I previously noted that to survive as a Westerner, you can get away with participating in a culture that asks of you little more than to understand the “one minute” button on the microwave, while to survive in a foraging society you needed much much more. Moreover, I suggested that the level of complexity in an individual’s life was greater among HG (Hunter-Gatherer) societies than Western societies.
However, this is not to say, in the end, that one form of economy and society is more complex than the other. I happen to think that the maximum level of complexity … of thought, social interaction, of meaning generation and use/misuse … that can happen in close quarters, in human relationships and the human mind, is very high. One clue to this is the fact that a person who does have a job that involves great complexity working in a big complex company and so on can remain confounded by the day to day personal while s/he readily handles the world of systems analyses or air traffic control or whatever. I also concede that “complexity” compared across the social vs. the cultural may not in fact be (quantitatively) comparable. So it is quite possible that the total mount of “complexity” (though this surely can’t really be measured non-trivially) in a forager’s life may be much higher than you think, and as high as that experienced by, say, an industry or governmental system (or whatever) in the West.
Whether or not that is true is not important. But consider a similar idea: Imagine that there is a rule that says that he total amount of complexity is, say, kN, where N is the number of people in the system and k is some made up number that never changes (you always need that made up number). Think of this as a “Conservation of Complexity” model. But, in some systems the complexity is distributed mainly in the cultural realm, and in other systems it is distributed as well in the social realm. These are different scales. The cultural realm is the group effort among HG’s to get the meal on the table. The social realm is what it takes to get the microwave on the kitchen counter.
I know there are major objections to this (I’ll make them myself in a moment) but just stick with this as a short term thought experiment.
Given this, in reference to the falsehood we are dealing with, people would be making the mistake of claiming personal (or ethnic, or job-related,etc.) complexity that they simply do not deserve to claim. Being associated with a system with piles of complexity does not give YOU credit for coming up with the complexity, or effectively dealing with the complexity, being imbued with the complexity or being “complex” because of the complexity. You may well be a simple co on a simple wheel that is part of a more complex system that you take for granted. Never mind the fact that people who are self assured of their superiority over “primitives” are doing so on the basis of “complexity” which we have not agreed is a good (or bad) thing.
In other words, the same amount of complexity is out there, and it is kind of strange that people living in The West (as an example of a system where the complexity is mainly social and not cultural) are taking credit for something they don’t deserve personally.
Of course, the idea of a fixed amount of complexity that is differentially distributed among the cultural vs. social realms is probably wrong. And here we actually get to the most salient part of this discussion. The guy who lazily pulls the Lean Cuisine out of the fridge and microwaves it can be a very non-complex person and survive in Western society. He can know almost nothing, be able to do almost nothing, be utterly devoid of the abstract thoughts that foragers are constantly managing in their efforts to survive the complexities nature throws at them all the time, and the cultural complexities of face to face small scale society. But, the microwave and the lean cuisine themselves came to be, and came to be where they are, from a system of enormous complexity, as well as energy and resource use.
The forager gets the same meal using a system that is pretty complex but that is also quite manageable and flexible, that can be adapted as conditions change, and that almost always works … You don’t hear about foragers who are left alone starving to death too often. But the microwave/Lean Cuisine system uses probably two or three orders of magnitude more resources and energy to produce the same effect. For this reason, as population size increases, the entire system becomes unsustainable and downright dangerous. Complex societies, it turns out, have this little thing they do now and then, that they have always done, that no prior complex society has ever escaped this fate:
Mayhem, chaos, widespread death and suffering occurs and few or none are spared generations of misery as the system falls, remains unworkable, and only slowly begins to piece itself back together again. “Dark ages” are dead civilizations. Civilizations are moments of self-congratulatory faux brightness against a background of dark. The Hobbsian dark ages that post-forager societies have been living in much of the time, in most places, is the ‘norm’ thanks to the rise and collapse of short lived complex economic and social systems. The crown civilizations speak to us loudly from their archaeological graves and we fetishize them, convincing ourselves that those impressive monuments, fine pottery and art, evidence of commerce among specialized entities and long-distance trade, and occasional interesting writing, accurately represent the days of old. In truth, most of the people contemporary with those shining bits of history were not involved in the glory (but rather enslaved, exploited, sometimes literally eaten to make the glory happen), and the moments of glory were fleeting and most of the time things were not that way.
Complexity. It is the hallmark of civilization, and it is one of the main features that gives “Teh Civilized” a sense of superiority over what they define as the primitive.
But really, complexity is a bitch.