The crisis of complexity – Podcast

Mathematical Complexity Abstraction Fractal

Is the current ‘populist’ surge across the Western world a sign that we have entered a ‘crisis of complexity’? I discuss this with Markus Völter from omega tau podcast.

Last year, a few days after the ‘Brexit’ vote, I published a long article arguing that the ‘populist’ surge across the Western world was more than just a reaction against globalisation, immigration, increasing inequality, or the rising pace of economic, social and technological change. Something more fundamental, I argued, was probably at play: the advent of a ‘crisis of complexity’ caused by rising biophysical constraints and characterised by the diminishing returns of our investments in ‘societal complexity’.

My thesis is inspired by the work of American anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter, who has shown how human societies historically act as problem-solving organisations that tend to develop ever-greater organisational and technical complexity in order to solve the social, economic and political problems they are confronted with. As their complexity increases, the problems they have to deal with become more difficult to solve, requiring growing investment in further economic and societal complexity. According to Tainter, however, investment in socio-political complexity eventually tends to reach a point of diminishing returns, where the marginal beneficial returns (i.e. problems solved) of additional complexity begin to decline, leading to a lowered capacity to solve the new problems that arise and to deal with their consequences. These returns may even turn negative, at which point societies struggle to uphold the level of complexity they have reached and may have to move down to a lower complexity level. This, says Tainter, is the pattern behind the rise and fall of most civilizations in human history.

In my post last year, I argued that “the political crisis that is now engulfing Western countries, and more particularly Europe, suggests that we may be reaching or even have reached the point identified by Joseph Tainter where our standard way of solving the problems we face – i.e. investing in organisational and technical complexity – is yielding diminishing returns. If this is the case, we should not be surprised that more and more of our complex economic, technical, political and social systems are showing signs of stress, or even early signs of failure. As our capacity to invest in further complexity continues to get eroded by energy-related and other biophysical constraints, we should expect more stress to develop across the board, potentially leading to some sort of systemic breakdown and forced simplification. The growing popular revolts against globalisation, the EU, or multiculturalism are signs that our societies are already struggling to uphold their level of complexity and are subject to strong forces that are pulling towards a break down to a lower complexity level (i.e. localised economies, national governance, homogeneous societies, etc.).

My essay caught the attention of two Guardian columnists, George Monbiot and John Harris, who mentioned it in their own pieces:

Following this, I was invited by Marküs Volter from omega tau to take part in one of his podcast episodes. Omega tau is a podcast covering various topics in science and engineering, and that sometimes ventures into political or societal territories. The podcast episode was just released, and you can listen to our discussion on omega tau website or on the iTunes store (omega tau 238). Warning: the podcast lasts for over an hour.

In October 2015, Markus had discussed with Joseph Tainter his concept of increasing complexity and eventual collapse of societies, an episode that you are encouraged to listen as well, which is available there and on the iTunes store (omega tau 184).

Enjoy, and don’t hesitate to leave comments here or at omega tau.

2 thoughts on “The crisis of complexity – Podcast

  1. Is Joseph Tantier some form of modern, lite-Malthusian? I don’t know, but from what you say, he too seems to see breakdown or failure of society, on account of too many people. We can say that Malthus also foresaw something similar and that although his much heralded catastrophe gets a frequent airings, one way or another, human ingenuity have enable us to avoid disaster so far. As we’ve been waiting for the collapse since the 18th century, I don’t buy this line of thought.

    There are other explanations for the uprising/dissonance. Perhaps the sheer difference in scale of resource/monetary/power capture so present in our modern world also be a driver – 8 billionaires own the same as the bottom half of the rest of humanity, right? Could such a massive power disparity, where humanity is forced to work (on account of our debts) towards ends that are not necessarily freely chosen, and perhaps not for the benefit of all, also explain this? What would happen if the populace started to become aware of this, via the internet/’fake news’ web sites/etc? All these things together could also explain the societal dissonance, I’d say.


  2. I would tend to agree that the ever larger disparities, as also described in Pauls’#Brexit article, are a source of eroding societal cohesion. The fact that the outcome of elections in favor of moderate parties does not move the balance for a growing majority of people who are (or feel) left behind, triggers a reaction that in controls theory could be compared to an “integrator wind-up”, i.e. a tendency to vote ever more extremes in order to tip the scale. This then leads to seemingly absurd situations in which the poorest elect their exact opposite, a multi-millionaire in the hope that he will turn the system around. As in controls theory, this might eventually lead to a self-amplifying oscillation that will eventually tear the system appart in one or the other way: revolts or civil wars, international conflicts, overt jihadism or any other form of collapse from unleashing frustration and agressivness..


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