(Roughly) Daily

“The entire empire has sunk into a quagmire of extravagance from which they cannot extricate themselves”*…

If you ever visit Rome, and wander through the Colosseum or Circus Maximus, it’s hard not to be struck by a sense of fragility and impermanence. Here are the remnants of the most powerful and complex of ancient European societies, now reduced to ruin and rubble. How did this once proud and mighty empire crumble?

Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies has an answer to that question, and to similar questions you might ask about the collapse of other ancient societies (Mayan, Incan, Babylonian etc). His book is widely cited and discussed among those who are interested in the topic of civilisational collapse. Having now read it, I can see why. Tainter presents his views with a logical simplicity that is often lacking in these debates, only setting out his own theory after having exhaustively categorised and dismissed alternative theories. What’s more, his own theory is remarkably easy to state and understand: societies collapse when they hit a point of rapidly declining marginal returns on their investments in problem-solving capacity.

Despite this, I have yet to see a really good summary of his theory online. I want to provide one… I’ll try to focus on the essential elements of Tainter’s theory, and not on his dismissal of rival theories or his detailed case studies. I’ll also aim to be critical of the theory where needed, and to provide some reflections on whether it can be applied to contemporary societies at the end. These reflections will be somewhat idiosyncratic, tied to my own interests in democratic legitimacy and technology…

Academic and blogger John Danaher (@JohnDanaher): “The Collapse of Complex Societies: A Primer on Tainter’s Theory.” To observe the obvious, Tainter’s theory is usefully– provocatively– applied to (large) organizations and their “problem-solving capacity” (e.g., innovation and competitive responsiveness) as well…

(Via Matt Webb, whose contextualization is fascinating…)

* Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem

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As we deliberate on decline, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that George Washington was elected President of the United States by a unanimous vote in the Electoral College.

Washington’s inauguration

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 4, 2021 at 1:01 am

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