Studying complex systems and the failure of complex systems is fascinating in and of itself, but it has become a more serious discipline in the last few years and understanding how complex systems fail is increasingly relevant to our understanding of our increasingly complex world.
Joseph Tainter takes the position that complex societies start to fail when the marginal returns on increased complexity in solving societal problems peaks and starts to diminish; it is all down hill from there. More and more resources are devoted to shoring up a system that is becoming more and more inefficient in addressing the needs of the population.
Two stories today bring up the issue of complexity and how it impacts problem solving. Dinocrat links to articles discussing (some in) our society's singular devotion to controlling CO2 and the related desire to bring high speed rail to that tiny percent of Americans who desire it, subsidized by the far larger cohort who must fund it. Go to his post for the links; there is little new here. Environmentalists believe that we need to control CO2 and get people out of their cars in order to save the planet. Dinocrat's comment is apt:
Some ideas are merely bad; some ideas are spectacularly bad. Occasionally you can distinguish those that are spectacularly bad by the over-the-top way they are defended. Alas, there’s no way to change the minds of some people. The Copernicans didn’t change older minds as much as they waited for the believers in Ptolemy to fade from the scene.
In contrast, Galrahn posts a neat little article about a recent development in the struggle by Drug dealers to keep our demand for drugs satisfied:
This story in the Houston Chronicle on the captured narco submarine in Ecuador last year is an interesting read.
The article notes the submarine could submerge up to 50ft and make 20 knots for short periods of time on batteries. It is quite remarkable what can be built in the middle of a jungle these days.
On the surface there is little that connects these stories yet on a deeper level they tell us a great deal about the ways in which our Society may fail. On the one hand we have a story about clever people using relatively modern technology, which has become quite user friendly as the information content of the technology has exponentially increased, to solve a difficult problem. For a relatively low ROI, the Drug Cartels can move their product to America while maintaining the price point at a place where they can satisfy their customers while making themselves incredibly wealthy and powerful. The United States in return will ramp up the complexity (and cost) of our response in an attempt to achieve the impossible, ie stopping drug abuse.
Consider next, the stories about CO2 and high speed rail. Once again our society is devoting immense resources to solving insolvable problems. Even if you accept the premise that human produced CO2 is causing Global warming, the ROI of controlling CO2 is negative. In other words, we can spend immense amounts of money and in the end, effect the level of CO2 in the atmosphere minimally, more likely not at all. Our resources devoted to combating CO2, at the current level of understanding of the problem and with current technology, is money flushed down the drain; it is a complete waste. Likewise, since there are no rail lines in America outside of long haul freight trains that actually make money or even break even, the resources devoted to high speed rail (which few want to ride except as a novelty) are resources wasted with negligible returns.
One of the problems facing our society is that we have lost the ability to determine what kinds of problems are solvable versus the kinds that are not solvable. We spend fortunes trying to erase the testing gap between White Americans and minority Americans yet for the last 100 years that gap has never changed. We do not yet understand why the gap exists or how to change it (except by dumbing down the tests until they are meaningless) yet we persist in increasing the complexity of our efforts.
Please note that it does not matter if you believe that AGW exists and is biome threatening or if you believe that the gap between white and minority success is caused by society's racism (or minority culture or their genetic constitution). It does not matter if you believe that drug use is a terrible bane that should end. The salient fact is that with our current technology and understanding of the problems, they are not solvable no matter what we do.
Perhaps Tainter's thesis needs to be amended. Perhaps it is not simply that the marginal returns on investment in complexity decrease over time but that Societies go amiss when they lose the ability to distinguish those problems that are possible to solve versus those that have no current solution?
[NB: My oxymoronic title refers to the fact that Complexity always fails when we attempt to do the impossible. If we do not first define the problem and understand its causes or approach it as a "trial and error" engineering problem and respond to changes we evoke or produce, we cannot hope that by simply increasing the complexity of our efforts we will produce a better outcome.]