March 22, 2023

Global dumbing and the politics of entropy

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 1992 - After more than a half dozen primary debates, several months of cable grazing, and assiduous reading of every political story I could get my hands on, I fear my concerns about global dumbing are more valid than I had initially realized.

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 measure 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. 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 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 argud, 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.

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, an entropic collapse of the earth, the last sound may well be that of Larry King telling a caller from Bali to hold on a minute for a word from our sponsor.

An economist remarked to me the other day that 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. In their day to day campaigning, on the other hand, the aspirants quickly get things down to a few basic concepts.

To be sure, pidgin politics is not new. And the greatly increased access to the candidates, thanks particularly to C-SPAN and frequent debates, may have created a burden on the candidates' imagination and creativity that few politicians of any era could have withstood.

Still, we must also consider that we have had no ordinary set of candidates: of the original major five, four were graduates of law school (including two who went to Yale), one was a Rhodes Scholar, d antwo were trained by the Jesuits. Thus, it is not unreasonable to wonder why this campaign came down so quickly to one-liners, micro-ideas and policies that sounded more like listings in a book index than programs for a nation.

Here is an actual quote from the Hon. Jerry Brown on the Mexican-American free trade treaty:

"Clinton: jobs there. Brown: jobs here. It's real simple. Don't complicate this vote."

Clinton, while clinging for the most part to traditional English sentence structure, has become so bored with his own ideas that, when not stealing those of his opponents, he frequently merely recites them as if reading the ingredients off a cereal box, or dismisses them as a "package," as in "I have a whole package on urban problems," adopting the canon of the marketing industry that packages are more important than contents.

Unfortunately, entropy has increased as much in the press as in politics. Among journalists, dumbing has become so dominant that it is considered a good thing. Hence the expression "dumbing down" for simplifying an article to the presumed intelligence of the readership. The Washington Post is particularly fond of this practice, even to the extent that in one story it explained to its readers what a truck axle was.

Like global warming, these trends did not occur overnight. Some thirty years ago, while writing nine news summaries a day for a radio station, I amused myself by choosing an underused polysyllabic word of the day and slipping it into as many newscasts as I could. It was less than two weeks before I got a memo from the news director telling me to stop.

But no one can listen to "electability" being cited for the 4,203rd time as a major issue in this campaign without a profound sense of human energy loss.

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, tax 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. But one would do so in vain. It shouldn't really surprise when you 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 or service that was being managed. It was agricultural schools that fostered entropic farming with its emphasis on pesticides and capital intensiveness. 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.

If you think about it, I am sure you can find in your own experience numerous examples of the increase in human entropy. An easy test is to write down all the institutions, committees or groups with which you have some affiliation. Now put a check mark beside each which is doing a better job now than it was five or ten years ago. See what I mean?

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. Just as an ice cube would rather be water, so the Resolution Trust Corporation would much rather be a bunch of political hacks handing out patronage to their Republican allies. Entropy drives these systems towards their natural state, resulting in not only ineffectualness and anarchy, but massive corruption as well.

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, our ethics as well as our productivity become degraded.

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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