When a /complex system falls out of balance, it will naturally try to find a new state of balance. Sometimes, the process of finding a new resting point causes a system to completely fall apart, like a falling jenga tower or a popped balloon. When a system falls out of balance and is destroyed as a result, this is what I mean when I say Collapse.
I am particularly interested in exploring Collapse from a social, political, and economic perspective, collectively understood as Societal Collapse or /civilizational collapse.
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Systems in Homeostasis
Let's start in an abstract sense. A /complex system is a set of components connected by relationships that create an entity that is greater than the sum of its parts. An example is the human body: there are a collection of organ systems connected by blood vessels, muscles, and neurons, and together they come together to form a living, breathing, thinking human being. None of the organs can do these things on their own, but together they become something greater than their sum.
In the real world, all complex systems are generally in some constant state of change. A healthy system is in a state called homeostasis, where its feedback loops are always pushing the system back towards an optimal state. In the case of the human body, this means it maintains a baseline internal temperature, digests and metabolizes food, and seeks shelter and rest, among other things.
This process of homeostasis allows a complex system to not be too rigid, being able to encounter challenges and bounce back from them. A human being might move across the country and start a new job, upending social routines, sleep schedules, and eating habits, and that person will then settle into a new normal, meeting new people and creating new routines, ultimately returning to a state resembling their life before the move.
Systems in Collapse
However, if a system is pushed too far outside of its homeostatic boundary, it may be unable to return back to its original optimal state. This will begin a series of chain reactions, where drastic and unpredictable changes in the system's structure may happen on its path towards finding a new resting place. In some cases, the new equilbrium state may end up being completely unrecognizable from the original system, to the point where you would say that the original system has ceased to exist.
This process of a system changing completely after irreversibly leaving its comfort zone is called Collapse. If that human moving across the country felt socially isolated and overwhelmed in their new job, which made it difficult to sleep, which then left them without energy to make friends, furnish their apartment, or get their eating habits in order, they could quickly spiral into collapse; in this case, depression, poor health, or worse.
The process of system collapse can be like an inflated balloon that is punctured, which instanaeously pops, or it can be like a jenga tower with its final brick removed, slowly leaning over until it falls and finds a resting place in a heap on the ground. For larger systems, this popping or crumbling may play out in very slow motion, which can be unintuitive. The mass extinctions in the Earth's past play out "quickly" in the fossil record, but in reality those changes in conditions and diversity of life played out over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. However, the asteroid that ended the Cretaceous Period and anthropogenic climate change both prove that even massive systems can be irreparably altered very quickly.
Examples of Collapse
A Crumbling Bridge
To borrow from the dictionary definition of collapse, imagine a bridge that has had one of its legs fail. The broken leg causes the system of the bridge to fall out of balance, because suddenly a portion of the weight of the bridge must be supported by something other than the broken leg.
The bridge will naturally (in this case due to gravity) try to find a new way to resolve all of its weight and internal tensions; to find a new state of balance. If the bridge was not designed to be able to redistribute its weight when a leg broke, the sudden increase in load on other stress points will cause those to fail as well, creating a chain reaction of even more overloaded stress points, ultimately causing the bridge to literally Collapse.
A Failing Economy
Visualizing a physically collapsing bridge is a great first example to build up an understanding, but collapse can occur in more abstract ways too.
Imagine a country that has a healthy economy, high job satisfaction, and strong social cohesion. This is a system in balance. Now imagine that an external circumstance like a foriegn war or a technological breakthrough makes a large industry in that country's economy obsolete. The system has now fallen out of balance.
Just like when the leg of the bridge broke, the sudden obsolecense of a large industry in this country creates internal tension that will naturally try to be resolved. Instead of gravity pulling the extra weight of the bridge into joints too weak to hold it up, we instead will see more abstract examples of collapse, where the stresses are social and economic.
First, the companies that work within that industry will see their income dry up. This is a net loss of total income for the country. Then, since they don't have the money to pay workers anymore, those workers will be laid off. There is now a large hole in the economy, where less work is being done and less money is being made in total, but the same number of people must be housed and fed.
If the country is resilient, the unemployed workers might be quickly retrained into other industries that can grow and replace the wages and work lost by the failed industry. But if the country is not resilient, the stress of lost wages and unemployment will create a new pressure on the entire country, bringing down the average standard of living, increasing the amount of work that needs to be done per person, and lowering both the job satisfaction and social cohesion. In a worst case scenario, this can create a chain reaction of other social, economic, and politcal pressures that cause the entire country to collapse.
Unlike the collapse of a bridge which plays out at the speed of gravity, an economic collapse like this may play out over years, decades, or even a centuries.
Frequently Asked Questions
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September 3, 2023
/stream /collapse /complex-systems
Spent a big chunk of time today writing out my thoughts on /collapse, descent, and contingency, spurred by a couple of posts I saw floating around Merveilles today. While there's a lot written out here now, I'm thinking about how I can better explain some of the intuitions I've developed around the nature of life and complex systems. I have so many long posts written out and unpublished on my philosophical explorations into metaphysics, abstractions, /complex systems, and so on, and I should really get them out into the world in some form.
June 2, 2023
/stream /reading /technology /permacomputing /degrowth /collapse
Following some links led me to The Monster Footprint of Digital Technology on Low Tech Magazine. While the concept of embodied energy (in microchips, or in general) was not new to me, this article did a great job of describing the scale and trends in energy and resource consumption in the manufacturing of modern digital technology.
One aspect in particular stood out to me, which was the claim that "digital technology is a product of cheap energy". I think about this idea from many angles, that there are many aspects of our modern society that have expanded to consume all of the "infinite energy" we've had access to during the fossil fuel era. The proliferation of cars, processed foods, and microchips are all goods that have fundamentally changed the way we have lived, but are (and have always been) unsustainable to produce in the long term since they are fundeamentally born out of an environment with very cheap, portable, and dense energy sources. Trying to maintain that lifestyle without fossil fuels will be nearly impossible due to "Energy Return on Investment" (EROI) calculations and the laws of physics. And yet, at the same time, many people (and our economic system more broadly) have become completely dependent on these goods and this lifestyle, with a looming threat of /collapse if they were to suddenly disappear.
And so I wonder about what computing might look like in a world with more restricted and balanced energy use, if we managed to actually ramp down our energy and resource consumption to a truly sustainable level. Will computing still exist? How accessible would it be?