Sunday, April 04, 2010

Complexity and Collapse

Clay Shirky is one of the most perceptive people I'm aware of when it comes to analyzing the changing media landscape. He doesn't blog often, but when he does, it's something that is widely linked to and discussed.

His latest entry is about how complex systems are unable to react to changing environments in any way except to collapse. Basing his piece on The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter, Shirky says:

"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.

"When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification."

Tying this into media and journalism, Shirky says:
"...last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free, and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use.”

"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.”"

They don't know how to do that because there are too many vested interests in their management and financial structures as they currently exist. This corroborates the point of the book The Hollywood Economist that I recently reviewed. Hollywood's economic structure is built on multiple revenue streams as well as finding investors, merchandising partners and tax incentives. Where once 90% of a film's revenue came from the theatrical box office, now it's only 20%. Hollywood is now more about the deal more than it is about the film.

Shirky's point also ties into Malcolm Gladwell's idea about a tipping point. In Gladwell's view, small changes in a system build up without apparent effect, but then one more small change causes the system to tip. In other words, the system's lack of flexibility doesn't appear to be a problem until it is a big problem and everything is forced to change.

Shirky concludes with this:
"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."
Simple in this case means cheaply. Shirky refers to Charley Bit My Finger, a YouTube video that has been watched 175 million times and was made for nothing. That video's success was an accident, but it's only a matter of time before a team of animation people, using cheap tools and web platforms, is able to create an ongoing success with drastically lower costs than established media.

Should complex systems collapse, there will inevitably be new complexity in the future, but it's in the spot between complexities where opportunity lies, because that's where established media can't compete as they can't cut their costs fast enough.

This 2008 article talks about live action web series that are earning their creators a living. Who in animation will be the first to succeed at this?


Brubaker said...

"Who in animation will be the first to succeed at this?"

"will be the first"? Obviously you've never heard of Homestar Runner.

Pete Emslie said...

Well, I'd never heard of Homestar Runner until you brought it up, Brubaker. But now that I've taken a gander at their website, I wish that I'd still never heard of them! If that cheaply produced, mindless claptrap is the future of animated entertainment, then stop the world, I want to get off!!

Mark, these last two entries on your blog have just left me shaking my head in disbelief. 20 years ago or more, I would never have believed that the entertainment industry as I knew it then would have devolved into this hopelessly broken model we have today, with a fragmented audience busted up into tiny niche markets where nothing of any lasting value is being produced, due to the fact that nobody has any money to do something properly.

As it is, I've been retreating into my own personal cocoon, where I've been accumulating DVDs of old movies and TV shows I loved from the glorious past to watch on my newly acquired HD TV, since there is little if anything being created today that I want to see. I suspect I am not alone in that trend, especially among those of a similar age. Movies, TV shows and popular music today have increasingly become crap. And with the animation industry increasingly relying on web-based software to churn out pitifully cheap dreck not only for online, but also for broadcast TV, then I really have no interest in its future either. I only hope that somebody somewhere comes along sometime to create something of real craftsmanship and intelligence that's built to last. I am not, however, optimistic...

Stray Neutrino said...

"Who in animation will be the first to succeed at this?"

I would be tempted to say that if it was easy or doable, someone would already being doing it. The means have existed for a long time.

I won't say it will never happen (my initial reaction) but there would need to be a way to produce animation so fast, on the almost monthly/weekly speed of a web-comic like "Penny Arcade", to make it successful. Even the crowd-sourced model, like the one Mass Animation uses, takes over a month to produce content.

Stray Neutrino said...

You know...sometimes serendipity is a strange beast.

There are these guys:

underneath you will notice that they intend to produce 52 x 7 min. short films. Quite ambitious without knowing any details like funding, etc. However, under their job postings, they are looking for a Senior Animator who can animate "24-40 seconds a week". I may be just starting my animation career with the fine folks at Animation Mentor and it usually takes me ten days to produce, unpolished, eight seconds. I don't know what the industry average is here but I don't see how someone could consistently pump out, on average, 30 seconds of animation a week, while maintaining quality and doing all the other duties required of a senior, for 52 shorts.

That's just my cynical opinion.

warren said...

Mark, you're gonna love this, then:

the end of TV is nigher than you think

...especially in Canada.

animation clips said...

I liked the most that response given by Answer Tainter “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”

Brubaker said...

Hey Mark,

Are you aware of Joe Murray's journey on starting a website that showcases animation (his own and others)?

He's taking it seriously, that's for sure. He has investors helping with the finance and is looking into advertisers. And yes, he's looking into paying other artists to contribute shorts.

He writes about it from time to time on his blog.

Steve Schnier said...


Mark has presented a business model for earning money off the web. It's been shown to work...

Wait a second! I'm a creative guy!
I've got a camcorder or two... Does it have to be animation? No...

I'll be right back...! (scurries down to studio...)