Joseph Fouche does it again, with a great critique of Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies--which has been one of the defense bloggerati's recent favorites. While praising Tainter's insights, Fouche makes a point about its limitations:
The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter deals with the hard material reality of power and its division through politics. It does not deal with, except tangentially, the soft material reality of narrative and culture. This isn’t Tainter’s fault: power and politics are readily material; they are readily quantified. Narrative and culture are diffusively material. Like gravity, their influence is easier to see than they themselves are. Archaeologists like Tainter can only see culture through the faint shadow it casts through the material artifacts that somehow survive the passage of time. Science has not reached a level of complexity sufficient to solve the problem of quantifying culture. This isn’t because quantifying culture is impossible. It is because, given the present level of complexity and quantity of power on offer in contemporary societies, quantification of culture offers such poor marginal returns that the further effusion of resources can’t be justified. Culture, like computers for the Romans or nuclear power for the Maya, lies beyond the complexity event horizon.This leaves the role of diffuse phenomena in collapse only vaguely understood. Tainter dismisses most past attempts to capture cultural lightning in a bottle as “mystical”. Yet, there is there there. Ignoring the diffuse would leave only a crippled field of study, even if it left that field of study only able to aspire to be an art and not a science.
Tainter, in essence, looks at society as a problem-solving organization. If given a problem, it sorts it and solves it. Fouche brings in one of Clausewitz's ablest interpreters, Aleksandr Svechin to make the point that while tactical issues can be made "scientific" (if only temporarily), strategy, politics, and culture are an entirely different matter. Tactics, at their heart, deal with problems that are solved. Tainter's book, while magnificent on a material factor, still leaves out the root of why complex societies adapt or fail. The question, however, is whether this is possible given the limitations of our knowledge about civilizations like the Maya.
On that same note, I was at a party a couple nights ago where the conversation turned to Trevor Dupuy, HERO, and the Quantified Judgment Method of Analysis (QJMA) came up as a topic of conversation (yes in DC parties where we talk about such things exist). There is a lot of reflexive bashing of quantitative research and analysis in War Studies, a good deal of it justified when it looks at quantitative models misapplied and unjustified when it dismisses quants altogether. I wonder whether it will eventually be possible to quantify things such as culture or politics eventually for wargames and analysis. It is difficult to forecast the future, and a couple centuries from now the electronics might exist to do so. But based purely on the last 200 years of military history--in which everyone from the "geometric" school of military operations to the 1960s "whiz kids" failed to do so, I am very skeptical.