Anne Tagonist (tagonist) wrote,
Anne Tagonist

Jumping Into Someone Else's Discussion About Complexity

When I lived in Ohio, I did a lot of work with a 1955 Gravely walk-behind tractor.

(That one isn't mine, by the way. I don't have any pictures of my own. I did have that funky grader blade, though, along with a rotary plow, tiller, and a couple bush-hogs)

When I bought it, I had a choice- buy my own Gravely, or go in with some well-heeled neighbors on a BCS.

(there was no way we could afford the baler, and actually you need an outsized engine to even run the baler, so all things considered this is an unrepresentative picture. Still, pretty cool.)

I opted for the Gravely for three reasons. The first was social and not worth going into. The second was, there was a Gravely dealership thirty miles away, which is close by country definitions. The third, and most important reason, was that it was really old, really well used, and any engineering flaws would have shown up by now. Gravelys run on big, cast-iron Kohler engines, which are the PS2's of small motors and show up in everthing from irrigation pumps to stand-alone generators. They have the reputation of being bombproof, overweight, and easy to fix with hand tools. Compare this to the Italian moped I'm currently fixing for a friend, in which everything is non-standard and spare parts need to be shipped across an ocean. My current task is filing down the ferrule on the throttle cable so it can fit in the shutter gate in the carburetor.

Anyway, I'm going a bit over the edge with my teaser topic. The actual discussion I'm responding to is one about complexity. In the last couple days, Ran Prieur, Adam Feuer, and John Michael Greer have all responded to John Robb's review of a Joseph Tainter book about the collapse of complex societies.

"Complexity" is actually a very fuzzy subject, in fact no really good definition of the term exists. "Number of interacting parts" is good if one is describing a combine harvester, but not if one is describing a bacterial culture. "Necessary variation" works to exclude the slime mold but falls down when talking about banks. Even in the narrow, technological sense, complexity is difficult to pin down. Interchangeable parts made the assembly and repair of rifles much simpler in the late eighteenth century, but producing them required coordinating the design and production of components with a whole new level of precision, at multiple different sites.

I have not read the Tainter book, but he is an archaeologist and probably uses "complex" in much the same way Jared Diamond does, important because Diamond is also frequently cited in the above blogs. For Diamond, complexity is a measure of the number of social relationships mediated by a culture, beginning with extended families (few relationships, low complexity) and reaching up to a modern world in which social relations are formalized and regularized to the point where basically anyone living within sixty miles of here might be sitting next to me on the trolley and it would be equally appropriate and easy to make small talk. For Diamond, complexity depends on surplus production to support the emergence of a political sector. This then can coordinate disparate subcommunities and create the social infrastructure to bring everyone together. Not a bad definition of complexity (though I should probably look up an actual citation instead of paraphrasing from memory) but noticeably unrelated to technology and machines.

The bloggers above, on the other hand, interpret the terms "complex society" and "simplification" as referring specifically to modern material culture. Complex operating systems, automated factories, and centralized production are doomed, but simpler electronics, skilled workers, and garage hacking may yet survive through being less complex to maintain, or through being reparable using local components and skills.

I'm trying to read the three bloggers' comments in the light of social, rather than technological complexity, but I'm finding it too tempting to use machine-talk as a metaphor. For instance, what is the human equivalent of a cast-iron interchangeable engine? Would that be a generalist laborer? Would the persnickety carb on the moped be the equivalent of someone who has studied extensively how to do one thing, and is useless otherwise? In this formulation the romantic era of "arts and crafts" suggested by Greer would be less fragile in a collapse than our current technical world.

But this is terrible- your average experienced "generalist laborer" can run rings around a new hire in a workplace, because even if they've never studied a recognizable "specialty" the best way to get good at something is to do it for years on end. Good generalist laborers aren't generalists. Exchange the Kohlers in a pump and a lawnmower and you get equivalent function. Swap an advertising copy editor for a book copy editor and you get steep learning curves on both sides. Furthermore, your hopeless specialist, while common in fiction, never really shows up in real life. Even the fussiest, narrowest academic, who studies parasites on a specific species of swallow, say, still probably knows more reptile bio than you do, and who knows, maybe they knap flint in their spare time. Lots of people do that, y'know?

I can, without trying very hard, conjure up a number of scenarios in which technologies, especially those that are harder to repair by hand with widely-available parts, stop working. However, at this point I consider them much less likely (well, or imminent!) than scenarios in which the kind of social simplification described by Diamond in Collapse comes about first. What would it take to remove the fine distinctions between a book editor and an ad editor? Or to problematize cheerful daily interaction between geographically dispersed strangers? Not much. Take away the financial system, banking credit, student loans, and disposable American income, and all the people from my various examples, the two copy editors, the parasitologist, and you, are all in line together at the mine office, offering your services humping coal. Plenty of us will lose DSL service long before the internet "goes down," and spare parts are no good if you can't afford them.

I think when one is talking about social complexity, social simplification, and the collapse of a complex society, its important not to get overwhelmed with machine metaphors. Simplified societies in history, even the special dramatic ones that bloggers love to predict recurring here in the states, became simpler because social positions and social relationships were simplified, not because all the cell phones went to rotary dial.


  • The Tightwad's Small Truck

    I adore Amy Daczyczyn's The Tightwad Gazette. Don't you? Looking back after more than a decade, there are a number of observations I could make…

  • New Blog Address

    Hey all! For those of you interested in reading my much-more-specific blog, I registered an actual domain name for it and you can find what I put…

  • (no subject)

    I have seriously neglected this blog for the past three months, something of a record. Kind of a shame, too, since I was going strong. Anyway, I will…

  • Post a new comment


    Comments allowed for friends only

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded