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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Industry as Entropy

Industry  Entropy

There are several questions I am turning over in my mind as I read through books and sources on the industrial revolution and its relationship to the Enlightenment Some are ‘half-questions’, still too vague to be posed as actual  questions. One partial question is about the relationship between theory and practise. Another is about the economic dimension, about the role of capitalism in the development of industrialised economies.

Part of the difficulty is to do with the relationship between the past, the present and the future. Where we are now is the result of actions and decisions taken in the past. Where we will be in the future combines the actions of the past with those taken in the present. So the big problems of the present- global economic crisis and global climate change are the products of the past but how they will affect the future depends on our actions in the present.

If, for example, David Deutsch’s interpretation of the past - that the Enlightenment was a game changer, setting humanity on a new path towards ‘infinity’- holds true, then the problems will be solved and we will have a Star Trek (optimistic science fiction) type future. But if Tony Wrigley’s interpretation - that access to the energy stored in coal and oil was the decisive factor- then a more pessimistic science fiction (Mad Max?) type future will unfold.

The energy question also has political implications. Wrigley’s scenario places limits on Marx’s interpretation of the Enlightenment model. The workers of the world will inherit the ruins of a civilisation which cannot be rebuilt since the energy (coal/ oil) necessary for the rebuilding will be gone. The future struggle will not be against capitalism, but to prevent a revival of feudalism.

Such examples can be multiplied to create a range of possible futures. But are such futures constrained by the past? If it was possible to have a better understanding of the past, would we be better able to understand the present and hence the actual future?

To condense the argument down- how far would the potential of the Enlightenment have progressed if there had been no shift  from organic to mineral sources of energy in the eighteenth century? Alternatively - how far would the shift from  a feudal to a capitalist economic system have progressed  without the use of coal in the same period? No amount of ingenuity  would have overcome the problem that there would not have been enough wood to launch an industrial revolution or the continuous growth necessary to sustain a capitalist economy.

What this leads to is a mechanical model of  human culture. Or even evolution. As Wrigley points out the ability of plants to process sunlight through photosynthesis is the basis for everything else. But it is a diffused process- a herbivore needs to eat a lot of plants to create the meat for a carnivore to eat. For most of the human species existence, there were only a few of us, gathering and hunting across large areas. The Neolithic farming revolution did not change this basic system, but it did intensify it. Favourable areas were used to cultivate a few key crops and a few animal species - at the expense of biodiversity. Areas of farmed land (including animal pasture) were vast collectors and converters of solar energy for human use. The various social structures of the cultures which occupied these areas then converted the energy gained into knowledge. To conserve this knowledge, writing was invented and so history began. Writing allowed the accumulation and preservation of knowledge - a process which resembled the action of Maxwell’s Demon. [A bold claim- does it really?] So instead of the ebb and flow of events, the rise and fall of civilisations, always resetting  the system to zero, the potential for progress/ increase in complexity now existed.

The shift to coal as an energy source did not change the overall energy balance - the coal was concentrated solar energy. But its use did enable an increase in the production of knowledge. Some was ’pure knowledge’ - the leading edges of science and philosophy- but most was embedded/ practical knowledge focused on economic objectives and the maintenance of elite power. Education was designed to deliver a workforce with useful practical skills rather than encourage critical (potentially disruptive) thought and analysis.
To go back to the Maxwell’s Demon analogy- the demon’s task is to separate high energy from low energy molecules/ particles. This is a critical skill. If the demon cannot distinguish between  high and low energy molecules/ particles, it cannot do its job. We live in an environment suffused with information, with potential knowledge. To maintain ‘progress’, we need the critical skills to distinguish between different forms of  information and separate those which are in some way useful from those which are not. Take global warming as an example. The science which points to global warming is very strong, but there are determined efforts being made to cast doubt on it. These efforts are able to succeed not because very few people have advanced knowledge of the science of climate change, but because very few people have the critical skills necessary to distinguish between a rational/ reasonable argument and an irrational/ unreasonable one.  The argument for global warming is coherent, the counter-arguments are incoherent.

Coherence is equivalent to a lower state of entropy and incoherence to a higher state of entropy. This analogy may also apply to the workings of ‘the market’. Are market forces coherent and rational or incoherent and irrational? Are the ordered or are they random? The claim is that ‘the market’ is rational, ordered and coherent - but is it? If, as David Harvey (following Karl Marx) the market economy is based on the need for continual growth, and (following Wrigley) this is in turn based on coal and oil which are finite resources, then it is impossible and hence irrational and incoherent.

The real is (becomes) the rational and the rational is (becomes) the real - as Hegel once said.  As the present becomes the past, so we will find out  what is real and what is not, what is rational and what is not. But do we have to wait - or can we  anticipate  history’s judgment? Or can we rely on  avid Deutsch’s optimistic interpretation of the Enlightenment  which places us at the ’beginning of infinity’? Right now I don’t know. Which is why I am going back over the various histories of the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment to see if they support or refute Deutsch’s vision.


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