Is Clay Shirky on complexity too simplistic?

From a recent post on The Collapse of Complex Business Models, Clay Shirky argues that mass media may continue to see its business cannibalized by new media if it fails to recognize the inherent dangers of overly-complex production models.

“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.

“Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact — we will have to pay them — but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

“Bureaucracies temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

“When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.”

I have been offline for a few weeks working on a book tentatively titled Principles of Social Interaction Design. It’s nigh on a first draft, and if you have ever attempted to write a book, you know that I’m eager to be well past nigh.

Ironically, paradoxically, or sensibly, I’ve had to be off social media in order to write about social media. I find that certain perspectives and insights come only with a good break from online habits and with a bit of critical distance. So it is with a bit of distance that I’m posting today. But there was a piece recently by Clay Shirky that I found interesting (I’ve allowed myself to lurk on google reader) and worth a few thoughts.

Shirky’s piece is on complexity, and in the vein of the collapse of complex societies, as popularized by Jared Diamond. I’m no anthropologist, but I do like systems theory, and I’m very much interested in systems theory and social media. So there were some arguments in Shirky’s piece that I couldn’t connect myself. I’m compelled to write them up because they strike me as troublesome.

Clay writes, in essence, that complexity will be the downfall of mass media. But he writes also that tradition-bound methods of the past will be the downfall of mass media, too. And this is what bothers me. The argument is that old, bureaucratic, and overly complex systems of production, publishing, and distribution will succumb to new, simple, and future-oriented (read: internet) models of production.

I can buy one or the other, perhaps, but Clay seems to have conflated to arguments into one: old is complex, future is simple. Either simplicity trumps complexity, or future trumps the past. In fact, there have been many old and stagnant regimes that have failed. As well as many new and simple technologies that now beg for greater complexity (to wit, twitter’s recent announcements). Both Google and Facebook are admittedly complex, and becoming increasingly so. The societies of the Mayans, Incas, and the Romans achieved high degrees of complexity, but so too did those of the conquering Europeans. Was the gun not a complex instrument of warfare; the galleon, a complex mode of travel; the Church, a complex bureaucratic institution; not to mention financing at the time?

I fail to see the intrinsic flaw in complexity, and the argument that simplicity beats complexity strikes me as, well, too simplistic. If complexity fails due to its complexity, then what new simplicity is needed to bring about this failure? Surely complexity would undo itself on its own. And if simplicity is better, is this not a comment on simplicity in process, or experience perhaps, and not necessarily a comment on production or organization? For if the experience is simple, what’s wrong with hidden organizational or procedural complexity?

Complexity corresponds to greater organizational differentiation. The more complex an organization, the more responses it has for a greater number of environmental events or external change and stimuli. In systems theories, complexity is an intrinsic characteristic. The question is not complexity, but adaptability. Complexity, if it stands in the way of correctly perceiving phenomena, and if it prevents proper and commensurate responses to those phenomena, is a bad thing. But only on the basis of the response to change; not in and of itself.

Simplicity, in design, in user experience, in processes and interaction models, are generally-speaking, a good thing. There’s no harm in wrapping a complex set of algorithms, processes, operations, and functionalities with a simple user interface. But this does not make the system simple. It makes its use simple.

It seems that Clay is for the simplicity of user experience, and against the complexity of bureaucracies unable to adapt when faced with environmental change. Both of which I can agree with. But I see no causal relation between these two dispositions. And I definitely fail to see how we might apply the laws of physics to get from one statement to the next, as Clay seems to do when citing the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That, to me, strikes me as facile, if not a somewhat bizarre failure to distinguish causalities and levels of analysis.

I’m harping on this only because I have a problem with certain internet myths — one of which I think is the myth of simplicity. Simplicity in structure is not the same as simplicity in process. Complex operations can be made simple if sequenced and stepped well. Complexity in organization can be made simple if its presentation is designed well. Complexity in relations can be simplified if navigation is familiar and sensible.

The world is only becoming more and increasingly complex, and in ways that are unavoidably tied to system interdependencies and connectedness. Simplicity, in itself, is not an antidote. Nor is simplicity in argumentation.

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