The Hollow Men

One thing I notice about getting older is the way that things start to get away from you…

One thing I notice about getting older is the way that things start to get away from you. Time starts slipping away faster, days run shorter and everything just starts to take more and more physical, psychological and administrative maintenance to keep afloat and successfully functioning. Rationalising the global systemic drift into an inevitable thermodynamic equilibrium and white noise of unrecoverable information-as-entropy, there may still be no panacea to this growing feeling or experience of material and emotional displacement. When the cost of systemic upkeep finally overtakes the capacity to renew or recycle the decay in useful ways, the end begins.

To me, this also begs philosophical questions of civilisation age and, as referenced above, of when “the cost of systemic upkeep finally overtakes the capacity to renew or recycle the decay in useful ways, the end begins”. Much of the paralysing turbulence generated by global entropy and conflict is a consequence of the fact that life has evolved by seeking methods of optimal pattern self-replication and that the optimal methods for this have generally occurred at what is sometimes called the edge of chaos.

This is a big topic with wide scope but the central kernel is to acknowledge that the existence, continuity and vigorous self-propagation of systemic turbulence and conflict proves difficult to negotiate because it is also one of the key methods by which the systems and complexity within (and as) which we exist emerge. The irony here lies in the fact that a momentum for change and variety that is encoded within nature as physical law and logical necessity is the driving force behind biology, sentience, intelligence, culture, technology and civilisation but it is also the cause of insecurity, neurosis, difference and conflict. Add to this that there is a certain amount of concrete, if limited, value and technological, organisational or psychological capital or value to be extracted from the exploitation or continuation of entropy and difference in or as conflict.

A great mistake we all often make is to consider that all of our own individual travails and troubles are really different in fundamental kind or function to the problems of the larger world in which we exist. Problems of continuity and survival are endemic to living systems but it appears, perhaps, that there may be hard-coded limits to the complexity and diversity that those systems are able to support. This is not to say that there are not plausible and intelligent solutions to our shared existential dilemmas, but I do think that we are on the whole utterly intransigent, immature and unable to acknowledge the most useful truths and facts through which we might actually improve the longer-term prognosis of Global civilisation.

I have always had a feeling that degenerative disassembly and unrecoverable entropy will inevitably overtake the creative assembly of social and political order in the world. In some ways this is merely the personal fate of any embodied sentience, writ large. It is also perhaps inevitable that personal psychological and existential insecurity finds itself written upon vast banners of stupidity and cruel ignorance when it seems that this is the most immediate, if least useful, way of generating effect in the world. Lonely little creatures seeking continuity and uncertainty in a world which is fundamentally unable to provide these things have a tendency to create what only amount to self-destructive narratives and rationales of purpose which provide little more than flickering candles in an ultimately meaningless cosmic night.

This is all not too cheerful, perhaps, but some days feel harder (and colder) than others and nothing I see in the various news and diverse facts of this world we share leads me to any particularly optimistic forecasts for our shared Global future.

2 replies on “The Hollow Men”

I was enriched by your post, as usual, especially the edge of chaos presentation to which you referred, but also empathetic towards your personal frustration and pessimism regarding the ultimate state to which we seem to be inevitably heading. I remember my reaction to my first encounter with Descartes’ assertion, “Cogito ergo sum”, which was to ask “not so fast, so how do we know who’s doing the thinking? who or what is the I?” Back to you: from following your posts, I conclude we (meaning everything in the multiverse) are all patterns or algorithms implemented on some available platform or container, perhaps similar to the way a virus which is a passive string of DNA or RNA floats toward a cellular receptor to be imbibed into the nucleus and replicates itself using the cells own ribosomes. The cell itself is to be used and disposed of just as we are to be used and disposed of by the algorithms. The algorithms and patterns are just passive pieces of code. They have no desires; they are just cold logic. And we, you and I, have no skin in that game, although we may think we do.

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Yes. We are for the most part mere observers to the self-propagating composition of a symphony that we neither, truly, author or own. The algorithms and patterns are passive in the sense of undirected, yes. Parasitic, positively predatory but devoid of intention or directed purpose. Also – the algorithms and patterns are adaptive, creative – the history of the evolution of complex structure, function and form is very much one in which, after having attained, acquired or cultivated a certain sophistication, the next level and iterative step appears to be not solely the procedurally optimal encoding (and self-replication) of algorithm and pattern, but of the encoding of optimal methods and solutions to the problem of encoding and self-replication itself. Exponentiation – abstraction, iteration, convergent recombination, rinse and repeat.

I have been intermittently reading an eminently pertinent text on this topic of information: “The Demon in the Machine”, subtitle “How hidden webs of information are solving the mystery of life”, by Professor (actually – Cosmologist) Paul Davies (2019). Excellent, and if only I could find the time to complete it.

On Descartes – I very much wonder if an idea quite literally, as they say, “has it’s time” – if it comes to pass that the intelligibility of certain forms of rational assertion (vis-a-vis the cogito) is bound to a historical moment in the progressive sedimentation of layered cultural and intellectual complexity.

Further, though, notice how the assertion of individuation and rational control in the Cogito trope is one which bootstraps itself – it says “I control this assertion of my own control.” Every political, artistic, philosophical manifesto in a nutshell right there, but also – back to intelligibility – it is only at a particular historical inflection point that such an assertion and imposition, discovery or projection of coordinate systems makes any kind of sense. Does Decartes produce this kind of distributed cultural and technical information pattern or does this distributed cultural and technical information pattern find itself primed and fertile to the production of Descartes? It is both, simultaneously.

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