Entropic Fragmentation

One of the ideas I play around with a lot in my own personal sandbox is entropy.  As a child, I found most chores and homework, even socialization like church and team sports, time consuming and an energy drain that kept me from doing what absent minded philosophers do best.  As a result, I tried to maximize efficiency in my life. Now some people get lost in the planning stage of trying to maximize efficient ways of doing things. I solved this by not trying to plan so much as just adopting techniques to meet existing demands daily.

For example, even though I suffered from some OCD/perfectionist tendencies, when it came to chores, I learned quickly if I minimize my environmental impact in my own habitat, there’s a lot less work to be done.  So in terms of toys, I was highly organized, everything had an assigned space, I didn’t keep junk, and if I played with something, it went right back to where it was supposed to when I was done.  Not wasting time searching for a thing and picking up a whole room saved time.  Books the same way.  That alphabetical sort in the beginning  that morphs into your own personal style as time goes by.  My schools never required a dress code, but I developed my own personal uniform early on as well to cut down on the time put into dressing each day.  I had three red shirts for MWF, and two blue, for TuTh.  Later it was five black tee shirts in high school.  But jeans and shirts, organized by day of the week in my closet, ready to go.  No need to think about it, regulated to rote.

My parents were also very active socially due to the military, most nights during the week, I ate alone.  Mom cooked a meal for me, but I was on my own.  So when possible, if it was a single serving meal, I tried to eat from the serving dish, to cut down on dishes. And I loved paper plates.  Not exactly environmental friendly in the greater scheme, but as a child if it meant not having to wash a dish…that was time saved.  I also had my own spork!  I rarely needed a knife, and my own fork/spoon combo meant I had a single utensil, and I kept it in an assigned location where it was returned after washing each night.

As to homework, I tended to sit in the back of a classroom, and during the first week of school I read all my textbooks from cover to cover so that I could work on homework during class and not have to take any home.  Once I could read a teacher well enough to anticipate homework problems and assignments, I would do expected homework in advance as well, which usually meant by the time Christmas break was over, I had worked through the homework load of a text book and with the exception of the occasional worksheet,  I was free to read quietly in class, pursuing my own interests in the spring.

Learning to read teachers had unintended consequences in some cases.  In math classes, especially in my algebra and geometry classes, I deciphered the way my teachers picked problems for quizzes and unit review tests and because of the way my memory worked when it came to numbers, I was able to memorize proofs and solutions with out ‘knowing’ in some cases how to apply the principles to other similar problems. I had correct answers but lacked subject mastery.

In calculus this took another turn for the worse.  Because of the way I was able to visualize numbers and relationships, I could ‘feel’ the answer to a problem was going to be in a certain range and using a calculator I could get to an answer within a few decimal places that was technically correct but was basically a guess, no work and took me seconds.  This came to a head when I turned in a midterm with only answers and the teacher accused me of cheating and after the principal, my father, and the teacher had a conference, I was given another test while they watched me take it, and I did the same thing.  Finished it within minutes, a test that took most in the class 3 quarters of an hour. Teacher thought she was vindicated until she graded it and I had a perfect score and then I had to explain how I arrived at my answers, and that was rather awkward to explain that you knew first off that half the questions came from the unit review questions from the text book’s supplemental problem section and you had simply memorized the answers to those problems and second that for the other problems you could just sort of tell where the answers were going to be within a certain range and that using a calculator you could approximate that range and narrow down till it was within two decimal places.  The teacher was furious and warned me that my ‘freakish’ memory might get me by but I was not a proper ‘math’ student.  She was of course correct.

Today, my study is no where neat as my bedroom from my childhood once upon a time.  I no longer have an organized book case, I have stacks of books everywhere, with sticky notes and bookmarks, and lists and charts and graphs…but the principles I learned as a child to combat entropy in my own life still apply.  I know which stack the idea I’m currently hunting down resides in.  What looks random and messy, is actually a system that is efficient for my mind currently. Adaption is important. Minimizing the work required for the basics, extends the time you have to ‘think’ about the things that actually matter to you.  But don’t use those shortcuts if they keep you from a greater understanding of a subject.  As an adult now, I have gone back to struggle through a lot of the math I intuitively knew as a child, but didn’t rationally understand the why of.   Memory only gets you so far, just like delaying entropy.  Eventually, you have to pay the cost… that ferryman and piper baked into the equation from the beginning.

Which brings me to my musings about entropic fragmentation in the context of the rise and fall of empires. In high school I started playing with this idea that societies are held together by complex ideas.  Sometimes those ideas are defined, sometimes they’re just anticipated with those gods and goddesses, place holder names for complex phenomenon we recognize intuitively but lack the language and formal concepts to define rationally, much like my approach to math once upon a time.   What this means is that as society expands there’s that delicate balance of population and resources to consider.  Those complex ideas that bind a society together are just attempts to delay entropy costs in the expansion of an empire.  From my point of view, it seems the nature of freedom lies in the ratio of resources and population.  As population increases and resources decrease, personal freedom diminishes because that web of complex ideas that bind people together becomes more rigid, less slack, less social mobility.

When the state of complex ideas become too fixed, an empire enters a crisis.  If you think of it in terms of energy and entropy… basically an empire needs a new shortcut, a new complex idea to advance to a new level in order to support more people with less resources.  If it is found, empire advances, if it doesn’t, you collapse to a previous sustainable level with the associated population decrease that made that level sustainable. Puts warfare in a slightly different light.

I think today virtual reality and quantum computing are the new gods, placeholder names for the complex ideas we’re looking at to delay entropy. Robots leading the way to this ‘promised land’.  Pushing everyone into a highly structured virtual world keeps them from interacting with the physical.  Cuts down, in theory, the environmental impacts…but  those virtual worlds are powered with real world fuels and unless we have an associated advance in power generation, this new virtual world model will be unsustainable.

I recently read an interesting take in A Companion to Archaeology, pg. 190:

Thus one critical factor which might allow a vast and complex structure such as a civilization to achieve unusual persistence, would be its ability to capture additional energy flows for its own sustenance from those sustaining its initial growth.  The civilization should then be adaptable, “open” so as to circumvent the expected disruption from enhancement of minor perturbations in its internal structure and external context.  Although I can speculate at this high level of generalization about possible ways to approach ancient civilizations, you might now reasonably accuse me of the mirror-failing to structuration theory:  sacrificing all agency to structure. However, as discussed earlier, it is self-evident that elaborate human social forms cannot be vulnerable to dissolution on a day-to-day, individual agent basis.  Those social networks which do exhibit the limitations of extreme brevity, or persistent instability, probably remain so as a result of such small-scale interventions and challenges, but by definition, any social structure with significant temporal persistence should have achieved a significant degree of resistance to recurrent variabilities within itself.  One mechanism we have already investigated is continual reinforcement of the structure by its constituent human agents, although we have expressed doubts as to whether conscious choice is the dominant motive (Bourdieu’s 1977 concept of habitus is a happier, more neutral term, preferable to Gidden’s implication of an important degree of conscious planning).  The second form of process would be adaptability:  we would expect evidence of trends of renewal and transformation in persistent complex social structures.  Thirdly, dissipative far from equilibrium systems — to use the jargon of chaos-complexity — should be open rather than closed systems and continually trap new energy supplies to stave off their entropic fragmentation.

Something to think about at least, this Tuesday morning.

Theme Music: David Gray – Knowhere


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