In 1988, the anthropologist Joseph Tainter published a book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. In it, he described the rise and fall of great civilizations such as the Romans, the Mayans, and the Chacoans. His goal was to answer a question that had vexed thinkers over the centuries: why did such mighty societies collapse?
In his analysis, Tainter found the primary enemy of these societies to be complexity. As civilizations grow, they add more and more complexity: more hierarchies, more bureaucracies, deeper intertwinings of social structures. Early on, this makes sense: each new level of complexity brings rewards, in terms of increased economic output, tax revenue, etc. But at a certain point, the law of diminishing returns sets in, and each new level of complexity brings fewer and fewer net benefits, dwindling down to zero and beyond.
But since complexity has worked so well for so long, societies are unable to adapt. Even when each new layer of complexity starts to bring zero or even negative returns on investment, people continue trying to do what worked in the past. At some point, the morass they’ve built becomes so dysfunctional and unwieldy that the only solution is collapse: i.e., a rapid decrease in complexity, usually by abolishing the old system and starting from scratch.
What I find fascinating about this (besides the obvious implications for modern civilization) is that Tainter could have been writing about software.
Anyone who’s worked in the tech industry for long enough, especially at larger organizations, has seen it before. A legacy system exists: it’s big, it’s complex, and no one fully understands how it works. Architects are brought in to “fix” the system. They might wheel out a big whiteboard showing a lot of boxes and arrows pointing at other boxes, and inevitably, their solution is… to add more boxes and arrows. Nobody can subtract from the system; everyone just adds.
This might go on for several years. At some point, though, an organizational shakeup probably occurs – a merger, a reorg, the polite release of some senior executive to go focus on their painting hobby for a while. A new band of architects is brought in, and their solution to the “big diagram of boxes and arrows” problem is much simpler: draw a big red X through the whole thing. The old system is sunset or deprecated, the haggard veterans who worked on it either leave or are reshuffled to other projects, and a fresh-faced team is brought in to, blessedly, design a new system from scratch.
As disappointing as it may be for those of us who might aspire to write the kind of software that is timeless and enduring, you have to admit that this system works. For all its wastefulness, inefficiency, and pure mendacity (“The old code works fine!” “No wait, the old code is terrible!”), this is the model that has sustained a lot of software companies over the past few decades.
Will this cycle go on forever, though? I’m not so sure. Right now, the software industry has been in a nearly two-decade economic boom (with some fits and starts), but the one sure thing in economics is that booms eventually turn to busts. During the boom, software companies can keep hiring new headcount to manage their existing software (i.e. more engineers to understand more boxes and arrows), but if their labor force is forced to contract, then that same system may become unmaintainable. A rapid and permanent reduction in complexity may be the only long-term solution.
One thing working in complexity’s favor, though, is that engineers likecomplexity. Admit it: as much as we complain about other people’s complexity, we love our own. We love sitting around and dreaming up new architectural diagrams that can comfortably sit inside our own heads – it’s only when these diagrams leave our heads, take shape in the real world, and outgrow the size of any one person’s head that the problems begin.
It takes a lot of discipline to resist complexity, to say “no” to new boxes and arrows. To say, “No, we won’t solve that problem, because that will just introduce 10 new problems that we haven’t imagined yet.” Or to say, “Let’s go with a much simpler design, even if it seems amateurish, because at least we can understand it.” Or to just say, “Let’s do less instead of more.”
Simplicity of design sounds great in theory, but it might not win you many plaudits from your peers. A complex design means more teams to manage more parts of the system, more for the engineers to do, more meetings and planning sessions, maybe some more patents to file. A simple design might make it seem like you’re not really doing your job. “That’s it? We’re done? We can clock out?” And when promotion season comes around, it might be easier to make a case for yourself with a dazzling new design than a boring, well-understood solution.
Ultimately, I think whether software follows the boom-and-bust model, or a more sustainable model, will depend on the economic pressures of the organization that is producing the software. A software company that values growth at all cost, like the Romans eagerly gobbling up more and more of Gaul, will likely fall into the “add-complexity-and-collapse” cycle. A software company with more modest aims, that has a stable customer base and doesn’t change much over time (does such a thing exist?) will be more like the humble tribe that follows the yearly migration of the antelope and focuses on sustainable, tried-and-true techniques. (Whether such companies will end up like the hapless Gauls, overrun by Caesar and his armies, is another question.)
Personally, I try to maintain a good sense of humor about this situation, and to avoid giving in to cynicism or despair. Software is fun to write, but it’s also very impermanent in the current industry. If the code you wrote 10 years ago is still in use, then you have a lot to crow about. If not, then hey, at least you’re in good company with the rest of us, who probably make up the majority of software developers. Just keep doing the best you can, and try to have a healthy degree of skepticism when some wild-eyed architect wheels out a big diagram with a lot of boxes and arrows.