After reading about the work of scholar Peter Turchin, I was reminded of the 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies by anthropologist Joseph Tainter. The argument is this: society can get so complex that small changes in the system that have cascading effects can derail everything.
This can sound like a recipe for doomsday. We are in a current era where complexity is all around us. Cities are incredibly complex and suburbs are complex as well. Traffic systems can be thrown off with an accident. The number of people and systems in the United States can make it difficult to get things done. Black swan events arise. Throw a serious wrench into the current system, like COVID-19, and how might it all fall apart?
Yet, I would guess that many of the features of modern life that people enjoy are the result of these complex systems. Streaming Netflix to a screen. The availability of modern health care. Being able to get fast food. Modern transportation systems. Widespread social change. All of these require the working together of numerous systems, organizations, and people. All might have been hard to imagine even just a century ago.
Additionally, this complexity is a boon for social scientists and researchers trying to get a handle on it all. The discipline of sociology arose in the nineteenth century as numerous changes – urbanization, industrialization, migration, modern nation-states, ways of thinking based on rationality and science, and more – came together. The modern university also developed relatively recently. The complexity of society plus the speed of social change begs for analysis, looking at patterns, trying to understand what we have helped create.
For now, we can give thanks for what complex society does bring – and work to address its many ills.