Sunday, April 4, 2010

Complexity and Collapse

Clay Shirky is one of the most perceptive people I'm aware of when it comes to analyzing the changing media landscape. He doesn't blog often, but when he does, it's something that is widely linked to and discussed.

His latest entry is about how complex systems are unable to react to changing environments in any way except to collapse. Basing his piece on The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter, Shirky says:

"Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

"The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

"In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

"When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification."

Tying this into media and journalism, Shirky says:
"...last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free, and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use.”

"Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

"“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”"

They don't know how to do that because there are too many vested interests in their management and financial structures as they currently exist. This corroborates the point of the book The Hollywood Economist that I recently reviewed. Hollywood's economic structure is built on multiple revenue streams as well as finding investors, merchandising partners and tax incentives. Where once 90% of a film's revenue came from the theatrical box office, now it's only 20%. Hollywood is now more about the deal more than it is about the film.

Shirky's point also ties into Malcolm Gladwell's idea about a tipping point. In Gladwell's view, small changes in a system build up without apparent effect, but then one more small change causes the system to tip. In other words, the system's lack of flexibility doesn't appear to be a problem until it is a big problem and everything is forced to change.

Shirky concludes with this:
"When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future."
Simple in this case means cheaply. Shirky refers to Charley Bit My Finger, a YouTube video that has been watched 175 million times and was made for nothing. That video's success was an accident, but it's only a matter of time before a team of animation people, using cheap tools and web platforms, is able to create an ongoing success with drastically lower costs than established media.

Should complex systems collapse, there will inevitably be new complexity in the future, but it's in the spot between complexities where opportunity lies, because that's where established media can't compete as they can't cut their costs fast enough.

This 2008 article talks about live action web series that are earning their creators a living. Who in animation will be the first to succeed at this?

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