In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.
Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.
The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
Link thanks to andrewducker.
An example of this and much more: -- General Motors theoretically could have learned how to make reliable cars from Toyota, but.....
I recommend listening to the radio program, but here's a summary. Toyota needed to start making cars in the US and wanted to learn how to work with American workers. GM wanted to learn how to make a fuel-efficient car.
So Toyota re-opened a GM plant at Fremont which had been closed because the work force was the worst in the country-- with the same workers.
The workers were taken to Japan in groups of 30 for two weeks. And it turned out that they were fuck-ups because they'd been working in a system which didn't support anything else. When they were in a system where making high-quality cars was the most important thing, they loved it.
When there was a later effort to import Toyota standards to GM in general, it wasn't possible. You can't just have high quality in an assembly line, you have to have a culture of making high quality parts, and neither the management nor the suppliers at GM could manage to change the culture of sloppiness.
An irony-- part of the disastrously bad culture at Fremont was the assembly line must never stop. You'd get fired for stopping the line, no matter what went wrong. Not only was there sabotage in addition to accidental mistakes, absenteeism was so bad that sometimes the line was stopped anyway.
At Toyota, any worker could stop the line, so defects were caught and corrected before they were expensive to fix or went out to the customers.
From this, I learn that the assembly line is going to stop one way or another-- it's just a question of which way you prefer.
GM did improve quality, but so slowly and incompletely that the company went into bankruptcy.
As has been in the news, Toyota has let things slip a little, but it's still making the most reliable cars.
Another story about what can be accomplished from the top: Frank Schaeffer's Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back is mostly about the genesis of the American religious right (a rather weirder story than one might expect), but it's also a memoir, and there's a bit about him going to a British private school in the fifties which didn't have bullying. It simply (complexly?) wasn't permitted, and the students were proud of not having it.
The reason I mentioned Vinge is that his A Fire Upon the Deep mentions a couple of ways that advanced societies can fail-- through universal surveillance and through such an extreme search for efficiency that there's no slack if something goes wrong. Overcomplexity is a third.