Reduction of Complexity

Interview with Bill Tomlinson

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Video transcript: "A big chunk of this work comes out of the work ofan archeologist named Joseph Tainter, at Utah State University, and he wrote a book in the early 90's called the Collapse of Complex Civilizations. In this book he puts forward the idea that one of main ways humans solve problems is we add complexity more so than we reduce complexity. So, if there is some problem that an academic department is having, we might add a committee to it. Or if there's some problem that a country is having, it might add another agency to the government in effort to address it.

And the point that he makes is that each one of these additional bits of complexity carries with energetic overhead. Gradually, as this complexity accrues, as it sort of accumulates, and there aren't as many explicit efforts to remove complexity, it creates a situation where more and more energetic overhead is required to keep civilization going and this is fine, as long as you're in a context of continuously growing available energy, which we are right now with the availability of fossil fuels. We have a great deal of energy that we can use to support complexity and with that comes all of the abundance of industrial civilization that we currently inhabit.

However, something that Joseph Tainter documented across many different civilizations across human history is that once available energy dries up, once you don't have anymore fossil fuel, or once you've cut down the last tree, or once you can no longer invade Central Europe to get energy from your nearest neighbors, it creates a situation where you can no longer maintain the level of complexity that your civilization has brought about. And this then leads to a often involuntary reduction in socio-technical complexity. One of the challenges then is, if we now understand this, if we have a sense that this is potentially coming in the future of the civilization that we currently live in, what can we do about it ? What are the possible outcomes ?

One is to see this and to put in place mechanisms for reducing complexity, for stripping away some of the complexity that we're surrounded with. And this has a couple different benefits - first, it potentially prevents us from finding ourselves in a situation where our civilization collapses. In addition, there are various different contexts in which simplicity works better for humans as we want to live our lives, while we benefit from complexity in lots of different ways, we also suffer from complexity. Many of the different jobs that people hold in industrial civilization suffer from a big disconnect between the work that they do and how they get food and other resources.

So, for example, I have a job as a professor and I turn up on a daily basis, and teach classes, and do interviews like this one, and engage in all sorts of other activities, and then, sort of magically, once a month some numbers are shifted around in a database and I get more money in a bank account, and then I can use that at a food store to provide for my kids. But that's very different than, for example, the three sad little strawberries I have growing in my front yard, which I find very satisfying to be able to then pick and feed to my kid; the direct connection between the simplicity of growing my own food and feeding my kids is more satisfying in a sort of visceral way to my primate brain, than engaging in this millions of people and incomprehensible chains of bits that are connecting my daily work to the way in which I get the resources for my basic survival.

The prospect that we might need to shift to a different way of living, one that does not have the same complexity that we currently enjoy, while on the one hand it potentially could mean that various different pieces of infrastructure that we have come to rely on are no longer available. But we will need alternatives to those that potentially are more simple in their implementation, but may, at the same time, be more satisfying than the ones we currently find ourselves embedded in."

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Related tags: Systems, Theory, Tactic, Design, Life Quality,