Evolution doesn’t always mean progress. Yves Smith has coined the term “devolution” to describe a sort of dysfunctional evolution in his piece Devolution: Welcome to the World Where Things Don’t Work Well” (thanks Chris). Where systems evolve to a level of inscrutable complexity where

I do think that Smith is mixing a number of dynamics. He is highlight the survival of the fittest drive for efficiency while neglecting that equally powerful evolutionary force – sex (which drives big inefficiencies, the most classic of which is a peacock’s feathers). He is also asserting an unwavering social drive for efficiency over effectiveness, when that pivotal trade-off comes into play on a regular basis in business with effectiveness often winning out (eg. the trial-and-error of R&D, the crude and sometimes bumbling entrepreneurial start-ups). Nonetheless, I thought his piece was a good illustration of black box complexity

  • “When I took the introductory fine arts course in college (which actually was a tough course), one of the ideas that stuck with me was devolution. The instructors used that word in a very particular way, to apply to the changes that took place in late Roman art. Drill technology improved to the point where drills could be used to help create sculpture: they were faster and cheaper to use than chisels and hammers. But the results were cruder. It was easy to identify a late Roman bust: the curls and eyes were much coarser than in earlier Roman or Greek work… It’s become fashionable to discuss the creeping decay in advanced economies, particularly the US, both in term of third worldification and end of empire. The more apocalyptic turn to theories of collapse from writers like Jared Diamond and Jacques Tainter. But I think they miss one aspect that may prove to be important, that of how the pursuit of efficiency doesn’t always produce net gains, as economic theory might tell us. The measure of productivity, more stuff per unit input, misses how service/product quality can deteriorate…This trend to devolution may be a driver of collapse… But any complex system has a tradeoff between efficiency and robustness. This is something we discussed at length in ECONNED, how economic theory bizarrely assumes stability by assuming that economies have a propensity to equilibrium. That in turn gives them a bias in policy prescriptions to favor more efficiency and not even think about stability. Yes as Richard Bookstaber stressed in his book Demon of Our Own Design, highly efficient systems are prone to catastrophic failures, since disruptive processes propagate through the system too quickly for anyone to stop them. Taleb also argue that robust systems, like biological systems, are inefficient by virtue of having extra capacity (two kidneys, for instance).”

An entertaining example of effectiveness eroded by black box complexity is highlighted by John Oliver’s piece on net neutrality

If you want to do something evil, put it in something boring.”

And nothing creates boredom like complexity.