego gratification. Like a truck needs more road than a car, but an expensive car only needs as much road as an economy car. The brain needs more blood than the feet, but it doesn't want the feet rotting off due to poor circulation either.
So basically, yes, complex systems are finite, but we need to recognize and address the particular issues of the system in question.
Bob Stapp August 21, 2015 at 5:30 pm
Perhaps in a too-quick scan of the comments, I overlooked any mention of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, Antifragile. If so, my apologies. If not, it's a serious omission from this discussion.
Local to Oakland August 21, 2015 at 6:34 pm
Thank you for this.
I first wondered about something related to this theme when I first heard about just in time sourcing of inventory. (Now also staff.) I wondered then whether this was possible because we (middle and upper class US citizens) had been shielded from war and other catastrophic events. We can plan based on everything going right because most of us don't know in our gut that things can always go wrong.
I'm genX, but 3 out of 4 of my grandparents were born during or just after WWI. Their generation built for redundancy, safety, stability. Our generation, well. We take risks and I'm not sure the decision makers have a clue that any of it can bite them.
Jeremy Grimm August 22, 2015 at 4:23 pm
The just-in-time supply of components for manufacturing was described in Barry Lynn's book "Cornered" and identified as creating extreme fragility in the American production system. There have already been natural disasters that shutdown American automobile production in our recent past.
Everything going right wasn't part of the thinking that went into just-in-time parts. Everything going right - long enough - to steal away market share on price-point was the thinking. Decision makers don't worry about any of this biting them. Passing the blame down and golden parachutes assure that.
flora August 21, 2015 at 7:44 pm
This is really a very good paper. My direct comments are:
point 2: yes. provided the safety shields are not discarded for bad reasons like expedience or ignorance or avarice. See Glass-Steagall Act, for example.
point 4: yes. true of all dynamic systems.
point 7: 'root cause' is not the same as 'key factors'. ( And here the doctor's sensitivity to malpractice suits may be guiding his language.) It is important to determine key factors in order to devise better safety shields for the system. Think airplane black boxes and the 1932 Pecora Commission after the 1929 stock market crash.
Jay M August 21, 2015 at 9:01 pm
It's easy, complexity became too complex. And I can't read the small print. We are devolving into a world of happy people with gardens full of flowers that they live in on their cell phones.
Ancaeus August 22, 2015 at 5:22 am
There are a number of counter-examples; engineered and natural systems with a high degree of complexity that are inherently stable and fault-tolerant, nonetheless.
1. Subsumption architecture is a method of controlling robots, invented by Rodney Brooks in the 1980s. This scheme is modeled on the way the nervous systems of animals work. In particular, the parts of the robot exist in a hierarchy of subsystems, e.g., foot, leg, torso, etc. Each of these subsystems is autonomously controlled. Each of the subsystems can override the autonomous control of its constituent subsystems. So, the leg controller can directly control the leg muscle, and can override the foot subsystem. This method of control was remarkably successful at producing walking robots which were not sensitive to unevenness of the surface. In other words, the were not brittle in the sense of Dr. Cook. Of course, subsumption architecture is not a panacea. But it is a demonstrated way to produce very complex engineered systems consisting of many interacting parts that are very stable.
2. The inverted pendulum Suppose you wanted to build a device to balance a pencil on its point. You could imagine a sensor to detect the angle of the pencil, an actuator to move the balance point, and a controller to link the two in a feedback loop. Indeed, this is, very roughly, how a Segway remains upright. However, there is a simpler way to do it, without a sensor or a feedback controller. It turns out that if your device just moves the balance point sinusoidaly (e.g., in a small circle) and if the size of the circle and the rate are within certain ranges, then the pencil will be stable. This is a well-known consequence of the Mathieu equation. The lesson here is that stability (i.e., safety) can be inherent in systems for subtle reasons that defy a straightforward fault/response feedback.
3. Emergent behavior of swarms Large numbers of very simple agents interacting with one another can sometimes exhibit complex, even "intelligent" behavior. Ants are a good example. Each ant has only simple behavior. However, the entire ant colony can act in complex and effective ways that would be hard to predict from the individual ant behaviors. A typical ant colony is highly resistant to disturbances in spite of the primitiveness of its constituent ants.
4. Another example is the mammalian immune system that uses negative selection as one mechanism to avoid attacking the organism itself. Immature B cells are generated in large numbers at random, each one with receptors for specifically configured antigens. During maturation, if they encounter a matching antigen (likely a protein of the organism) then the B cell either dies, or is inactivated. At maturity, what is left is a highly redundant cohort of B cells that only recognize (and neutralize) foreign antigens.
Well, these are just a few examples of systems that exhibit stability (or fault-tolerance) that defies the kind of Cartesian analysis in Dr. Cook's article.
Marsha August 22, 2015 at 11:42 am
Glass-Steagall Act: interactions between unrelated functionality is something to be avoided. Auto recall: honking the horn could stall the engine by shorting out the ignition system. Simple fix is is a bit of insulation.
ADA software language: Former DOD standard for large scale safety critical software development: encapsulation, data hiding, strong typing of data, minimization of dependencies between parts to minimize impact of fixes and changes. Has safety critical software gone the way of the Glass-Steagall Act? Now it is buffer overflows, security holes, and internet protocol in hardware control "critical infrastructure" that can blow things up.
Caelan MacIntyre, 12/05/2015 at 3:13 amContinued from here and here…
"I have a problem with many Social Sciences studies." ~ Javier
You also seem to have a problem with climate change studies. 'u^
"They set a preconceived theory, they build a model, and without any real data they claim their model supports their theory." ~ Javier
From what is understood, the model, at least the initial one, came from NASA.
"For a start they are supposed to be working with collapse, yet they clearly have no idea of the meaning of the word collapse, and have no functional definition of it to work with. They say things as 'The Roman Empire's dramatic collapse.' When exactly did the Roman collapse took place? We have known for centuries that the Roman Empire declined and fell (to put it in Gibbon's words). That is not a collapse. It is more like a long disease that ends in death." ~ Javier
Well they did qualify it in parentheses:
"The Roman Empire's dramatic collapse (followed by many centuries of population decline, economic deterioration, intellectual regression, and the disappearance of literacy)"
"The idea that excessive draw on essential resources breeds collapse is so obvious as to not merit any discussion." ~ Javier
Since it was/is apparently a model or simulation, 'essential resources' seem to be variables that need to be included. But one question is, 'How?'. 'Excessive draw' (or anything else) doesn't happen devoid of context.
Anyway, it seems to be formative, and did they qualified it as a 'thought experiment'? That seems to be how science works, what experiments are in part for; to test hypotheses, etc..
" But the idea that inequality breeds collapse is slightly more original…
If the principal thesis of the work was true, and inequality breeds collapse, then we would have some evidence by now that egalitarian societies should be more resistant to collapse as they don't suffer from 'scarcity of labor'.
Egalitarian societies should be more abundant. They clearly are not."~ Javier
Over time they may be, but to get there currently, such as if we can't manage with the current numbers, we may need a dramatic reduction of the population…
"Bands have a loose organization. Their power structure is often egalitarian and has informal leadership; the older members of the band generally are looked to for guidance and advice, and decisions are often made on a consensus basis, but there are no written laws and none of the specialised coercive roles (e.g., police) typically seen in more complex societies." ~ Wikipedia
"Much to the contrary I believe there is not a single example of a complex egalitarian civilization without an extractive elite. I would like to be proven wrong on this, but even small tribes have a chief, and a chief's family, and if big enough they have a nobility." ~ Javier
Indeed, while there're some significant differences between small-scale tribal or band setups and larger complex civilization setups, if we can't get our acts together with regard to ethics (lack thereof) that can seem to underpin complex civilizations' issues, then we may find this one also going the way of the others.
"To say that we have to develop an egalitarian society without an extractive elite to avoid collapse (which is a statement not supported by evidence) is the same as to say that we have to grow wings on the shoulders to avoid collapse from peak oil. It just is not going to happen." ~ Javier
Maybe this time it's different, what with it being global in scope and therefore, for example, with nowhere else to go/collapse to; no extra planet Earth. Nevertheless, I am sorely tempted to agree.
"We have to be specially skeptical of 'scientific' articles that claim to demonstrate what we believe to be true. It is one of the ways of fighting confirmation bias." ~ Javier
Sure, but it does dovetail with and support, along with other material, a case I've been making.
Just because we might think or suspect that we can't do or change some things doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't try; be responsible, ethical, and try to change or transcend a system that is not.
Or maybe we are indeed just not smarter as a collective than rats on an island or yeast in a petri-dish in overshoot; that our so-called intelligence, alone, will not be enough to transcend some fundamental law of nature; a parasitic elite; or this planet, to continue to flourish elsewhere.
That appears the real challenge. And this study, among other indicators, seems to suggest that it won't be met through technology like renewables or electric vehicles, at least not alone, but through simple, shared ethics (care of Earth; care of people, etc.) .
Javier, 12/05/2015 at 6:17 amSure I do have a problem with many studies. I am not satisfied with reading something that confirms what I believe to be true. It takes training to reach that point.
Most people here talk about collapse without giving a thought to the word meaning:
"a sudden failure of an institution or undertaking."
They extrapolate to any failure regardless of the time involved.
But science is all about precision in the language. That's why we have our own language called scientific language, and that is why we restrict the definition of common words beyond how non-scientist people use them.
The Roman Empire did not collapse. You cannot set a date for when it went from normal functioning to failure. Depending how you set the last date for normal functioning, the fall of the Roman Empire took from 200 to 450 years and that doesn't fit any definition of sudden. Along that process they had huge crisis and we can point to about a dozen. None of them can be identified as the one that took the Empire from its height to its fall.
We could say that Yugoslavia collapsed as it was a functioning country in early 1991, and completely split and at war by 1992. See the difference?
Even for a thought experiment, if you want any conclusion to have any validity, you need to ground it in evidence. They fail to do that. Clearly history is not their strength as any civilization passing is branded a collapse and tagged a non demonstrated cause, shortage of labor or shortage of resources. And shortage of labor is the most ridiculous cause for a civilization failure that I have ever heard of. Can you seriously defend shortage of labor as a cause for civilization failure without breaking up with laughter?
Maybe this time it's different, but probably it is not. You are tempted to agree with them because you want to avoid civilization failure or collapse as anybody else. Any solution that involves a change in human nature, a global collaboration that sets aside any sort of personal or group interests, is sadly outside our reach. We know by experience that when problems arrive they will be met with beggar thy neighbor policies. We are going down fighting each other exactly as we raised.
Jef, 12/05/2015 at 9:28 amThe Roman empire has nothing to tell us about collapse.
The WORLD is involved in this one.
Finite resources are a reality. The Biosphere is reaching its limits in absorbing our waste stream. The world is connected and more complex by several orders of magnitude.
... ... ...
Caelan MacIntyre, 12/05/2015 at 4:50 pm
"Increasing pressure from 'barbarians' outside Roman culture also contributed greatly to the collapse… The reasons for the collapse are major subjects of the historiography of the ancient world and they inform much modern discourse on state failure" ~ Wikipedia, 'Fall of the Western Roman Empire' entry
1: to fall or shrink together abruptly and completely : fall into a jumbled or flattened mass through the force of external pressure (a blood vessel that collapsed)
2: to break down completely : disintegrate (his case had collapsed in a mass of legal wreckage - Erle Stanley Gardner)
3: to cave or fall in or give way (the bridge collapsed)…
refreshment, rejuvenation, rejuvenescence, revitalization"
~ Merriam Webster online dictionary
Arceus, 12/05/2015 at 2:29 pmWhen people speak of a "collapse" I believe what they are thinking of is not a Rome-style slow disintegration but a Soviet-style collapse in which a seemingly stable superpower disintegrated in only a few short years.
In 1989, also without losing on the battlefield for fifty years, the Soviet Union lost control over Eastern Europe which completely negated the results of WW II – something unthinkable just four years earlier. The collapse of the Soviet Union began September 13, 1985 when the Saudi oil minister announced the country was altering its oil policy. The Saudis stopped supporting oil prices and instead increased production fourfold. Oil prices collapsed and as a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.
The former superpower eventually had to go cap in hand to the West, begging for loans to feed its people.
AlexS, 12/05/2015 at 5:40 pmArceus,
You repeat primitive cliches of the western MSM. The collapse of the Soviet Union was caused by much more complex set of factors, mostly internal.
Arceus, 12/05/2015 at 6:22 pmMy short post was not intended as a comprehensive reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union – it was merely to illustrate how rapidly a "superpower" can fall. The collapse in the price of oil was quite likely the straw that broke the camel's back, but make no mistake the camel was close to death anyway. But without question, the suddenness of the move took the USSR so completely by surprise they were than out of options (options that the politburo would approve anyway).
The parallels to what happened back then and what is happening now are interesting. History will not repeat. The Russia of the late 1980s is not the Russia of today. Putin will not be undone by what worked in the past. It is quite possible that the U.S. will be the superpower to fall this time, and a sudden collapse in the dollar may leave the U.S. going cap in hand to Japan and China.
Caelan MacIntyre, 12/05/2015 at 2:37 pmJavier, I am not even sure we necessarily need scientific models or studies, at least in a way…
I mean, if we have a system that cheats, then anything is game.
Then I can cheat too. (And, along with others, I'll likely be doing it on the 'nitrous oxide' of fury and resentment that some– maybe most– can feel when they wake up and realize that they've been cheated.)
So if sufficient numbers of (livid) people catch on, if they get out from under the cheating system's ideological indoctrinations (that it's not a cheat and that, say, coercive taxation, kid-killing cops and corporate parasites are all well and good and for our benefit), and find out that the game is really one big nasty rig/scam/dupe/hoodwink, what do you think will happen?
Let's run the model/simulation and see.
Ablokeimet, 12/05/2015 at 8:35 amCaelan has it right. Javier is right to be wary of confirmation bias, but that's just as applicable to pessimistic and conservative approaches as to optimistic and progressive ones. I have only a couple more points to make (one longer than the other):
1. Australian Aborignal cultures were complex and egalitarian. There was not a lot in the way of material privileges because there was little to spare. People instead worked within the land's carrying capacity and enjoyed a high-leisure society.
2. Egalitarian societies weren't particularly "abundant" because there was little incentive to save production to invest for expanded future production. Increases in productivity were generally responded to by increased leisure time.
With the development of class society, the ruling class appropriated the production above the levels necessary for subsistence. Some of this surplus was devoted to luxury consumption, which was, after all, the motive for the exercise. Society was producing enough for some to live in comfort, but not enough for all to live in comfort – so, sooner or later, a minority was going to find some method of being the comfortable ones. Some of the surplus was devoted to supporting military forces necessary to keep the ruling class in power. And some of the surplus got put to work in projects which the relevant ruling class people thought would bring them even better benefits in future.
Under class society, therefore, greater inequality has until recently led to greater accumulation of wealth in society. Society gets richer because the rich appropriate a higher proportion of production and prevent it from being consumed. It's also the typical neo-classical economist's justification for inequality.
What's changed is that the increasing domination of society by the money economy* means that, increasingly, production only takes place for sale rather than for use. Inequality, by restricting consumption, increasingly acts to restrict production as well. This phenomenon is aggravated by the financialisation of the economy, so that more social resources are being dragged into unproductive activities like financial speculation, which are about re-distributing claims on production rather than about increasing aggregate real wealth.
There is only one way out of this, although it is unfashionable at the moment. Capitalism has done its historically necessary work in increasing the productive forces of the world and the social productivity of labour to the extent that it is now possible for everybody to live in comfort**. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were premature in their analysis, which is one of the two fundamental reasons things went pear-shaped in Russia (the other reason being their dictatorial predilictions, but analysing that would take us too far away from the topic at hand). Europe, North America and the British White Dominions were ready for a post-scarcity economy, but the majority of the human race wasn't. Now, however, the world as a whole is ready – those parts which aren't yet ready are balanced by regions with a superabundance of productive forces. The consequence of this is that inequality has losts its role as an inescapable tragedy and has become a voluntary crime. We can have a world of freedom and equality, if we want it. At the moment, however, equality has a bad press – particularly in the USA.
* It's not widely realised that, even as late as the 1990s, the US was the only country on Earth where a majority of economically useful production took place in the money economy – and even there, it was a small majority.
** Yes, even in a world of Peak Oil, we have enough for everybody to live comfortably. There's not enough for everybody to drive SUVs, commute 500km per week and be generally extravagant with resources, but there's enough to feed, clothe and house everyone comfortably, with good health care and sufficient leisure, in sustainably designed cities with sustainable transport and energy systems.
January 5, 2011
Gloom, doom, and apocalyptic musings seem to be a permanent feature of modern society. But we've had more in the way of dystopian movies and talk of imperial decline in the last ten years than in the preceding ten.
Quite a few readers have taken to mentioning Joseph Tainter's classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies, in comments, a sign it might be worth discussing formally.
Tainter, an archeologist, developed his thesis out of his considerable dissatisfaction with prevailing collapse theories, which he duly enumerates and shreds.
His argument is straightforward:
- Human societies are problem solving organizations
- Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance
- Increasing complexity carries with it increased cost per capital
- Investment in sociopolitical complexity often reaches a point of declining marginal returns
This section gives a good overview:
There are two general factors that combine to make a society vulnerable to collapse when investment in
complexity begins to yield a declining marginal return. First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occurring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed an operating regulatory apparatus this is designed to deal with such things as localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to recur with regularity, it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as climactic changes and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses, the society must have some kind of net reserve. This can take the form of excess productive capacities in agriculture, energy, or minerals, or hoarded surpluses from past production. Stress surges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.
Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing even more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionately less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.
Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity a less attractive problem-solving strategy. When marginal returns decline, the advantages to complexity become ultimately no greater (for society as a whole) than those for less costly social forms. The marginal cost of evolution to a higher level of complexity, or of remaining at the present level, is high compared to the alternative of disintegration.
Under such conditions, the option to decompose (that is, to sever the ties that link localized groups to a regional entity) become attractive to certain components of a complex society. As marginal returns deteriorate, tax rates rise with less and less return to the local level. Irrigation systems go untended, bridges and roads are not kept up, and the frontier is not adequately defended. Many of the social units that comprise a complex society perceive increased advantage to a strategy of independence, and begin to pursue their own immediate goals rather than long-term goals of the hierarchy. Behavioral interdependence gives way to behavioral independence, requiring the hierarchy to allocating still more of a shrinking resource base to legitimation and/or control.
As much as this argument is very persuasive, Tainter rejects explanations that rely on cultural factors (he takes the anthropologist's view that preferring more complex societies for their cultural achievements is a form of chauvinism and has no place in good social science). But some cultures promote cooperation and lower legitimatization costs. Look at how Japan has endured a reversal of fortunes with far more grace than America would take a similar period of stagnation.
Similarly, if you look at America, the neoclassical economists started promoting their vision of society as composed of individuals operating in markets and government as inherently suspect, back in the 1950s, in a period of rising prosperity when no signs of incipient collapse were evident. So how do organizations and ideologies that undermine some of the key elements of a complex society (effective regulation, for instance) in a period of abundance fit into this picture?
More generally, what do you see as the strengths and limitations of Tainter's theory?
First of all, cultural achievement (having a really big colorful feathered tail) is something entirely different from promoting cultural cohesion through building in redundancy (having 2 kidneys), so his argument that cultural complexity counts for nothing definitely mistakes the content for the form.
Also, a BBC documentary ("The Trap") argued (moderately persuasively) that we should understand the rise of Nash's game theoretical thinking as something following from his paranoia merging with worries caused by the cold war, which was then "recognized" to beautifully fit the centuries-old notions of homo economicus. Broad adoption of this kind of thinking only really began during Milton Friedman's years, and was broadly adopted under Reagan - hardly a period without economic problems - in which our communicative abilities allowed us to explain these problems away as not being caused by our mode of societal organization (which was "rational"). So yes, ideology and communication do strongly affect how we prepare for the future and look at the problems existing in the present, and - in times of prosperity - this allow a society to very quickly and effectively force the whole of society to stop investing in and maintaining redundancies, even though this will be costly once a problem period starts (especially a quickly developing one due to a long period of overspecialization or over-exploitation).
I haven't read his book, though I am somewhat familiar with the complex systems thinking of the SFI, but from what you quote here I'm not really enthused about his idea of "increasing marginal returns" (point 4). It is true that some of the increased costs of maintaining a society come from the creation of new systems that are supposed to promote redundancy (medical research etc.); but the problem is that these are then able to claim far more of the resources than is wise (due to perceived status differences), without really contributing to overall stability. This does not really seem to be a function of complexity so much, (3) as one of unequal distribution of the current resources that is being allowed by the other members of society because they feel it is a. a defensible use of resources that would or could not otherwise be used more usefully (even though this will affect future security, but this isn't thought of in good years, in which 'exploit' seems the best strategy), or b. because it is /thought/ 'important' to stability, or because these systems enjoy high social status.
Most of today's instability has come from feedback loops creating ever more inequality because these high status individuals wanted ever more of the available resources, while the fact that the past decades were "good years" was at the same time used to argue for cutting back on investments in redundancy (via cutting welfare, not investing in pension funds, etc.). And now, of course, even fewer resources are allocated to 'upkeep' and redundancy because "these are lean times", even though the leanness is in large part a feature of the inequalities that exist in distribution, rather than due to actual resource shortage. The two big problems for this discussion are probably how to understand the role money plays in all of this, because it seems hard to capture in this paradigm, and to understand how communication affects which strategies we take and how we distribute resources.
Lastly, human societies are not problem solving organizations, they're a solution that is given to the problem of how to organize - which creates constant conflicts because of the status differences that the members think exist and are relevant to the question of how to distribute the goods. The locus of problem solving is primarily at the individual level, where people worry about "how to improve my own security". This is then answered either by "ok, let's work with and try to support the system we have" or (Friedman, neoclassicism) "let's just be parasitical on the system and not care about whether it might break because I really deserve as much of the resource pie as I can get".Toby:
Many of the social units that comprise a complex society perceive increased advantage to a strategy of independence, and begin to pursue their own immediate goals rather than long-term goals of the hierarchy. Behavioral interdependence gives way to behavioral independence, requiring the hierarchy to allocating still more of a shrinking resource base to legitimation and/or control.
I would look at it from the opposite perspective.
As the hierarchy becomes more complex, those at the top begin to deprioritize, ignore, or act against the wishes and best interests of average individuals and most small groups. A congressperson stops caring about their constituents, prioritizing instead the concerns of lobbyists, donors, colleagues, social acquaintances, etc. Simply put, the people at the top no longer need to care about those at the bottom to have a successful career. Their day-to-day contacts will help them stay in office, and if necessary, get them a sinecure somewhere.
Eventually, individuals and increasingly large local groups conclude that they have no obligation to a hierarchy that no longer knows or cares what they want. If they no longer feel like "part of the team," they begin to prioritize their well-being, and the well-being of friends and neighbors, over the needs of a distant, impersonal government. Many will begin to exercise independent judgment on various issues, ignoring "the process" and/or "experts." While the government can rely on the carrot (e.g., money) or the stick (Homeland Security, FBI, etc.) to get compliance, the government's job becomes more difficult and incurs more resentment and non-compliance (e.g., "no snitching" movements).
A recent article in the Huffington Post suggests that the elites in NY and DC are beginning to resent their loss of moral authority among Americans:
Finally, and perhaps the best example of all, Bai tells us that it is only a "destructive idea" - not reality - to believe "that there is Washington and there is the rest of us." Yes, we're expected to believe that's all just a horrible misperception by the Great Unwashed outside the Beltway. This, at a time when more citizens than ever correctly feel D.C. has become totally disconnected from America; at a time when census data shows that the nation's capital has become a virtual gated community for the super-rich; at a time when election after election after election has become a backlash to the odious culture of D.C.; at a time when policies that are wildly popular among Americans (the public option) have no chance of passing Congress, but policies that are wildly popular with D.C. lobbyists (big corporate tax cuts) are all but guaranteed to pass.DownSouth:
January 5, 2011 at 6:54 am
"As the hierarchy becomes more complex, those at the top begin to deprioritize, ignore, or act against the wishes and best interests of average individuals and most small groups."
I agree, but why does this happen?
To my mind (and the answer is mentioned by Foppe) the cause of this dynamic is any money-type based on debt and therefore scarcity/competition, which stokes societal 'progress' in a particular direction - to calcifying hierarchies and entrenched rich-poor divides. Money-as-debt over-rewards and over-punishes, such that material wealth becomes 'success' and poverty becomes 'failure.' One is full of all the goodies society can provide, the other painfully absent them, "painfully" because the poor know full well how the rich live, at least the myth of rich lifestyles, the supposedly necessary carrot that supposedly makes us work hard.
Money is society's distributor of goods and services. Unless we have an intelligent and wise money-type, one capable of functioning alongside abundance and which therefore fosters cooperation, we will always have rising and falling empires as catastrophic events. The tendency for institutions to become vested interests defending the status quo du jour, blindly refusing to adapt to inescapable change, would be far less evident were money spent into existence, with a demurrage slapped on it, its role as final arbiter demoted, its definition and myth decoupled from wealth (wealth arises out of health societal and environmental conditions, and cannot actually be money).
The question is, can we get wise culturally then transition smoothly to a more democratic and egalitarian system? Or must we endure systemic wipe-out and terrible ecosystem degradation before we wake up? I fear the latter is headed our way, even though many of us are beginning to question deeply the assumptions underpinning capitalism and seek genuine alternatives.Dave of Maryland:
I tend to think along these lines too, in that the material wealth of a society is highly dependent upon its social/moral capital. For social/moral capital to be high, prosocial behavior must be rewarded and antisocial behavior punished.
But as you inquire: Why does this happen? Why do societies go through generative phases when social/moral capital is on the rise and degenerative phases when it is on the wane?
I like to beat up on the harbingers of antisocial behavior as much as anyone. Certainly Nash's early theories were antisocial, as were Friedman's, which were only an intermediate step between the less sociopathic broodings of Frank Knight and the totally antisocial theories of Richard Posner and Gary Becker. But when one places Nash, Knight, Friedman, Posner or Becker in their sights, is one shooting the messenger? Are these phases of ebbing and flowing social/moral capital inevitable? When does acknowleging them cross the line into promoting them?
Which brings us full circle back to the perrenial argument about God, man and nature. Theology, philosophy and science have thus far proven impotent in the face of the question as to what causes these regenerative and degenerative cycles, much less how they might be controlled or whether they even ought to be controlled.Toby:
Why does this happen?
Laziness & complacency, for one.
Second, collective distraction. When I am rich enough that I no longer have to worry about food, clothing, shelter, when I delegate those worries to others, corruption ensues.
The example is the nouveau-rich Hollywood star who quickly develops an entourage, including a business manager who invariably steals every last cent.
So this part of the argument boils down to, Why aren't business managers honest? The corollary is How did Jamie Dimon become the outstanding individual he clearly is?
The answer, of course, is that there are things that cannot be delegated. Disaster ensues when we do.Toby:
But where do laziness and complacency come from? I suspect yours is a 'human nature' answer, and here I firmly believe the system generates these behaviours - that is, they are not hard-wired in our genes - largely because we have culturally failed to probe wisely enough what it means to be alive and 'valuable' in society. There is still a lot of work to be done in this department. Buckminster Fuller:
"It is logical that we think of unemployment as a negative, rather than realizing that it is signaling that society now has the ability to free people from the necessity of demonstrating their right to live by gaining and holding employment." [My emphasis.]
Sadly it is impossible in a blog comment box to squeeze in all that needs to be said to communicate what I'm thinking here. DownSouth raises the obvious question of how to assess and value each other as contributing members of society absent traditional measures such as money and labour. I don't have an easy answer - no doubt there isn't one - but feel intuitively sure new ways of valuing each other are possible in a radically different system. What we tend to be blind to is how enmeshed we are in the story of the times, which currently revolves around the struggle for existence, survival only of the fittest, merciless competition, The Invisible Hand, and how these core ideas feed into EMH, 'freedom' and capitalism.
From what I have read and heard none of these core assumptions is accurate. Each is unraveling, offering fuller, richer explanations, tending towards cooperation, morality, life as a gift, abundance, etc. From these operating assumptions a very different society indeed can emerge, whose shape from here can only be a blur. But I think it's safe to say we should not be too certain about anything other than the oncoming deep changes.DownSouth
"Which brings us full circle back to the perrenial argument about God, man and nature. Theology, philosophy and science have thus far proven impotent in the face of the question as to what causes these regenerative and degenerative cycles, much less how they might be controlled or whether they even ought to be controlled."
I think "impotent" is too strong, as is "controlled". As I hinted in my answer to Dave, we shouldn't be concerned overly with final explanations which allow total control of ourselves and society. That would be the search for Utopia, and Utopia, being perfect by definition, would be stagnant, lifeless, etc.
I really think a better money-system is where many improvements are to be found. But, in order to create it, we first have to want to. This desire can only arise out of a cultural understanding of how the debt-money system corrupts society and points it in too dangerous a direction. Discussions of the type we are having here, which are taking place elsewhere too, are part of that. Maybe we'll fail and drive ourselves of the cliff in mad pursuit of perpetual growth, who knows, but I haven't given up on us yet. There is still time. History rhymes, it doesn't repeat. And not only Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, we all do.Toby
Foppe above plugged Adam Curtis' film The Trap.
In the Adam Curtis trilogy, there exists another film besides The Trap and The Century of the Self that is certainly worth viewing. It's called The Power of Nightmares and can be viewed here:
As the film points out, somewhere and somehow over the past few decades the modernist vision of heaven on Earth got lost and was replaced by one of hell on Earth.
I admire your spirit. You are not consumed with pessimistic foreboding, which becomes self-fulfilling.
In Cosmopolis Stephen Toulmin is also optimistic. Even though he believes we may have to give up on the certain and doubt-free world that Modernism II promised, we can always fall back on Modernism I where theology, philosophy and science have much more modest ambitions. This is the world of Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare and Montaigne, as opposed to the certain and doubt-free world of the scientific determinists (Descartes and Newton), the nihilistic world (Nietzsche), or the certain and doubt-free world of the religious determinists (Martin Luther and his opponents, the counter-reformationists).Siggy
Through science it seems we are learning to re-embrace uncertainty. Uncertainty is great, essential to life, flexibility, adaptation. Didn't Plato say 5% of reality is chaos and the rest order? Too exact a measurement for my tastes, but there's some wisdom in the assertion I feel.
As for going backwards, I don't buy it totally. I see it this way: if we make it past this incredibly difficult set of challenges there'll be enough humans around to carry on with the project, enough, therefore, not to forget everything. The giants' shoulders will still be there to climb up on and improve our view. On the other hand, if we don't make it, then that won't be a backwards step, it will be extinction. So if we don't go extinct along with millions of other species, we'll do something quite different I'm sure.
Our current problems are systemic (incl. exquisite propaganda) + neural lag, they're not genetic in the sense of hard-wired/eternally repeating. Homo sapiens sapiens was egalitarian for the vast majority of its time on earth. Perhaps more importantly, the circle of reciprocity has expanded greatly from primitive times - I cry when I see photos of Iraqi children killed by war, and was haunted for days having seen a rabbit run over (last year). I know I'm not alone in this. Humans are generally very empathic. Only primary sociopaths are not (by birth), that's about 1-2% of us apparently.
Chin up DownSouth, humanity is going through the birth-throes of a very new beginning. The risk of still-birth is high, but by no means a foregone conclusion!sgt_doom
"…ought to be controlled?" is a very insightful query.
My sense is that the collapse of complex societies must periodically be allowed to occur. Better still if instead of a catastrophic collapse we have a small ones, something akin to a structure reversion phenomenon.
I would prefer a politcal system based on the format of a republic. A democracy would be preferred by many but the political rule of the many is a expression of mediocrity. My observation is that in societal and business organizations alike, size is the enemy of excellence.
The question, "Is a Taintor-Style Collapse in Our Future?" strikes me as being late in its consideration. I believe that it can be fairly asserted that we have arrived at point four of Taintor's argument. I believe that we have arrived at the junture where the uncertainty is precisely how the collapse of our society will proceed.
If we are fortunate, there will be the recognition of the flawed and failed philosophies that have served as the justification for malinvestment and employment. If one recognizes that human societies are agglomerations whose purpose is to order the satisfaction of the need for clothing, housing and food; then one sees how critical the structure of the selected politcal economy happens to be.
In that regard we could begin by recognizing that 'free markets' are an oxymoron and that what is really desired is fair markets. The current distress is very much a product of criminology run rampant. The failure to regulate and to prosecute is the first step in the decompositon of our society.
Going forward I believe that we would be well advised to seek a path of decomposition whose objective is generally stated as being the institution of fair markets. The next question to be resolved is given the size of our society, how do we create a class mobility system that renders higher rewards to social performance over self indulgence.Externality
I greatly appreciate this post on Prof. Tainter, and while I would heartily recommend reading all the books of this truly Renaissance anthropoligist (who tends to cover all angles, or at least a wide variety of venues), just reading his absolutely brilliant 1996 paper, Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies, is truly enlightening.
Only 10 to 12 pp., and well worth the minimal time investment.
I agree, but why does this happen?
People tend to prioritize effects that are tangible and immediate over those that are abstract and time-delayed. Many societies prefer to keep their wealth in precious metals (that earn no interest but can be easily counted and watched over) over interest-bearing web-based accounts that are nothing more than electrons in a computer backed by a promise from a distant government.
As hierarchies grow, the leaders view the average citizen as an inconvenient abstraction, getting in they way of the leaders' goals and aspirations. Consider the choice of a senator who is told the following:
1. 90% of their constituents oppose the bill, believing accurately that it will help wealthy special interests and their expense. They promise to oppose the senator's reelection in four years. The staff is busy preparing a form letter to their complaints.
2. The bill is supported by major donors, influential lobbyists, the corporate media, a congressman who is their good friend and golfing buddy, and co-sponsored by a senator who sits on the admissions committee of the private school their daughter wants to go to. The senator called to warn of "possible unexpected complications" with the daughter's admission.
The senator can either face the delayed wrath of people they never meet, or incur the immediate anger of influential people who will end their career in DC and socially ostracize them and their family.
As we saw with TARP, healthcare, and bank reform legislation, the average congressman or senator will please the people they interact with daily in DC at the expense of constituents thousands of miles away whose district they seldom return to.
More from HuffPost:Externality
That's why this recent piece from the notoriously servile Matt Bai in the New York Times is such a groundbreaker. Never have I seen such a monumentally blatant piece of Versailles triumphalism. In that sense, it is truly The Versailles Manifesto. Here are the key excerpts to show you what I mean:
* "In theory, all the people who populate the federal government, whether as senators or midlevel bureaucrats, are on loan from other places, often doing the nation's business at the cost of more lucrative or convenient opportunities back home."
* "Plenty of people don't like [Rahm] Emanuel, and plenty more don't like his politics. But whatever one thinks of the man, it's indisputable that he has spent most of his adult life doing the people's work."
* "Had the elections board counted that against him, whether or not he had set foot back in Chicago for months at time, it would have lent credence to the destructive idea that there is Washington and there is the rest of us."
In the first example, Bai asks us to ignore the revolving door between government and business, whereby many politicians invest time in Congress to then cash in on that time as lobbyists. Nothing to see there, he says - we are asked to believe that instead, most D.C. pols are making a noble sacrifice to serve the public "at the cost of more lucrative or convenient opportunities back home."
Then, we are asked to ignore Rahm Emanuel's long career as a Big Money political fundraiser, an investment banker and then finally the chief go-between for the White House and K Street. No, no - don't look at that. That's too… honest. Instead, we should see Emanuel, the embodiment of everything Americans rightly hate about their politics, as a Mr. Smith who "has spent most of his adult life doing the people's work."David Sheegog
It is apparent that most if not all commentors have not read Tainter. The slant of the posts went quickly to moral questions – and answers. Tainter is considerably more fact based in his findings and bothers little with morality. Eg, in his discussion of the Roman collapse he focuses on the economics of the empire and collects much of his data from Roman records. It took a long time but the slow Roman collapse happened as a result of Rome appropriating progressively greater share of the produce of their subjects and taking it back to Rome. The primary tribute the Romans required was wheat which the Romans had the power to take in any quantity they wished via the Legions. The Legions had to be fed clothed and paid, recruited and pensioned, but the main limiting factors were primarliy transport related. Their practical approach was to take the tax in wheat from as far inland as easily feasible around the circumference of the Mediterranean – by way of oxcart to a port then by sea to Rome. Extracting tribute was as important a reason for all their road building as moving the Legions around. As the oligarchy in Rome grew, so did the need for more tribute from the empire. As peasants became more pressed to provide more and more goods, primarily wheat for Roman meal, they reached a point of not being able to make a living. Artisans and traders were not exempt either. The poorest farms shed their tenants first and so on til even the best farms could not be maintained under the onslaught of the Roman "tax". The peasant farmers migrated as their livelihoods beccame unsustainable – they simply packed and moved out of reach of the collectors. Many in southern Europe were happy to migrate north to join with barbarians who were massing armies to attack Rome. The only moral conclusion that one MIGHT make is that the 'greed' of Rome led to the diminishment of their returns on maintaining an ever more complex empire. Similar event happened according to Tainter in Meso-america with the collapse of the Maya civilization – ever greater and greater "tax" had to be leavied on the subjects to maintain the expanding religio-economic cultural system of the gods of their universe – the kings, the shamans, royal courtiers, warrior caste etc. And yes, greed for power and wealth were factors there, too, but when the king/priests empire first started to expand they were few, as populations grew so did the complexity of maintaining the system. Tainter's key dictum is that collapse, whether sudden or gradual, is a result of 'diminishing marginal returns on investment in complexity'. It is not hard to extrapolate then to now, although there is room for argument that we are heading down the road toward collapse, or not – as well as seeing signs of it everywhere. One of Tainters more interesting chapters catalogues US higher education as an area where there is already greatly diminished returns on investment. I don't remember his numbers, but his point – the more we invest in higher and higher education marginal return on that investment decreases, is just facts from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census data, GDP extrapolitions, etc. Tainter is important, but his research has not been well critiqued, or replicated to the best of my knowledge, I believe, because it is economic geography/anthropology that isn't popular among academics.Maju
The section taken out of Tainter is meaningless. One cannot produce a long string of statements about politics, society and the like without any proof, without any evidence and without a wider theoretical underpinning (math?). Complex system is an area of science based on quite complex math; what we have in Tainter's work is his opinion. As far as this commenter, Tainter's work is baseless and ignorable.GCL
First, complexity is a most complex matter. This really limits our ability to understand and manipulate the problem.
Anyhow, I think that Externality made a quite decent assessment, in the sense that rather than intrinsic complexity it is a problem of "elite autism", so to say (in the popular sense of the term "autism": inability or limited ability to pay attention to the rest).
I would maybe have put it in terms of class conflict but really we can to some extent disregard this terminology and talk of elites and common people instead, allowing us to integrate other forms of elites distinct from Capitalist ones, such as the former soviet bureaucracy or the extant bureaucracies of the Capitalist world or the technocracies of the private companies, which have their own vested interests and are nothing but a private bureaucracy after all.
When Tainter says that "Human societies are problem solving organizations", he is disregarding a key issue: whose problems does the system attend to? Because it is not the same to solve (or attempt to solve) the problems of the broader society (mostly made up of workers or otherwise commoners) than to solve the problems of a small financial elite, for example (say a small military-industrial complex technocracy or whatever).
Hence there is a key problem with goals, objectives, priorities. Which problems are the ones that are for the "complex system" prioritary to solve? It is not the same to have full employment as central goal than to have the profits of businesspeople as such main target, it is not the same to focus on environmental balance and preservation than to have industrial and economical development as priority. Different real (not just declared) priorities will produce different results and will require different types of "complex" organization. For instance, if a society makes of rapid development and full employment a central goal, a more or less classical socialist system may be the answer, instead if a system wants development and investors' profits as its goals, then a capitalist system may be the choice. Other options may lack of clear historical references but that does not mean that they are not practicable.
In general I'd say that the goals of commoners or workers are in the line of full employment and a dignified, not too harsh, way of life for all or a vast majority, the goals of private elites are clearly profits first of all (with a major risk of social breakup if those profits are taken at the expense of other priorities), the goal of a state is geopolitical relevance (maybe hegemony) and therefore militarization and general economic advance, the goal of humankind as species (biological, general) is survival and hence there is an interest in keeping at least some ecological balance, etc.
We can well say that, simplifying, we have three classes: capitalists, bureaucrats (including military and "private" technocrats) and workers. All share the generic biological human needs but each has its own distinct priority. The ones in better position are without doubt the bureaucrats/technocrats because they are needed in all scenarios: they are the actual managers, however bureaucracies tend to stagnate in their own vicious circles (corporative and private interests beyond their stated goals, such as salaries, permanence, status, etc.)
So maybe we should address the problem of complexity not as much as one of "societies" (a vague concept) but as one of bureaucracies, of management structures and their real goals.prophet without profit
Maju, I have read Tainter's book. My sense is that, if the question is whether Tainter's theory of diminishing returns to complexity is a good "general theory of collapse", then the various goals one complex society or another has set for itself do not change one's answer to that question. In Tainter's terms, each set of goals would put the society on a different path, but all paths bring their own challenges which are solved with "more complexity", which has diminishing returns, so that eventually all complex societies face the spectre of collapse.
Tainter also pointed out that collapse is a common phenomenon through history, and that it is not necessarily or always a bad thing. I understood that to mean that our homo sapiens tendency to construct grand social projects (tribes, nations, states, supra-national agglomerations) can and does get ahead of itself, and when it no longer makes economic (read: biological) sense, our practical side gives a reality check to our social side, and unsustainable situations are abandoned on the grounds of not being worth the personal cost invested by each aspiring "builder" of "society".russell1200
On a more simplistic level examine the state of American infrastructure. We have millions of miles of roads and bridges. We have witnessed startling collapses such as the bridge in Minneapolis. More subtle is the visible deterioration of highways and bridges with exposed re-bar. In rural areas roads are not being repaved, but where possible returned to gravel roads. The last NY snowstorm revealed the enormous cost to clear the thousands of NY streets. I believe this one snowstorm will cost the city more than $200m.
Perhaps when Robert Moses built the bridges and parkways in the NY metropolitan area the construction cost was relatively inexpensive. But now road repairs are hugely expensive already adding a burden to already large state and local deficits.
This is merely one facet of our complex infrastructure. We need to analyze complexity in conjunction with financial capabilities. We have too much debt and too little income in a steady state. When you factor in the maintenance costs of complex systems: aviation, internet, roads, our fleet of vehicles, computers etc. it is not difficult to see where society could approach the collapse point.sgt_doom
I would normally be thought of the type of person that loves Tainter, but I find him less than compelling at times.
Tainter gives a reasonable explanation for the mechanism by which societies can collapse: and not all that he comments on are of the Alpha Empire type.
But he is very weak on process. And if you are in the middle (or near end?) of the process, it is the process that would concern you. In addition, he comes off as one of these very divisive people with all the answers, which tends to restrict his input. Both posters-Foppe and Eternalitys' comments are indicative of his weakness within the area of process.
Jack Goldstone, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Goldstone at George Mason, does a much better job of laying out a process. His book on Revolution in Early Modern Europe will give you a very deja vu feeling without him beating you over the head with it. The discussion of credential crises (too many people wanting degrees for positions that previously did not require them) in 17th century England is worth the price of admission alone. Peter Turchin has taken some of this and tried to model it mathematically. But at times, Turchin, having found a really nice hammer, seems to think everything is a nail. Poster-Externally would probably appreciate their approach.
I am not sure that the Japanese are good example of resilience. Much of their current ills were self induced by a massive property bubble. In their earlier system (19th to 20 century) they pulled off a poster-child expand to the point of collapse empire. Their social cohesion seems to work for them and against them.Bill Kay
Naaah, this paper by Prof. Tainter is clearly spot on as regards process.Bruce
With reference to your comment regarding Japan, I would like to add the following:
When the Bubble burst it Japan, the government there had about $10 Trillion Surplus, but now despite about 14 separate stimulus packages (totalling about $12 trillion), Japan has a huge national debt.
In 1989 (and to this day), Japan had one of the lowest per capita homeownership rates.
Also, in 1989 Japanese people had virtually no credit card debt. Japan is very much a strictly cash society.
Despite all of these factors, Japan has been stuck in stagflation for 21 years with no prospect of recovery on the horizon.
There was a great article about this in NYT in October: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/world/asia/17japan.html
The 800lb gorilla in the room is the consumer confidence.
IMHO we are entering a multi generational calamity and everyone in power is playing an ostrich defense…
It is time to put all of these issues front and center, our children may thanks for that in the future.
I welcome all comments at: firstname.lastname@example.orgMaju
Is he discussing the collapse of empires, or regime change within states? In either case, I don't think "complexity" has much to do with it. The Soviet Union didn't collapse because of complexity, it collapsed because Moscow was so corrupt it couldn't continue to pay for maintenance of an effective tax collection and police force in the satellites, or perhaps it just perceived that the economic cost to do so wasn't worth the rents. I don't know why the Austrian Hungarian empire collapsed, WWI?
The Roman Empire collapsed because it had too many borders to defend. Etc. Not having read his books, are these examples of "complexity"? I think most empires end because they are non homogenous and require a massive police cost, or because they get beaten in war.
The USSR collapsed for two reasons: one (the classical Troskyist critique): because the bureaucracy wanted to make their privileges greater and inheritable (become a capitalist class) and two (often ill-understood): because it was designed for the Fordist era of disciplinary production and thwarted all attempts to adapt to the Toyotist era of social production, what stagnated the system to practical incapacity.
The AH empire collapsed in part because it was made up of too many different nations in an era dominated by nationalism (also because it lost the war).
The Roman empire did not collapse because of borders, which it could effectively defend for many centuries, but because the displacement of the center to the Hellenistic world (Constantinople) caused the Western Empire to become deprived of resources and mostly pointless to continue to exist. Still the elites devised an exit for themselves in the form of feudalism (which is not a Germanic invention, as many believe, but a late Roman one – causing huge revolts in the Atlantic areas known as Bagaudae, revolts largely addressed by means of empowering mercenary bands arrived from Germania, specially the Visigoths).
Similarly the USA might one day empower Los Zetas (a particularly cruel Mexican drug cartel with US military training) to quell a revolt, who knows? As the elites try to survive as such elites (i.e. without losing their power) in the mess they have themselves created, they become even more ruthless and resort to all kind of violent means. By controlling the economy, they can pay all kind of mercenaries, be them paramilitary, political, mediatic or whatever. Of course, one day one of those mercenaries may simply take their place, but they thin+e virtual="/contrib.htm" -->
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