Sunday 29 March 2020

Globally interconnected world versus Segmentary world: Why impending collapse is so obvious to me - but not to others

One reason must be the seven or so years I spent in the middle 2000s studying complex systems; mostly in a close collaboration with Professor Peter Andras.

Some of the main publications can be found on in the book The Modernization Imperative, and concentrated in the sections called Systems Theory and Modernization, also Management and Policy.

I realised that we are now living in a globally interconnected world - that is, we are each a tiny part of one extremely-large and extremely complex and inter-dependent system.

In the past, everybody lived in a world consisting of many much smaller and simpler and often unconnected systems. That is, the world was divided into segments - each substanially independent.

An obvious example is the 'feudal system' in medieval Europe: where each village was mostly self-sufficient for food and other everyday items, and a nation like England was almost-completely self-sufficient - with nested levels in-between nation and village (as represented by the national military hierarchy from King down through regional Earls, local Lords, Knights etc.).

(The original hunter gatherers were, of course, the ultimate segmentary societies.)

The advantage of the segmentary system is that it is extremely robust to even severe damage - units can survive for long periods when cut off, larger grouping hardly notice the destruction of composite units; and society can be rebuilt from almost any small unit.

Segmentary societies can degrade 'gracefully' or quantitatively - by increments, while retaining functionality, albeit reduced. 

But segmentary systems are inefficient, with a great deal of duplication; and all units are compelled to be generalists. 

There have since been several hundred years of increasing interdependency; especially since the agrarian and industrial revolutions which kicked-off in England in the middle 1700s. Indeed, the interconnectedness of the world has been accelerating for most of this time; and has now reached a very high level - far, far beyond anything attained in the past.  

The theoretical advantage of large, complex, interconnected systems is that they can be much more efficient due to differentiation and coordination; that is specialisation, coordination of the specialists (by markets and regulations); and by trade.

This is what Adam Smith (in his Wealth of Nations) termed 'division of labour'; the efficiency of which was shown by his example of the pin factory.

In systems theory terms; large, complex systems are potentially more efficient, have greater capability (due to specialisation), and are more resilient to small stresses (due to specialised compensatory mechanisms).

Increasing system complexity was the mechanism whereby the population of the world was able to increase from one billion in 1800 to more than seven billion now.

However, when subjected to stresses too great for the built-in compensatory mechanisms; complex systems fail rapidly and catastophically - because the interdependency means that failure propagates within the system in a positive-feedback fashion.

Failure of one sub-system leads to failure in all the sub-systems that depend upon it; localised damage causes further- and more-widespread damage; damage is therefore amplified at each stage, in an accelerating fashion.

In sum, complex systems hardly notice stresses; until the stresses go beyond the capacity to adjust, at which point they collapse completely.

Thus inefficient segmentary societies fail quantitatively and reversibly - they will degrade but not collapse; efficient complexly-interdependent global systems will fail qualitatively and irreversible: they will collapse. 

The modern world is qualitatively unprecedented in the unity, interconnectedness, inter-dependency of its organisation - there has never been a large, complex, single world system before now; so past historical examples of collapses are so very misleading as to be worthless.

If our globally- interconnected world system fails - then it will fail very fully indeed; and the failure will be all-encompassing and un-avoidable.

Once the stress on the system has reached the point of triggering failure, it will be impossible to stop or undo the positive feedback process.

Not least, because there can be no significant external intervention to save the system - because there is nothing external to the system.


mobius said...

As a generalist, I was hoping for sooner, not later. Now I'm old and worn out.

Typo- "This in efficient segmentary societies"

Ron Tomlinson said...

James Burke describes the problem in his marvellously dramatic way:

At the end he reveals the one piece of tech needed to reboot the entire system!

Ingemar said...

There is already a term for this in Catholicism. It's called subsidiarity.

I also see a global collapse not only as obvious, but necessary. In keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, people who are awake will realize that they cannot outsource every aspect of their daily existence to the State, Media, Big Medicine and China. They must do what they can to fend for themselves, as it were.

This may even be beginning in mainland China, where civilians and police of one province are openly fighting against police of a neighboring province.

The question of course is what will happen to those who are so dependent on the System that its collapse will bring their ruin. As Christians, this is why Love is our greatest commandment--not the fake sort that justifies fulfillment of all venereal pleasures nor the uncritical charity to repeat offenders, but the true kind the seeks the betterment of soul and body. Like Christ we must heal people's needs, but also warn them sternly never to commit those acts that wounded them in the first place.

Bruce Charlton said...

@RT - Yes, but it's nonsense! There's the small matter of an extra six billion people compared with when using a plough was the answer.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ingemar - You're missing the point here. When subsidiarity was crafted as as idea (by Belloc, Chesterton etc) there were just two billion people on the planet. I'm not talking about the death of everybody on the planet - but of the extra billions. Subsidiarity is a return towards feudalism and can't sustain the extra five billions.

And - as of the past few weeks - the Catholic church is *self-declared* dead, redundant, obsolete (in the sense it has seen itself for the past 1800 years - I mean as essential to salvation). The RCC leadership do not believe their own teachings. The fact has been advertised to the world. Things will Never be the same again.

But I certainly agree that (although terrifying when dwelt upon) this impending collapse is better than the alternative.

Things could not be allowed to continue the way they were going - the extent and depth that Mankind's sin has reached as of Now is obvious to all with eyes to see, frighteningly so - brought out by this crisis. Without a collapse, the spiritual situation would have become even worse.

Of course, Mankind has inflicted this collapse upon itself, with the maximum of self-righteous prideful zeal, cowardice, and blind hedonism; but it seems that God has (at last, after generations of waiting) withdrawn his protection against Man's own wickedness and stupidity (as a whole - I don't mean for every individual, certainly Not) - for Man's own spiritual and eternal good.

Doktor Jeep said...

When I see the word "efficient" I think of the word "usury".
And then that's the answer to "why do we need 7 billion people?"

Bruce Charlton said...

@DJ - Not sure what argument you are making here - I don't see much of a causal link between usury and the population explosion. Usury doesn't make the extra stuff that an extra 6-plus billion people require in order to stay alive.

Bruce Charlton said...

Ingemar said...

Speaking of "efficiency," here is a reflection from the late Zippy Catholic:

As for the "death" of the RCC, it looks like this is a fundamental disagreement you and I have. We have an insane, narcissistic, compromising globalist lackey for a Supreme Pontiff but that doesn't mean that God has abandoned His Church. But then again I believe in the same Scripture that teaches that God wiped out the majority of the earth for their wickedness and spared only eight in the Great Flood...

Francis Berger said...

@ Ingemar - I get a great deal from our interactions and your comments on various blogs, including mine, so please don't take what I will say here the wrong way.

You may be right - God has not abandoned the RCC. But that's not the point. The real point is this - has the RCC abandoned God?

Having an insane, narcissistic, globalist lackey for a Supreme Pontiff, a Pontiff who has essentially closed his church and various Catholic sites around the world including the healing pools at Lourdes - think about that for a minute . . . closing the healing pools for virus! - in a time of great need might just be indications that yes, the RCC and all other organized forms of Christianity have indeed turned their backs on God.

But that doesn't mean God has turned his back on us. Quite the opposite. Perhaps it's a sign that God requires something from us that extends beyond the churches, and He is waiting for us to understand what that something is and take that first step.

Sam Spade said...

At least thanks to the interconnected world we can read and appreciate your wisdom.

Thanks for these great posts.

Ingemar said...


That's a fair question and I believe the answer is "yes." We are entering an era much like the Old Testament prophets, wherein the priestly caste have whored themselves to other gods.

Space Monkey said...

Many find it shocking when I even suggest it but life has a tendency to violate the 2nd law of thermal-dynamics both at the macro and micro level. This implication is most remarkable and simply indicates that all transactions and inputs are never truly known in any given system, especially when we start discussing humanity. This is the Achilles heel of all systems analysis. As useful as it tries to be(and as fascinating as I find it), it will always be wrong because systems theory requires prefect (oh look an appropriate typo) knowledge in order to be useful and the more complex a system, the less predictable system analysis tends to be because of its inherent volatility. Nevertheless, it does show us pretty dramatically how very little in control we really are of the global animal but we never can give up and to me, this is the biggest lesson of Christianity. We overcome all obstacles by having faith.

To your point though, I think a lot of people will be surprised by how fast and how much will be lost when the music truly stops if it ever does. Simple things that were once of little concern like going grocery shopping and buying toilet paper slowly and surely start becoming not-insignificant events. People will start blaming this or that but will fail to see the real culprit that is the volatility of increasing complexity. They can't really fathom the Chinese finger trap that are the modern global supply chains and how fast they can unravel and what will invariably be the terrible and horrifying cost of keeping the common technological basis for our society on life support. I really don't envy the people who will take on that challenge and how history will invariably look upon them. We have some ways to go still but hopefully we won't be playing with the bones of the global animal just yet.

Your post reminds me just how much knowledge that we know not is taken for granted every day. Not just in farming but ceramics, metallurgy, let alone what it takes to create a lathe from scratch or modern electronics but not all is lost as I see it.

Unfortunately, I can't disagree with anything you said systematically and time is running out for the last knowledge generation, the Baby Boomers. However, the most amazing thing about life is that it will find a way. It will just be a different way and we will slowly return to the undeniable fact that the smallest possible indivisible unit for humanity is a family and not the indivisible individual and the necessary behavior is trust or faith in your fellow men. Will we remember in time? That is the question, isn't it?

As it happens, Russia just changed its Constitution to include God and a marriage between a Man and a Woman. It seems like a small thing but good ideas always grow into beautiful things.

Have faith and trust in your fellow man.