I’m reading ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ by Joseph Tainter. It isn’t an easy read, but it is expanding my thinking. Here are some of Tainter’s thoughts on simple societies that made me think:
Personal political ambition is either restrained from expression, or channeled to fulfill a public good. The route to an elevated social position is to acquire a surplus of subsistence resources, and to distribute these in such a way that one establishes prestige in the community, and creates a following and a faction.
Although Tainter isn’t writing about the internet, his research describes what I observe on the internet. The quote above describes the route to get a large social media following. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation.
Tainter goes on,
Native Melanesian often refer to such an ambitious individual as a Big Man…A Big Man strives to build a following, but is never permanently successful. Since his influence is limited to his faction, extending that influence means extending the size of the following. At the same time, the loyalty of his existing followers must be constantly renewed through generosity.
Here is an interesting caution, though:
Herein lies a tension: as resources are allocated to expanding a faction, those available to retain previous loyalties must decline. As a Big Man attempts to expand his sphere of influence, he is likely to lose the springboard that makes this possible. Big Man systems contain thus a built-in, structural limitation on their scope, extent, and durability.
Mmmmm…I wonder if social media tools change this at all? At this point, I haven’t thought about it enough to tell.
Social-Media-Driven-Communities (not Online Communities, because life is a blend of online and offline) organize themselves into tribes, much like simple societies. They often have one or more Big Men (or Women) who support and lead the tribe through generosity.
Yet, like complex societies, Social-Media-Driven-Communities are not based on familial connections. They are based on affinity (rather than geography). Consequently, they lack the stabilizing element of simples societies. They also lack the stabilizing elements of complex societies. That makes them very mercurial.
But being mercurial doesn’t mean that you aren’t important or that you don’t have a significant role in the global community. North Korea. Iran. Michael Jackson.
How about you?
Does this match your observations? What are the ramifications of people from complex societies choosing to organize themselves as simple societies?