Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Walk in the Garden of Unintended Consequences

“Blow a horse in the nose, and it will swish its tail,” goes one saying. It’s a silly one, but it captures a common thought pattern: do A to achieve B. As we grow up, we learn many such thought patterns, and as adults we expect them to continue working. We don’t necessarily know why they work. We don’t have time for complicated explanations and rationalizations; but we do know that they work. A time-saving approach is to simply try them and see. Do they still work?

And then there is a thought pattern that work at a meta-level: use any given trick too many times, and it will stop working. Blow a horse in the nose too many times, and it will will bite or kick you. “Too much of a good thing is a bad thing,” one might say. This is something else that we learn growing up, and it tempers our enthusiasm as adults for pushing things too far. Very interestingly, this only works at the level of the individual or the small group; as societies, we always push things too far—to the point when they stop working.

When we push things too far, we restrict our future choices. Blow a horse in the nose too many times, and not only would blowing in its nose become a bad idea, but so would harnessing it, riding it or even just walking it. That’s because the horse wouldn’t like you any more. That’s yet another thing we learn as children: once you ruin a good thing, it stays ruined. But as societies we seem to lack such childish wisdom. We keep pushing things too far and then each time we ask ourselves silly questions, such as, “What is the solution to this problem?” Anyone who proposes that we don’t have any options except to suffer through the consequences—which is more often than not the truth—is unlikely to be the least bit popular and is virtually guaranteed to be ignored by those clamoring for solutions.

Another way to look at this is in terms of consequences. Actions have consequences, and at first any given action may produce the intended result: blow in the nose, tail swishes. But later on, if pushed too far, that same action will produce an unintended result: blow in the nose, get kicked. Not only that, but past that point almost any action will produce unintended consequences. Give it water—get kicked. Muck out its stall—get kicked. Try to gentle it—get kicked. The solution to this class of problem, at a meta-meta level, is to first of all admit that there are no solutions. But when a society reaches that point, anybody who proposes that is, again, likely to be roundly ignored.

Running the risk of being unpopular and ignored, I believe that this needs to be explored further. We have lots of complex models to explain to us why things stop working. But we lack simple ones—ones that would be obvious even to a child.

Some quite complex models have been proposed. One is by Joseph Tainter. He has argued that society develops until it reaches some abstract pinnacle of societal complexity, at which point it crosses the point of diminishing returns. There is no mechanism for it to decrease complexity in a controlled manner. Instead, it continues to invest in ever-greater complexity, going from diminishing to negative returns. Complexity consumes ever more resources, and eventually society runs out of resources and collapses; hence, we need to prepare for The Collapse of Complex Societies. But I don’t think this model works any more. Let me explain.

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