Complexity Makes My Brain Hurt
By Cam Mather
My current reading material is the book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” by Joseph Tainter and boy, what a barnburner it is! Well, in fact I think it’s a textbook and I can basically only read about two pages and then I have to put it down and digest what I’ve read. I also have to read it early in the day because if I attempt to read it after dinner I’m asleep in minutes.
I’ve just started and so far he just seems to be taking apart everyone else’s theories on the topic. Some people have claimed complex societies collapse because of energy scarcity, some because of barbarian invasions, some think that the bureaucracy just gets greedy and stupid and taxes the farmers too much and they eventually burn down the cities and go back to growing food. I haven’t read far enough to know what Tainter’s theory is, but I can hardly wait.
I guess the one thing that I’ve got out of the book so far is that all complex societies do collapse. They get to a point where things are just too complicated, empires are too big and hard to manage, resources get tight, the center cannot hold, and things fall apart.
Apple is running TV commercials for their latest iPhone, which has an application that allows you to have a video chat on your phone. Using this “app” you can see the person that you are talking to, and they can see you. I’m 50, but in my life I never, ever thought I’d see something like this. I grew up watching the cartoons of the 1960s and video chatting reminds me of something out of the cartoon called “The Jetson’s.” It was set in the future and they had robot cleaners and rode around in jet cars and spoke on phones that were like TVs. Now that technology is available today. And you don’t have to be a millionaire to own an iPhone. Unbelievable!
This is good stuff, but I spend a lot of time looking at progress and wondering how much better things are getting. As I try and keep up with the computer technology that drives our publishing business, I find it increasingly challenging to stay on top of it. When I started selling microcomputers in 1982, things changed yearly. When I went into business for myself in 1987 things were changing monthly and I swear, things are changing daily today. Stop the ride, I want to get off!
After high school I worked for a transport company and I remember being in the shop when a trailer that had 3 axles came in to the shop. Up until that point trailers only had two back axles. I can remember the mechanics all gathered around in awe of this oddity. Eventually I started seeing trucks with 4 axles, and now you see them with 5. On the highway last week I saw a double trailer. This wasn’t like the old double trailers where the truck pulled two small trailers, nope; this was two full sized trailers! Come on! How do you drive with something like that once you get off the highway? Many exit ramps end at a stoplight. Even when a truck has only one trailer and is turning left it has to pull way out so that the trailer doesn’t take out the light pole. How can it possibly do it with two full sized trailers? I’m sorry, but that’s just stupid. And dangerous. And if you have that much cargo to haul, put it on a rail car and get it off the highway.
If you follow the standard that’s been set, things getting constantly bigger and better, when will I start seeing trucks with 3 full sized trailers? Why not? I started shaving in the 1970s using a single blade. I switched to two blades (a Trac II) at some point in the 70’s and haven’t budged since then. What a fossil I am. I could shave so much closer with 4 or 5 blades! I’m waiting until one of them gets 10 blades before I switch. It’s getting harder and harder to find replacement blades for my antiquated two blade system!
There was a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live called “Taco Town” which is not only hilarious, but brilliant. It mocks our fast food culture of cramming more and more fat into our fast food and I think perfectly epitomizes how ludicrous endless growth can be.
I seem to spend my days awash in new acronyms I’ve never heard of…. SME (Small and Medium Enterprises), BFD (Bidirectional Forwarding Detection), DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), CRM (Client Relationship Management), SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) … it’s just endless and relentless. I meet people who use these acronyms and they act like I’m automatically supposed to know what everything is. Frankly I’m 50 and I just can’t seem to pack much more stuff into my brain. I’m burnin’ out baby.
I was in a department store last winter when the power went off. The employees freaked out. They didn’t know what to do. They locked the doors. They could not figure out how to check people out since the cash registers are all completely computerized. I’m no better, since I’d be hard pressed to do the math to add everything up and calculate the tax. It’s scary how vulnerable we are when the power goes off. Staff members were bouncing around in the dark even though there was bin of flashlights and batteries near the cash were I was. I decided not to hang around and wait for the power to be restored and insisted that the staff unlock the doors to let me out!
I’ve blogged about how specialized job skills are these days. A quick look at the Help Wanted ads convinces me that I have no appropriate skills for any of the jobs on offer. So I’ll have to stay self-employed. I’ll have to stay mediocre at a lot of things rather than exceptional at one specialized task. I can grow food, I can install a solar panel, I can cut firewood and clean my woodstove myself, I can manage a website fairly well, I can design and lay out books, I can produce DVDs using Final Cut Pro, I can cook a reasonable meal – but I’m not qualified to get a job doing any of these things. And that’s okay with me. I like being a generalist and I think in the future, the more skills you have, the better. Especially basic skills like growing food and heating your home. These will be really important.
Time marches forward. You can’t stop progress. More complexity is inevitable. Or does it just seem inevitable these days? I’ll have to finish the book before I can say for sure. I’ve got a pretty good idea how it ends.
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