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Egypt, Twitter, and the Collapse of Top-Heavy Societies
Ramez Naam   Feb 8, 2011   Unbridled Speculation  

Watching the news about Egypt and the debate as to whether Twitter, Facebook, etc.. are inherently pro-democracy, I’m struck by a connection to Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies.



Tainter speculates that societies ultimately face two problems.  One, the marginal return on their investments drops over time.  Each new unit of energy or currency or labor they expend nets them less and less benefit than the last.  Two, societies continually create additional internal complexity to solve problems they’ve run into.  Those additional layers of complexity consume resources without giving back.  Ultimately with growth slowing and the cost of complexity rising, societies collapse under the weight of the new social structures they’ve created.  For a while, the added complexity allows societies to accomplish more, but eventually the diminishing returns cause the complexity to become a negative to the society, and then it collapses.

Tainter’s theory is relevant to understanding the future of every society on Earth.  It’s been used to predict that collapse of US society and the collapse of industrialized society at large.

I think Tainter’s point is interesting, but that he likely confuses the term “complexity” with parasitism.  His two primary examples, the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, are both cases where the ruling classes (the upper “layers” of society, if you will) used political and military power to control the lower classes and (in the case of Rome) to conquer neighbors and extract plunder and tax revenues from them.

The weight that eventually caused the collapse of both the Maya and the Roman Empire wasn’t just any sort of complexity, it was an upper layer of society that was largely parasitic, consuming more and more of the resources of society without producing much value.

I’m struck by this in the case of Egypt.  The protests in Egypt are fueled by the frustration of lack of opportunity and the anger of lack of ability to change the system or even speak out against it.  The lack of opportunity has two causes:

1. Egypt has a state-dominated economy which has historically been mismanaged.  (It has improved significantly in the last 10 years, but that may be a case of too little, too late.)

2. Egypt is incredibly corrupt, and that corruption comes from the top in the form of crony capitalism.  For instance, Egypt scored a 3.1 on a recent index of corruption, with a 1 meaning the most corruption, and a 10 meaning no corruption.  The corruption comes in the form of bribes to government officials to receive licenses, get contracts, find housing, or almost anything else in public life.  One prominent rumor in 2000 was that Egypt postponed approval of Viagra for local sale because Pfizer had yet to offer a large enough bribe to the Minister of Health.  More broadly, developers wishing to do business in Egypt have frequently been advised to offer subcontracts to firms owned by Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak’s son.


Corruption and Property Rights in Egypt

The Heritage Foundation finds that Egypt has gotten worse on both property rights and corruption in the last decade. (Lower scores worse on both scales.) Click image for more.

Neither state control of the economy nor rampant corruption that lines the pockets of ministers and high officials is truly a form of additional ‘complexity’.  It’s parasitism.

By contrast, services like Twitter and Facebook or more basic telecommunication via cell phones, SMS, and email do increase the societal complexity of a country.  They increase the number of voices being heard.  They add density to the social graph.

Yet that complexity does not belong to the old world of Hosni Mubarak’s government or its elite friends.  It belongs to the younger generation on the street.  Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, email, and SMS add complexity, but it’s a peer-to-peer complexity that empowers those who use those tools.  That peer-to-peer complexity may cause a collapse, but not of the side that uses it.

One of the limits of The Collapse of Complex Societies is that it doesn’t consider any societies where the complexity is largely peer-to-peer rather than hierarchical.  Arguably, such social structures barely existed until the invention of the Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press.  Yet it’s interesting to consider the impact the movable-type press had on society.  It accelerated the Renaissance and helped usher in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.  Clearly, the additional complexity of information flow between people that increased literacy and easier printing brought didn’t lead to collapse.  At the same time, it also empowered Martin Luther to challenge the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and start the Protestant Reformation.  The printing press undermined the hierarchical authority of the Church.  It didn’t lead to the collapse of the Catholic Church, but it led to its schism and the formation of Protestant churches that had less hierarchy.

Martin Luther's 95 Theses Pamphlet destabilized the hierarchical Catholic Church, one of the first examples of peer-to-peer communication technology overwhelming a top-down hierarchy.

Electronic communication media, and especially the many-to-many media of blogs, tweets, and Facebook, are having a similar effect.  They’re building peer-to-peer density, which is undermining the most hierarchical and parasitic layers of society.

I’m optimistic about the future of both Egypt and of modern society as a whole.  The new complexity we build in our societies seems less and less about stacking additional layers of hierarchy, and more about building additional tools to connect people in an ever denser network graph.  That strikes me as fundamentally less parasitic and more empowering than the hierarchical layers of complexity that Tainter organized.

We should expect the collapse of parasitic and top-down societies and institutions, and the emergence of more and more network-centric institutions and societies.

Ramez Naam, a Fellow of the IEET, is a computer scientist and the author of four books, including the sci-fi thriller Nexus and the nonfiction More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement and The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.  He writes at rameznaam.com.




COMMENTS

I don’t know that Protestantism deserves accolades for reducing hierarchy. In practice the schism primarily gave Europeans another excuse to kill each other. Not good times by any stretch of the imagination.

This is a great essay. It speaks very much to two of the key issues of our time: establishing justice through peer-to-peer support and complexity.
I had a minister once (I’m not sure who his source was) who said that before the printing press, the Catholic Church would eventually take “heretical” beliefs and find a way to incorporate them, but that such a process took a lot of time. One example was St. Francis who was both in synch with Christianity and in opposition to the church at the time. When Luther came along, the printing press sped up the dissemination of his ideas and didn’t allow for the negotiating and massaging such a process required.
In an age of exponential change, we focus on the role of technology. The role of interpersonal adaptation is perhaps equally important. Reducing the “parasitic layers of society” is at the heart of social justice but it has the potential to leave a void. Tools, attitudes and behaviors that foster interpersonal adaptation can help replenish the tearing down with ideas/suggestions for renewal. Your essay is speaking directly to that. Thank you.

“I don’t know that Protestantism deserves accolades for reducing hierarchy. In practice the schism primarily gave Europeans another excuse to kill each other.”

Protestantism doesn’t deserve accolades, however killing people IS a quick & dirty way to temporarily reduce hierarchy, i.e. the Killing of the Tsar and his family in 1918 was an expedient way to decapitate Russia. The ancien regime was replaced by one even worse, but that’s another story.
We can’t transport our minds back to the years of the schism to comprehend what happened; we can’t apply modern thinking to the 16th & 17th centuries. Nor, unfortunately, can we use our “modern” minds to understand the minds of the future—or what minds will even be like

Hi

Boy, that article seemed to take the long road to explaining pyramiding, empires, imperialism, get-a-leg-up systems, etc. 

From a USA perspective… we ALL see the pyramid scheme symbol on the back of the USA one dollar bill.  We ALL see the servitude infestation in capitalism.  We ALL see the “pay up or lose your wellbeing” Chicago mob-like felony extortion widespread within capitalism.  We ALL see the “join or starve” felony extortion done to the 18 year olds… by this ugly competer’s church called capitalism.  We ALL see how forcing competer’s religions onto 18 year olds, and/or LURING them into it with bling-dangling and promises of empowerments… kills membership in the cooperator’s church (Christianity/socialism).  We ALL understand that AmWay (American Way) (New World Order) got “the exclusive” (legal tender) on the TYPE of survival coupons (money) accepted in supply depots (stores) and leverages 18 year olds into the organization via that felony activity. (It puts AmWay-coupon slaving requirements called price tags… on all the survival goods).  We ALL understand how sure-to-collapse farmyard pyramids work… from our childhoods. Upper 1/3 are “heads in the clouds” while the kids on the bottom ALWAYS GET HURT from the weight of the world’s knees in their backs.  And, we ALL see how such systems are illegal, immoral, and just plain sick.

We American Christian socialists are patiently awaiting the natural fall of the pyramid-o-servitude, or the busting of the free marketeers felony… by the USA Dept of Justice.  We Christians are VERY CLOSE to issuing a cease and desist order until the servitude and inequality goes away… which means it turns into a commune.  Commune is a word we LOVE when used in the word “community”... but its one the caps HATE when used in the word “commune-ism”.  Go fig.  PROGRAMMED!!

Do a Google IMAGE SEARCH for ‘pyramid of capitalist’ to see a full color picture made way back in 1911, when capitalism was first discovered to be a con/sham instigated by the Free Masons/Illuminati. Folks sure bought into the thing… hook, line, and sinker just the same.  The caps didn’t even check if a string was attached!  Now THAT’S easy fishing, eh?

Time to level the felony pyramid scheme called capitalism.  Abolish economies and ownershipism worldwide, and hurry.  Economies just cause rat-racing, and rat-racing causes felony pyramiding.  BUST IT, America!  Look to the USA military supply/survival system… (and the USA public library system) for socialism and morals done right.  Equal, owner-less, money-less, bill-less, timecard-less, and concerned with growth of value-criteria OTHER THAN money-value.  Quit doing monetary discrimination immediately, and make it illegal.  There are MANY measurement criteria of “value”... not just dollars.  Try morals, efficiency, discrimination-levels, repairability, etc etc.  Economies are cancerous tumors, and to cheer for their growth… is just insane.  Profiting causes inflation, so if caps LIKE inflation, and if they LIKE a terrible time in afterlife when they meet the planet’s ORIGINAL OWNER before caps tried to squat it all with ownershipism, then keep it up with the felony pyramiding.  I dare you.  While us Christians are finally bulldozing that pyramid scheme back to level, lets make servitude and “join or starve” (get a job or die) illegal in the USA, and lets level the architecture seen in USA courtrooms, too.  Right now, USA courtrooms are church simulators or “fear chambers”, by special design.  Sick.

Isn’t that back-of-the-dollar pyramid… a Columbian freemason symbol? And WHERE is the USA gov located? District of Columbia? (Not even part of the USA!)  How much more blatant can ya get?  The “Fed” runs a pyramid scheme called the free marketeers. If you’re using the “federal reserve note” certificates, or using no-other-living-thing-on-the-planet entitles of ownership, you’re bought into a servitude/slavery con/sham… called capitalism. Pyramiding 101.

Larry “Wingnut” Wendlandt
MaStars - Mothers Against Stuff That Ain’t Right
(anti-capitalism-ists)
Bessemer MI USA

One more comment on Egypt so not to belabor the points. Egypt is a concern, but not a worry such as Iran is. Iran is a case of a petroleum power that was manipulated by both East & West, Persia having been invaded so many times in the remote past one would need a scorecard to keep track. Today Iran has a regime that believes in a “12th Imam” who is connected to another familiarly hideous apocalyptic vision from the Middle Ages—will spare you the gory details. Ahmadinejad is no dummy so he is almost certainly using this eschatology as a feint; unfortunately that sort of maneuvering tends to get out of control, the most obvious example being how Hitler wanted war yet didn’t want WWII; he wanted to invade Poland and then eventually continue east to the Urals.
So if the past is a guide, Ahmadinejad’s regime has to be prevented from meddling in Egypt and anywhere else in the Mideast. In the age of lower prices & higher qualities of WMD, even trade wars can be lethal.

For a skeptical view of the Middle East’s importance in the scheme of things, you might want to read Edward Luttwak’s essay”

The middle of nowhere
Edward Luttwak
Western analysts are forever bleating about the strategic importance of the middle east. But despite its oil, this backward region is less relevant than ever, and it would be better for everyone if the rest of the world learned to ignore it

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2007/05/themiddleofnowhere/

The importance of the Mideast is in a negative sense, because it is the most unpredictable region on Earth and related to this is the number of known & unknown WMDs that exist there.
We know there are at least dozens of nukes (in Israel), but don’t know how many bio and chem weapons are stockpiled in the region. A conservative reckoning would indicate a hundred or so WMDs might be in the Mideast—and “one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.”
When it comes to WMDs, mere optimism is no quick-mending prescription.

BTW here is the Prospect Magazine author’s first possible error: “But humanitarians should note that the dead from Jewish-Palestinian fighting since 1921 amount to fewer than 100,000—about as many as are killed in a season of conflict in Darfur.”

How many WMDs are in Darfur? (in fact, how much indoor plumbing is in Darfur?).
Then Luttwak only goes into some detail on Iran—as if Iran is the only actor in the region.
I don’t think there will be a general or nuke war in the Mideast; but what does that mean? who in 1911 thought WWI would occur? Who a hundred years later has any idea whatsoever what is going on in the Mideast?: nobody. ‘Predicting’ the future is a game, albeit a serious one. If anyone could really predict the future they might predict the stock market, invest in it, make many trillions, and use the funds to end world poverty.

Here is a URL for a reminder about how past is the past:
http://www.intermentary.com/renaissance-computer

Nuclear weapons are for making invasion impossible, they aren’t for offensive purposes (unless you are the only power in the world with the bomb, thus why complete nuclear disarmament is stupid).

The leaders of those countries aren’t suicidal (they wouldn’t have gotten that position if they were) and won’t use them in a first strike or even do anything that could require a nuke a fight.

If it weren’t for oil we wouldn’t care about that region.

“unless you are the only power in the world with the bomb, thus why complete nuclear disarmament is stupid”

Or unless you are an Ahmadinejad, and you want to start a war for the 12th Imam, in getting your name into the history books.
It may be 99 percent certain a WMD war will never occur, however the 1 percent chance it might occur still remains.
Again, I don’t think a big war will happen; but I didn’t think Iraq would be invaded in 2003, either. Many events happen to catch us by surprise.

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