Why Ancient Mayans and Media Barons Are Alike

Clay Shirky doesn’t write a lot — he’s averaged about one post every two months over the past year — but when he does write something, it’s usually well worth reading. His latest looks at what the media theorist calls “The Collapse of Complex Business Models.” In a nutshell, Shirky draws a comparison between the theories of anthropologist Joseph Tainter — who wrote about why ancient societies such as the Romans or the Mayans suddenly collapsed, despite having achieved high levels of sophistication — and the current state of the mainstream media. Need a hint? It’s not good.

I always thought that the collapse of the ancient Mayan civilization had something to do with inventing basketball, but it’s possible that I’m confused about that. In any case, Tainter’s theory is that most of these civilizations collapsed not in spite of their sophistication and complexity but because of it. As Shirky describes it:

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.

The comparison between these societies and modern media giants is obvious: both are large, sophisticated and complex — and incapable of behaving in any other way. So when media leaders such as Barry Diller, Steven Brill and Rupert Murdoch say that readers and viewers will have to pay them for their content, Shirky says, what they really mean is:

“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.”

Some might take issue with Shirky drawing a comparison between an entire civilization and a specific industry like the media, but I think his point is well taken — regardless of whether it is sociologically proper — because it focuses on the one thing that has kept traditional media entities from adapting more quickly.

Although I’ve argued that having the desire to change is one of the most fundamental things required for successful adaptation by media entities, the reality is that the single biggest barrier to doing so is the sheer size of most media organizations, and the bureaucratic inertia that comes with that — as was eloquently expressed yesterday in this tweet from Patrick Laforge of the New York Times.

Suggesting that the New York Times or the Washington Post — or any other traditional media outlet — should suddenly transform itself into an online-focused or web-first publication is a little like telling Wal-Mart that it should transform itself into Craigslist, or telling a plesiosaur to hurry up and grow legs already. There may be no way to get there from here. The obvious implication is that the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer may have taken the only functional approach to the problem: namely, shut down print altogether and become web-only. As Marc Andreessen put it recently, more media entities may need to burn the boats.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user KM&G Morris

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