Sunday, January 30, 2011

Razor blades and the limits of complexity

A friend of mine once remarked that if current trends continue, razor cartridges will have at least 100 blades each by the end of the century. The razor blade wars are among the most visible absurdities illustrating how the limits of complexity clash with our blind faith in the idea that more complexity will always solve our problems or improve our lives.

The race among blade manufacturers has gotten so heated that you can skip right over the now obsolete three-blade models and go directly to one with six blades on each cartridge. And for laughs, you can watch these fake commercials, one for a 7-blade razor and one for an 18-blade razor.

My friend, by the way, uses a single-blade safety razor and says he gets a better shave from it than anything else. He just had to learn how to use it correctly, he explained. And, that may be part of the reason people prefer more complex tools. Using simpler ones requires learning skills that most of us never learned because we never had to learn them. How many people below age 50 even started shaving with an old-style safety razor?

Beyond this there is the historical experience that more complexity does frequently solve problems. Food was being prepared under unsanitary conditions, and so governments began to regulate the way food is made. The air and the water were polluted, so governments added environmental agencies to regulate that pollution.

Think about how much more complex automobiles have become in the last quarter century, so much so that fewer and fewer people are able to fix those automobiles themselves. All those electronics were added to solve problems, for example, to enhance safety and comfort.

Today, the average citizen in wealthy countries is obliged to own or have access to computers and know how to use them or miss out on much of what constitutes modern life. We have access to machines that can calculate millions of times faster than we can ever hope to, that can connect us literally to a world of information, and that can allow us to communicate in an instant with people on the opposite side of the globe. And, yet how many of us even understand how those machines work, let alone how the Internet to which they are connected functions?

Our inability to understand the systems we create puts a limit on the level of complexity that is beneficial to us. Recently established and poorly understood systems can bring unwelcome surprises. Witness the financial meltdown of 2008. Up to that point many economists (who were supposedly able to understand the complex global economy) believed that the world's economic planners had mastered the business cycle and created a "Great Moderation" in its volatility and therefore consequences.

Joseph Tainter, the great historian of collapse theory, explains in his classic study, The Collapse of Complex Societies, that increased complexity incurs costs. As complexity increases, costs usually increase faster resulting in diminishing returns and then finally negative returns. (See Tainter's "Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies" for a condensed discussion of these ideas.)

That we are a society of advanced complexity is a given. That our society is now experiencing negative returns from increasing complexity is not often discussed. For example, we use systemic pesticides--which means they flow from the inside of the plant outward--to kill and repel crop pests and thereby protect yields. But this new complexity in our food system may be the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder which is wiping out bees at such a fast rate that crops such as nuts and fruits may soon be compromised because there are not enough bees to pollinate them.

Glyphosate, known commercially as Roundup, is probably the world's most widely used herbicide. It is particularly well-known for its use with Roundup Ready crops, crops genetically-engineered to be unaffected by glyphosate applications. All this highly complex technology has the benefit of enabling a farmer to weed his or her crop chemically and thus save much labor. Now it seems that repeated applications of glyphosate to farm fields can disturb the microbial balance in the soil so much that it leads to Sudden Death Syndrome in crops. Using products to enhance yields which actually undermine the fertility of the soil is a strategy that must be categorized as having negative returns.

On the seas ocean-going factory ships have enhanced our ability to catch and process fish for human consumption. But the efficacy of such technology has led to overfishing and the collapse of many fish species. Wild fish catches have leveled off and don't look like they will turn up soon despite our advanced technology. It's another case of diminishing and probably negative returns if one considers that large predatory fish are now scarce forcing fishing boats to go after species that used to be considered too small to bother with. Genetic diversity and thus survivability among fish species are being threatened as a result.

The alternative to scaling the walls of complexity continuously would be to simplify society when the returns on complexity diminish or turn negative. One of the essential inputs for increased complexity is increased energy input, according to Tainter. Thus, peaks in fossil fuels may force global society to simplify. Why not recognize now that the solution to our problems may not involve higher degrees of complexity? Why not get ready ahead of time and make the transition less painful?

I heard Tainter speak at a recent conference, and he was asked a closely linked question: Is there an historical example of a society that reduced its complexity voluntarily before it absolutely had to? He had a one-word answer: No. Will that be our answer, too?


John Anersen said...

I believe that will be our answer as well. Could be wrong, but I doubt it.

Thing is, adults who understand this could definitely steer young people into studies that will develop their critical thinking skills, and their ability to think broadly.

Foreign languages, natural sciences, history, mathematics all come to mind.

Broad thinkers may be more likely to understand the advantages of simplicity, and devise ways to reduce technological complexity for those who desire to live that way.

Jan Steinman said...

Thanks for this ultimate answer to the "technology will save us" crowd, Kurt.

I only wish there were a reasonably simple way to quantify the cost of complexity.

Technology is a seductive mistress; simplicity is the ash-covered Cinderella sweeping out the hearth by hand. Who wants to go there, without a simple line graph or a few simple examples to demonstrate that hand-cleaning the hearth is ultimately better than using a microprocessor-controlled, digital display, robot vacuum cleaner?

This brings to mind panarchy theory, which correlates high levels of energy and high levels of connectivity (complexity) with a coalescent state, just prior to crash and dispersal of resources.

We're working on it, but it's a tough sell...

Kurt Cobb said...


I love the Cinderella vs. the robot image!

Waldow said...

Peak oil aware people are blinded by that very real crisis. They see nature, humanity, and technology as at odds and cooperating with one another in a triangle fighting over limited resources. Some assume technology will loose out and humanity will return to the paleolithic ear (Ugh, I don't need no stinking tools, no Guvment!).

Of course there are those people who don't give a rip about wild nature. They think nature could die off and leave them happy in a glass box eating from a magic food synthesizer.

Few people are willing to seriously consider that machines may well almost be done with their creators, and facing energy and food shortages, perhaps the bio-mimic natchines will find the human leg of the triangle the weakest and most disposable.

Waldow said...

I should have said "Paleolithic Era" not "ear"...

Also, John Anerson should not give critical thinking a bad name by extolling its virtues while trashing its practice. Just cause you have a drift boat don't mean you can't paddle straight! Perhaps he just had a hang over and he had one too many (or one two few) beers. Share damn it! There's still more at the store.