Go to the profile of Ric Amurrio

Ric Amurrio Jun 14, 2018


An experiment in decentralized media

The Collapse of Complex Societies: A Primer on Tainter’s Theory

Joseph Tainters 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies presents that societies collapse when they hit a point of rapidly declining marginal returns on their investments in problem-solving capacity.

  1. What does Tainter Mean by the ‘Collapse’ of ‘Complex Societies’?

Tainter starts his book with a comprehensive list of examples of societies that have collapsed. They include: the Western Chou Empire, The Egyptian Old Kingdom, The Hittite Empire, the Western Roman Empire, and Lowland Classic Maya. The bottom line is this: Tainter’s theory tries to explain the collapse of complex societies, where complexity is a function of the institutional heterogeneity of a society, and where collapse arises when there is a rapid and substantial decline in this complexity.

Complexity comes in degrees and the precise delineation between a complex society and a ‘simple’ society is disputable. The creation of the ‘state’ is one of the key steps in the development of complexity, but when exactly a society transitions from being a band or tribe to a state can be tricky to pin down. It follows from this, incidentally, that the loss of social complexity also comes in degrees. Thus, collapse, like complexity, is itself a ‘continuous variable’ (Tainter 1988, chapter 2).

How exactly do complex societies emerge?

The first is that the emergence of complex societies has something to do with problem-solving. Complex societies emerge and sustain themselves by bringing benefits to their members, i.e. by addressing and overcoming barriers to their existential and psychological needs. This doesn’t mean that the benefits are evenly shared. Complex societies are often marked by profound inequality were some people benefit much more than others.

The second point is that, once they have emerged, complex societies are always threatened by some degree of internal dissent and rebellion (e.g. some people who feel that they aren’t getting the most out of the problem-solving bargain). They have two basic strategies for dealing with these threats: (i) boosting their perceived legitimacy or (ii) coercion and control.

One way to boost legitimacy is to increase problem-solving capacity (and share the benefits to the dissenters). The other way is to inculcate the belief that the institutions of the state are sacred in either a religious (divinely mandated, righteous etc) or non-religious (just, moral, democratic) sense. A combination of both is probably required for legitimacy.

This curve is not based on any data. It is simply a mental model that we can use to understand the process of collapse. The idea is that societies often do well in the early stages of complexity but then they peak (at point B2, C2 in the diagram above) and enter a state of decline. At this point, things are often still getting better, but at a declining rate and if this rate of decline speeds up, the overall benefits of complexity will be outweighed by their costs

2. The Declining Marginal Returns Theory

As mentioned at the outset, Tainter’s explanatory theory is easy to state: societies collapse when they reach a point of rapidly declining marginal returns on their investments in problem solving capacity. But this statement captures a lot of important detail. Let’s try to unpack it into a series of propositions that capture the underlying logic.


(P1): Human societies are problem-solving organisations that generate benefits (B) for their members and, in order to develop and sustain themselves, they must continue to solve problems and generate benefits.


(…) the energy return is quite substantial compared to the energy investment let’s say maybe the first generation gets a hundred barrels of oil of useful value for the equivalent of one barrel of oil of energy expended because there’s just a lot of low-hanging fruit this space of resource has not been yet meaningfully explored and for some reason they’ve entered into the possibility of getting there

By the end of the period more people begin to spend more time getting it using it and as a consequence it begins to add value to the social infrastructure the possibilities become actualities and it becomes useful and interesting to build more things on this foundation. Innovation happens (…)

The first example has to do with agricultural production. Using work done originally by Ester Boserup, Tainter documents how (prior to mechanisation) agricultural intensification resulted in declining marginal benefits (i.e. declining marginal yields). People in foraging societies usually don’t have to work all that hard to secure their basic calorie needs. We see this by looking at contemporary equivalents where as little as 2.5 hours of work per day per person is all that is required. Contrast that with non-mechanised agricultural societies. Back-breaking work from dawn til dusk is often required and yet it generates diminishing marginal returns per unit of labour. Tainter uses a case study from farming communities in Northern Greece to illustrate this. The data from this case study suggests that “labor applied at an annual rate of about 200 hours per hectare is roughly 15 times more productive (in returns per hour of labor) than labor applied at 2000 hours per hectare” (Tainter 2000, 11).

The music industry has always existed so long as there have been gatherings of people to watch musicians perform in exchange for money or value. “In any kind of live music situation, people are experiencing very powerful things,. “They’re experiencing something that I would describe as a sense of community; they’re trying to find a place where they are connected to something.

100,000 years ago: First prehistoric performances by mimicking sounds in nature, meteorological phenomena, or animal calls. 40,000 years ago: The first musical instrument is made of animal bones.The earliest-known flutes are thought to have been used for “recreation or religious purposes,. 8th century B.C.–6th century A.D.: Ancient musical performances.

In ancient Greek and Roman societies music performance becomes ubiquitous at marriages, funerals, other religious ceremonies, and within theatre. Persian and Indian classical music is used in comparable fashion. Middle Ages: Churches become the main music venues in the Western world. Pipe organs are installed in big cathedrals with natural acoustics, adding a spiritual and imposing character to the music.

(P2): Like all organisations, human societies must capture and expend energy © in order to sustain their problem-solving capacity (classically, societies have captured energy by foraging, farming, burning fossil fuels, and also through war and imperial expansion)


(…) It becomes a little bit harder for the second generation to access the underlying resource so now instead of being able to just kind of dig it up with a shovel they have to actually build some kind of structure and maybe because it’s being used more broadly they also have to build ways of distributing it more broadly

(…) A group of individuals appears who aren’t everyone who have specific authority to relate to the narrative so you name for example a priestly caste who has the responsibility for interpreting and maybe then updating the official mythological or religious narrative.

Also in parallel we see the apparition of a kingly cast who has responsibility for updating and modifying the official legal narrative as it were and this is essentially the toolkit of domestication. With this combination of narrative and society domestication has the ability to grow vey large in comparison to the wild type (…)

(…) Some disruption to the homeostatic feedback loops that maintain the integrity of the complex system so in this case for example they are going to be destroying the physical environment

By the end of this period you might for example find that this generation is having to maintain a military structure to hold politically aligned regimes and locations that have access to resources from complicated into complex in a fashion that begins to break down the home aesthetic capacity of the complex environment also the complicated institutions they need have an increasing carrying cost (…)

One thing you might worry about is whether problem-solving capacity alone is what sustains a society. As highlighted earlier, societies can also sustain themselves by boosting perceived legitimacy and through coercion. So maybe, at a certain point in their evolution, societies don’t need to keep solving problems in order to survive. That, however, seems unlikely and when you think about it a bit more both strategies really end up confirming the central importance of problem-solving capacity. After all, legitimacy is, at least in part, determined by problem solving capacity and coercion is itself a costly, problem-solving exercise and thus confronts the same basic cost-benefit equation alluded to in P3.

The Music Publishing Industry

Prior to this time, music had to be copied out by hand. To copy music notation by hand was a very costly, labor-intensive and time-consuming process, so it was usually undertaken only by monks and priests seeking to preserve sacred music for the church. Since the 1600s when Gutenberg invented the basic printing press for use by the Church, liturgical chant has been reproduced in paper form.

The use of printing enabled sheet music to reproduced much more quickly and at a much lower cost than hand-copying music notation. This helped musical styles to spread to other cities and countries more quickly. With music printing, though, a composer’s music could be printed and sold at a relatively low cost to purchasers from a wide geographic area.

But it was only in the 1800’s that the industrial revolution paved the way for a more structured delivery of music to a wider audience. It was at this time that the publishing industries — Book making, news reporting, print media — were developing economies of scale enabling them to deliver products to a much wider audience, and the production of print music (or sheet music) was no exception.

After Mozart’s death, his wife (Constanze Weber) continued the process of commercialization of his music through an unprecedented series of memorial concerts, selling his manuscripts,

In the 19th century, sheet-music publishers dominated the music industry. (often arranged for piano or for a small chamber music group) and perform the music in a living room, using friends who were amateur musicians and singers.

(P3): Therefore, in order to sustain themselves, societies face a basic cost-benefit equation: the benefits of increased energy expenditure on problem-solving capacity must exceed the costs (i.e. B must be > C)

GENERATION 3: The Recorded Music Industry

You’ll see a situation where the ability to get better at doing it pays dividends and so as the system used by generation 3 is becoming more complicated but also more efficient so maybe ratio goes from one pair with ten barrels of energy returned from one barrel energy expended to a hundred to one because you just kind of pick the low-hanging fruit in what you might call innovation space

This is the classic acceleration part of an innovation s-curve and so this has by the way the consequence of making you want to double down if you’re actually getting better and better until you build out but at a certain point there’s going to be a tipping point where the low-hanging fruit in innovation space and sound start to get harder to get and so they’re now spending more and more to get the same amount or even a declining amount of innovation

Generation 3 social infrastructure is now deeply committed to this underlying resource: they’ve got financial, academic and scientific too big to fail yet on the other hand precisely because it’s becoming increasingly complicated and it’s carrying cost is becoming higher and higher and more and more fragile.

At the dawn of the early 20th century, the development of sound recording began to function as a disruptive technology to the commercial interests which published sheet music. Commercially released phonograph records of musical performances, which became available starting in the late 1880s, and later the onset of widespread radio broadcasting, starting in the 1920s, forever changed the way music was heard and listened to.

Moreover, whereas attendance at the top symphony and opera concerts was formerly restricted to high-income people in a pre-radio world, with broadcast radio, a much larger wider range of people, including lower and middle-income people could hear the best orchestras, big bands, popular singers and opera shows


Boom in recorded music leads to copyright questions

At the turn of the century, developments in the materials and the production techniques of both the disc and the cylinder give recordings a more clear, strong, and dynamic sound. Mass production techniques for both technologies improve, and the automatic music business takes off. However, the unexpected boom in pre-recorded music leads to questions over copyright.


KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pa. becomes the first commercial radio station to receive call letters and begins regular broadcasts. Though sound quality and reception on the radio cannot rival the quality of discs at this time, the record companies rush to draw up contracts to forbid major artists from working in the rival medium. These efforts are thwarted as improvements in radio technology rapidly refine sound quality and reception. Record sales plummet.


Fidelity fights back

The industry’s solution to fighting decreased record sales is to increase the sound fidelity of its recordings. The development of orthophonic sound adds more than an octave to either side of the existing reproducible sound range. Record sales rebound.


FM Radio introduced

Frequency-modulated (FM) radio, once believed to be an impossibility, becomes reality in 1933. It offers higher fidelity sound with less static, and it requires less transmittal power.


Vinyl becomes medium of choice

The fragile nature of discs made from shellac is revealed when RCA Victor ships the first “V-Discs” to entertain troops abroad in 1943, and polyvinyl chloride, known as “PVC” or “vinyl,” is adopted as the new material for record production.


“Battle of the Speeds”

Columbia introduces the first 12-inch, 33 1/3 rpm microgroove long-playing vinylite record in 1948 ensuring success by releasing a back catalogue on LP along with a cheap means of playing the new format. RCA retaliates half a year later with its own format — its format and the 7-inch single quickly becomes the standard for the jukebox.

The music industry put much more focus on the musicians themselves, and away from the composers. The process by which musicians were being recorded became more sophisticated, (Les Paul, in 1948, recorded the first sound-on-sound overdubbed, or multi-track recording, with a track called ‘Lover (When You’re Near Me)’. This example showed that recordings no longer needed to be taken live (where all musicians were in the same room playing together) and this opened up further opportunities in artistic license through records including Paul’s tape delay, phaser and delay effects.

(P4) Increased investment in socio-political complexity usually yields higher returns (B ↑) but this usually comes at an increasing per capita cost so that, at a certain point, the marginal benefits (mB) on increased investment are outweighed by the marginal costs (mC).

(…) You’ll see a situation where the ability to get better at doing it pays dividends and so as the system used by generation 3 is becoming more complicated but also more efficient so maybe ratio goes from one pair with ten barrels of energy returned from one barrel energy expended to a hundred to one because you just kind of pick the low-hanging fruit in what you might call innovation space

This is the classic acceleration part of an innovation s-curve and so this has by the way the consequence of making you want to double down if you’re actually getting better and better until you build out but at a certain point there’s going to be a tipping point where the low-hanging fruit in innovation space and sound start to get harder to get and so they’re now spending more and more to get the same amount or even a declining amount of innovation.

(…) As you begin controlling people and keeping them domesticated and coordinated within a social narrative framework you then begin to see the emergence of a niche for defection a niche that begins to lose connection with nature because it’s now fully intermediated by narrative and by society

This niche begins to perceive society itself as being in many ways reality narrative itself as being reality and this gives rise to effectively two major failure conditions that seem to always show up in domesticated type

No domesticated types so far has figured out how to be durably resilient to this set of failure conditions one is delusion which is a an identification with a framework an identification with a narrative with an ideology that takes the framework/story as actually being reality as more real than reality

There’s then an inability to actually perceive reality directly and to connect with reality directly and an increasing connection to an addiction to and dependence on the toolkit of the stories that you’ve been taught and that you’ve mastered learn in the context of domestication

The Emergence of the Teenager Consumer in the 1950s

Supported by an uprising economic and cultural change, the teenagers of the 1950’s, left their mark in history by being the ones that turned away from tradition and started their own culture. Influenced by style, film and music, youngsters created a world where they could do anything they wanted because everything around them was built to fit their desires and pleasures.

An estimative study by David Fowler shows that between the wars youth’s money wages rose between 300% and 500%. Because of their lack of responsibilities, youngsters could retain almost 50% of their earnings which means that they enjoyed a higher standard of living than the rest of the family.

“The unique position of post-war teenagers, physically almost adult yet excluded from adult roles and responsibilities, with considerable disposable cash, yet involved in less hard physical work than many of their ancestors– this privileged, new position seemed merely to throw into sharp relief for them the limitation of their existence and to give them the opportunity to respond in new ways to these conditions. Music-use became one of the main chosen instruments of their response.”

The phase of life we call “childhood” was greatly expanded in connection with the rise of literacy, because it takes time to learn to read. Illiterate children went to work in the fields as often as they were able, while those who learned to read spent time in an artificial, protected space called the classroom, an extended womb. It has even been claimed that the widespread acceptance of childhood as a familiar phase of human life only occurred in conjunction with the spread of the printing press.


The cassette tape becomes mainstream

The cassette has its commercial breakthrough, when Philips introduces its own 30-minute format for the tape cartridge and allows other manufacturers to duplicate the specifications. This standardization of cassette tapes creates a market for an inexpensive and portable solution to reel-to-reel tape.

Elvis Presley, and then The Beatles all capitalised on them. Elvis was the epitome of musician-focused international audience delivered through record sales and promoted through live performance. The Beatles marked the first mega-band to write and perform their own songs, showing it was a viable business model:

Having caught the attention of some wealthy people who noticed the record sale levels, the recording industry began to receive much larger investments, enabling elaborate stage shows for promotion, manufacture of large volumes of records that were distributed worldwide and lucrative recording contracts with talented artists.

Merchandising prospered through live events as an alternative income stream and for many years this continued as a successful strategy. More artists, more labels, better deals, better distribution.

The Me generation

“The “Me” generation in the United States is a term referring to the baby boomers generation and the self-involved qualities that some people associate with it. The phrase caught on with the general public, at a time when “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment” were becoming cultural aspirations to which young people supposedly ascribed higher importance than social responsibility.

The new introspectiveness announced the demise of an established set of traditional faiths centered on work and the postponement of gratification, and the emergence of a consumption-oriented lifestyle ethic centered on lived experience and the immediacy of daily lifestyle choices.

The marketing of lifestyle products, eagerly consumed by baby boomers with disposable income during the 1970s, became an inescapable part of the culture.

By the late 1970s, music sales slide, and the record companies begin an industry-wide campaign to curb home taping. The Walkman revolution coincides with improvement in cassette sound quality and the cassette tape suddenly became the only format that you could have in your home, in your car, and in your pocket.

And then the other is defection which is the perception of society as being first and foremost authority as being first informed by power (…)

(P5) If mC > mB at an increasing rate, societies will collapse (i.e. experience a rapid and significant decline in socio-political complexity).

Bachelardian Neoteny

Neoteny is an evolutionary strategy exhibited to varying degrees in different species, in which the characteristics of early development are drawn out and sustained into an individual organism’s chronological age. For instance, humans exhibit neoteny more than horses. A newborn horse can stand on its own and already possesses many of the other skills of an adult horse. A human baby, by contrast, is more like a fetal horse. It is born without even the most basic abilities of an adult human, such as being able to move about.

Jaron Lanier

Generation Jones

This group is essentially the latter half of the baby boomers to the first years of Generation X. Unlike older baby boomers, most of Generation Jones did not grow up with World War II veterans as fathers, and for them there was no compulsory military service and no defining political cause.

Childhood becomes more innocent, protected, and concentrated with increased affluence. In part this is because there are fewer siblings to compete for the material booty and parental attention. An evolutionary psychologist might also argue that parents are motivated to become more “invested” in a child when there are fewer children to nurture.

With affluence comes extended childhood. Sexuality also remains childlike for a longer period of time than it used to. The twenties are the new teens, and people in their thirties are often still dating, not having settled on a mate or made a decision about whether to have children or not.

Children want attention: Therefore, young adults, in their newly extended childhood, can now perceive themselves to be finally getting enough attention, through social networks and blogs.

It is said that Jonesers were given huge expectations as children in the 1960s, and then confronted with a different reality as they came of age during a long period of mass unemployment and when de-industrialization arrived full force in the mid-late 1970s and 1980s, leaving them with a certain unrequited “jonesing” quality for the more prosperous days of the past.

Technology Leads the Charge

But music is now a mass-traded commodity with management vested in many other ventures, notably the multimedia entertainment conglomerates. Increasingly too, nonmusicians have a stake in the making of music.


By 1995 many had discovered the internets potential as an information and file sharing network and public perception began to accept a shift to digital storage of information not just on local area networks seen through 1980s corporations but on a personal level.

The internet does not have the intellectual property right laws — in particular international legislation — for them to be able to control the market any more. This has lead to attempts by recording companies to improve intellectual property laws through case law precedents by taking individuals to court in high profile cases.

This had a knock-on effect on the publishing industry who provided the songs to a now ever-decreasing value market, and to the live industry, who no longer received such lavish budgets for touring due to a lack of return on investment.

For instance, as I’ve mentioned earlier, development doesn’t necessarily speed up in sync with improvements in hardware. It often instead slows down as computers get bigger because there are more opportunities for errors in bigger programs. Development becomes slower and more conservative when there is more at stake, and that s what is happening.

People live longer as technology improves, so cultural change actually slows, because it is tied more to the outgoing generational clock than the incoming one. While it is easy to think of neoteny as an emphasis on youthful qualities, which are in essence radical and experimental, when cultural neoteny is pushed to an extreme it implies conservatism, since each generation s perspectives are preserved longer and made more influential as neoteny is extended.

In short, the ubiquity is eroding the idea that music stands on a pedestal and is the venerable object that it once was. In conclusion, it seems that music is not just music anymore. The integrity of that experience, therefore, seems to have been undermined.

Consumer tastes have therefore become a function of the playback technology and not just the music

Since recorded music is listened to through a playback device, the quality, affordability, and convenience of such a device has a critical impact on the volume of music sold. Consumer tastes have therefore become a function of the playback technology and not just the music ( ie. baby boomers rejuvenated the market in the 1980s by replacing their vinyl record collections with the new CD recordings of their favorite albums)

The third example has to do with bureaucratic power and control. Examples of administrative bloat and mission creep in bureaucratic organisations. These organisations are often central to societal problem-solving, but they tend to proliferate and grow in size to cope with the challenges. This usually results in declining returns as more costly administrative staff are hired to manage the complex organisations compared to relatively fewer front-line workers/soldiers/doctors/musicians artists etc.

(…) Investment to energy return ratio is beginning to slow down you’ve got an increasing requirement or dependence of the overall social environment on this complicated institution and you have an increasing complicatedness carrying cost

Somewhere something breaks either the energy invested to energy return it starts to vector towards flat meaning and you’re actually burning other resources to maintain this thing and be that you’re burning cultural or social resources or geopolitical resources or you’re falsifying financial records to maintain the integrity of something things are beginning to become so fragile that cascades and breakdowns bring the whole thing down and you know that that’s that you find yourself in a situation where you cannot continue going down this path and yet you have now become really rather deeply addicted (…)

Complicated thinkers tend to get too intellectually invested in an idea and refuse to let go, despite sometimes overwhelming evidence that the plan is not working. It is quite possible to keep continually improving on all of the wrong things.

Things are beginning to become so fragile that cascades and breakdowns bring the whole thing down and you know that that’s that you find yourself in a situation where you cannot continue going down this path and yet you have now become really rather deeply addicted (…)

(…) We just are getting these almost fractal defection patterns where the fabric of domestication corrupts domestication and inevitably at some point it begins to collapse then there’s leveling and back to the top

Societies will have to spend more resources to ensure stability, either through boosting legitimacy or increased coercion, but these solutions are often only temporary, stop-gaps. At a certain point, the decline becomes unstoppable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *