Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Steve DeAngelis at ERMB was kind enough to devote a lengthy post to my thoughts on civilizational resilience and also those of the complexity theorist Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam.
In bringing his expertise to bear, Steve helpfully clarified many important aspects of civilizational resilience and complexity, including the issue of scalability, before delving into Bar-Yam's biological model:

"The basic premise is that the complexity of connections increases as one moves from the random actions of individuals to the coordinated movements of great civilizations. Resilience increases as you move up this continuum from individuals (who survive at best around century) to civilizations (which can survive for thousands of years). Safranski asks where globalization fits into this scheme of things. Is globalization an ephemeral stage or a convergence of civilizations into something new?

... I agree with the basic premise that complexity grows as connections increase. I have argued that globalization has created a complexity gap which results when organizations try unsuccessfully to meet emerging challenges with traditional solutions. I started Enterra Solutions to help fill the complexity gap for organizations and Tom Barnett and I promote Development-in-a-Box as a way to fill the complexity gap for nation-states.

...Dynamic civilizations, like the Roman Empire, generally fall as a result of complacency and decadence. Whereas, static civilizations generally decline more gradually as the complexity gap increases and the people end up undereducated, underproductive, and impoverished"

This last point was really quite important.

Steve's "Complexity Gap" is a critical concept because it introduces the cognitive aspect of social and political problems that, if left unaddressed, is likely to render otherwise solvable political problems intractable. A phenomena we see in many failing states with a numerically tiny, Western (or Soviet bloc) educated elite and a semi-illiterate, rural majority, population. A reason why the introduction of mass education, particularly for in societies where, traditionally, education has been denied to women, often proves to be transformative on a multiplicity of levels.

On Bar-Yam:

"Although there is a Borg-like quality to Bar-Yam's description of humanity as "a single organism," his larger point is that we are all in this world together and many of the complex solutions to emerging challenges are going to require a coordinated effort. Since we all know how difficult (impossible?) it is to get international agreement on anything, we are left wondering how (if?) this coordinated effort will emerge.

If Bar-Yam is correct and we are heading toward a networked "civilization" and greater specialization, some of the topics I've blogged in the past will become even more important. For example, the able to create a "Medici Effect" (18 May post) among specializations will critical as will the establishment of "globally-integrated enterprises" (14 June post). The ability to establish and maintain "communities of practice" (27 & 29 June posts) will also be important. Each of these concepts shares a simple idea, when people connect good things can happen."

Steve is, in my view, quite correct.

A networked civilization by definition will see greater interaction by these specialists across domains , in horizontal thinking fashion, and that such multidisciplinary collaboration ( which is happening with increasing frequency in the sciences) is a sign that such a society is starting to emerge. Not unlike the first shifts away from commons land agriculture and artisanal craftsmanship and toward consolidated landholdings, factories and worker specialization in the 17th-19th centuries. An economic and organizational transition that heralded the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Read Steve's post in full.
I think Steve missed one important point of Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam. To me the doctor seemed to be saying that The Roman Empire didn't fall because of complacency and decadence, complacency and decadence were possible symptoms of a society that couldn't deal with complexity.
Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam says, “In a review of history, the development of hierarchies can be seen to enable progressively more complex behaviors. There are two complementary aspects to this development, complexity at the scale of the individual and complexity at the scale of the collective.”
“The complexity/diversity of individual behaviors does not, by itself, cause the breakdown of the hierarchies. It is the complexity of collective behaviors that is important since controlling these behaviors, i.e. coordinating the behaviors of the individuals, is the role of central control.”
He then writes of Empires, “ From earliest recorded history until the fall of the Roman Empire, empires replaced various smaller kingdoms that had developed during a process of consolidation of yet smaller association of human being. The degree of control exercised in these systems varied, but the progression towards larger more centrally control systems is apparent. As per our discussion of the difference between independent individual and coherent behaviors this process was driven by military force.”
But what happens when the military force is no longer needed, when the law of the land prevails. I believe your coherent profile is lost and the situation becomes correlated and specialized. This gives the Roman Empire a complexity profile that declines gradually with increasing scale instead of the sharp decline with decreased scale that is contributed by military action.
If the leaders of the Roman Empire were unaware of the change in the complexity profile, they may have become complacent and decadent simply because they didn’t understand what was happening. Their situation was getting more complex than they were. They reverted to the less complex beings of their character.
Hi Larry,

Check out ERMB - Steve has continued his thoughts; on your points:

"complacency and decadence were possible symptoms of a society that couldn't deal with complexity."

The leaders weren't unaware but the Imperial system generated frequent & unpredictable changes in leadership as the legions proclaimed new Emperors and assassinations removed them. The stability for long term planning was rarely there even if the Romans had thought in those terms, which I think is dubious. Different cognitive outlook than modern Westerners like ourselves.

The Empire reached a crisis point here under Diocletian who responded with a policy of political decentralization and economic stasis, both of which proved exceptionally negative in their consequences. So much so that instituting the exact opposite might have been better.

I think you are correct though that the complexity profile exceeded the readily available tools (institutions, communication technology) which left the Roman elite at a loss.

A networked civilization by definition will see greater interaction by these specialists across domains , in horizontal thinking fashion, and that such multidisciplinary collaboration

Yes, but as long as the network focusses on collaboration (soft rulesets) and not control (hard rulesets). Hierarchicalization of security has been increasing for the past many millennia, and we are the better for it.
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