Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Problem with Complexity

Thomas Homer-Dixon's 2006 book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization was a sobering diagnosis of the incredible challenges that modern societies face. His general thesis was that complex societies ultimately have trouble dealing with ever greater degrees of complexity, and that these stresses tend to increase social, political, and economic disruption. Homer-Dixon identifies four different stresses:
  • population, both in growth rates among the rich and the poor and the incredible growth of megacities in poor countries
  • energy, especially the growing scarcity of conventional oil
  • environmental, particularly climate change and global warming
  • economic, disparities in income between developed and developing countries as well as income inequality within countries

Indeed none of these stresses are mutually exclusive, which is the major concern among a great many politicians, policymakers and citizens. But perhaps the most important part of the equation is energy. To lay out his argument Homer-Dixon uses a powerful historical example. The Roman Empire required an incredible amount of "high-quality" energy inputs, primarily in the form of grain, as the basis for its administrative and industrial integrity. As the amount of complexity to organize their social, political and economic systems rose, so to did the "high-quality energy" inputs needed to run these systems. Once the quality of energy inputs decreased, the complexity of Roman institutional systems began an irreversible decline.

What interests me most about Homer-Dixon's thesis is his notion of complexity. When confronted with with multiple crises, as we presently face today, societies have generally tended to create newer layers of complexity. In the political and policy responses to the Great Depression, the New Deal essentially offered a series of technical remedies to deal with the complexities of a phenomenally powerful yet socially pernicious market-capitalism. The Civil Rights Act is another example, although it was obviously responding to other types of societal and political stresses. Still, new levels of bureaucracy seem to be the most natural response to existential crises, and legislatively enacted distributions, whether they be physical goods or procedural recognitions of status claims, become the ultimate remedy.

An incredible market failure has socialized risk, leaving governments around the world the thankless task of reorganizing a whole array of institutions. How they manage this reorganization is an issue riddled with political, social, economic and philosophical dimensions. Dimensions on top of dimensions; dimensions embedded in dimensions. If complexity is the problem, how is it possible to deal with our present challenges? I hope to explore this question further.