Limits to Complexity

SUBHEAD: It seems we are witnessing the time when increasing technological complexity is obviously costing more than we gain. By George Mobus on 14 March 2011 in Question Everything - ( Image above: Computer devise as doorstop. From (

Three Mile Island; Chernobyl; now Fukushima. Nuclear power may be in trouble. Exxon Valdiz; Deepwater Horizon; Fraking (sic) for oil and gas. Fossil fuels may be in trouble. Computer security breeches. The Internet may be in trouble. These are all examples of very complex technological systems that have not performed as well as they were supposed to. There are many other examples.

“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?” - Robert Browning

Indeed, what is a heaven for? Humanity's reach does exceed its grasp. We can touch the outer reaches of technological wonders, but we don't seem able to grab hold in any stable way. Our most advanced and complex technologies are failing to serve us as expected. What drives us to create greater complexity? What purpose is served by greater complexity? Are we better off touching greater complexity and then dropping it, so to speak, on our toes because we have no real grasp?

One answer to the ‘what drives us’ question was given by Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies. He posits that the increase in complexity comes from our attempt to solve problems. We invent things and procedures aimed at making life better or easier or thwarting a danger we perceive. But it turns out that very often the solution to one kind of problem introduces unintended consequences and thus generates new problems. Ergo we are on a spiral of ever increasing complexity of problems and complexity of solutions.

Tainter also posits that at some point the benefits gained by solving problems with more complexity start to diminish, and, indeed, can start to produce negative results. That is, there is a law of diminishing returns that attend increasing complexity. He uses this framework to analyze the demise of civilizations throughout history.

One way to generalize the drive to greater complexity is to recognize what constitutes that which we humans consider problems. We have our biological needs to meet, enough food, water, shelter, sex, etc. Our problems start when any of these are in jeopardy or hard to get. We invent tools to make the getting easier and more reliable. Then the same kind of thinking extends to our other needs in the Maslowian hierarchy. Back when energy resources were limited to real-time (animal and water power) and limited-storage (wood fuel) there was a very direct link between having enough energy to invest in inventions to aid in achieving our needs and the perception that we were, indeed, solving problems effectively. But as fossil fuels started to play an increasing role in providing extrasomatic power, humans found it possible to not only invent to fill needs but to fill wants as well. We started getting spoiled.

Then in the 20th century we learned how to create artificial needs by linking wants to those biological needs. Advertising and marketing turned those automobiles from merely providing convenient personal travel into representations of our sexuality and social power. Now invention for the purpose of solving our ‘created’ needs has taken on a life of its own. Every little inconvenience looks like a problem to be solved. If we don't get instant gratification from our material wealth, something is drastically wrong and needs more invention. Heaven is being able to have no limits on our ability to fill our desires.

That takes care of the reach but there is the grasp part to consider. Our best engineering practices cannot seem to prevent our inventions from failing and doing so catastrophically. Every time we solve a local problem we create a global one worse than what we started with. For example, in our attempts to solve our energy needs we have created a monstrous infrastructure that is starting to consume more energy than it produces while simultaneously destroying our environment. Our attempts to keep the oil flowing have just gotten us into a situation where we are using too much of the oil that we do get in attempting to get the next unit of oil! Even as we see the problems associated with obtaining more oil, we look to new and more complex technologies that will allow us to extract the marginal resources such as tar sands and ultra-deep water pockets.

As long as each human in the population is out to solve their own local set of problems, and expect that that will be accomplished by putting pressure on politicians, we will continue to fail in recognizing that the global problems are getting worse. We will push for more technology to solve our problems. We will, for example, insist on things like increased drilling in marginal areas, requiring much more elaborate and costly infrastructure, even as the net return goes negative. When the lights go out for long periods due to peak fossil fuel energy production we will insist on using nuclear in spite of what we've seen. The greens will insist on conversion to alternative (renewable) energy sources even though that means complexifying our electrical distribution system further and converting to electric transportation, which is complex electronically. It won't matter that there really isn't enough time to carry that plan out. Nor will it matter how much more at risk some of us will be when some of that complex infrastructure fails. We will do it because we are spoiled and deeply believe that solving problems with technology is what we have to do.

President Obama believes (as do so many others) that we will innovate our way out of the energy/global warming crises. He believes in “clean coal”, for example. He probably has very little idea about the nature of the technology required to remove CO2 from the emissions stream and then sequester it ‘somewhere’. I doubt that Steven Chu, Energy Secretary, has bothered to explain to him how complex such an operation would be and what risks are associated with, for example, storing the gas in underground reservoirs. I say this because nobody actually knows how complex the operation might end up being or what risks we should consider. What should be a telling sign about this was the continually escalating cost estimates for the FutureGen power plant proposal. Anytime a ‘system’ gets more expensive you can bet that the culprit is escalating complexity. Another classic and damning story is that of the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle (see the film The Pentagon Wars for a black humor perspective).

Let's face it. We are not just addicted to oil (and high powered fossil fuels), we are addicted to technology as our great savior. For virtually all of mankind's history we got a ‘high’ on technology. Partly this was because technology seemed to make us more comfortable and partly it stems from the novelty factor. New solutions are almost always exciting and promising. For most of that time it did seem to help us solve problems even if it did tend to get more complex over time. We had plenty of energy to invest in complexity. Why not do it? But then we ended up addicted. Like all addicts we are hooked and cannot possibly imagine that this isn't the right thing to do, or at least that it isn't really that bad to do. Belief is a wonderful thing when what you believe in also happens to correspond with reality.

In reality technology has always been a two edged sword, not only in the sense that it can be used for good or bad (e.g. television had the potential to be a great liberating/educational medium), but also in the sense that for every supposed benefit it provides there is a cost associated. All too often the costs are hidden from plain view, or we don't look hard enough because we are so enamored with the surficial benefit (iPhones come to mind). And, as Tainter points out, too often the complexity associated with increasing technology (and here I mean both tool inventions and things like organizational bureaucracies and procedures), carries hidden costs that leave us with net negative benefit in reality.

It seems to me we are witnessing the time when increasing technological complexity is obviously costing more than we gain. What makes this even worse is the reliance on fossil fuels for power to keep the technology going. We are already in the time of decreasing net energy to use in our economy which means we cannot even maintain what we have, let alone build up some new massive and complex technology, such as huge solar collectors in the deserts, that scale to where our current population and consumption requirements sit.

The terrible tragedy playing out in Japan right now has some deeper lessons to offer. My sincere condolences go out to all the victims of the quake and tsunami. But the level of destruction and the dangers of nuclear radiation attest to the degree to which we always assume everything will be all right and put our trust in complex technology. And the more complex, the greater the fail when things go wrong. I am not holding out hope that this example will wake up anyone with influence. I don't expect to see the vast majority of humanity suddenly come to grips with their addictions. Beliefs that do not correspond with reality, like a belief in a heaven, do not get routed easily. People don't usually voluntarily question everything.


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