Patterns of social unrest: Complexity, conflict and catastrophe – Part one

Patterns of social unrest: Complexity, conflict and catastrophe – Part one

Business statistics and analytics multiple exposure.

By John Casti, X-Event Dynamics, LLC, San Jose, CA and the X-Center, Vienna, Austria.


Social Unrest

On February 24, 2010 Greek police fired tear-gas and clashed with demonstrators in central Athens after a march organized by unions to oppose the government’s program to cut the European Union’s biggest budget deficit. The president of a large union stated, “People on the street will send a strong message to the government but mainly to the European Union, the markets and our partners in Europe that people and their needs must be above the demands of markets. We didn’t create the crisis.” Later, air-traffic controllers, customs and tax officials, train drivers, doctors at state-run hospitals and school teachers walked off the job to protest government spending cuts. Journalists joined into the strikes as well, creating a media blackout.

Fast forwarding a year, we saw long-standing regimes in both Tunisia and Egypt sent packing literally overnight, with Libya now being torched by the very same revolutionary flames as rebels battle the entrenched Qaddafi government in an attempt to overturn forty years of oppression.

On the surface, these types of civil disturbances give the appearance of arising out of the public’s discontent with their government over high unemployment, rising food prices, lack of housing, and other such necessities of everyday life. But such explanations are facile and superficial, failing to address the root cause of the societal collapse. The real culprit resides much deeper in the social system. It is a widening “complexity gap” between the government and its citizens, revolution breaking out when that gap can no longer be bridged.

Complexity Mismatches

Some years back, American archaeologist Joseph Tainter put forth the idea that societies respond to crises by adding complexity in order to solve problems they encounter. But each unit of resource the society adds―energy or money, usually―yields less return than the previous unit. So, the additional layers of complexity brought by this expenditure consume resources with no corresponding return until the marginal return on investment in social complexity turns negative. But since the society knows how to solve problems only by adding complexity, it then begins to collapse under its own weight.

In Egypt and Libya the added complexity is not just any sort of complexity, but as noted by futurist Ramez Naam it is a very special type: parasitism. This is one of the worst forms of complexity, as it consumes more and more of society’s resources without producing any value at all.

For example, Egypt had a state-controlled economy that was wildly mismanaged for decades. Even the noticeable improvement in recent years has been a case of too little, too late. Moreover, the country is monumentally corrupt, as crony capitalism runs rampant throughout the entire social structure. Such a system of corruption relies upon bribes to officials to get contracts, obtain jobs or to find adequate housing. One rumor had it that in Egypt the drug Viagra was kept off the market because its manufacturer, Pfizer, failed to pay a large enough bribe to the Egyptian Minister of Health for its approval.

This type of parasitic mismanagement and corruption doesn’t really add constructive complexity to the government, but simply works to freeze in place an already low-complexity system.

But modern communication and social networking services like Twitter and Facebook do act to dramatically increase the social complexity―but the increase is in the complexity of the population, at-large, not an increase in the complexity of the government. This is why governments routinely act to shut off these services when they’re under attack, as more voices are heard and more and more highly-connected social networks are formed.

At some point the complexity gap between the stagnant level of government complexity and the growing level of general-public complexity becomes too great to be sustained. Result: Ouster of the Mubarak regime, and the likely downfall of the Qaddafi government as well.

A complex system theorist recognizes immediately the principle at work here in narrowing the complexity gap. It’s is called the Law of Requisite Variety (Complexity). The Principle states that in order to fully regulate/control a system, the complexity of the regulating system has to be at least as great as the complexity of the system to be controlled. An obvious corollary is that if the gap is too big (in either direction) you’re going to have trouble. And in the world of politics, “trouble” is often spelled “r-e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n”!

Examples of such mismatches abound: ancient Rome is one case that always comes to mind, where the ruling classes used political and military power to control the lower classes and to conquer neighbors in order to extract tax revenues. Ultimately, the entire resources of the society were being used to maintain an ever-growing, far-flung empire that had grown too complex to be sustained. The ancient Mayan civilization is another good case in point. Some scholars, like historian Paul Kennedy, have argued that the American Empire is in the process of coming undone for much the same reasons.

This type of complexity gap is not confined just to the political and governmental domains either, as evidenced by the social unrest in Japan arising out of the radiation spewing forth from the reactors damaged by the March 2011 earthquake. The ultimate cause of this unrest is a “design basis accident,” in which the tsunami overflowed retaining walls designed to keep the water out. The overflow then damaged backup electrical generators intended to supply emergency power for pumping water to cool the reactor’s nuclear fuel rods.

This is a two-fold problem: First, the designer’s planned the height of the walls for a magnitude 8.3 quake, the largest that Japan had previously experienced, not considering that a quake might someday exceed that level, and what’s even worse, (2) they placed the generators on low ground where any overflow would short them out. So, everything ultimately depended on the retaining walls doing their job―which they didn’t! This is a case of too little complexity in the control system (the combination of the height of the wall and the generator location) being overwhelmed by too much complexity in the system to be controlled (the magnitude of the tsunami).

In the next article, Part 2, Casti examines the fallout from Complexity Overload, the early warning indicators, as well as the time-line for when America may face Complexity Overload.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to make the information presented here as complete and accurate as possible, it may contain errors, omissions or information that was accurate as of its publication but subsequently has become outdated by marketplace or industry changes or conditions, new laws or regulations, or other circumstances. The publisher does not accept any liability or responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damage alleged to have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the information, ideas, opinions or other content in this magazine.