Peak complexity

A few weeks ago I wrote about the cost of complexity. I’ve came to the conclusion then, that technological complexity seems to be very close its apex. It will probably keep increasing still in the coming years — but we don’t have to wait for long to see simplification getting the upper hand. Why do I say that? What proofs do I have to support this bold statement? — one might ask. But instead of setting up obscure scales and complicated measurements, I would like to highlight some interesting trends and invite you to contemplate on the topic. How long this charade of technology has to go then? I let you decide it for yourself.

The process

Let’s start by reviewing how complexity builds up, then collapses under its own weight. Based on the work of Joseph Tainter (and other scholars of the topic) I’ve listed the following seven steps (for a more detailed description, please revisit my article linked above).

  1. A society finds a reliable and abundant energy resource.
  2. Cities with a network of roads and other infrastructure are being built. Society develops different classes and grows exponentially.
  3. As the abundant energy source shows signs of depletion, ever more complex and costlier methods get to be developed to extract more (technology, bureaucracy, wars etc.).
  4. Efforts, aimed at increasing energy harvests, start to cost more and more, while adding less and less energy in return (i.e. providing ‘diminishing returns’). Technological and social complexity keeps on rising exponentially, while growth slowly grinds to a halt.
  5. The end of expansion: the use of the said energy resource reaches it’s apex. Resource production begins its slow terminal decline, with complexity still rising, but growth slowly turning negative — despite all efforts. The red queen race has been lost. (In my assessment this is where we are at the moment.)
  6. A complex infrastructure, bureaucracy, long supply chains, or a large empire can no longer be maintained on falling energy inputs. Parts and regions are allowed to break off permanently. The system starts to feed on itself, and utilizes the resources freed up by the ongoing collapse (aka catabolism). Population starts to decline.
  7. Economic contraction decelerates, but doesn’t stop until the energy resource becomes so depleted, that people give up harvesting it. Most of the knowledge associated with the society and the resource itself is now lost. Social and technological complexity is gone.

Mind you, complexity in and of itself is rarely the cause of collapse. It is rather a measure of desperation in a society addicted to growth. The word collapse itself can be misleading too: it is not an overnight event, rather a multiple decades long process of uncontrolled contraction and rapid simplification. Think of it like the evil twin of growth.

Stoic Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who observed the demise of the Roman Empire wrote:

“Fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid”

This is the famous Seneca-effect, a mathematical model proposed by Ugo Bardi. It provides a solid understanding on why collapse is much faster than growth using the tool-set of systems analysis. Since growth was going on for centuries now (ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution), it’s demise — though much faster than its upswing— will still take decades, instead of days and weeks.

The culprits

The trends and natural limits which might mark the onset of the Seneca effect need to be highlighted however. By observing these in their natural habitat (the economy) one can assert that the peak in complexity (step 5 above) is indeed approaching. I have already mentioned the depletion of energy resources (oil, gas and coal) as the no.1 suspect behind this case multiple times in my previous posts. I’m still convinced that what we are about to witness during this decade — what happy-clappy economists call peak oil demand — is going to mark the onset of this civilizations rapid decline (step 6 above). We will not know for sure at least for a decade or so from now, but this was not the goal here. Neither to give an exact forecast on how, where and when collapse is going to happen. It’s all around us anyway: we are sitting in the middle of it. Of course you are free to deny all this, and think technology will save us. I leave this up to you.

Instead of thinking about the near term future, I want you think big — as if you were a historian living many hundreds of years from now, studying the effects leading up to the end of the industrial era. Let’s just assume — for the sake of this thought experiment — that the above process is unfolding as it always did in case of previous civilizations, and overshoot brings about rapid simplification as it should. What could be the tell-tale signs of peak complexity then? Could these effects serve as a measure of our desperation to keep things running? We are looking for signs where complexity could grow still — at least in theory — but then, all of a sudden things turn into the opposite direction: simplification, due to a seemingly external event. Without further ado here goes my list (and it is far from being complete). Enjoy!

Project complexity

There is a natural limit to human cooperation. For calibration purposes think about a huge building project (like the pyramids of Giza), which involved mainly simple physical labor. The design work was done by no more than a handful of highly trained individuals, while the rest of the workforce did their everyday job in a strict hierarchy. Although there were hundreds / thousands of workers at a time on site, project management was not at all that problematic.

Fast forward 4600 years, and on the other end of the scale one finds automated driving. A modern car is already marvelously complex, but the individual components and sub-systems can be designed as separate building blocks, based on a set of strict requirements from other teams. Automation is a different type of animal however: one has to bring these sub-systems into a coherent system-of-systems with parts constantly communicating with each other, plus solve equations for an infinite number of real world traffic scenarios. It follows that these projects involve hundreds of highly trained thinkers, whose job is far from being obvious and simple.

Since we haven’t ceased to be the same humans we were 10 000 years ago, whose most complex task was to catch a mammoth, cooperating with such a high number of individuals in such a complex task is beyond our capabilities. Is it any wonder then, that the streets are far from being awashed with self-driving cars? Hardly. Our only “hope” in achieving an autonomous car, capable to deal with every situation a human can, is artificial intelligence. I guess I don’t have to go into details how complex that is going to be…

The same applies to many other hyper-complex technologies under development today, starting with hydrogen fusion, space solar and the like. No matter how difficult the problem seems to be, everything goes: just start a project and try to get it funded by a government. It won’t be long however until humanity discovers that these projects were nothing more than “subsidy dumpsters” as John Michael Greer likes to call them, and abandon these ideas. Time will tell — I would not bet my house though on any of these succeeding in real life.

Moore’s law turning on itself

Gordon Moore had a perception back in 1965 that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years. While it was true for decades to come, it has started to slow down recently due the simple fact, that the size of atoms consisting a microchip is fixed — and those bastards keep refusing to go on a diet. Approaching such a hard limit inevitable causes difficulties however…

In a 2007 interview, Moore himself admitted that “…the fact that materials are made of atoms is the fundamental limitation and it’s not that far away…We’re pushing up against some fairly fundamental limits so one of these days we’re going to have to stop making things smaller.”

Oops. Now what?! The default human response to such limits is doubling down on complexity: if a chip cannot be made more dense, then let’s create a network from these thingies — putting a microchip in everything, and connecting computers into vast arrays, giving birth to cloud computing. Another idea is quantum computing, but as far as I can remember it is always a decade away from now.

In theory this complexification could go on for quite some time, but it always comes at a price: supply constraints (chip shortage anyone?) and energy. A Faustian-bargain in an increasingly energy hungry world… Take Bitcoin for example — now consuming as much as 91 TWh-s of electricity, which is several hundreds of thousands times more energy than what a similar amount of regular credit card transactions would require. Fun fact: most of that energy is lost as waste heat — caused by ever higher transistor density within a microchip. Thanks Gordon!

More limits set by physics

Too bad that economists tend to extrapolate Moore’s simple observation to every technology they encounter, from solar to wind — without considering the physical limits of said technologies. As Tim Morgan at Surplus Energy Economics wrote:

Where wind turbines are concerned, Betz’ law states that wind turbines cannot capture more than 59.3% of the kinetic energy of wind. Current best practice has already reached about 45%, leaving no scope for a quantum (rather than a modest and gradual) increase in efficiency.

Similarly, the Shockley-Queisser limit determines the maximum theoretical efficiency of photovoltaic panels. This limit is 33.7%, not very far ahead of current best practice of about 26%. Again, progress can be made, but no quantum leap in efficiency is possible.

There is no way to apply Moore’s law to these technologies here. I suspect that there is no way to apply it to the cost of these panels and turbines either. Maybe I’m wrong asserting that these items cannot be made out of thin air at almost zero cost — as economists tend to extrapolate. Quite a few years of experience in manufacturing tells me though, that things tend to get cheaper substantially in the early phases of their lifecycle only. When there is still plenty of room for improvement in their manufacturing processes, and raw material extraction is on the rise. Today however, these technologies are far-far away from being new, and their raw materials’ “production” are peaking soon. In other words: these are mature technologies, where a few cents saved here and there are considered great achievements. Anything more than that comes from forced labor (polysilicon production in China), or from crossing some pretty basic environmental and health standards (take cobalt extraction in the Congo for example). There is no such thing as a free lunch. Even this (unfair) decrease in manufacturing costs has a limit too in a world beset by inflation (caused by the lack of energy and cheap resources to keep growth alive). But, as always, time will tell.

Size as a measure of efficiency

When there is no other way to increase an individual technology’s efficiency, it tends to grow in size. Planes grow into super-jumbos. Wind turbines into mega-fans hundreds of meters high. Companies merging into large international corporations. Size does come with certain benefits: you have to maintain less units and still have the same effect at a lower overall cost — although individual units do become more complex than ever. Ultimately this too boils down to energy: larger units require less energy per ton to build and maintain.

This is what Nature has done too, whenever she encountered similar limits to her technologies. Take dinosaurs, whales, trees, or any other mature metabolic technology for example. They all end up growing big. (In ecology this is the so called K-selection of species.) Size has one big disadvantage though. It takes a lot of time, energy and resources to build one unit, and this makes it harder and harder to replace sudden losses in numbers. If circumstances change suddenly these are the species to go first. They are the pinnacles of evolution, adapted to a certain stable environment. They are very slow to change and to adapt due to their long lifespan and low number of offspring. In other words they are the very long, but inevitably the last step before extinction.

This is what we are about to witness with regards to our technologies too. When resources becomes ever more scarce, with less and less surplus energy, not to mention a rapidly changing climate, these large structures will be among the first casualties. As the supply of fossil fuels decline, super-jumbos will be collecting dust instead of passengers, just like SUV-s and other huge machinery. These are the dinosaurs of our time. Should wind patterns change due to a shift in the jet-stream, mega-turbines will be impossible to move lacking of powerful cranes and ships to lift and carry them — not to mention replacing them at the end of their life-cycle.

Marvel the technology of today: you are one of the few generations who are able to see it in its full glory.

Dead end ahead

I’m not saying that any of these technology traps above are going to cause our civilization to collapse. Rather, they pave the way towards ever increasing complexity and as an inevitable result, ever increasing energy use. In an ideal world, capable to to provide infinite amounts of energy when needed and absorbing infinite amount of waste products and heat, this should not be a problem. We are not living in such a world however. We have already crossed a threshold of sustainable energy use both from a supply and a pollution standpoint — hence we are in overshoot. As a result, when our access to stable flows of energy starts to shrink due to perfectly natural causes (depletion), and the resulting climate chaos will slap us in the face, we will have a very hard time keeping up this level of complexity. Wheels will start to come off from the industrial growth engine one-by-one, then after a tipping point (when enough interlocking parts are gone) the whole system will switch to a radically simpler state. Now, that’s going to be rough.

This leads us to technological dead ends. We have maxed out heat engines, solar and wind technologies. Investing into the upscaling of “renewables” with a blind hope that they will somehow survive the coming decline of fossil fuels will not solve anything. Electrification is a luxury provided by the stable supply of fossil fuels. “Renewables” alone will not be able power an industrial civilization as they are dependent on fossil fuel infrastructure in every step of their life-cycle, and cannot even come close to their predecessors when it comes to reliability, energy density, portability or price. In fact these technologies will make things worse, as they tie up valuable resources and energy.

What we need instead of jumbo-sized turbines and county-sized solar farms is small scale, household wind generators, simple solar heat collectors and the like. A de-industrial revolution. Technologies which are available to low income families in remote locations. Things, which could be used for a very long time (many decades) and could be repaired easily without waiting for parts to arrive from another continent.

Instead of biodiesel we need investment in sailboats to keep what’s little left from international trade alive. We need roads made from cobblestones lasting a thousand years, rather than ones made from concrete and asphalt (both derived from, or made possible by fossil fuels), and which needs to be rebuilt every few decades. We need to figure out how to feed billions of people without fertilizers. There is a lot that can, and must be done.

This is not to mean, that we will end up in caves chewing on dead rats anytime soon (although this possibility cannot be excluded). Rather, we will have to learn skills and apply appropriate technology, which uses resources and energy available locally. And who knows? We might come out on the other end happier without the constant anxiety of growth and competition. We might not know as much about quantum mechanics, but we might as well have more fulfilling lives.

Until next time,

B

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A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.