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.


Myriahedral projection maps of the world

A new technique for unpeeling the Earth’s skin and displaying it on a flat surface provides a fresh perspective on geography, making it possible to create maps that string out the continents for easy comparison, or lump together the world’s oceans into one huge mass of water surrounded by coastlines.

“Myriahedral projection” was developed by Jack van Wijk, a computer scientist at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

“The basic idea is surprisingly simple,” says van Wijk. His algorithms divide the globe’s surface into small polygons that are unfolded into a flat map, just as a cube can be unfolded into six squares.

Cartographers have tried this trick before; van Wijk’s innovation is to up the number of polygons from just a few to thousands. He has coined the word “myriahedral” to describe it, a combination of “myriad” with “polyhedron”, the name for polygonal 3D shapes.

PS, apparently some people thought the site was done for based on my last post. Definitely not. 🙂