Peak Complexity?

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

Published on Question Everything on January 10, 2014


Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

Joseph Tainter‘s Thesis

In The Collapse of Complex Societies Tainter posits that many historical civilizations have collapsed due to a very subtle phenomenon, one hard to perceive for both those who live through it and those historians who later study the records. There have been a number of “major cause” theories advanced over the years, the poster child being Rome’s collapse due to invasion by barbarians. None of those theories really got down to the root of the matter. Tainter, and a number of other authors have more recently taken a systems approach and discovered a common element, something that, for example, prepared the Roman empire to suffer invasions (among other injuries). That phenomenon can be characterized as the diminishing returns on increasing complexity. The returns have to do with access to adequate resources to support a growing population, especially all forms of energy, including food. The complexity he refers to are all of the cultural approaches to solving the problems associated with that acquisition and with managing an increasingly restless population. This is essentially a biophysical economics explanation. Someone invents a new technology or procedure (including laws) for improving the acquisition and distribution of needed resources. In doing so they increase the complexity of the society. But, ironically, the increased complexity generated ends up having a diminishing marginal gain relative to the costs of maintaining the complexity. We pay more but get less and less over time.

There is a psychological problem herein that is yet more subtle. People, in general, can be negatively affected by increasing complexity in their social milieu. Alvin Toffler, in 1970, wrote about Future Shock or the effects of information overload on people and how that impacts the societies in which they live. Increasing complexity of culture (e.g. technological innovations coming at a rapid rate) is what generates information in the sense that each new detail surprises the observer. Each increment in complexity might not generate a lot of information by itself, but collectively it adds up to bombardment of the brain with more information than can be processed reasonably by the average brain.

Today we know so much more about how the brain processes its daily input of information, throwing out anything it can’t categorize or associate with an affective (meaningful) state and integrating what it can into our knowledge base. This is mostly done while we sleep and dream. The process of integration and deletion, however, takes time. Under the conditions that humans evolved to their current mental capacities the rate of this process, and the time period of normal sleep, matched well with the rate of information accumulation during the day so that the brain was not, on average, overloaded. Overload, when it does occur, results in two conditions. One is a loss of information that should have been retained and integrated during the night. The other is accumulation of short-term memory traces (engrams) that should have been discarded. Our brains have a storage capacity that allows buffering of overload for a short while to allow for variations in sleep periods and daily doses of experiences. Thus the brain can actually retain, for several days, useless traces that simply clog up the works and might even prevent truly useful messages from being stored for processing. But in the human’s natural state such overload situations are temporary and over time information can be processed. When the overload condition becomes chronic, it is another story.

In today’s world the information load from every aspect of our lives in a technological society is overwhelming for most people. The brain executes a self-protection mechanism. It simply starts filtering out a lot of information. We subconsciously switch off our attention to the world around us to keep from being swamped. Additionally, our bodies react to information overload by treating it as stress and if chronic it does damage to our health.

Part of the tuning out of messages in a complex society is that people simply do not pay attention to what is happening. They subconsciously turn to ignorance and lack of attention to protect themselves. In our modern societies I observe that the majority of people tune out the complexities. For a vast number of them, that includes especially education in and subsequent attention to the sciences. But today I see it in all domains. Even in watching or reading news reports, most people will attend to news stories only if the implications fit their pre-conceived beliefs about the world (which are necessarily over simplified). Ergo the rise of media phenomena like Fox News and its followers (same story for progressive/liberal media).

Knowledge (what and how) and understanding (why) of the way the world works provide a kind of inoculation against future shock. The reason is that knowledge is the reciprocal of information. The more you know, the less information you receive with each situation and thus avoid information overload. Being ignorant of the way the world works simply makes you more susceptible to it. And therein lies the conundrum. A positive feedback loop exists that makes people less able to cope with complexity as complexity grows. They become increasingly ignorant while trying to self-protect their brains from overload, but that just means they become more easily overloaded as complexity increases. And because they are ignorant they don’t grasp how to prevent more complexity from emerging — even the perpetrators of complexity, the lawyers, politicians, bankers, and tech gurus, are increasingly ignorant of the overall effects of what they do, so they just keep doing more of it. Meanwhile our “education system” is completely oblivious to this simple fact. Rather than educating people to understand (which is hard to do) we teach them to avoid understanding (teach to the test, which is easy to do).

Thus each new solution to the biophysical problems (or perceived problems) leads to increasing complexity and diminishing returns on investment in development, maintenance, and usage. That, in turn, drives people away from understanding what is happening in their world (the complexity) so that they cannot make rational choices. Increasing complexity then leads to increasing mistakes of judgment and eventually collapse of the system (society). In terms of major transitions in evolution (see: Major Transitions in The Future of Evolution) this crisis situation has led to the emergence of effective hierarchical coordination within some representative systems in a population of such systems that, by virtue of their increased fitness (stability against collapse) survive and differentially “reproduce”. In the case of human societies on a global scale this is more problematic since the current species of human is caught in an in-between state of mental evolution, between just barely sapient and fully sapient. As I have written many times over the years, sapience has all the attributes of a natural integrating mechanism to allow those sapient individuals to form much better governance systems. A collapse of global civilization should result in more isolated, small communities not unlike the unit tribes of early hominids in Africa. All of these communities would then constitute the population of evolvable systems.

Take a Snapshot — What do You See?

One of the most visible characteristics of peak and post-peak complexity is the way in which subsystems that contribute to overall system complexity have a tendency to break down. Or they will not work properly relative to their intended functions, which means they are not providing the desired service.

As an example, there is a set of “smart” traffic lights on a sequence of corners on my way into work. Smart lights sense the presence of traffic, especially that waiting to get the green light. Most such systems try to measure the load (how many cars are lined up waiting for the light to turn) and calculate from both a time limit and the rate of the cross-traffic flow (how many cars per unit time are sensed crossing the sensors in the road). A fairness policy dictates that when traffic in one of the directions is very heavy, say during the time people are driving to or from work, the light will stay green longer for them, but it will change within a reasonable time to prevent overloading the cross street. Or at least that is the idea. Smart lights are supposed to solve the problem of traffic congestion by smartly (optimally) regulating the flows. But the several lights that I mentioned are anything but smart. I think what happened is that when they put in a light rail line that crosses my street it changed the complexity of the whole system. The light rail needs special handling so that it can maintain a schedule, which changes the light changing program. When that happened the lighting engineers must have made some very wrong assumptions about how to handle the increased complexity of timing the lights because now, with no traffic (including the light rail) crossing we end up sitting much longer than the true smart light would have allowed. Moreover there are many times when there are cars in the left turn lane on my side of the road, but none on the other side, the lanes going the opposite direction. What should happen is that all of our lanes should get the green light, the going-straight and the left-turn lanes, while the go-straight lanes on the opposite side should have to wait while our cars make their left turns. But no, what actually happens is that the left turn signal on both directions is turned on so that those of us who are going straight need to sit and wait — even when there is no one in the left turn lane on the opposite side.

The rest of the light timing is even dumber than this but I don’t have the time to describe all of the idiot ways that traffic gets snarled up by these stupid lights. They would do better to simply have a fixed timer on all directions and let it go at that. But this example shows how things go wrong with complexity and end up doing damage when they were intended to make things better. It also shows the failure of a system, the engineering process that was supposed to handle the new complexity but didn’t do it correctly. It seems a small thing, a little inconvenience, so most people probably don’t even think about the 20 seconds to 2 minutes they lost at those corners. Some might say, “only a systems engineer would notice and worry about such a small thing.” And that is probably right. However, add up all those lost minutes from every car that needs to get through. Add up every day that those minutes are lost. Before long you can actually see a not-insignificant loss of time for society. We all lose. Now consider how many such corners exist in the world, where smart algorithms should be facilitating traffic but actually slow it down. I’ve seen a number of them around here and even in other countries. It does add up.

Then consider all of the little screw-ups in technologies that are the result of poor design of an overly complex system (a certain operating system comes to mind). How much time is lost there? Almost everybody has experience with technologies that are too complicated to operate (features are never used) or break every once in awhile for no apparent reason. I have a wireless router at home that is forever needing reset. Why (a simple answer is that I was too cheap to buy the top of the line!)?

These are all little things that people don’t take much notice of, and never consider the global consequences of. But the really worst cases of things breaking or not working as intended is governments and organizations. We are seeing record numbers of scandals, un-prosecuted crimes (are you listening Mr. Dimon?) and failures to act in accordance with the rules. At least half of this is attributed to the cheating attitudes and greed that seem to be driving so many people in authority or position. But the other half is due to the simple fact that our institutions have gotten too complex for anybody to fully understand. Take a look at the Dodd-Frank bill or the tax code. We’ve gone over the top (the peak) when supposed experts in policy or taxes make horrendous mistakes because they cannot deal with the complexity of those rules and regulations or the procedures involved. But then, what does it matter? The enforcers are overwhelmed too so they don’t really do a proper job of monitoring and enforcing so no one who makes a mistake actually gets caught or pays a penalty. Couple that with the greed half and you now have a pat formula for stealing in plain sight.

And with just about everybody information overloaded, no one notices. Or at least no one who could possibly change things.

Single individuals (even the president of the United States) are powerless. Even if they knew what needs to be fixed they haven’t the influence or tools to do the fixing. Small groups are powerless. In our litigious society no one group can get anything effective done without stepping on someone’s toes and getting pushback for their trouble. Not even congress can move forward without some kind of gridlock.

What Isn’t Broken?

Over complexity that is not mitigated by the introduction of a hierarchical management systems (which actually reduces overall complexity) causes systems to fail in various modes. The failures, even little ones here and there, accumulate. Some can even have multiplicative consequences when positive feedback in included. Societies, even organizations, collapse due to over complexity and the law of diminishing returns applied to it.

Look around you. What institutions/systems do you see that are humming along happily doing their jobs? Me? I see very few, if any. I’ve even recently discussed the failures of the institution of science. Looking at political failures, aside from the incredible stupidity in Washington DC, consider the mess in the MENA region (e.g., Egyptian turmoil).

Can we really find just plain proper working let alone dysfunction? I suspect you will find it hard to point to truly functional systems in this world. What am I watching?

Peak Energy and the Rapid Decline of Supportable Complexity

There is still a lot of conversation and debate over the energy picture, specifically regarding fossil fuels. With the high media visibility of non-conventional extraction techniques (fracking and tar sands) and the over-hyping being done about the long term consequences of slightly increased volumes now from these technologies the public is buying into a belief that the energy problems are over. Remarkably the increases in volumes has not really translated into lower prices (the initial high flows of natural gas flooded the market and drove prices down, but those are starting to creep back up again.) Gasoline, for example, is still high from historic perspectives. Several people have calculated that any price over $90 per barrel of oil produces a damaging drag on the economy. This has been cited frequently in explaining why the US economy (as well as the global economies) have been struggling so badly over the past 4-5 years. Energy costs are at the root of ALL costs for all products and services as well as government — in fact everything. So even small increases in energy costs contribute to the problems.

At least in part this means the costs of maintenance and replacement of capital makes it harder to fix things or make them right in the first place. The decline in available free energy per capita, which is the defining parameter, translates directly into the availability of monetary representations of work and that too declines. We humans have cheated a bit, and continue to try to do so, by using debt instead of a currency that is backed by exergy (free energy). Essentially a few of us have tried to pull the wool over the rest of our eyes and make us think we still have the resources to keep on our consumptive ways. But look at the reality. Everything is breaking down. I will even go so far as to say nothing will really get fixed. Even if the American congress were to miraculously pass an important bill that seemed to have positive benefits for all it would be a short-lived anomaly on the road to perdition. The rule from here on out is decline and decay and all of our complex institutions and technologies will crumble to our feet.

What will likely be the short-term response from governments and financial institutions? Print more money. Go into more debt. Try desperately to make it look like things are OK. They will do this by trying to create yet more complex solutions (e.g. where exactly did quantitative easing or credit default swaps come from?) Depending on any swings in the political arena in the next (mid presidential term) elections, or in the presidential election of 2016 such that one party gains complete control of the white house and both houses of congress will determine how many more complex laws and rules will be created. The current gridlock is actually saving us from total asininity. If one or the other party gains control they will immediately find more complex ways to govern, which, of course, will simply lead us to ruin that much faster.

There is no physical way out of this dilemma. It is strictly thermodynamic business — nothing personal against you Homo sapiens. There is nothing you or I can do about it, except in personal preparation terms.But watch for yourself. You will likely see the degradation continue. You are witness to the peak of complexity every time you fire up your smart phone. Look for those phones to soon become a source of aggravation to you. The next model or operating system will have more glitches because the designers were racing to get it to market. The networks will suffer more outages with increased traffic. Technology will fail to serve. Institutions will break down and collapse. Our global society will collapse into a small number of isolated communities and the beginning of a new dark ages at best.

I am neither a “glass half empty”, nor a “glass half full” person. The glass is rapidly emptying and has or soon will pass the halfway point. Nor is there any way that we can start filling it back up to compensate. On the other hand there is a sort of positive side to this. For those lucky or smart enough to survive, the world will get a lot simpler and, ironically, in the long run, a lot more humane.


Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Group, New York.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas (2006). The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, Island Press, Washington DC.

Tainter, Joseph A. (1988). The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

Toffler, Alvin (1984). Future Shock, Bantam Books, New York.

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