Complexity: it’s complex, real, multi-layered and VERY dangerous


Image by J. Star via Flickr

My previous blogs referring to Joseph Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies were, again, brought to mind by a recent article, by Prof John Kay, in the Financial Times (Barbarians at the gates of complexity).

The following is an extract from a speech Tainter delivered in 2009. Interestingly the focus of the full version, which can be found here, was Sustainability…another topic close to my heart!

…complexity costs. In any living system, increased complexity (involving differentiation in structure and increasing organization) carries a metabolic cost. In non-human species this is a straightforward matter of additional calories. Among humans the cost is calculated in such currencies as resources, effort, time, or money, or by more subtle matters such as annoyance. While humans find complexity appealing in spheres such as art, music, or architecture, we usually prefer that someone else pay the cost. We are averse to complexity when it unalterably increases the cost of daily life without a clear benefit to the individual or household. Before the development of fossil fuels, increasing the complexity and costliness of a society meant that people worked harder. Read more of this post