April 19, 2021

Global dumbing

 From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 1992 - Global dumbing, according to the thesis I have been considering lately, involves the virtually imperceptible but steady deterioration of the aggregate human mind - as well as of its institutions - much as the temperature of the earth is apparently rising at a rate so minuscule that scientists will be still be debating its escalation even as the waters of the Atlantic Ocean lap at the potted plants in the lobby of the Trump Plaza.

In fact, global warming and global dumbing are intimately connected. Without the latter, something actually might be done before that portion of Washington below the fall line of the Potomac is totally submerged. And like global warming, global dumbing concerns itself with losses incurred by energy transfers and nature's ceaseless quest for the random equilibrium of chaos.


 It is, in short, the entropy of the human spirit and of the systems it has created.

In physics, entropy is a measure of unavailable energy. In the natural world, entropy is reflected in the pollution from your car and radioactive tailings. If the world were perfect, energy would do just what it was supposed to do and not go wandering off like some groupie of that cosmic band, The Second Law of Thermodynamics. As it is, much of it is wasted and thus when you bake something, your kitchen as well as your oven gets warm. Such phenomena led the German physicist Ruldolf Clausius to propose in 1865 that we were losing energy everywhere and that we call this sorry state of affairs entropy. It's been downhill ever since.

Allow entropy to go on long enough and you could theoretically have all energy transferred from where it is to a great hyper-heated toxic dump in the sky, with the result that the whole universe would just burn up.

Fortunately, there is still debate about this.

Entropy causes enough problems as it is, such as the tendency in nature for things to move towards an equilibrium of disorder and towards a simple, inert state. Thus while we can easily burn wood in our fireplaces, no one has figured out how to take the ashes and turn them into a tree limb again, let alone recreate a whole rain forest. Information theorists say entropy goes on in communications as well. The repeated transfer of information results not in knowledge, they argued, but noise and static as the information degrades in its repetition, much as a fifth generation photocopy of a fax becomes unreadable.

Cultures lose energy, too. Which is why the Egyptians don't build pyramids any more, and why Guatemalans have to import digital watches rather than just checking their Mayan calendars. The creation of a great civilization or a great world power wastes a enormous amount of energy. As Barry Commoner put it, in nature there is no free lunch.

In earlier times, it was possible to avoid cultural entropy by stealing energy from somewhere else. This, of course, was the foundation of slave trade, the British Empire and various new world orders of the first half of 20th century. While it still goes on, energy theft has become more difficult as the world has steadily lost its cultural, political, environmental and economic differentiation, not to mention the the appearance of nuclear bomb factories in various third world countries.

The global human mind faces a similar problem, thanks to such factors as the ubiquity of American film and television, excessively frequent summits of world leaders, international conferences on every conceivable subject, multinational corporations and other well meaning efforts that bring the world closer together but in so doing leaves no corner of it immune from human energy loss. If there is, in fact, a entropic collapse of the earth, the last sound may well be that of broadcast host Larry King telling a caller from Bali to hold on a minute for a word from our sponsor.

As an economist remarked to me the other day, communism in the Soviet Union died years ago; we just didn't notice it because the Soviet leaders kept invoking Marx. Similarly, many American politicians still refer constantly to the Constitution. And some candidates repeatedly cite their 86-page plan.

Clinton's rhetoric is a fine example of entropic exposition, designed to make one feel good without actually saying anything. The first rule in dealing with such language is to read it a second time. You will discover, if you do, that Clinton favors a construction something along these lines: "We need a strong program/package/strategy to deal with the [problem] which has [caused the following bad things]." The casual listener will assume, because Clinton seems to understand so well the problem and its effects, that he knows what to do about it.

They will miss the semantic shell game created by the entropic use of the word “a.”

This little word, beloved by policy nerds, diplomats, congressional witnesses and others involved in wholesale facts evasion, conceals the complete lack of commitment to what the statement seems to be addressing.

International crises have happily proceeded for years with diplomats periodically standing before the cameras and speaking of the "pressing need for a viable process," while carefully avoiding any description of what that process might look like.

Nor is this entropy limited to the more public pursuits. Indeed, a cursory examination of American business suggests that its major product is wasted energy. Compute all the energy loss created by corporate lawyers, Washington lobbyists, marketing consultants, CEO benefits, advertising agencies, leadership seminars, human resource supervisors, strategic planners and industry conventions and it is amazing that this country has any manufacturing base at all.

We have created an economy based not on actually doing anything, but on facilitating, supervising, planning, managing, analyzing, advising, marketing, consulting or  defending in court what might be done if we had time to do it. The few remaining truly productive companies become immediate targets for another entropic activity, the leveraged buyout.

Things have degenerated so far, a recent article in Business Economics points out, that we even cite entropy as an indication of our economic progress, as when we add the cost of cleaning up the Valdez oil spill to our gross national product.

One might look to our universities for ways to counteract the entropy of our society. It shouldn't really surprise you to realize that these campuses have been actually teaching the entropic lifestyle for years. It was America's business schools that spread the word that management was an overarching skill that eliminated the need to know anything about the particular product that was being managed. It was agricultural schools that fostered entropic farming with its emphasis on pesticides.

And it has been our academies of the liberal arts that have so failed to guard our language that a majority of college graduates seem to think that having a "process" is the same thing as creating a product.

Scale plays an important role in entropy. Roughly speaking, the larger a system or institution, the more wasted energy. This applies to governments, corporate bureaucracies, or the limousines their leaders ride.

Part of this is due to the fact that as a system becomes larger a proportionately greater amount of energy has to be devoted to keeping the system alive rather than doing what the system is meant to be doing.

Hence the college president who spends 70% of the work day raising funds instead of raising academic levels, a phenomenon that can be noted at a mundane level by anyone who has moved from being a member of a committee to being its chair.

The problem of entropic systems is further complicated by the fact that nature didn't intend these systems to exist in the first place. So the bigger and more complex they become the more unnatural and unstable they become.

Since everyone has forgotten what these systems are meant to do, it is no longer possible to determine clearly what those within them are meant not to do. Aided by the entropic use of language, pure ethics as well as our productivity become degraded. Thus we find the mayor of Washington accepting scores of free tickets to the Super Bowl from Jack Kent Cooke, with whom she is engaged in intense negotiations over a new stadium, and the debate centers over whether the tickets represented "the appearance of a conflict of interest" rather than - to use a pre-entropic phrase ~ a bribe. Similarly, when Bill Clinton's wife represents Bill Clinton's S&L buddy before an Arkansas regulatory commission we now discuss whether it is "inappropriate" rather than whether it is an impeachable offense.

Fortunately there is no evidence that global dumbing has entered the human gene pool. Nature, before people began fiddling with it, handled the problem rather neatly by regularly killing off the entropic and giving birth to new life and energy. I find considerable comfort in the fact that I have never seen a small child facilitate anything nor one enamored of process in any form. Instead, they like to make things, do things, laugh and sing. Thus I strongly suspect that we have just taught ourselves to be dumb and, however difficult, it remains possible to re-educate ourselves, even if it means going back to kindergarten to learn how.

In any case, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of this issue. If global dumbing is not halted, we may wake up one morning and find that no one in this country knows how to make anything anymore. We may discover our dearest friends and relatives in a catatonic state before the TV and the device won't even be on.

When we call for help we may find that 911 has become an endless loop voice mail system from which one can never disconnect.

We may even, some day, elect a hologram as president - and we'll be too dumb to realize it.



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