collapse

On the Academy

I ran into the following article by Michael Hanlon recently, "The Golden Quarter. Why has Human Progress Ground to a Halt?" Hanlon's thesis is that even if we all have supercomputers in our pockets, the big advances—landing men on the moon, computers and the birth of the Internet, the Pill, feminism, the gay rights movement and so on—all happened in the 25 years from 1945 to 1971. 

This is true enough, I suppose, although we could argue that personal computing, smart phones, self-driving cars (which I believe will be common by 2020), cellular phone access for the entire world, and the (largely illicit) digitization of much of the world's knowledge into freely available libraries are in fact radically new. If Sputnik and Viking were important, the Mars Science Rover is a massive advance as is landing Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and (we hope) flying New Horizons past Pluto. So, too citing the birth of the women's rights movement may be disingenous, its seed having came much earlier, in the suffragete movement. The advances in gay rights during the last five years have been massive. The networked publics that have emerged in the last couple of decades are an unprecedented shift in how we relate to each other and our own decade is likely to be remembered as the one in which knowledge-based artificial intelligence has spread into everyday usage in the developed world, not a minor point in human history. 

But what's interesting to me about this article is that it is so applicable to the humanities. When I went to graduate school, it was an incredibly exciting, even revolutionary time, when French theory was making massive headway and every visit to the academic bookstore promised something new and cutting edge, if sometimes impenetrable, to read. But the humanities have come to a crashing halt. When theory is talked about anymore, it is in terms of concepts like "biopolitics," "postcolonialism," and "the control society," formulated long ago. Maybe I'm grumpy or these fields are no longer new to me, but I suspect something is up. 

Here I think that Hanlon's point really does apply, and that academics in particular has become risk averse. The biggest innovation in academics during the last decade hasn't been in theory, it's been the development of a digital humanities that has largely traded scholarly advancement for funding. With universities increasingly corporatized, academics are expected to fundraise, not to take risks or create innovative theories. Stories of brilliant scholars who don't get tenure due to taking risks and programs being shut down for being too edgy are common.

Moreover, theory itself has become quite conservative. To talk about "accelerationism," for example, or even suggest that we are no longer under a postmodern condition, is widely met with derision by tenured theorists who might otherwise expect to have sympathy with such experimental thought. But no. Take architecture, where a rather pat formula has emerged that everyone seems to follow: find a largely obscure architect or event from the 1950s or the 1960s, head to the archive, make a few conclusions invoking French theory (generally Foucault), and you're done.  

What to do then? Being Samogitian, my natural demeanor is gloomy rather than optimistic. But I'd like to suggest, optimistically, that leaving the academy may be an opportunity, or at least another possibility.

Marx, Freud, and Benjamin, to take only three key intellectuals operated primarily outside the university, as did Clement Greenberg, Le Corbusier, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson. This isn't to say that it would be necessarily easy outside the university—for one, the conditions of journalism today have become quite difficult as well, so that route is a problem—but it points to a line of flight that it seems to me most worthwhile to explore these days.      

  

On August Disasters

When the collective wisdom is unquestioned, it is a good sign that it is wrong. Take the collapse of the housing crisis, for example, which caught a generation of architects, businesspeople, politicians and economists unawares even though to anyone who bothered to look at the situation, the inevitability of the outcome was plain as day. Unfortunately, its a facet of modern society that people learn little from such mistakes.   

This month's events have me thinking again about some of the gaps in our collective wisdom. We started off with another market crisis triggered by political stalemate, mounting global debts, and reports that economies have run out of steam. None of these are new and should have come as no surprise. Rather this is the sort of stationary state that Gopal Balakrishnan diagnosed as the new status quo back in 2009 in this article. In this condition, the market winds up exploited by profiteers who have little interest in actual investment but rather only in profiting off the swings as this Wall Street Journal piece reports. Capitalism itself is being fundamentally altered under such conditions. Even if, quite obviously, capitalism remains based on investment, when the origin of that investment is increasingly relegated to individually funded pensions (in other words to a class that a scant generation ago was not directly associated with large investment) while the capitalist elite is playing an entirely different game, we have to ask ourselves if network culture isn't breeding an economic mutation that we can scarce appreciate yet.     

But my concern today isn't economics, its the uncritical urban ideology that now dominates thinking in architecture, politics, and urbanism. With the development of network cities in the 1990s and the apparent recovery of cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London, it's easy to be confident that we live in the urban millennium, the age of "the endless city," powered by the net, jet travel, finance, and conspicious consumption of architecture, clothing, and technology. Of course we have reminders like Detroit and New Orleans, but these are supposed to be indicators of the sort of rigid thought that we've left behind long ago. Network culture is supposed to be totally different, right? 

August is traditionally the month that most people in the Northern hemisphere who have the luxury of taking time off depart on vacation. But as Russians know, it is also the month of "the August Curse," the month when people go away to the dacha only to find that the country has collapsed or unthinkable acts of terrorism have taken place. So this year we have another crisis in the market, but we also have Hurricane Irene barrelling toward the East Coast, due to land almost six years to the day after Katrina hit. 

If we're lucky, Irene will turn out to be a non-event, it's greatest harm being making a populace that is convinced nothing will happen to them since they are armed with iPhones feel invincible. But if we're unlucky, it will hit hard. When the city suffered a direct strike in 1893, Manhattan south of Canal Street was flooded and waters rose thirteen feet in an hour where Battery Park City now stands. There's nothing the city has done since then to mitigate this in any serious way so if a storm hits, expect lower Manthattan to look worse than Katrina. Water, of course, seeks the lowes point so a storm surge into the subway system will follow, rapidly overwhelming the system's pumps and—apart from extending service disruptions (at this stage, the MTA expects to shut down in advance of the storm Saturday an noon and not reopen until Monday) will damage and corrode the aged equipment, leading to repairs that might takes months or even years to finish. Commuter rail lines will do little better and perhaps, given the state of Amtrak's lines into Penn Station, even worse, thus crippling commuting into the city for some time to come. One analyst suggests that the hurricane may cause up to $20 billion in direct damages, but the indirect costs of such an event could be much higher, leading to a final death blow for the city's struggling financial industry, already in trouble as the second dip of this decade-long recession gets underway.  

The complexity that we have built into our urban systems is profoundly dangerous. Urban systems are extremely interdependent today and we are less able to operate outside of them than ever. But this applies to our personal lives too. Those who have gotten rid of land lines for cell phones got a little reminder during this week's earthquake of how rapidly such systems are overwhelmed during times of crisis. But even land lines aren't the same anymore, with voltage-carrying copper replaced by cable and fiber and phones that plug into the wall replaced by cordless phones. We are more and more dependent on electricity and on such systems continuing to run. How many of us even have battery-powered radios anymore? Or maps and compasses to evacuate if data communications are down?  

As we saw earlier this year in Japan, modern life can come to a halt rapidly and take a long time to recover. A direct hit by a Category 3 storm on New York or a disaster of similar scale on a major metropolis like Tokyo or London would have major repercussions on the model of high density living that we accept without question today. In that case, this may yet be a century known for urban collapse and reruralization in the developed world. 

For the Record

Nothing irks me more than the idiots* who say that nobody saw the crash coming. I blogged about it years before it happened. It was plain as day. The real estate market was a bubble. Nothing fundamental had changed.

So for the record, the bump in the stock market today suggests just how fragile the markets are. I've brought this up many times in the networked publics panels, but it's worth mentioning again: high velocity trading is a major threat to the markets and the markets are far from stable.

In literally the blink of an eye the NYSE had dropped over 995 points. It bounced back, but was still down over 350 at the end of the day. 

This isn't the kind of glitch we should ignore. It's a warning underscoring how unsound our financial markets are. Anyone interested in the survival of the current economy system should hope that the Obama administration doesn't ignore it.  

*Of course some of the people saying that nobody saw the crash coming aren't idiots; they're liars.

Shockwave Riders Talk

I delivered the text for the following paper at Ed Keller's Shockwave Riders Symposium
Parsons, 14 November 2009

Hunting for Precipice: An Introduction to Network Culture


Kazys Varnelis

During the course of the past year, my time has been consumed by the task of writing a history of the immediate present. Think for a moment of the postmodern condition. This is the last historical period that we can agree on. But how is it possible that we still live under it, some two decades after it was first identified? Empirically speaking, there’s no question in my mind that the condition of postmodernism has intensified to the point that it has produced a phase shift in history, that culture, economics, politics, technology, and society have become something quite other. Thus my charge, which I do not undertake lightly, is to do for the present what theorists like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey did for their day. This is the last thing that a historian is supposed to do today, but we’ll get to this later.

I call our new condition “network culture” for four reasons. The first is that I witnessed the wars between supporters of postmodernism and modernism and wish no repeat of that debate, which I believe ultimately consumed more energy than it was worth. Second, we’ve already had supermodernism, second modernity, the altermodern, digimodernism, transmodernity, neomodernism, and post-postmodernism. Such attempts at nomenclature have had little traction. Moreover, and this is my third point, basic aspects of la longue durée of modernity are shutting down or transforming: the nation-state, the media, the public, even subjectivity. Fourth, if the machine was the cultural dominant under modernity and if the market was the cultural dominant under postmodernity, our own is the network. All this, then, leads me to the term network culture.

Today, I want to talk critically about this condition. To begin, I want to enter another list of points into the discussion.

First, the role of technology, which the symposium frames as a key topic. There’s little argument that technological advancements have returned to our lives in force. Where the postmodern condition was marked by a deep skepticism of technology, this is far from our experience; skepticism about technology seems unimaginable today.

But this leads to my second point. Network culture not only intensifies postmodernity, it also intensifies salient aspects of modernity. We are, in some respects, more modern than postmodern. 
Network culture abandons aspects of postmodernity and modernity alike.

My third point is that technology is not all there is. This is crucial. We need to understand that network culture has deeper underlying conditions, the most intense of which is the networking of capital. If digitization served the abstracting, reifying tendencies of earlier forms of capital, the network corresponds to capital’s contemporary needs, allowing a new form of trade, the trade in pure information. Well over a decade ago, Manuel Castells observed that it was the network, not the corporation, that determined the economy. The technological changes that we are witness too today are as much technological as sociological. To take one example, look at politics on the net. Yes, there’s a proliferation of alternative sources of information on politics. Yes, democratic mobilization can now take place more rapidly and effectively than ever before. A Jeffersonian democracy is, on paper, made possible by the net. And yet, we are more polarized than ever. The latter is perhaps to some degree a statistical effect of power laws, but it also fits the nature of society itself. Or take social networks. Would these sites exist at all if it were not for the research into social network theory undertaken in the 1990s? And would that research have taken place if it there were not a social need for it? If technology affects some social forces, it concretizes others. This is a fundamental point. Network culture is as much a product of globalization and overcapitalization as it is of any technological forces. It is, however, plausible to say that the relationship between culture and capital than Jameson identified in his work on postmodernism is now replayed in the relationship between information and capital, only at a new level of intensity. The primary industry in developed countries is no longer production, nor is it service, it is financialization. This must, however, be the matter for another talk.

On to my fourth and, I suspect, most contentious point: I need to make very clear that I am not talking about a Zeitgeist or new wave to surf. Rather, network culture is not a happy turn. It as much a condition to take up critical arms against as a state to endorse. My goal is to dissect it in order to understand, as Karl Marx did in his day, what is vital and what is fatal in it.
Still, network culture conspires against us in our effort to grasp it. It does so through its atemporal nature. Some fifteen years ago, Baudrillard suggested that the countdown to the millennium was a countdown to the end of the end, to the end of any sense of temporality. It seems that his prophecy was fulfilled as today, we can’t even identify our decade with a proper name.

In this decade marked by zeros, we inhabit an unprecedented historical void. Jameson observes that postmodernism was marked by the waning of historicity and Lyotard concludes that the postmodern was marked by the end of grand narratives. Our condition is intensified to an utter lack of temporal grounding. We have not only no concept of, or interest in, our own position in history, we have no ability to structure experience temporally. Where postmodernism relentlessly defined itself, we do not. Where postmodernism operated in the traumatic caesura after the modern, network culture hasn’t so much celebrated or witnessed the end of the postmodernism, it has forgotten about it. The past itself is less pastiche and more simulation, not Gravity’s Rainbow so much as Mad Men.

Or take the future, for that matter. Our obsession seems to be with the proximate future, made possible by already patented technologies. It’s no accident that William Gibson sets Pattern Recognition and Spook Country in the immediate past. The future, it seems, is now.

Just as the obsolescence of historical practice is the first way that network culture conspires against us, so does the end of criticism. Again, the lack of critical distance that theorists observed under postmodernism is now cemented by its evacuation. Critical thinking is replaced by the coolhunt, by ideological smoothness, or rather slickness. Let’s not mistake the message of Obama here. It’s not to give hope, not to promise change, rather its to be cool.  

How to address all this? For critical inspiration, I want to turn to one of the last crucial texts of the postmodern moment, a text that all but announced itself as a moment of closure, Hal Foster’s 1996 The Return of the Real. Here, Foster suggests that the neo-avant-garde set out to “reconnect with a lost practice in order to disconnect from a present way of working felt to be outmoded, misguided, or otherwise oppressive.”(3)

The lost practice I am pursuing then, is critical history, the historical demystification of the present. My goal then, for which this talk is something of a manifesto, is to become cognizant of the network as an ideological apparatus.

Unquestionably, the era of the mass (or the People) is behind us. Identified, or rather, interpellated by ideologists on the right (let’s think of Edward Bernays and the development of public relations) and on the left (here Marxist-Leninism), the mass was the great historical agent of the twentieth century. Today, it’s atomized, dispersed into networked publics, into micro-constituencies. Now it seems to be receiving a new level of interpellation, identified as “the multitude,” Hardt and Negri’s “irreducable multiplicity.” 

As the conference topic suggests, we are witness to “emergence of crowd-sourced collective intelligence, global swarm urbanisms, new disruptive economics ['wikinomics'] and ultimately the formation of a global political ‘multitude’-with commensurate revolutions catalyzed by these changes cascading across all cultural and political domains.”

Much as this new spirit attracts me, much as I wish to have hope, it’s precisely here that we need to exercise caution. What could be a better ruse for global capital in its quest to align the world with its most recent financial order? I’d like to recall that in a recent lecture at Columbia, Michael Hardt suggested that a co-op board might be a familiar New York analogy to the multitude. This is something that I, like many of you, will never have experience of due to the permeation of the city’s real estate by the forces of global capital and the marginalization of the hard-working people who live here.

In our excitement about the possibilities of the swarm, we need to remember that thus far the multitude has accomplished little. It’s been a decade since Empire and if Obama is the best the multitude can do, then it seems to have failed us. Couldn’t we at least have a flash mob against torture? Or to close Guantanamo Bay? Instead, we are further from political action than we have been before, more separate and more atomized. If the days of critical theory are somehow repugnant to the academy, is it really better for us to serve as the R+D wing of business? Is academic success to be measured by the startup funds one receives? 

What is the multitude and its significance? History suggests that capital has a need for an avant-garde to grow our sensorium. If Warren Neidich was here, I think we might have had further insight into just what a matter of hard wiring our brains this is. Thus, I want to caution that the multitude is very much a Californian Ideology for our day, a matter of suggesting that the only way forward for political action is to acknowledge the lack of an alternative to the very forces proclaiming it ineffectual. Thus, when we speak of the virtues of open source and nonmarket production, I have to ask, is this because we see a Utopian virtue in which nonmarket production offers an alternative to capital or is it because nonmarket production allows capital to extract ever more labor from us, thoroughly colonizing our everyday life?   

I’d like to bring this talk to a close by adding another dimension to the equation, one that has concerned me greatly during the last year. Economic indicators suggest that we are entering into a long term period of stasis. In part, the brief growth in productivity spurred by the adoption of network technologies seems to be coming to an end. Now such productivity was in great part the result of eliminating newly redundant jobs. This month, the New York Times reports that unemployment and underemployment now stands at 17.5%, its highest level since the Great Depression. If the restructuring of the 1980s destroyed manufacturing, this decade’s recession has mowed down the creative class and the financial sectors. In the latest New Left Review, Gopal Balakrishnan suggests that we have entered into a stationary state, a long period of systemic stagnation. As he points out, Adam Smith never expected the wealth of nations to improve perpetually but rather expected it would come to an end in the nineteenth century as resources were exhausted. Capital’s perpetual growth would have been a mystery to him.

Network culture faces another threat, one that might be understood as an opportunity by revolutionaries both left and right. During the last year I’ve been reading and re-reading archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Civilizations, in which he suggests that complexity is a product of advanced civilizations, that it is something that civilizations produce as they grow and specialize. Our civilization is, if nothing else, hyper-complex. Complexity offers diminishing returns to the energy invested as it advances. Tainter observes that at a certain point, the energy invested is insufficient and people simply walk away from the civilization. Massive layers of complexity are shed as the state declines. As he points out, if population declines, the lifestyle of the survivors is not necessarily worse. Someone in 8th century Europe almost certainly would have lived a life under better conditions than someone in 19th century Europe. 

If we face a stationary state, we face an increasingly complex one, the course of empire may inevitably be collapse. We need to be wary, for there is one way to cut through the collapse and that is evil. Not only did Hitler build the autobahns, Mussolini, so the saying goes, made the trains run on time. The stationary state is the perfect milieu for the shock doctrine. Against an over-complex condition, what better than a state that can cut through the crap, a state informed by the project for a new american century? A state to which, under network culture, we have willingly given more information about than George Orwell could have imagined?

I’m going to close with these words: Brunner’s Shockwave Rider is a dystopian vision of the now. But perhaps not dystopian enough to predict our day accurately or how willingly we embrace it. How, then, do we, like the novel’s protagonist Nick Haflinger find our Precipice?

Interview with Joseph Tainter on Collapse

Archeologist Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies has done much to shape my thinking about our contemporary predictament. Issue 20 of Volume Magazine carried an interview I did with Tainter earlier this year but since the interview had to be cut down to fit the graphic design required by Volume, I thought I should post it online in its entirety.

 

KV: In your book you argue that civilizational collapse, as it took place in ancient societies such as the Chou Dynasty in China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Rome is “a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by complexity and why it leads to collapse?

 

JT: I approach complexity from the perspective of an anthropologist. In our field one of the oldest questions is how and why human societies evolved from relatively simple and undifferentiated to complex and highly differentiated. Complexity in the framework I use consists of two components: structural differentiation and organization. Structural differentiation refers to the development of new categories of social roles, institutions, information, settlements, occupations, technologies, etc. Organization is how those are constrained so that they behave to form a system. If everydone does as they please there is no organization, and structural elements cannot form a system. Organization limits and channels behavior. So increasing complexity consists of increasing differentiation of structure combined with increasing organization. With a collapse, an established level of complexity is quickly lost.

 

KV: So as civilizations develop, you conclude, they differentiate—for example, by creating highly specialized social roles—and build greater and greater levels of organization that require higher investment of energy to maintain. Eventually the marginal returns on investment decline and civilizations either figure out how to deal with that situation or collapse. You note that from the perspective of humans as a species and hominadae as a family, complexity is quite unusual. Most of our existence has been in small settlements or nomadic groups that have relatively little differentiation and low levels of complexity.

 

Today we are living in the most complex society that has ever existed, yet we’ve avoided collapse thus far. Why is that?

 

JT: Diminishing returns to complexity are probably inevitable, but collapse doesn’t necessarily follow. Collapses are actually not that common. There are several ways to cope with diminishing returns to complexity. One is to find energy subsidies to pay for the process. That is what we have done with fossil fuels. And it is a big part of why a future crisis in fossil fuels is the most important thing we should be worrying about.

 

KV: All but a few geologists suggest that a decline in fossil fuel extraction is inevitable. In 1998 Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah said "The oil boom is over and will not return... All of us must get used to a different lifestyle." Are we doomed?

 

JT: The critical point is when we reach peak oil. This is the point where 50% of recoverable reserves have been extracted. At this point, production might be kept level for a few years with heroic efforts, but soon production will start to decline. And every year after that there will be less oil available than the year before. One of the challenges with peak oil is that you know you’ve passed it only in hindsight. So there is naturally controversy about how close it is. Some analysts think we have passed it already, but the effect is masked by the economic downturn. How badly peak oil affects us depends on how quickly we bring alternative energy production systems into place. If we delay too long, the party will be over. This is a real danger. Developing new energy sources is the most important thing we can do.

 

KV: What about technological innovation? The spread of digital technology, the Internet, and mobile technology contributed to the economic recovery during the last fifteen years. There has been a bit of talk about innovating our way out of this recession too, for example through urban computing, green architecture, or investment in new kinds of infrastructure. Is such optimism in technological solutions warranted? Are there pitfalls to it? Are there other means by which we can avoid collapse?

 

JT: Short answer: It’s complicated. Long answer: Technological-innovation-as-savior is part of our cosmology. It is a fundamental part of our beliefs, so frequently we don’t think about it rationally. Relying on technological innovation to find some solution is what I call a faith-based approach to the future. There are two things about technological innovation that concern me. The first is that, like other endeavors, research grows complex and costly and can reach diminishing returns. This is covered in the Collapse book so I won’t elaborate here. The second problem is what is known as the Jevons Paradox. William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century British economist, pointed out that in the long run technological innovations aimed as at using less of a resource actually lead to even more of the resource being used. His example was coal, but the principle applies across the board. As technological innovation leads to economy in using a resource, people respond to the lower cost by using even more. I conclude from this that technological innovations can offer only short-term advantages. They quickly become outdated, then the next round of innovations may be harder to achieve.

 

KV: Beyond outright collapse, is it possible to have partial collapses of complexity? Given that I go to see my parents in Lithuania frequently, I am fascinated by the ruins of the Soviet Empire. This wasn't an outright collapse, but certainly a major level of social organization was shed.

 

JT: The term “collapse” has, of course, many colloquial meanings, and often it is applied to the demise of political entities. For academic purposes I prefer to use it to mean a rapid, substantial loss of complexity. With the end of the Soviet Union there was certainly some reduction in complexity, coming mainly in the form of a diminishing of organizational control. But this was not comparable with the loss of complexity in western Europe at the end of the Western Roman Empire. So the end of the Soviet Union may have been like other collapses in some ways, but it was not similar in scale.

 

KV: Similarly, I wonder about the role complexity played in this recession. If the popular sentiment was—until quite recently—that all of our access to information turned financial decision into a very rational enterprise, this turned out to be utterly false. One of the key problems with the financial instruments such as tranches and collateralized debt obligations is that they were simply too difficult for most people, even the MBAs, to understand. Is this recession an attempt of the system to get rid of toxic complexity?

 

JT: Keep in mind that complexity emerges to solve problems. In regard to the economic crisis, part of the problem was insufficient complexity. Remember that complexity includes both differentiation of structure and increase in organization. The financial business had over the last few years innovated new structures—new fiscal products such as derivatives. This was not met by an increase in organization, which would have involved regulation and government oversight. The problem emerged because the financial system (involving both the private and public sectors) was not complex enough. Now it appears that the government will add the organization, but of course too late in regard to the current crisis.

 

KV: Yes, of course, you're right. Corporations strove to create deregulated business environments and yet all that seems to have backfired.

 

Let me bring up one more example: I recently edited a book exploring the fate of infrastructure in Los Angeles, although it could really have been any major city in any developed country. Our conclusion was that the sort of infrastructure that we built in the early 20th century—think of Wililam Mulholland constructing the Los Angeles aqueduct to carry water down two hundred, twenty-there miles from the Owens River or the city's freeways—is a thing of the past. As individuals became more concerned with their property values and quality of life, they also became more adept at defending them. Homeowner's organizations, neighborhood groups, and ad hoc alliances of community residents are incredibly good at making sure that infrastructural interventions will not impact them and displace such projects or forestall their construction. At the same time, public agencies have also become keen experts at defending their turf. Infrastructure, we observed, follows a curve of diminishing returns. Adding another lane to an overcrowded city freeway, for example, would cost a tremendous amount of money—likely a billion dollars a mile—and cause massive disruption, but would only alleviate congestion for a few years. As semi-autonomous systems interfere with each other, layers of complexity form that can be very hard to get adequate returns from.

 

JT: Public involvement in governmental decision-making generates what I call an escalation dynamic. It is a like an arms race, but of course usually non-lethal. As public groups become successful at contesting government decisions, government agencies must get better at formulating and defending those decisions. This drives up costs. In the U.S. Forest Service (where I once worked and saw this process in operation) this came to be called “analysis paralysis.” Then, as the government gets better at defending decisions, public groups must themselves become better at contesting decisions. They also must raise money for lawyers and specialists. The cost of both formulating and challenging decisions is driven upward in a spiral.

 

Adding an extra lane to a freeway does, of course, put one in the realm of diminishing returns. But I realized long ago that such projects are not only about transportation. They are equally about politics, interest groups, and employment. The decisions will therefore not necessarily be economically rational.

 

KV: Modern architects believed that architecture would be able to solve society's problems by creating more powerful systems of organization to get rid of malfunctioning, older ones. In the 1960s and 1970s, all this changed. Architects began to find ways to value complexity and congestion. In his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction, Robert Venturi all but defined the future trajectory of the field by suggesting that complexity should be embraced by architects living in a complex culture. In other words, he called for architects to abandon the modernist idea of forcing a simple building to hold a complex program and complicated physical plant. Instead, Venturi advocated complex buildings that would acknowledge the contradictions inherent in highly organized life to the extent that they even anticipated their own failures. Meanwhile in his 1978 Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas suggested that congestion was what made cities vital. If these books animated much of architectural thought into the last decade,

it strikes me that we are now in a time of over-complexity and over-congestion, a period in which complexity is getting away from us. Whether its trying to get a new subway built in New York, a high speed rail line built between San Francisco and Los Angeles, managing my insurance policy or just getting my universal remote to work, the levels of complexity we've built appear to be spiraling out of control. And then of course there's peak oil looming. It's not clear to me what we do in such a situation. Do you have any thoughts on this?

 

JT: Congestion does not necessarily equal complexity (in my conception). Congestion may mean a lack of complexity (insufficient organization). The irony of complexity is that it simplifies. That is, elaboration of structure and organization simplifies and channels behavior. Isn’t this was Le Corbusier was trying to accomplish? Le Corbusier wanted to design complex systems—systems that were highly structured and organized. The trouble is that in the human realm you can’t design a truly complex system from the top down. The Soviets tried that, as did the Brazilians with Brasilia.

 

A few years ago I was asked to talk at TTI Vanguard, a group that sponsors quarterly workshops on cutting-edge issues in information technology. The topic was “The Challenge of Complexity.” The first talk was by a computer professor at UCLA who was originally from New York. He used Holland Tunnel to illustrate network congestion, implying that it had a problem of complexity. When a stoplight was added at Holland Tunnel, traffic throughput improved. When it came my turn to talk I pointed out that the problem of Holland Tunnel was insufficient complexity—that is, insufficient organization. The stoplight increased organization, simplyfying the system and making it function better.

 

KV: I was struck by how in Collapse you suggest that collapse was actually preferable for many of the people who experienced it.

 

JT: Western European peasants saw their taxes drop and probably saw more of their children survive. But times became more violent and less certain. In the Maya area, perhaps 1,000,000 people died around the time of the Maya collapse. It’s a matter of perspective. For those who survive, life may be better. But usually it is not better for the elites.

 

KV: How do we survive this period of diminishing returns and crisis? As a civilization and as individuals? How do we live with crisis?

 

JT: I am often asked questions like this, and I am less optimistic now that I once was. Certainly we need new energy sources or the future will be very unpleasant. But new energy creates its own problems, which in time we will have to address. We can foresee this with nuclear energy and its waste. Even so-called "green" energy sources will be environmentally damaging. All of our adaptations are short term. They solve immediate problems but set the stage for future problems. Eric Sevareid once said "The chief source of problems is solutions." He was right, but that does not mean that we forego solutions. I like to use an athletic metaphor to think about sustainability. It is possible to lose—to become unsustainable and collapse. But the converse does not hold. There is no point at which we have "won"—become sustainable forever. Success consists of staying in the game.

Syndicate content