Clay Shirky on the collapse of complex biz models

“In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: 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.”

Read the full post by Clay Shirky.

Kevin Rose & Tim Ferriss are fun to watch

Somehow I got sucked into watching this. Kevin Rose of Digg & Tim Ferriss of The Four Hour Work Week have started recording videos together, talking about everything from startups to nutrition, travel, technology, culture, etc.

They’ve started calling the series “Random” which is just about the same as not having a name at all. But who needs a name when the conversation is as good as this. Two insanely smart, motivated guys sharing their insights about nothing and everything in particular.

I’ve embedded all, or at least most, of the videos below. From what I can tell there’s not currently any streamlined way of following or subscribing to the series, so I swiped these embeds from Kevin’s blog.

Watch the most recent episode at least, to see if it’s a good fit for your brain. I hope they keep at it.

Episode 8

Episode 7 (China Part 3):

Episode 6 (China Part 2):

Episode 5 (China):

Episode 4:

Episode 3:

Episode 2:

Episode 1:

Twenty Ten

Numeral Slang Numeral Vernacular Slang Vernacular
2000 ‘00 “Two Thousand” “two-thousand”
2001 ’01 “Two Thousand One” “oh-one”
2010 ’10 “Twenty Ten” “twenty-ten”
2013 ’13 “Twenty Thirteen” “thirteen”
2020 ’20 “Twenty Twenty” “twenty-twenty”
2021 ’21 “Twenty-One” “twenty-one”
2030 ’30 “Twenty Thirty” “twenty-thirty”

Here is my stance on the debate, if “debate” is the proper term. I’ve only included the pivotal years: the ones where some type of grammatical shift occurs.

I think perhaps saying the years of 2001-2009 as “Two Thousand One” and so on will break down somewhat the further we get from them, but ultimately will be much more common than saying “Nineteen Hundred One” as it’s simply easier to say, and there is so much cultural significance in the turn of the millennium to weigh down this usage.

My logic for saying “twenty-thirty”, “twenty-twenty”, and so on, instead of just “thirty” or “twenty” is a little fuzzy, and mostly based on my own usage. I don’t notice a clear pattern in other people’s usage, or at least haven’t bothered to notice. I think generally I say “nineteen-ninety” instead of “ninety”, as the latter is a little ambiguous. The same applies to “ten”, “eleven” and “twelve”: all grammatical orphans. “Fifteen” can stand alone as “-teen” provides some kind of context that seems sufficient, as does “thirty-” for “thirty-one”, or “ninety-” for “ninety-six”. Am I alone in thinking it feels better to say “back in ninety-six” than “back in ninety”?

As for decades, I’ll wager the following: “Two-thousands” (2000’s), “Tens” (10s), “Twenties” (20s), etc. We won’t use “Two-Thousands” to refer to the entire century until we’re safely in the 22nd century, much like we don’t say “The Nineteen-Hundreds” but rather “The Twentieth Century” for 1900-1999, but we do say “The Eighteen-Hundreds” for 1800-1899. This is largely because referral to specific decades becomes less common the further you’re removed from them, and we more often refer to the whole of the 1800’s than we do the years 1800-1809 specifically. This is not currently true for the 1900’s, and won’t be until some ambiguous region of time well into this century.

For more, see Wikipedia’s article on english numerals and their usage.


In Praise of Melancholy

photo credit: Michelle Brea

Some eloquent thoughts concerning our tendency to settle for vanilla, complacent “happiness” in place of the reality of life and true emotional diversity.

The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment? (…)

I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life’s enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill. (…)

Suffering the gloom, inevitable as breath, we must further accept this fact that the world hates: We are forever incomplete, fragments of some ungraspable whole. Our unfinished natures — we are never pure actualities but always vague potentials — make life a constant struggle, a bout with the persistent unknown. But this extension into the abyss is also our salvation. To be only a fragment is always to strive for something beyond ourselves, something transcendent. That striving is always an act of freedom, of choosing one road instead of another. Though this labor is arduous — it requires constant attention to our mysterious and shifting interiors — it is also ecstatic, an almost infinite sounding of the exquisite riddles of Being.

To be against happiness is to embrace ecstasy. Incompleteness is a call to life. Fragmentation is freedom. The exhilaration of never knowing anything fully is that you can perpetually imagine sublimities beyond reason. On the margins of the known is the agile edge of existence. This is the rapture, burning slow, of finishing a book that can never be completed, a flawed and conflicted text, vexed as twilight.

Excerpted from an essay by Eric G. WIlson, which is adapted from his book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melanchonly, being published this month.

Steal This Film II

These are strange times indeed. While they continue to command so much attention in the mainstream media, the ‘battles’ between old and new modes of distribution, between the pirate and the institution of copyright, seem to many of us already lost and won. We know who the victors are. Why then say any more?

Because waves of repression continue to come: lawsuits are still levied against innocent people; arrests are still made on flimsy pretexts, in order to terrify and confuse; harsh laws are still enacted against filesharing, taking their place in the gradual erosion of our privacy and the bolstering of the surveillance state. All of this is intended to destroy or delay inexorable changes in what it means to create and exchange our creations. If STEAL THIS FILM II proves at all useful in bringing new people into the leagues of those now prepared to think ‘after intellectual property’, think creatively about the future of distribution, production and creativity, we have achieved our main goal.

DVD, iPod and HD Video formats are available for free via Bit Torrent at the film’s website. Some pretty interesting commentary on the economics of new media.

Ron Paul on Meet the Press

Tim Russert is breaking Ron Paul’s balls the whole time yet Ron does a pretty good job of keeping his cool. I’d like to see an interview like this conducted over correspondence where each side has more time to consider and prepare their responses. Backing someone into a corner with an entire staff’s worth of research and misquoted soundbytes doesn’t do much good for anyone.

At one point Tim criticizes Ron for not refusing federal money from bills that he voted against on principle, yet passed regardless. That would be like me refusing A’s in college classes just because I think the American university system is broken. You either play the game or you don’t, and if you play you follow the rules, trying best you can to change them along the way. Washing your hands of a mess only makes for clean hands, and there is a surplus of clean hands in this country.


This is my response to an image recently promoted to the top of social image bookmarking site, FFFFOUND!. Full sizes of original and response below, and links to the entries on FFFFOUND! for your bookmarking pleasure.

Text from the original was:

i’m using ffffounddotcom.
i am a graphic designer.
therefore, i love design.
and i’d like to tell you something:

the pussy, the boobs, the whatever
of your girlfriend body has
nothing to do with design.

graphic design ≠ sex.
pictures: yes.
your sister anatomy: no, thanks.

Previously: FFFFOUND!

Update: some recent responses in FFFFOUND!