Is Modern Society Doomed to Collapse? Understanding the Complexity Trap

I’ve often written in SurvivalBlog about the over-dependence of modern societies on technology. Our level of dependence on high technology is large, and steadily growing.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle summed up over-dependence on technology in their novel Lucifer’s Hammer:

“Whole nations depends on technology. Stop the wheels for two days and you’d have riots. No place is more than two meals from a revolution. Think of Los Angeles or New York with no electricity. Or a longer view, fertilizer plants stop. Or a longer view yet, no new technology for ten years. What happens to our standard of living? Yet the damned fools won’t pay ten minutes’ attention a day to science and technology. How many people know what they’re doing? Where do these carpets come from? The clothes you’re wearing? What do carburetors do? Where do sesame seeds come from? Do you know? Does one voter out of thirty? They won’t spend ten minutes a day thinking about the technology that keeps them alive.”

So what happens when the grid goes down? Thirty or forty years ago, if the power grids collapsed, there could still be considerable commerce transacted. But today? I think not. It would be la fin du monde tel que nous le connaissons. So much of our daily commerce is tied to electronic cash registers, ATMs, computerized inventory control systems, point-of-purchase credit card transactions, debit cards, and the Internet that I have doubts that there would be an easy transition in reverting to “the old way of doing business.” Furthermore, many retail stores in the US and Canada are now housed in almost windowless buildings constructed with tilt-up slab architecture. So even if businesses wanted to stay open in the midst of a power failure, they couldn’t, because there wouldn’t be enough daylight to see the merchandise.

Technological Complexity

Part of our dependence on technology is tied to the increasing complexity of the technologies themselves. With each passing year, the complexity of high tech systems increases. Some of this complexity contributes to redundancy and robustness, but most of it does not. Do you really need an electric clothes dryer with microprocessors? Or a toaster with a microprocessor? Don’t laugh, many of them are now made that way. As an illustration, when I recently bought a slightly used pickup truck , I felt obliged to buy an extended warranty, but only because it was a 2009 model with an absurd number of “bells and whistles.” It seems that there are no longer “stripped down” models available. Almost all the new rigs come with power windows and so many electronic gadgets that the owner’s manual is nearly an inch thick! There is so much complexity built into this vehicle, that the likelihood of a failure of some sort (electronic, or mechanical) seems very likely. This a is a far cry from my fondly-remembered 1968 Ford Bronco. There wasn’t much that could go wrong with it, and the few items that did fail were all owner serviceable.

The miniaturization of microcircuits has changed considerably in the past 30 years. The typical gate sizes of microcircuits has been reduced from two or three microns, to far less than one micron. The smaller the gate, the easier it is for a stray voltage to “weld” it shut. This has made microchips increasingly vulnerable to static electricity, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and solar flares.

Many systems in a variety of industries have been developed that are completely dependent on computer controls. There is no reversion available for “manual backup.” Without the CPUs, you have a dead system.

Logistical Complexity

As I’ve discussed before in SurvivalBlog, we now live in a world with very long chains of supply and just in time (kanban) supply chain management. Meanwhile, container ship docks are now being transitioned to computerized management.

Financial Complexity

Derivatives. That sums it up in just one word.

Medical Care Complexity

One of the blessings of the modern age of science is life extension through medical technology. But it has also become one of our vulnerabilities. If the grids go down, so will millions of Americans with chronic illnesses. Here are some examples: Millions of people now depend upon medical oxygen–both in clinical environments and at home. At least 11,000,000 people in the US and Canada have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — the catch-all term now used for chronic emphysema and bronchitis. Most of them are on medical oxygen, and some of them 24/7. More than 100,000 patients get heart pacemakers implanted each year in the United States. Nearly 24,000,000 people in the United States have diabetes, many of whom require regular insulin injections. More than 500,000 people in the U.S. are classified as having End-stage Renal Disease (ESRD). The number of newly diagnosed cases has roughly doubled in the past 10 years and the same has happened in Canada. Without regular kidney dialysis (or a kidney transplant), many of them would die within a few months. There are also millions of Americans that have severe sleep apnea, who use CPAP machines. For a small percentage of them, without a CPAP machine running every night, they would have complications and die. There are about 500,000 Americans that have had various “ostomy” procedures like urostomy, colostomy and iliostomy. Many of these patients are on very restricted diets, and many need specialized appliances. And of course there are also many millions of Americans that are dependent on daily doses of various medications.

In summary, any large societal disruption that interrupts the power grid and/or the supply infrastructure would result in a large die-off of patients with chronic illnesses.

Conclusion

We’ve built ourselves an enormous complexity trap. And for most of us, the severity of this won’t become apparent until after the grids go down.

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