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Where to Begin?

Where to Begin? That is the question I have been mulling over in my mind since last week when I started this blog. I have a pretty comprehensive vision of what I wish to get across to readers, but in contrast to the current zeitgeist of pat answers and simplistic solutions, it’s complicated. So, the question arises of how best to order my thoughts. Luckily, to me one of the advantages of doing this in a blog is that, as a serial medium apportioned into bite sized chunks, I do not need to worry about structuring and ordering my extended argument as much as I would were I, for example, trying to write this as a book. Consequently, I have decided to begin with two books that have been in my thoughts all week. It is interesting to me that these books essentially form a pair of ‘book ends’ to my story since one comes from each end of the chronological version of my own journey. The two books are Roberto Vacca’s 1973 work titled The Coming Dark Age and the 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter.

The Vacca I read a very long time ago, while I only discovered the Tainter a year or two ago even though it was published in 1988. Tainter is an archaeologist who wanted to attempt to extract some general principles to explain the regular collapse, in historical terms, of complex societies. He sought an explanation that does not rely on appeals to the special pleading of the historians that the particularities of micro-context makes everything a special case. While Tainter does identify a typology of eleven major themes used to explain collapses which includes categories such as resource depletion, intruders, and mismanagement, what makes the work notable is that he then goes on to distil these down to a simple formula. Collapses happen because “at some point in the evolution of a society, continued investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy yields a declining marginal return” (pp. 119-20). Now as an archaeologist, Tainter’s version of what a complex society is includes cultures such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Roman Empire. These are interesting nevertheless, in the general case, but due to a historical bias are seemingly distant and not at all urgent or relevant to our contemporary situation.

Surely, the forward-faster technology-solves-all-problems types will say, our technological civilization has solved the problem of decreasing marginal returns on increasing investments in complexity. After all we have computers now don’t you know and they are the most complicated thing in the universe. Well, my first answer to that kind of so-called thinking is that is exactly why I find the earlier book by Roberto Vacca the far more chilling one. It is so chilling precisely because Vacca is a systems engineer who designed large scale projects such as the traffic control system for Rome. And, while it was chilling in the late 70s when I first read it, it has only grown more relevant and chilling in the interval since. Why? Because the essence of Vacca’s book was to show just how vulnerable and brittle our complex technological systems are, and how prone they are to catastrophic, rather than graceful, degradation. Furthermore, Vacca gives many examples of large-scale complex technological systems that were already showing signs of brittleness and collapse even in 1973. Oh yeah, he also explains how these rickety structures are only held together and kept working by – you guessed it – endless increases in the complexity of the systems as a problem solving strategy. That is what is so interesting about Vacca. Tainter merely generalizes the argument and explains the general mechanism. Vacca brings it home right into the cockpit of your techno-wonder automobile stuck not moving an inch for three hours on highway 401.

So, that is where I will begin. I begin by framing my discussion with two books that together convince me that indeed tough times are ahead for our highly sophisticated technological, global civilization. And, given our advanced (read complex) Just-in-Time 6000 mile delivery systems for most of our food and consumer goods, when the non-graceful degradation portion of the declining-marginal-returns-on-increases-in-complexity curve finally kicks in, our personal worlds are surely going to get a whole lot more simple, personal, and a whole lot more local. So, next time you are in your large grocery store chain of choice and an item you want is temporarily out of stock because a single transport truck was stuck in that same three hour delay on the 401, think of that little problem magnified a million times by the damage the awesome power of centralized computer systems can do when they go from spitting out endless ones and zeros to just spitting out – zero. What are you going to do then? Hint: Even the official Government of Canada emergency preparedness site says they are not going to be coming to your rescue. Don’t believe me? Go check it out for your self. And people think I’m the crazy one.

Finally, I would like to point out that the sword is a technology that resists quite well any decreasing marginal returns on investments in complexity. Like sailboats, the extreme environment of their use and abuse discourages that kind of design problem creeping in. What could be simpler than a single solid object made up of two simple machines, a wedge and a lever, and made from good old fashioned carbon steel? In my books there is a reason the cult of the sword never dies. And, it is an eminently practical one. If I recall it correctly the Zombie Survival Guide says: “Remember, a sword never needs reloading.” Now that is graceful degradation in a nutshell, and that is why I maintain that the future is the past.

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The silhouette of the Ironwood tree in the logo is used by permission. It is reproduced from Trees in Canada by J.L. Farrar, published by the Canadian Forest Service and Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1995.