Belmont Club

Escape From 2020


Maybe 2020 seems jinxed because familiar institutions are collapsing on themselves like they have never done before. Global civilization now relies on natural and human networks of such complexity that their interactions generate unpredictable events with increasing frequency and make the present ungovernable. In retrospect, the currrent crisis may have shown itself as far back as Brexit in 2016 and has been accelerating ever since. We are met by fresh shocks at every turn.

The hope is that 2021 will bring new “luck.” But if 2020 happened not from bad luck but the result of trends, then 2021 might be even stranger than 2020. The cherished establishment goal of a “return to normalcy” may prove unattainable. With the old world gone and the new one disconcertingly strange, one can only do what circumstances permit instead of waiting on a rollback that will never come.

American anthropologist Joseph Tainter in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), “examines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations, and of the Western Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics, and complexity theory.” He concludes that civilizations fall when they have too many spinning plates to keep in the air. At some point, they start to fall.

Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their “energy subsidies” reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. He recognizes collapse when a society involuntarily sheds a significant portion of its complexity.

Complexity overwhelms. The only way out of a crisis, Tainter argues, is either innovation or collapsing to a simpler state. Stephen Davies takes up Tainter’s line of reasoning.

There is a force that works against the dynamic identified by Tainter and described above. That is the process of innovation, derived from the combination of human ingenuity and the liberty that gives it expression and encourages it. …

Since 1300, the world has experienced two major episodes of civilizational crisis on a global scale, one in the 14th century and the other in the 17th. On both occasions, although the damage was considerable, human civilization in all parts of the world survived the challenge. Since the middle of the 18th century, the world has pushed up against natural limits several times. On each of these occasions there was a major crisis, but the outcome was not a collapse but a breakthrough to a new level of technology and organization that resolved the crisis.

It seems very likely that we are currently experiencing the fourth such crisis since the early 18th century.

If society can’t innovate its way out of a crisis it must simplify the situation one way or the other. Management consultant Clay Shirky points out that some systems become so entrenched the only method of reform is failure.

When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

“Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification” to systems that are Too Big to Adapt. Readers of the Belmont Club will know I have long advocated componentization as an alternative to collapse.

“One idea emerging from future-gazers—and I pay attention to novelists as well as economists, sociologists and technologists—is the idea that pandemics will roll back aspects of globalization or even bring it to a screeching halt. In Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a novel set in a futuristic Thailand, today’s globalization is a past period remembered as ‘the expansion.’ In the face of pandemics and resource wars, global trade has collapsed into a new reality known as ‘the contraction.’”

The alternative to the contraction, as readers of the Belmont Club already know, is componentization. Like applications on your smartphone, each has to be separated from the others by standard interfaces so that corruption in one does not destroy them all. That is the future political parties must envision instead of rehashing Marxist manifestos from the early 20th century. Chief among componentization’s needs must be a worldwide text-only satellite-based system, unfettered by prior censorship, and open to every fully attributed person on the planet.

Bad as it is, it’s not the coronavirus we should worry about so as much as what might come after it. The reason Xi did not see the fatal black swan approaching despite ubiquitous surveillance and AI is because information is a surprise, not the carrier wave, but something unknown as yet, or else it would be in cache. But one has to be open to one’s own ignorance to listen and that is something authoritarians can’t do, even when their survival depends on it.

As Shirky says, if the system is self-doomed, escapees are our only hope:

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old.

But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Where do escapees go but to form components? Civilization must manage complexity if it is ever to escape from the curse of 2020.

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Atlas of World War II: History’s Greatest Conflict Revealed Through Rare Wartime Maps and New Cartography by Stephen G. Hyslop (author) and Neil Kagan (editor)

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