When I was writing this piece about the effect of social networks in financial markets, I was reminded about another New Scientist article I'd read a couple of months ago which, in a related fashion, suggested that once human society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Most civilisations in history have grown increasingly complex before collapsing. Rather than the collapse being caused by a one-off force majeure, perhaps it could be considered to be an inevitable characteristic of civilisation itself.
Society grows bigger by solving problems, the theory goes. Such continuous problem-solving adds incrementally to society's complexity as each solution is layered on the last. Success means a bigger population, more organisation, more specialists, more management of resources and information. Increased complexity not only brings increasing costs in energy ('the common currency in all human effort'), but diminishing returns. Until eventually all available resources and energy are directed towards managing the current level of complexity, meaning that society reaches a point where even a relatively minor change event can lead to a collapse of civilisation and the emergence of a smaller, simpler society. Some have drawn a parallel with the natural cycle in ecosystems which, as they become more complex, also become ever more efficient in dealing with the normal range of conditions and ever more vulnerable to a change in those conditions which can lead to collapse and the establishment of a newer, simpler ecosystem.
The interesting point we have reached now, some believe, is one where the hierarchies needed to manage greater levels of complexity have themselves become so complex that they are giving way to networked and decentralised decision-making.
But does a society which is highly networked make us stronger or more vulnerable? Is a society with distributed decision-making more or less resilient? Some argue that whilst increased interconnectedness helps initially, networked systems become increasingly tightly coupled as connections increase, meaning that the impact of failures can propagate and they "start to transmit shocks rather than absorb them". Worse still, they might actually amplify them, transmitting destabilising effects from one side of the world to another, from one critical industry to the next. You've only to look at some of the theories on how information that flows through social networks has influenced financial market instability to see how this might work.
It's an attractive, if a tad depressing, theory. But before we all go off and become subsistence farmers, I have to say my glass is half-full on this one. One of the great benefits to a networked society I believe, is a fantastically increased capability for innovation and problem-solving which doesn't always lead to increased levels of complexity. As more nodes on the network are added, the power of the network potentially for the benefit of the network increases exponentially. But I do think we haven't even begun to understand the momentous challenges and potential brought by a society where all its inhabitants are connected and networked like never before.
Full article here.