fredag 14 februari 2014

I met Joseph Tainter!

...And you might ask "...and who is that?". Joseph Tainter is a professor at the Utah State University, Department of Environment & Society, and his main claim to fame is his 1988 book "The collapse of complex societies" (which I read 1.5 years ago - but I was pretty familiar with his arguments already beforehand). While Tainter writes about the collapse of several complex societies, his main case is the rapid decline ("collapse", "decomplexification") of the Roman Empire. To an archeologist like Tainter, "rapid" refers to period of decades (but still basically within the lifetime of a human being). I'm sure lots of archeologists quibble about (discuss) the details of the collapse/decline of the Roman Empire, but the big question that everyone else thinks about is the relevance of Tainter's theory is to us here-and-now. Are the global economic woes of the last five years a temporary setback in the larger scheme of things, or are do they represent the foreshocks that precede the larger earthquake?

No one can deny that we for a long time have experienced an incremental and seemingly inexorable complexification of modern societies (with layers after layers of regulations and laws "amending" - but never simplifying - previous regulation and laws). Tainter points out that with increasing complexity, (maintenance) costs also increase over time. Increasing complexity unfortunately yields decreasing returns over time. Increasing complexity (and costs) eventually yields only marginal or even negative net benefits. At that point, civilisations starts to become increasingly "brittle". Over time, they become increasingly prone to collapse under the force of internal or external shocks.

Since I have my copy of his 1988 book back home in Sweden, I took the opportunity to buy and read a recent book of his, "Drilling down", in order to prepare for his visit here at UCI. (I'll get around to writing about it in my series of blog posts about "Books I've read recently - eventually.)

The institutional arrangements around Tainter's visit to UCI are interesting in themselves. As I have mentioned before, UCI has recently formed a center for "Research in Sustainability, Collapse-preparedness & Information Technology" (RiSCIT). Joseph Tainter's talk, "Depletion and Innovation: The Sustainability Balancing Act", was the inaugural RiSCIT seminar (Feb14). The abstract for the talk can be found further below! For Tainter's bio, see the RiSCIT invitation to his talk. There was a detailed schedule for Tainter's visit and people could sign up for a personal 30-mintue tête-à-tête with him. I did sign up and I have to admit that that talk (unsurprisingly) gave me a lot more than the public seminar I attended since I was able to ask some questions that has puzzled me after having read two of his books and a couple of articles of his. As it so happens, I have also had dinner with Tainter twice this week (dinner is however not the best of occasions for in-depth discussions about detailed, thorny issues). I will below first write about Tainter's talk and then about the private discussion I had.

Tainter's talk on "Depletion and innovation"

Tainter's talk focused primarily on the place of innovation in our culture, and especially on the decreasing returns of (increasing) investments in innovation (e.g. in technology) in discipline after discipline (surgery, medical instruments, metalworking, optics, drugs and chemical, energy technologies, information technologies and even in "new" disciplines such as biotechnology and nanotechnology).

In terms of pace and cost of innovations (as in many other areas), we experience diminishing returns of increasing complexity and costs (i.e. "less bang for the buck"). To back this claim up, Tainter has conducted research with Deborah Strumsky and José Lobo on The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database with 5 million patents. Over the last 40 years, the number of patents per inventor has decreased by 20% and the number of inventors per patent has increased by almost 50%. Although the quality of patents is unknown (it can not be measured quantitatively), it seems we nowadays get less bang for the buck compared to half a century ago. Larger, interdisciplinary research teams cost a lot more money as they need the support of administrative personnel and formal institutions. This decrease in productivity has been masked by the fact that the whole enterprise (research & development) has grown in absolut terms (i.e. more scientists and more money being poured into R&D).

Most of the talk, and most of the questions the followed the talk concerned issues having to do with innovation. Audience members were unaccustomed to Tainter's perspective and they twisted and turned the numbers and the interpretations presented, trying to come to grips with, or punch holes in, these challenging ideas. What most people didn't notice (and Tainter didn't push the issue very hard) was the fact that not only is the productivity of research and researchers declining, but our ability to finance the current level of innovations (not to mention increasing it further) will become increasingly challenging and expensive in the future. "Expensive" does not here primarily refer to money, but rather to the single most important currency on earth - energy - and to it's "surrogate accounting systems" (Tainter's term); time, money, taxes and annoyance.

What we tend to forget is that innovations (always) increase complexity, and that complexity (for example new nifty technologies) have neat benefits, but always also have costs. In premodern times, 90% of the economy was centered around the production of energy (i.e. food). Before we started to exploit fossil fuels, increased complexity meant one thing and one thing only - that people had to work harder (longer hours etc.). "When energy limits are met, increasing complexity is inhibited" and this is true for pre-modern as well as fossil fuel-driven societies. When we run out of cheap energy (fossil fuels), it will be harder and harder to finance further innovation and new technologies. This does not mean that innovations will suddenly stop, but it does mean that innovation will gradually slow down ("less bucks to buy bangs").

Fossil fuels provide us with huge energy subsidies, both in terms of food production (a few percent of the population can produce all the food that the remaining 95+% need) and for other purposes (ex. transportation, heating as well as manufacturing and using computers). Ample subsidised energy (in the form of fossil fuels - "ancient sunlight" stored in the organic remains of plants and animals that lived many millions of years ago) allows almost everyone nowadays to do things other than to farm/produce food ("extracting energy from the environment"). The bad news is that fossil fuels are finite and they too suffer from diminishing returns of increasing complexity (and costs), since we tend to pick the lowest-hanging fruit first (the best coal deposits, the easiest oil etc.). That's why we nowadays have to drill for oil almost 2000 meters under the surface of the water (Deepwater Horizon) and why we can expect complex, risky actions to result in more disasters in the future (Deepwater Horizon). This trend is unfortunately impossible to reverse - we have and will continue to pick the lowest-hanging fruit first and remaining fruit will always be harder and harder to pick. Our system of innovation (and our current civilisation) requires continued inexpensive energy to run smoothly - and it's getting harder and harder to provide it. Our system of innovation will over time therefore become "unproductive, unaffordable or both". This dilemma was part of the talk (for those who perceived it), but it was not emphasised and I am quite sure many in the audience did not hear or did not understand it.

My privat consultation/chat with Tainter

One thing I asked was about the speed of the collapse ("societal decomplexification") according to Tainter's theories. Collapse implies rapid speed, but "rapid" can to a trained archeologist mean anything from decades to centuries. Tainter clarified that the relevant phase of the collapse of the Roman Empire happened within a few decades, i.e. within the lifetime of a human being. The 10.000 dollar question is where our current civilisation is collapse-wise. This must be a question Tainter has heard many times before and that (of course) is totally impossible for him to answer. Let's just say for now that Tainter doesn't believe that the collapse is imminent.

As apart from the Roman and many other empires and civilisations, there has, to the best of Tainter's knowledge, only been one (1) civilisation ever that has (with their backs against the wall) voluntarily decomplexified in order to survive, and that is the Byzantine Empire between 600 and 700 AD. In 600 AD, energy flowed from the sun to ripen the crops, the peasant harvested the crops and sold them to grain purchases, using the money to pay tax officials who transfered money to the government who paid their soldiers. Each transaction contains inefficiencies (crops in the storehouse gets eaten by rodents, part of the taxes pay for the salaries of tax officials etc.). "The solution was for the army to support itself. Soldiers were given grants of land on condition of hereditary military service. The Byzantine fiscal administration was correspondingly simplified." (Tainter and Patzek 2012). One hundred years later, in 700 AD, energy flowed from the sun to ripen the crops and the crops supported the army directly. Several questions of mine concerned possible Byzantine lessons of relevance today. What would represent a Byzantine strategy for the 21st century? Is someone proposing or trying to implement such a strategy today? Tainter's answer was that such a "solution" is not palatable to the general public. You only every choose it when your back is firmly pressed against the wall, and oftentimes not even then. Voluntary societal simplification might though be used in sub-systems of the larger system (for example some people returning to the countryside to cultivate the land produce their own food in a "green wave 2.0" scenario).

I also asked if it's even conceivable for a politician or a political party (or a "benevolent dictator") to take necessary, drastic and deeply unpopular steps that would "save" civilisation by simplification. We both had a hard time imagining it. Perhaps as a last step, but only if a quick turnaround was promised to the populace. Such a turnaround would however not follow, or might follow (i.e. a local maxima) but in its turn be followed by a yet greater fall. Democracy, as well as all other forms of governance, would have a hard time to cope such developments.

The theory of "climax ecosystems" implies a steady-state ecosystem where energy-in and energy-out are perfectly balanced. I asked Tainter if it was possible to imagine "climax civilisations" with steady-state economies that were perfectly balanced and perfectly sustainable (does not draw down resources or damage soils and other long-term ecological conditions necessary for its own survival). Tainter unfortunately made short shift of that idea for reasons that are too complex (ha!) to spell out here.

Since computers (and networks - including the Internet) in themselves are complex technologies, I was also interested in the future of computers (complexity) in an energy-scarce future. Are computers primarily a problem or can they also be seen a solution to problems having to do with complexity? We unfortunately ran out of time, but I did understand that this is a question where Tainter has very little to say, since he doesn't know and haven't thought that much about computers and digital technologies. I guess this is a question for me, and for RiSCIT to ponder; what should we (informatics/ computer science/ media technology/ human-computer interaction/ interaction design) do to help tackle the intractable problems we will face this century?


Professor Joseph Tainter
Department of Environment & Society
Utah State University

TITLE:  Depletion and Innovation: The Sustainability Balancing Act

Abstract: One of the fundamental debates about the future of the industrial way of life concerns the balance between resource depletion and technical innovation. Technological optimists claim that depletion will always be compensated by innovations that lead to more efficient use of resources (more output per unit of resource input), or by development of new resources. In this view, as a resource becomes scarce, prices signal that there are rewards to innovation. Innovators and entrepreneurs accordingly respond with novel technical solutions.  Optimists believe that this will always be the case, and that sustainable resource use is therefore not an issue. Technological pessimists focus on absolute limits to resources in a finite world, on returns to investment, and on externalities such as pollution. In the history of the industrialized way of life, the optimists have so far been correct: Innovation has managed to keep pace with depletion, so that over the long run, the prices of many commodities have been constant. The factor overlooked in this debate is that innovation, like other forms of knowledge production, grows in complexity and costliness and produces diminishing returns. This presentation explores the productivity of innovation since the early 1970s to inquire whether our system of innovation can forever offset resource depletion, and even whether it can continue in its present form.

1 kommentar:

  1. Enjoyed reading this ! And now doubly excited about the upcoming seminar :)