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

Monday, May 17, 2010

Information theory, capitalism and absolute idealism

Image - Georg Hegel sees Napoleon enter Jena 1803

Two starting points. First: Decoding Reality - The Universe as Quantum Information by Vlatko Vedral, Oxord University Press 2010. Second: The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, by David Harvey, Profile Books, 2010.

Sometime I’d like to work out how DH’s book and VV’s book connect. Even better, I’d like to take the connection back to Georg Hegel via Karl Marx. .But why?

I guess it’s a hankering after foundations…except that VV’s version is similar to GH’s - the ‘foundation of reality’ is at the end  of the process, not the beginning. If foundation of reality and the absolute are equivalents, they are the produced by the dialectical interplay of knowledge and information, being and nothing. Which is all very well, but where does that leave DH’s 3% annual growth? Where does that leave the notion of capital as a process which (by its own logic) must continue to grow for ever and ever…until it has exhausted all possibilities, has exhausted the self-renewing capacity of its host - human culture and/or planetary ecology.

The VV analogy would involve entropy as information. Human culture would no longer be able to process/ compress the information created by capital into knowledge, to cool down the heat ( randomness., entropy) enough to survive so all the bonds of meaning and significance would be disrupted.

Socially what you get is reduction to minimal survival - everyone scavenging on a huge rubbish tip. The rubbish tip also destructive of eco-systems.  But that image is too dramatic. Too extreme for any one reading this who is going to say ‘But I am not surviving by scavenging on a huge rubbish tip’-- and anyone who really is, is not going to be reading these words.

OK, try a different tack. How about reason? One way to interpret VV’s knowledge/ information dialectic is that the application of reason to information produces (by reduction) knowledge. From a mass of chaotic information, reason sifts and filters out coherent patterns to create coherence, to allow understanding - which is knowledge.

Since VV says information is physical (and gives evidence from science /quantum information theory) then the process of creating knowledge involves labour/ work. It creates value. This can then be fitted into DH’s (from KM’s and GH’s) analysis - if I can only work out how. Use-value, surplus-value…so is knowledge therefore a commodity? Well ‘intellectual property’ is. And leads to ‘the university is a factory’…

Does that make reason a ‘means of production’? I guess so - even the foundational means of production. Let’s apply it to the industrial revolution. The ‘means of production’ then were the combination of human labour with machinery in the factory. Basic reasoning , as trial and error, was involved in creating the ‘means of production’.

 Firstly, even while the machinery involved was still simple and domestic, still medieval or earlier in origin, the first capitalists were those who applied reason to the problem of organising and arranging a production system. For example, ‘outsetting’ where  the proto-capitalist would bulk buy a raw material, distribute it to households, collect the finished product and then sell it on in processed bulk form.

The next step was the application of reason to the basic machines, making them able to produce more or run faster or otherwise improve them. For a combination of reasons - such as quality control and the need to use water power for the bigger machines - it seemed logical to concentrate production in one place - the factory.

Once this innovation was in place, reason kept suggesting (again with a lot of trial and error) ways to improve the efficiency  of the process through better organisation of human labour and improvements to the working of the machines. What helped drive the process, what stimulated the narrow application of reason to the solution of technical (including the organisation of labour) problems was competition for profit. Profitable factories survived, unprofitable ones failed. The filtering process which determined success or failure was the ability to survive economic crises. Only the fittest  -the most efficient at extracting profit - survived.

FE, with his experience of Manchester in 1842, and the KM,  logically extrapolated from this early phase of industrial capitalism that this process would so impoverish the factory workers/ urban proletariat that they would be forced to react by ‘seizing the means of production’ from the capitalist  class simply to survive. FE’s analogy was with the French Revolution - assuming that it happened when the bourgeoisie rose up as a class against their feudal oppressors. [Sort of. I am grossly simplifying here].

GH saw the French Revolution as a necessary (if regrettable) stage in the unfolding of reason through history. Reason as the means of production of history. Or reason as extracting/ compressing the chaotic entropy of  events as information into the knowledge of history as the unfolding of order.

Reason  - Livingston’s spectre - like Maxwell’s demon sifting through information (the rubbish heap of history) to create/ discover meaning. Is there an equation, a formula which gives the ratio of knowledge to information? VV suggests that  Information is worked into Knowledge when then creates more Information.  This process of  Information - Knowledge- Information resembles KM’s M-C-M, Money- Commodity- Money, esp. since the end result of the process is an increase in Information and of Money, and that the process is recurring. In VV’s process, increase in information = increase in entropy. Applying DH’s analysis, where he gives figures for growth of global economy, this would give a measure for the entropy in the system so more Money = more Entropy. (Entropy like Money has a relative  rather than a fixed value).

So does Knowledge = Commodity? Is capitalism therefore rational? Hmmm. VV does discuss wealth distribution as following a power law not a Gaussian/ bell curve and (Chapter 6) the maths of investing in the stock market, applying information theory and using thermodynamics to describe the overall behaviour of markets. But wealth is not…oops , I stopped for a minute there and can’t remember what I was going to say.

What I do want to do before I forget again is get in a link from VV to GH via John von Neumann. VV (p. 198) describes how JvN devised a method for creating natural numbers out of nothing using set theory, a set being a collection of things. Imagine a set with nothing in it, an empty set. Now imagine another empty set within the first one. This gives the number 1. Imagine another empty set within the empty set within the empty set. This gives 2... Or, as VV puts it “we seem to have created an infinite amount of information from zero information…”

This made me think of GH’s Logic -

Being, pure being, without any further determination. In its indeterminate immediacy it is equal only to itself. It is also not unequal relatively to an other; it has no diversity within itself nor any with a reference outwards. It would not be held fast in its purity if it contained any determination or content which could be distinguished in it or by which it could be distinguished from an other. It is pure indeterminateness and emptiness. There is nothing to be intuited in it, if one can speak here of intuiting; or, it is only this pure intuiting itself. Just as little is anything to be thought in it, or it is equally only this empty thinking. Being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing 

Nothing, pure nothing: it is simply equality with itself, complete emptiness, absence of all determination and content — undifferentiatedness in itself. In so far as intuiting or thinking can be mentioned here, it counts as a distinction whether something or nothing is intuited or thought. To intuit or think nothing has, therefore, a meaning; both are distinguished and thus nothing is (exists) in our intuiting or thinking; or rather it is empty intuition and thought itself, and the same empty intuition or thought as pure being. Nothing is, therefore, the same determination, or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as, pure being 

Pure Being and pure nothing are, therefore, the same. What is the truth is neither being nor nothing, but that being — does not pass over but has passed over — into nothing, and nothing into being. But it is equally true that they are not undistinguished from each other, that, on the contrary, they are not the same, that they are absolutely distinct, and yet that they are unseparated and inseparable and that each immediately vanishes in its opposite. Their truth is therefore, this movement of the immediate vanishing of the one into the other: becoming, a movement in which both are distinguished, but by a difference which has equally immediately resolved itself. 

So I looked to see if anyone had connected GH and JvN and sure enough someone had - and written a book about it. Hegel: the logic of self-consciousness and the legacy of subjective freedom by Robert Bruce Ware. The book has an appendix on Self-containment and the Foundation of Set Theory  and references John von Neumann on natural numbers and set theory. But it is an expensive book so can only fish through it via google books.

“What we can say, following the logic presented in this book, is that outside our reality there is no additional description of the Universe that we can understand, there is just emptiness… Within our reality everything exists through an interconnected  web of relationships and the building blocks of this  web are bits of information. We process synthesize and observe  this information in order to construct the reality around us. As information spontaneously emerges from the emptiness we take this into account to update our view of reality…” VV page 218

Which seems to me that this conception of ‘the universe as quantum information’ (VV.s subtitle) is pretty close to GH’s absolute idealism.

But KM saw GH’s idealism as mysticism which had to be turned on its head/ the right way up to become materialism, to become science…but VV is arguing from a strong position within 21st century science, which is different/ has evolved from mid 19th century science. So is KM now the mystic and GH the realist?

Well, if we go back to DH, his capital moves through the world like a flow information so maybe DH’s update of KM involves a Hegelian movement. The big question is - does DH’s model of capital more accurately reflect actuality than KM’s?

If it does then can GH also be used to model actuality? If so what are the implications - assuming some degree of convergence between absolute idealism and quantum information theory ? Never forgetting that so far  “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it …”


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