Properties of Networked Publics

I have uploaded the lecture on network culture, intellectual property, and subjective that I gave at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies to Vimeo.

Properties of Networked Publics from kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.

I was invited by Marysia Lewandowska, a visiting critic at the CCS this year. Her “Museum Futures” project sets the context and is well worth watching. See here.

On Methods

The following text is a methodological introduction to a talk I gave at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies yesterday. A video of the talk, which is on the topic of intellectual property under network culture will be forthcoming soon.

At hand today is a discussion of publics and property under network culture. The reading that I will undertake emerges originally out of work that I did while a senior fellow at the Networked Publics group of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The work of our year-long faculty seminar was published in the book Networked Publics and my attempt to make sense of that time outside of my usual field of study in architecture led me to the conclusion of that book, which in turn is now a crucial project tentatively titled “The Meaning of Network Culture: A Critical History of the Contemporary.”

My goal with this project is to create a model of the contemporary world, much as other writers did for the postmodern era. Over the last few years, I’ve found it more and more incongruous that theorists still refer to our moment as postmodern or use postmodern theory to reflect on the contemporary. Although there is unquestionably utility to going back to the texts of the 1980s, just as there is utility to going back to the texts of the 1930s or 1730s, it seems to me that if T. J. Clark wrote in 1999 that “modernism is our antiquity,” for us, a decade later, postmodernism is, if not Rome to modernism’s Athens, then it must be our dark ages.

I sense that it must be the latter—not because of questions of value, but rather because of the sense that the Fall only came once, at the end of the modern. The end of the postmodern seems to have barely been noted. Where Fredric Jameson begins his discussion of the postmodern with the sense of an end, we have no such sense. Instead, if postmodernism quite clearly ended—except for some academic theorists, who it seems are reciting from syllabi they developed many years ago—we still only sense the end of the modern which, if anything, has become more sharply defined. As Jean Baudrillard suggested a decade ago, with the millennium, the end of the end had been reached. It seems that he was right.

Thus, when the 90s ended and our decade—and it’s crucial for me that in the United States, at least, there is no signifier for this decade—began in earnest, after September 11, 2001, the sharpness of the idea that nothing would be the same was soon replace by the Bush administration’s idea that the war on terror would be perpetual, that there could be no end to it, that it would be interminable. Now, under Obama, it’s the economic crisis as well that is interminable, a condition from which we cannot conceived of escaping for decades.

But as a historian, this sense of an atemporal disturbs me. Instead, I’d like to turn back to Jameson for a certain inspiration, in particular to the injunction which he begins the book with: “Always historicize!” In particular, then, the question is, can we make a model that can describe a series of cultural phenomena? This principle of totality, which is crucial for Jameson in his definition of postmodernism, also ran up against postmodern historiography’s critique of totality. This is the famous conundrum in Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

Lyotard, who very much had Marxism as his target, argued that it was the decline of master narratives such as Marxism or logical positivism that marked the postmodern condition. Still, it’s as if postmodernist thinkers used the Derridean idea of putting terms “under erasure” on postmodernism. For an era that could not have a master narrative, it did.

Again from our more distant vantage point, it might be possible to follow Clark’s Farewell to an Idea and see postmodernism as being very much the consequence of the end of modernization. Once that process was complete, and the world have been modernized, an event that happened in the postwar era, that world became lost to us. Postmodernism, then, announced itself as having taking place after modernization and, if modernization relied on master narratives, postmodernism set itself adrift as the last master narrative, but one which could not anticipate its own development.

Still, whether we go to New Orleans to look at Charles Moore’s Piazza d’italia or to Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the works of the Pictures generation in the recent, this work seems strangely unfamiliar. Something has changed, and the change is, if anything, an uncanny one, a sense that we have that while we were caught up in the boom, the millennium, and then the real estate boom, the immediate past slipped from our grasp.

So to make some sense of all this, it is crucial to build a broad new interpretative framework. In doing so, I want to unfashionably revisit the concept of totality.

If, as a Marxist, Jameson suggests that postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism, maybe its possible to understand today’s condition as the product of networked capital.

First, let’s look at the role of the network. Already in the Global City and the Rise of the Network Society, Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells did much to demonstrate that by the mid-1990s, capital, and with it society, was becoming dominated by networked flows.

But second, there is a force to the network itself. As Charlie Gere points out, digital culture was marked by abstraction, that is by the reduction of complex entities into abstractions that could then be traded as commodities. But now, its less the abstracted entity that matters and more its position within the global network. This, I suggest is a fundamental shift.

With it too, is a more fundamental shift within capitalism itself. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Marxist thinkers repeatedly attacked the idea of post-industrialism as deceitful. In their view, industrial production was still a determinate reality. But this soon began to shift, first to the Post-Fordist service sector, as David Harvey convincingly argued in the Postmodern Condition and then to the financialization. The latter is key. In Foucault Beyond Foucault, Jeffrey Nealon suggests that the Marx’s famous equation M-C-M‘ is now superceded by a new equation M-M‘ in which money is intensified without the necessity of commodity production.

This may seem to be folly, but after all, it is the primary driver of the advanced financial sectors during the last decade. Sure, China produced industrial goods, but the developed world largely abandoned them along with agriculture. Where a 8% return on investment in industry had been healthy in the 1950s, it had become laughable by the mid part of this decade when financial instruments could return triple that to the average individual, let alone the investment bank.

The economic collapse of the last two years does little to change that. If some nodes have been cut off the network, Detroit, for example, the growth of high-speed trading suggests that the financial system, at its highest (and therefore dominant) levels is increasingly not only financialized but networked. The laughably slow actions of the human trader are now replaced by high-speed computers connected to ultra-low-latency networks located at strategic points in the planetary financial network. Even the suggestion that cities are command-and-control centers of the word economy needs to be questioned when the Philadelphia Exchange is in Weehauwken, New Jersey whil the NYSE is in Mahwah, New Jersey.

Of course the network has had a vastly transformational effect on our lives outside of it. Where postmodernism was a period of economic restructuring, shedding the old industrial order, our period of restructuring is marked by the intense networking of the world, albeit at the same time as a new economic restructuring in which the educated and creative classes seem to be facing the same landscape of uncertainty that the working classes faced in the 1980s. So, too, the dimension of the network is vast, entirely unlike that of the 1980s. State monopolies have been replaced by competing and converging wireless and wired networks. According to the United Nations over half the world’s population now has a cell phone.

Now, my project is meant as a heuristic model. It is not meant as a new master narrative although undoubtedly it risks that but just as Jameson defended the concept of the postmodern, I defend the idea of network culture as being useful for us to try and make connections where they might otherwise be unclear. Most especially, if the system itself aims at its own total reach, it seems to me that to avoid modeling it prevents us from understanding it and, thus, fighting it.

I do want to make it clear that I am not in the business of promoting an alternative strategy at this point. First, I think that if it is anachronistic, I do believe in the value of certain intellectual divisions. By specializing and focusing, we can aim for a degree of rigor. Moreover, it seems to me that one of the problems with theory in the 1990s was not that it delivered so little, but that it promised so much. Theory aimed to be not only an explanatory model, but also an avant-garde with specific political projects. It seems to me that the failure and superficial nature of such projects did as much to eviscerate theory as anything else. In other words, I suggest that my project is to always historicize and, to do so, map the system that we find ourselves trapped in but for now, I am leaving open the methods by which such a system can be fought or what it can be replaced with. My intent here is humility, that theorists trained more in politics than in culture might be better equipped for such responses.

In the investigation that follows, it is crucial to think dialectically and to understand both the positive and the negative within network culture. This is what will concern me for the rest of this talk, which will focus on the specific occasion today, which is the role of intellectual property and networked publics today.

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?

Shockwave Riders @ Parsons 11/14

It’s been a whirlwind semester. I just got back from another delightful trip to Ireland. Next up is one of four remaining lectures for the fall, an appearance in Ed Keller’s symposium Shockwave Riders: Collective Intelligence & TransDisciplinary Pedagogy at Parsons on the 14th. I’m very much looking forward to the event and look forward to seeing many of you there.

The only down side to all my travel and appearances is that I’ve had precious little time to blog or, worse yet, work on my book. On the other hand, some of the upcoming talks—including this one at Parsons—are prompting me to make progress on those fronts. I am looking forward to that.

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.