Monday, June 8, 2015

The University as a Giant Rube Goldberg Machine

I am not sure I like to be considered a "Collapse Pundit" (as I was recently defined). Surely, however, sometimes I have this horrible sensation that everything is collapsing around me. The world's universities may be a good example of this generalized unwinding of everything. Universities are becoming top-heavy, giant Rube Goldberg machines producing useless paper and bewildered graduates. (image above, from Wikipedia)

Last week, I invited a colleague from the University of Moscow to give a talk at my university, speaking on the geopolitical factors involved in gas pipelines. Not that I expected a crowd coming, but the results were worse than anything I could have imagined. The whole audience at the talk was a grand total of four people (including myself).

I understand that people are busy, that this is exam time for the students, that maybe the talk was not publicized as much as it deserved, and maybe there were other reasons. Yet, this event gave me a chilling sensation. Thousands of students, tens of faculty members, a subject widely discussed in the news and one that, you would think, it should generate at least some interest in a faculty which has "International Cooperation" among its stated subjects of teaching and study. And yet, almost none of them could spare a single hour for this talk.

I was mulling this thing over and then I saw the post published just a few days ago by my friend and colleague George Mobus in his blog "Question Everything" He nails the problem exactly; read that post and you'll understand the situation of universities. Maybe somewhere things go a little better, and maybe somewhere else things are worse. Yet, universities everywhere seem to have become little more than giant Rube Goldberg machines. We study, we teach, we grade students, we fill out forms, we publish papers, but the whole thing is acquiring more and more an aura of unreality. What are doing here, exactly?

To the already excellent synthesis made by George in his blog, I may add that universities could be considered as small scale models of the whole civilization in which they are embedded: they suffer from the same problems. Not only resources are diminishing, but at the same time, the whole structure is becoming top-heavy, burdened by layer after layer of bureaucracy.

It is what Joseph Tainter called the "diminishing returns of complexity" in his classic study "The Collapse of Complex Societies." The cause of societal collapse is not just the lack of resources, but also the appearance of parasitic structures that weigh on society. In my interpretation of the "Seneca Effect" I termed these parasitic structures "pollution," but you may see "bureaucracy" as a form of pollution. The result is this classic curve, from Tainter's book.

No matter how you call this, it is exactly what's happening to universities. Largely, it is a self-imposed disaster, but unavoidable nevertheless.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)