Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Tainter’

On Complexity And Goodness

May 21, 2014 4 comments

While browsing around on for more books to read on simplicity/complexity, the pleasant memory of reading Dan Ward’s terrific little book, “The Simplicity Cycle“, somehow popped into my head. Since it has been 10 years since I read it, I decided to dig it up and re-read it.

In his little gem, Dan explores the relationships between complexity, goodness, and time. He starts out by showing this little graph, and then he spends the rest of the book eloquently explaining movements through the complexity-goodness space.

Complexity Vs Goodness

First things first. Let’s look at Mr. Ward’s parsimonious definitions of system complexity and goodness:

Complexity: Consisting of interconnected parts. Lots of interconnected parts equal high degree of complexity. Few interconnected parts equal a low degree of complexity.

Goodness: Operational functionality or utility or understandability or design maturity or beauty.

Granted, these definitions are just about as abstract as we can imagine, but (always) remember that context is everything:

The number 100 is intrinsically neither large nor small. 100 interconnected parts is a lot if we’re talking about a pencil sharpener, but few if we’re talking about a jet aircraft. – Dan Ward

When we start designing a system, we have no parts, no complexity (save for that in our heads), no goodness. Thus, we begin our effort close to the origin in the complexity-goodness space.

As we iteratively design/build our system, we conceive of parts and we connect them together, adding more parts as we continuously discover, learn, employ our knowledge of, and apply our design expertise to the problem at hand. Thus, we start moving out from the origin, increasing the complexity and (hopefully!) goodness of our baby as we go. The skills we apply at this stage of development are “learning and genesis“.

At a certain point in time during our effort, we hit a wall. The “increasing complexity increases goodness” relationship insidiously morphs into an “increasing complexity decreases goodness” relationship. We start veering off to the left in the complexity-goodness space:

Decreasing Goodness

Many designers, perhaps most, don’t realize they’ve rotated the vector to the left. We continue adding complexity without realizing we’re decreasing goodness.

We can often justify adding new parts independently, but each exists within the context of a larger system. We need to take a system level perspective when determining whether a component increases or decreases goodness. – Dan Ward

Once we hit the invisible but surely present wall, the only way to further increase goodness is to somehow start reducing complexity. We can do this by putting our “learning and genesis” skills on the shelf and switching over to our vastly underutilized “unlearning and synthesis” skills. Instead of creating and adding new parts, we need to reduce the part count by integrating some of the parts and discarding others that aren’t pulling their weight.

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away. – Antoine de Saint Exupery

Dan’s explanation of the complexity-goodness dynamic is consistent with Joseph Tainter’s account in “The Collapse Of Complex Societies“. Mr. Tainter’s thesis is that as societies grow, they prosper by investing in, and adding layer upon layer, of complexity to the system. However, there is an often unseen downside at work during the process. Over time, the Return On Investment (ROI) in complexity starts to decrease in accordance with the law of diminishing returns. Eventually, further investment depletes the treasury while injecting more and more complexity into the system without adding commensurate “goodness“. The society becomes vulnerable to a “black swan” event, and when the swan paddles onto the scene, there are not enough resources left to recover from the calamity. It’s collapse city.

The only way out of the runaway increasing complexity dilemma is for the system’s stewards to conscientiously start reducing the tangled mess of complexity: integrating overlapping parts, fusing tightly coupled structures, and removing useless or no-longer-useful elements. However, since the biggest benefactors of increasing complexity are the stewards of the system themselves, the likelihood of an intervention taking place before a black swan’s arrival on the scene is low.


Complexity ROI

At the end of his book, Mr. Ward presents a few patterns of activity in the complexity-goodness space, two of which align with Mr. Tainter’s theory. Perhaps the one on the left should be renamed “Collapse“?

CG Patterns


So, what does all this made up BD00 complexity-goodness-collapse crap mean to me in my little world (and perhaps you)? In my work as a software developer, when my intuition starts whispering in my ear that my architecture/sub-designs/code are starting to exceed my capacity to understand the product, I fight the urge to ignore it. I listen to that voice and do my best to suppress the mighty, culturally inculcated urge to over-learn, over-create, and over-complexify. I grudgingly bench my “learning and genesis” skills and put my “unlearning and synthesis” skills in the game.

Encroach And Dominate

Systems tend to grow, and as they grow, they encroach – John Gall (The Systems Bible)

Complex societies, once established, tend to expand and dominate – Joseph Tainter (The Collapse Of Complex Societies)


Tainted Themes

March 12, 2013 Leave a comment

In “The Collapse of Complex Societies“, Joseph Tainter defines “complexity” as:

Complexity is generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. – Joseph Tainter.

Joseph then defines “collapse” as:

A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. Collapse then is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity. – Joseph Tainter

Mr. Tainter then surveys the landscape of historic, archaeological, and anthropological literature explaining the collapse of societies like the western Roman empire, the Mayans, the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, etc. He groups the theories of collapse into 11 “tainted” themes:

Tainter Themes

Joseph then skillfully makes a case that all these specialized themes can be subsumed under his simple and universal theory of collapse:

Tainter Collapse

His theory goes something like this. As a society grows, it necessarily becomes more complex. Exceedingly more and more investment in complexity (infrastructure, basic services, defense, food production control, public tributes to the elite to maintain their legitimacy in the minds of the non-elites) is then required to hold the society together. However, as the graphic below shows, at some point in time, the marginal return on the investments in complexity reaches a tipping point at which the society becomes vulnerable to collapse from one or more of the subsumed themes.

ROC Curve

To illustrate further, BD00 presents the dorky growth-to-collapse scenario below:

growth to collapse

As shown, societal growth begets a larger and more internally diverse production subsystem. That same growth requires investment in more and varied control (Ashby’s law of requisite variety) over production so that “the center can hold” and the society can “retain its identity as a whole“. In this runaway positive feedback system, the growing army of controller layers siphons off more and more of the production outputs for itself – starving the production subsystem in the process.

To prevent the production subsystem from dispersing (or revolting) and keep the whole system growing, more and more investment is poured into production control (compliance and efficiency) in an attempt to increase output and keep both the production and control subsystems viable. However, as the control subsystem growth outpaces production subsystem growth and a caste system emerges, the control subsystem requires a larger and larger share of the production subsystem outputs for itself – which further weakens and constrains and alienates the production subsystem. Hence, the “declining marginal return on investment in complexity” machine is kicked into overdrive and the vulnerability to collapse appears on the horizon. D’oh!

In your growing “society“, is the controller subsystem growing faster than the production subsystem? Are more specialized controller/administration layers being added faster than producers? Is the caste system becoming more stratified and prejudiced? Are more and more processes/rules/policies being imposed on the production subsystem for increased compliance and efficiency? Is the army of growing controllers siphoning off more and more of the production system outputs for themselves? If so, then maybe your society is vulnerable to sudden collapse. But then again, it may not. Tainter’s thesis is simply a bland and drama-less, economically based theory. It might be tainted itself.

Say it taint so, shoeless Joe! – unknown kid

The Commencement Of Husbandry

April 28, 2010 2 comments

The figure below was copied over from yesterday’s post. Derived from Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies”, it simply illustrates that as the complexity of a social organizational structure necessarily grows to support the group’s own growth and survival needs, the adaptability of the structure decreases. The flat and loosely coupled institutional structures originally created by the group’s elites (with the willing consent of the commoners) start hierarchically rising and coalescing into a rigid, gridlocked monolith incapable of change. At the unknown future point in time where an external unwanted disturbance exceeds the group’s ability to handle it with its existing complex problem solving structures and intellectual wizardry, the whole tower of Babel comes tumbling down since the monolith is incapable of the alternative – adapting to the disturbance via change. Poof!

According to Tainter, once the process has started, it is irreversible. But is it? Check out the figure below. In this example, the group leadership not only awakens to the dooms day scenario, it commences the process of husbandry to reverse the process by:

  • Re-structuring (not just tinkering and rearranging the chairs) for increased adaptability – by simplifying.
  • Scouring the system for, and delicately removing  useless, appendix-like substructures.
  • Discovering the pockets of fat that keep the system immobile and trimming them away.
  • Loosening dependencies between substructures and streamlining the interactions between those substructures by jettisoning bogus processes and procedures.
  • Installing effective, low lag time, internal feedback loops and external sensors that allow the system to keep moving forward and probing for harmful external disturbances.

If the execution of husbandry is boldly done right (and it’s a big IF for humongous institutions with a voracious appetite for resources), an effectively self-controlled and adaptable production system will emerge. Over time, and with sustained periodic acts of husbandry to reduce complexity, the system can prosper for the long haul as shown in the figure below.

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