Last month, Clay Shirkey had a most interesting post entitled "The Collapse Of Complex Business Models". Shirkey calls attention to Joseph Tainter who in his book "The Collapse of Complex Societies" pointed out that "under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”. Shirkey explains that in Tainter's view, complex societies don't collapse despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it.
Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.
Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.
Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.
The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond.
Hmmm.... sounds a lot like the time we are living in now, doesn't it?
As one can expect, Shirkey provides great examples and greater understanding. It's a must read.
Thanks to Couper Samuleson for making sure I did not miss this!