Has society collapsed?

In 1995 Wired nestor Kevin Kelly and Kirk Sale entered into a bet that society would have collapsed in 2020 – and that this collapse would be evident across three dimensions: economic, climate and social – the dollar would be worthless, we would live in a climate disaster and there would be growing conflict between the rich and the poor. They appointed a judge and then waited. Wired has the entire story here.

Collapse or complexity – or both?

The judge looked at the three criteria in the bet and decided the economy was doing fine, but that we were indeed living in a slow motion climate disaster and on the issue of social conflict, there seemed to be a tie. But since actual collapse would require all three to be true, the judge decided Kelly won. Sale refused to budge, and did not honor his debt.

It is an extraordinary story.

Here we are, in 2021, and we are discussing if society collapsed or not.

The collapse of bridge is different from losing control

It would probably have helped the discussion if the bet had looked to a better definition of collapse, like the one that Joseph Tainter put forward in his seminal The Collapse of Complex Societies:

Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.

Tainter, J The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)

Tainter’s definition has the advantage of looking at a core measure – complexity – and understanding the world from there. And with Tainter’s definition we would have to ask if we see rapid simplification of our socio-economic systems. It seems clear to me we do not.

That does not mean that all is well. There is something here that irks me – and that is that the bet Kelly and Sale entered into seems to look only at one type of social catastrophe, collapse. There is, to my mind, an equally difficult future if we do not collapse but instead move into a level of complexity that we cannot manage and where we will lose our social agency, or ability to collective action.

This state has nothing to do with the return to “tribal clusters” as Sale suggested, but it is an end of sorts anyway – an end where the world goes from project to system – to use the metaphors legal scholar Paul W Kahn employ in his work. The world as system offers scant agency and ability to act, and that loss – living in a world where we suddenly find ourselves on a complex sea in a chaotic storm of uncertainty – seems greater in a way than the collapse scenarios where we all go back to the village. In fact, it also seems asymmetric – there is no way out of a society to the old village when it crosses a certain complexity threshold.

So, perhaps the question should not be if society has collapsed, but if we have lost our collective agency — that is a more interesting question for determining how our future will look.

Now, I do not believe we have. But I believe we may be at risk of doing so if we do not spend attention, time and resources in building the kinds of institutions that can effectively manage social, economic and technical complexity.

Collapse or loss of control are different ends, both worthy of consideration.

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